Wednesday 1 May 2013

How Did This Rubbish Get On My TV?

"How Did This Rubbish Get On My TV?" Lots of people ask questions like this - especially of high profile sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience. Two big shiny news ones have just landed; ITV's Vicious and BBC1's The Wright Way. (The Job Lot is new too but is not, I understand, a studio audience sitcom). I have not seen either of these shows but my personal views on these show is irrelevant in answering the question. The question is here is finding the question behind the question which goes like this:
This show on my TV is self-evidently terrible and I hate it. I can hear people laughing like idiots. They are either certifiable idiots to laugh at the trash. Or the laughter is added afterwards because no-one laughed on the night. So why did they broadcast this? There are only two possible explanations. 1) Every single person in this process is talentless, from writer to commissioner. 2) Someone slept with a commissioner and that's how it got on.
Thinking along these lines is a lot of fun, of course. And if you're a journalist with no interest in accuracy about how the industry works, by all means perpetuate all of the above. The readers can't get enough of that stuff.

But if you're an aspiring writer, my advice is this: cut it out. This way of thinking gets you nowhere. It gets you about as far as assuming that because you didn't go to Cambridge, you don't stand a chance of making it in the world of comedy (which I wrote about here). Assuming a conspiracy or a closed shop is an emotional defence against failure. And nothing more. Choosing to believe these things will only harm you and prevent you from getting better.

Let's turn back to the shows in question. How on earth did the co-writer of The Young Ones, Blackadder and the perfectly successful Thin Blue Line get a sitcom onto BBC1? Oooh, tricky one. And let's not forget, the writer is a legendary stand-up, host of Saturday Live and The Man from Auntie. Now imagine you're running BBC1. You have limited money and slots for sitcoms. Now would you like a new sitcom by someone fairly new who's got an edgy idea that may or may not work, or one by Ben Elton starring David Haig that's set in a Health and Safety department of a Local Council. It's BBC1 remember? It's really not that hard to see why someone would give Ben Elton the benefit of the doubt. The same applies to Vicious, co-created by the executive producer of Will and Grace.

So why is the Show so Bad?
Maybe it isn't so bad. It's possible that it's a perfectly good show that you don't like. Maybe every single person is quite good at their job and they've produced a decent show that is not to your taste. It happens a lot. There is tons of award-winning well-made stuff that I don't want to watch because it's not to my taste (eg Mad Men, The Sopranos). There's also plenty of stuff that's not great but is perfectly watchable and the programme is not a crime against television.

But the reason it irks is because there's the sound of human laughter - which can be alienating and frustrating. Again, critics seem to fall into this trap with alarming regularity. The laughter recorded is real. Not canned. Some children's sitcoms have sprayed-on laughter because the process of making shows with child actors who can only work a certain number of hours means you can't film it in front of a studio audience. And playing it into an audience is also prohibitively expensive (because CBBC budgets are tiny. The magic those guys make with the money they get is truly astonishing).

The point is that the studio audience sitcom records the audience audible reaction and that makes viewing it at home slightly odd if you're not getting on with the show very well. Emotional thrillers do not have the sound of audience wailing and crying. Horror films don't have their audience screaming. But the effect would be the same. If you didn't find the scene moving or scary, the sound of sobs or screams might make you cross. (ok, that's an odd fictitious analogy)

Here's the Other Possibility
Maybe the show is not very good. The jokes aren't landing. The casting is wrong. The set looks weird. The theme tune is annoying. It feels like we've seen this kind of show before. Perfectly competent people - writers, directors, set designers and commissioners - have made some creative and artistic decisions that haven't really worked. Or conspired to produce something that clonks or honks.

It happens. Most novels are a bit rubbish. Most pop songs are trash. I'm sure Chopin wrote some pretty ordinary or forgettable mazurkas. But the nation's media didn't demand for the Chopin's paymaster to be sacked or question whether there were sexual favours involved in the commissioning of that truly pedestrian polonaise. You get the idea.

The fact is that making sitcom is hard, even when everyone knows what they're doing, or at least knows that nobody truly knows anything. And it's quite hard to tell when you actually have a show on your hands until it's all cut together, polished and broadcast and you sit at home and watch the show on your own TV. And even then it's too early to tell.

"How Did This Rubbish Get On My TV?" Not because they have contempt for their audience or commissioners are being blackmailed. This show is on TV because they thought it would be funny. And some people agree with them. And some people don't. There really is nothing more to it.

So what's the lesson here?
If you're trying to write a sitcom, observe that the process is incredibly difficult and involves skills, experience and luck, even for people who are extremely funny and know what they're doing. And all you can do is make your script as good as it can be. So do that. And then do it again. And again. Until it's your turn for your show to be scrutinised by Twitter and AA Gill.


  1. That is a great post. Well done. Although I think you meant blackmailed, not blackmail

  2. Thank you Jason - all proof reading typos etc gratefully received. I'm hopeless at it.

  3. In that case, under the "So why is the Show so Bad?" section, you've put "happens at lot".

    Great read as ever though. Rare sane commentary on the issue.

  4. It is incredible the number of people who expect to like everything they see all the time. Especially when it comes to the BBC as "I pay my license fee!".

    In all of the sitcoms I have seen recorded for tv/radio the laughter has always been reduced or cut down. The canned laughter argument really gets on my wick.

    "... some people agree with them. And some people don't". Advise for life as well as writers

  5. This is a well written piece but doesnt really say anything. One gets the impression that the writer started out trying to defend Ben Elton's awful sitcom because well, "sitcoms arent as easy to make as they seem" but couldn't quite bring themselves to actually defend the appalling cliche riden "The Wright Way" and so it tails off a bit.

    Fact is Ben Elton has a good enough record as a collobarator but looks like he was phoning this one in. Even had the script been amazing, the direction top notch and the budget higher a sitcom staring David Haig getting into scrapes as a health & Safety bureaucrat with a (gasp!) lesbian daughter sounds like the ultimate in "back of the envelope" programming cobbled together between courses at a restaurant.

    And, yes in that sense it does show contempt for audiences, however worse than that it shows an awful mix of laziness and lack of ambition. Perhaps we need to start importing scandinavian sitcoms to pep up our game (a la Braodchurch) as they have done with our crime dramas....

    1. Suggest you try it Nick. When you are successful, I will be more prepared to agree with you...

  6. But imagining Ben Elton in an alien conspiracy with the BBC to undermine the human will to live is far more fun. And didn't Ben used to claim that supermarkets deliberately made the trolleys wonky? If so he can't complain at mad theories - or am I confusing comedy and reality?

  7. Hello, Nick. I'm sorry you found my piece to be not really saying anything. You say I "started out trying to defend Ben Elton's awful sitcom because well, "sitcoms aren't as easy to make as they seem" but couldn't quite bring themselves to actually defend the appalling cliche riden "The Wright Way" and so it tails off a bit."

    Erm, i was careful at the top to point out that I haven't seen the show and my comments are about people assuming there's some conspiracy at work that throws drivel onto the TV. I still make no comment on the show. Because I haven't seen it. And I'm not a TV reviewer.

    This blog is about the mechanics of sitcom writing - and giving advice to aspiring sitcom writers. And my point is very clear. "if you're an aspiring writer, my advice is this: cut it out" etc. See also the final paragraph. If this point is of no interest to you, then this blog isn't really for you. You are criticising my blog post for discussing something I'm not proposing to discuss. If you want people to put the boot into this show that you clearly hated, then other blogs and reviews are available. But thanks for stopping by.

  8. There's a breed of critic out there, and viewer, who would happily besmirch the audience of Porridge/Fawlty Towers and thus any new show that has the nerve to test its funny out on 2 to 3 hundred real people.

    They criticise the show for not allowing them to make their minds up themselves as to whether something is funny, and call it a conceit by the show to prompt them to do so, when actually the conceit is their own: they wish to feel superior because 'they' found it funny and their ego needs a more exclusive club than a mass appeal sit com.

    Of course they ignore the fact that from The Frogs, through the Comedies of Bill the Bard to The Big Bang Theory laughter has always been a communual activity and that he who choses to laugh alone usually stands next to me at funerals.

  9. Thanks James, I enjoy reading your blog.

    I'm also thinking a sitcom about Chopin could be a winner.

  10. They say that comedy is the new rock and roll. If that’s the case then Ben Elton is the comedic equivalent of Status Quo. And his ‘three chord style comedy’ hasn’t been funny since the 80s. His latest offering (The Wright Way) contains as much nuance and mastery as Boris Johnson drunkenly trying to locate the clitoris of his new office intern. If you still haven’t taken the time to watch it, I suggest injecting your eyeballs with VD as a better way to spend your time. (Yes it really is that bad!)

    The argument that choosing the “legendary” Ben Elton over a new writer with fresh ideas because of “limited money and slots” is precisely the problem. We are in the grips of an unprecedented economical crisis; we need to discover the new Ben Elton. Not wheel out the old one. We need a fresh perspective from people who know what being in a recession actually feels like. This is exactly the time to be taking risks.

    So in fact, the very last thing young writers need to do is ‘cut it out’. We need to do the very opposite. We need to make some noise. It’s all we can do. We need to scream and shout and tell the generation of bloated, idle baby boomers, that phoning it in is no longer an option. That we have a voice. A very funny voice.

    Take ‘Girls’ for example. Last year, at the age of 26 Lena Dunham became the most important person working in TV. Important not just because her show was refreshing and brilliant, but because she was running the show! Is ‘Girls’ a comedy for everyone? Of course not. But it shows you what can happen when commissioners (usually men of a certain age) take risks. And boy are they reaping the rewards.

    Closer to home we had ‘Cardinal Burns’. Two very talented young guys, making their TV writing debut. And what a show! They certainly weren’t just ‘phoning it in’.

    But hey, it’s not just young, inexperienced first timers that can have a hard time. A while back the BBC decided to bury the sublime Lizzie & Sarah. A comedy pilot by Julia Davis/Jessica Hynes. Two of the funniest writers in the UK. So Sky stepped in and picked Julia up on the rebound. They make Hunderby - Easily one of the bravest, funniest comedies to hit our screens last year – while the BBC stands outside Julia’s bedroom playing "In Your Eyes” through a boom box.

    Obviously not every show on every channel is aimed at me or people like me. I find the “I pay my license fee” argument as irksome as the next guy. Like food, we all have our own individual tastes. And no one has a right to tell you what you can and can’t put in your gob. But when you look at the current comedy menu on offer, it’s a platter of chalky, white dog shit served with a dressing of piss from the 90s. If Gordon Ramsey saw this menu, he’d close the place down, whilst whipping you with his leathery cock and calling you a useless fuck. So where are the alternatives? Where are the locally sourced, ethically viable chef’s specials?

    Luckily for anyone who can use the Internet, there is another option on the menu. It’s called America. And we can consume their exports by the supersize bucket load. Because in America, they understand the process and benefits of taking risks. Not everything is going to land, or be an immediate success. But when they do land you get the likes of, Arrested Development, Modern Family, Girls, Community, Eastbound and Down, Parks and Recreation… the list goes on and on. Because over there, commissioners give the Lena Dunham’s and Danny McBride’s the right opportunities.

    If you want to eat a McHorsemeat anus burger, that’s you’re prerogative. Who knows, maybe you are right. Maybe us young ‘uns should ram our heads in the sand and roar with laughter when someone falls off a chair. But maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t.

  11. Hello, Dylan - I think I broadly agree. I'm not defending every commissioning decision made by the BBC. Most of them have gone against me until Bluestone 42 was commissioned. There's one show I'm particularly depressed about that languished in the doldrums for no good reason. And if your rage and fury at the system makes you a better writer, I'm all for that. Anger can often produce funny. I'd just add that the likes of Lena Dunham are very rare. Most scripts are terrible, including those by experienced writers. But the ones by experienced writers tend to be better for obvious reasons. But focussing exclusively on those rather than nurturing the new voices is clearly a Bad Thing. Which is why the BBC Writers Room is a Good Thing. But overall, thank you for your empassioned and justified comment!

  12. Thanks James. It's an interesting time for the industry. We certainly need forward thinking, progressive decisions from the top. There is some serious untapped talent out there. Lena Dunham's might be rare, but they'll be extinct if commissioners don't give them opportunities they so deserve. And while programmes such as the BBC Writers Room look good on paper, they still represent an old way of thinking. People consume comedy in a very different way now. A school of 'Precision engineered comedy' won't produce the next 'Office' or 'Cardinal Burns'. We need more platforms in which to experiment, be creative and yes... fail sometimes. C4's 'Comedy Blaps' seems to be more on the money.

    I am hopeful. Like you, I've been lucky to work in the industry with people of all ages and the talent and desire is definitely there.

    I think it's time corporations like the BBC turn off the life support machines of older writers whose talent has completely flat-lined and open up the gates for people who can breath new life into the future of our comedy.

  13. Excellent article stating the bloody obvious. Well it gave you something to do I suppose and we all passed some time reading it thinking there might be something more than the obvious. I kept waiting and waiting right down to the last paragraph but nope nothing. Ne'mind eh.

    Do you get paid for this lark then ? I think I might have a go...

  14. Dear 'Anonymous'. Many thanks for stopping by and taking the time for giving such constructive and insightful feedback.

  15. Disgusted Of Cyberspace7 May 2013 at 13:43

    << I think it's time corporations like the BBC turn off the life support machines of older writers whose talent has completely flat-lined and open up the gates for people who can breath new life into the future of our comedy. >>

    It's official! Young people write better than old people.

    How Did This Rubbish Get On My Browser?

  16. I just read the link to the Oxbridge link and saw my comment on there. Time to disagree again, sorry James!

    I feel such great certainty that the Wright Way is tosh but I'll admit I've not watched a second of it. I did once read a Ben Elton book and it was cetainly full of cliche and totally, utterly unfunny.

    People will say I'm out of step but then I do love Partridge, early Peep, Office, Thick of It, Ideal & many others including the Young Ones.

    I think if the main goal is to make cash and gain huge audiences you don't get great cultural output.

    Look at Hollywood - many celebrated filmmakers have used their film educations (formal and informal) to steal off much less well paid arthouse directors.

    I want my comedians like Frankie Boyle and Chris Morris. Gnarly, brave..either funny or repellant or both!

    I do think there's a weird comparison to be made between comedy and politics. Like there's only room for capitalism, it seems increasingly that there is also only room for safe, PC comedythat has next to nothing to say.

  17. Dear James,

    Thanks for your thought provoking piece. I know writing is extremely difficult - I am struggling to get a book out of my head and I really appreciate how hard it is to be a good writer, rather than a competent or satisfactory wordsmith. That said, I have watched the last three episodes of The Wright Way because I really did want to like it. The actors are all competent. Some of the writing is cleverly done. The production values appear appropriate for the telly. I am also alive to the humour of pathos or irony and don't mind laughing at myself about my own idiosyncrasies.

    Sadly, Ben Elton's work is a dreadful flop. The sketches are insultingly silly, pointless and repetitive, a lot like the tellytubbies. The characters are shallow, one dimensional plastic objects, with only one layer to their characters - Wright is bumbling and exasperated. The Mayor a lecherous buffoon, Mrs Maha an ambitious acolyte, the short gay one his usual unfunny Larry Greysonesque self, the other bloke is characterless. The daughters are perhaps the worst characters in this awful mess - one a lipstick lesbian plumber, the other a rich girl pretending to be down with the street. Those two characters are excruciatingly awful.

    The cleaner is a stroppy black woman who sees inappropriate homosexual behaviour at every turn and is unfailingly angry with the deviants n the office, presumably because she is a committed Cristian. This particular character is not funny at all, just a horrid mixture of racist slurs.

    This is weak writing, full of lazy stereotypes. The premise that health and safety staff are ludicrous killjoys trying to prevent danger at all costs might have a bit of mileage, but dangerous conkers and children's swings? Please, don't waste my time.

    I have tried, really I have, to see past the stupid laughter of the "audience", the frenetic acting and the juvenile direction, but no matter how hard it is to write a successful sitcom, inflicting this on us is simply not on. It is awful; it is Depressingly hopeless.

    I am also a disgusting hypocrite. Despite my unalloyed detestation of the programme, I can't stop watching it. I am entertained by the awfulness of it. The facile plot lines and predictable japes, "knob jokes" and dry humping are below comment, but as soon as it is on the telly I can't wait to sarcastically criticise the programme on twitter.

    And then I get it.

    This is the clever Ben Elton writing an appalling sitcom as an art project. The work involves the harvesting of our collective tweetbile and eventual vomiting out in a book of collected insults in time for the Christmas rush. Well done Ben, you got us all working for you while you hide somewhere out of public view. Well done.

    To finish, I just have to apologise to the poor innocent person who shares Ben Elton's name and has used it as his identifier on twitter. He really didn't deserve my sarcastic, angry comments about a sitcom script he had absolutely no hand in producing. I feel no need, however, to apologise to the real Ben Elton for objecting to this substandard pile of ordure.

  18. Enjoyed the article very much, though I think in asking a lot of people to drop their bitter conspiracy theories you may be preaching to the inconvertible!

  19. I think as a viewer one certainly has a right to criticise the 'Wright stuff' and to be dissapointed by the difference in quality between it and Ben Elton's other sitcoms particularly 'Blackadder'. However it is important to remember that 'Blackadder' and 'The Young Ones' were written with other people. Maybe he needs other people to write a good sitcom. As a sitcom writer one should be careful not to criticise so quickly. Yes there are some amazing solo sitcom writers but writing a sitcom on your own is very difficult and there are few that can do it well. Also people who are famous and have all the trappings of success, as well as families to spend time, with do not have the need to burn the midnight oil like a struggling writer living on baked beans and blind hope. Thats why people like David Bowie cant replicate the work they did when they were younger. Necessity is the mother of invention. Ben Elton doesn't need success. He probably did it for fun. From what I have read about the making of most of my favourite sitcoms, they took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make. The only person who is really succesful who is still making great sitcoms is Larry David and that's because 'Curb your enthusiasm' is semi improvised. This means he doesn't have to sit and write it all thus cutting out a lot of the blood, sweat and tears. Also I think that sitcoms are so hard to write that you can never take for granted that you can write a funny one even if you have done so already. That's why you need somebody who you can show your work to, who is brutally honest, even if you are as famous as Ben Elton! Personally I like it when big stars write shit sitcoms it proves just how difficult they are to write and reminds me that I'm not the only one who finds writing a great sitcom unbelievably difficult.

  20. Haig Can't act. Elton can't write funny anymore. Sit coms are not difficult to write if the writers are talented, in this case the the writers are plain lazy Comedy can l have bathos as well as mirth,where's the depth in the Wright stuff? It isn't there because the lead bloke hasn't got the chops to play it.. same whining method he employed in the Thin Blue Line. Here there isn't anyone of the stature of Rowan Atkinson to carry the comedic burden. It isn't thee because the writer has reduced his premise to a cartoon comic strip...

    After the mockumentary triumph of 2012, Elton's effort is like a village egg and spoon race .

    Don't balme the BBC budget, they do marvelously funny things with "Horrible Histories" genuinely funny and no need to revert to smut

  21. I was about to comment, realised I was four years late to the party and got my coat and left. I took a can of lager, too, if that's OK.