Saturday, 23 January 2010

Watching Comedy as a Comedy Writer

Whenever a new sitcom arrives on TV, I always try and watch it. I do this for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that I’m sitcom writer myself and a bad person, and I therefore want it to fail. I then repent of this, and try to watch it without prejudice, remembering that I have more reasons to want this show to succeed. Why?

Firstly, a bad TV sitcom makes us writers all look bad. Secondly, the TV controller hates it when his/her shows attract criticism, and there is a special place in the hearts of the British people for sitcoms and slagging them off. People get really specific and offensive - especially online. They say things like “Why do the BBC makes this thing? Which executive approved this - and can their salary be taken away and given to orpans, or back to us viewers?” etc etc “This is the worst half hour I’ve ever spent of my life” and other such hyperboles.

It’s understandable. Comedy, when it doesn’t quite work, is awkward and toe-curling. Even good shows are hard to watch when they go slightly awry, even for one scene) Naturally, any TV channel controller wants to avoid this, and this is, I’m sure, one reason why there are fewer and fewer sitcoms on TV. They are expensive to make (that’s the other reason), so why risk wasting money and copping flack, they would think to themselves. An episode of studio sitcom costs at least £250k. You could have four antiques programmes for that money. They’d be forgettable programmes that won’t make the world a better place, or even fulfill the BBC’s charter, but they won’t make people as angry if they don’t like them.

So, as a writer, I want BBC2 to have some hit comedies so that they’ll want to make more of them. Comedy is a small world, and it’s quite likely that I will know the writer responsible, or will meet them at some stage. Or at least a cast member. In the case of the lastest sitcom, The Persuasionists, I happen to regularly turn up to the same cafe as one of the cast members. It really is that tenuous. But no-one likes having to lie about a show. And some of us have ethical problems with lying, so it’s just easier if the show is actually good so you can say ‘Hey, great show! I loved the bit with the [insert funny moment here].’ And mean it.

That’s why I tend not to ask people I know about stuff that I do. They might not like it and would rather not say so, or lie, so it’s best not to ask. Plus, there’s the fact that I really don’t mind if they don’t like it. I wrote six episodes of My Hero - that were greatly appreciated by 5 or 6 million people on BBC1, mainly families with kids. It’s that sort of show. My contemporaries are the time were graduates without kids who were into Six Feet Under - My Hero wasn’t for them. If they didn’t like it, I had no problem with tha

Finally, I want a sitcom that I can enjoy for myself! I await new episodes of 30 Rock with eager anticipation. I had the same experience with Arrested Development. Both are American shows, sadly. But I did get a frisson of excitement at the next episode of IT Crowd, Black Books and more recently, Gavin and Stacey (the latter of which is not, let’s be fair, an out-and-out comedy, but a splendid show nonetheles

So you may be wondering what I made of The Persuasionists, BBC2’s latest comic offering that I initally wanted to fail (since I am a bad person) and then realised I wanted to succeed, not least because it contains the delightful Adam Buxton, whom I do not know, but enjoy on 6Music - and he comes across as a thoroughly pleasant human being. But here we run into a problem - because writing up a review on blog (which remains in the ether for ever) is a bit of a risk. Dare I say anything negative, given the close-knit comedy world that I work in. And if I do only say positives, will you believe me or will you think I’m just being nice?

Well, I shall give it a little more thought and post a review very shortly…

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