'The thing is,' an extremely wise, very experienced and enormously attractive producer said to me a while ago,'there's just no demand for a sitcom about people who dress up as fantasy characters and run around woods with rubber swords'. This was in reference to my Fellowship Of The Wrong thing, which I turned into a one-page outline, and got the same response wherever I went.
Of course, no-one was demanding a sitcom about a load of people in a paper company office, or a hotel owner with unrealistic social pretensions and a harridan wife, or an Orange County family-run property business, but they all did pretty well. The last one's Arrested Development, by the way. I wasn't sure if it was obvious.
So was the producer being criminally unimaginative? No. I just hadn't written the outline very well. Because if it sounds like the main draw is the rubber swords thing, she won't be able to pitch it to the broadcasters with any degree of confidence, which means they won't have confidence in it either, and I won't be able to pay the mortgage.
Of course, none of the situations described above are inherently interesting in and of themselves. I'm prepared to admit my Fellowship of the Wrong one isn't inherently interesting either. What puts the com in the sit are the characters. So, is the next step to write detailed character biographies, showing how they relate to each other, what their motivations are and (crucially) how they're funny?
No. Because producers and broadcasters don't read those bits. At least, if they're longer than a couple of sentences in a first draft one or two-page outline they won't. The same way directors quite often skip the fluffy stuff - those tedious lines of action between the dialogue. Not all directors do this, but some definitely do. So how do you get round this? By either:
1) Finding a way to suggest in just a few concise paragraphs a couple of characters with a strong, built-in conflict, and a setting in which they can have almost endless varieties of shenanigans.
2) Forgetting the whole outline thing and just writing the damn script, so they can see for themselves how it all comes together.
Both are, of course, really really really hard.
On a sort of vaguely-related note, I recently sent off a number of half-page outlines to a broadcaster. The first four or so were fairly serious, but then I decided to stick one more on the end as a joke.
BATEMAN AND ROBIN
"Sacked gung-ho female police firearms expert JO BATEMAN teams up with smooth gay private investigator ROBIN INKPEN to deal with high-society crimes (blackmail, divorce cases, theft) that require the utmost discretion."
That was the outline in its entirety. And when I got the reply, which one do you think they liked most?
EDIT: okay, honesty forces me to admit that eventually, the broadcaster picked a couple of characters from one of the earlier outlines, suggested a different setting for them and commissioned the treatment that I'm writing right now, but still. They did say that. Maybe I should just put a deliberately stupid mini-outline on the end of all my submissions, to get their attention? Although I believe that's how that 'Rosemary and Thyme' thing got commissioned, so clearly that tactic can end up biting you on the bum.