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Lee Mack’s Secret to Sitcom Success? The Jokes Come Last

Updated: Mar 20

Headline speaker at this year’s Big Comedy Conference, Lee Mack shared his generous knowledge about what comedy writers can do today to increase their chances of success—and being funny is only part of it.

Lee Mack has a comedic effervescence and fizzes with one-liners. But this seemingly comic spontaneity belies the depth of research that goes into his writing. This is someone who has worked diligently at his craft, and this article reveals some of the meticulous planning that goes into writing his long-standing successful sitcom Not Going Out which recently finished its 13th series.  

This was my second year at the conference, organised by Mark Boosey and Aaron Brown. The speakers were, once again, first-rate. Knowledgeable, generous, and inspiring to a 300 strong crowd of (mostly) comedy writers, producers, directors, and performers.

In the headline session, Lee spoke to award-winning stand-up and screenwriter Jason Cook. I wanted to share my notes from the session because Lee shared many valuable pieces of practical advice for anyone looking to write and perform comedy and make their way into the industry.

There were 3 key areas that stood out to me:

ONE: Passion… (over fashion)

The inception of Not Going Out was not to create a sitcom. It emerged instead as a dumping ground for jokes from an Edinburgh Festival show he was doing with Catherine Tate and Dan Antopolski.

His previous run at the Edinburgh festival—despite having been part of a channel 4 show—garnered few ticket sales (he remembers performing to 4 people) and he vowed that if he was going to go down in flames again, he’d like to have people with him to laugh about it.

So he developed a show alongside Catherine and Dan, and as they worked on it, they found themselves with jokes they didn’t want to lose, but couldn’t really place in their other sketches. So they created the backdrop of a flat and flatmates, and used it as a home for jokes they loved, but didn’t fit into other sections of their show.

“There was no masterplan”

I think this is important. They didn’t set out to meet a commissioning brief or impress a producer – they simply had comic ideas they loved too much to let go.

The takeaway? Work on something you love, because even if it doesn’t get picked up, you’re going to have fun on the journey anyway.  A sentiment echoed by one of my favourite comedians and sketch writers, Limmy.

And the fashion part?

“I think part of the reason we’re still on is cause we’re not going out of fashion cause we were never in fashion. The trick is to never be in fashion.”

Another benefit of not having a masterplan to create a sitcom is that Lee wasn’t aware that studio sitcoms were supposed to be dying.

“The day before we ended up filming the pilot, a documentary aired called “The Sitcom is Dead”

Lee had no idea about this impending extinction, because he was too busy creating something he loved instead of trying to write to fit a trend.

TWO: The Proof of the [pudding] comedy is in the [eating] laughter

From a 15-minute sketch, the jokes grew into a half hour piece. They’d been testing the jokes on stage, so they knew they had legs, and it was ready to showcase.  

“You have to do a sitcom on stage. You can’t tell it’s funny on the page.”

Lee was passionate about this advice: be willing to prove your concept.

He advised people against just standing at a stage door, script in hand. And while I’m sure he’s gracious when he receives them, he admitted that he’s received over 100 spec scripts for Not Going Out from aspiring writers, and none have ever been right.  

His advice was to create something you believe in, something you love, and then prove it’s funny.

A lot of comedy writers want to know how to get an agent, how to connect with a production company, how to get something commissioned and eventually made. It’s the writer’s dream to see their ideas come to life and exist off the page.

But Lee’s advice was that this is almost back to front, you have to make it come to life and exist off the page before you can expect an agent, producer, or commissioner to invest their time, money, and attention in you.  

With Not Going Out, they knew they wanted the BBC to come and see the production, so they put it on at the Latchmere theatre over 3-4 nights. It may have been a messy script, but one thing was undeniable.

People were laughing.

It wasn’t a concept in a drawer, it was living and breathing and had that crucial final element that makes comedy exist – someone to laugh. It makes you think, if a comedy script sits in a drawer in the middle of a wood and nobody reads it, does it make a sound (of laughter)?  

Why is it so important to prove your comedy concept?

Because it eliminates risk.

You have to think commercially which means you can’t expect an agent or producer to ‘just take a chance’ on you. Instead, you want to do everything you can to be seen as a safe bet. Proving your concept is still no guarantee of course, but if you want someone to believe that you’re worth working with, it helps to prime the pump as Zig Ziglar used to say.

“Write your own and stick it on something, YouTube,  video it, record it go to a theatre…Prove that it works – you can prove it to people by going “look the ideas is, we can make people laugh and they are laughing every ten seconds. Do you want it or not.”

Why rely on someone reading your script to make the assessment of whether it’s funny? Why not put it in front of an online or live audience and prove that people are laughing?

THREE: Research, Structure, and (Eventually) Jokes

When Not Going Out was picked up, Lee soon realised that a sitcom is not just 30 minutes of narrative with jokes layered on top. He’d also (finally) heard the news that the studio sitcom was dead, but he wasn’t convinced—over the pond there were still many long-running successful shows.

The one-liners were put aside momentarily while he delved deep into research, studying successful studio sitcoms, reading books and watching shows. something he realised about British and American sitcoms was faster pace of our US counterparts.

“Americans capitalise on the funny, they don’t say ‘hello’ they work on the funniest way to say hello”

Lee also began to study the specific structure of sitcoms and developed his supposedly secret “Five Point Plan.”

But before they even get to plot and structure, Lee and co-writer Danny Peak will trade 1-2 sentence ideas.

  • Lee and family stuck in an escape room

  • Lee stuck in a coffin

They’re looking for something that has that initial tension or drama and can spark comedic potential. Even then the script (and jokes) isn’t written yet. After the idea, is a development of perhaps 3 paragraphs takes place to get a feel for the outline of the episode and at this point they either commit or abort the mission.

“There’s too much work to get a script done that we have to be confident that it’s going to work.”

Once an idea is greenlit, they knuckle down on the Five Point plan.

Lee wouldn’t share the plan during his talk, but looking at episodes, I’m certain it’s a map for the escalation and attempted solution to a problem throughout an episode.

Just getting this structure right can take a week and is crucial to an episode’s success.

“When people say [a show] it's shit, what they don’t realise they’re saying themselves is that the story doesn’t hold up.”

It’s like setting the foundation of a house, no-one compliments a foundation, but they’ll wax lyrical about your wallpapering job. But a house with beautiful wallpaper and a shoddy foundation is a really shit house that won’t last long.

If you get the structure right, and people buy into the story you’re telling, they’ll stay to listen to the jokes.

Once the plan is in place, finally, finally! The script is written and jokes are liberally sprinkled to match the pace of those successful sitcoms Lee studied.

I absolutely loved Lee's talk and found it inspiring as a writer. Now let's go and get that theatre booked and prove a concept ...

... cue laughter.

What do you think?

Is Lee right? Is the onus on the creator to also prove the concept for comedy? Do you have plans to showcase your own work? Is anything getting in the way of doing that? I'd love to know in the comments.




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