Wednesday 31 July 2013

5 Bits of Advice for Edinburgh Fringe Performers

The flyering has begun. Although the starting pistol hasn't quite been fired, previews are being performed, Edinburgh is humming and crackling. The Fringe essentially starts today.

If you're a performer, then right now, you’re all about getting your show up and running. And that’s as it should be. But here's some advice from someone who's doing his seventh Fringe in the last fifteen years: Obsessing about your own show will only help you up to a point. It’ll make it better, but there is a law of diminishing returns.

So after a few days, stop obsessing and start looking outwards, especially while there are many performance spaces with many empty seats, cheap tickets and good deals. Make use of them because one of the most useful things to come out of your being at the Edinburgh Fringe for a month is not the impact of your own show which will, mostly likely, vanish without trace (as indeed most of mine have). Right now, Edinburgh is filled with your comedy peers, both present and future. So here’s my advice:

Go and see other shows. Some of them will be extremely inspiring and you’ll see what’s possible. I remember being heavily affected by some sketch shows that showed the way in terms of the sort of sketch comedy I wanted to do.

Go and see other shows. You may end up working with some of these people in the future, so it’s a good idea to see what they can do on their own terms in an hour-long Fringe show. You may spot someone you’d like to collaborate with next year.

Go and see other shows. Then you’ll have stuff to talk about with other performers and you can hear their opinions on comedy and you’ll understand more about what excited and inspires them. You might end up collaborating with these people in the future, so it’s good to have a handle on what they’re into as well as what they do.

Go and see other shows. Then you can feel smug about having seen someone who can fill the 02 in six years time. You saw them when they half-filled an 80-seater. I still fondly remember early Bill Bailey and Ross Noble Edinburgh shows I saw in the 90s. (I also remember standing next to a guy called Brett handing out flyers outside the Gilded Balloon. This year, he won an Oscar for the song ‘Man or Muppet’.)

Go and see other shows. Some of them will be reassuringly awful and you’ll feel better about your own show.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Why Edinburgh is Awesome

Aaaah. Edinburgh.

I’ve only been here for a few hours but the city is already buzzing with excitement. Every vertical surface that is not a window contains a brightly coloured poster – mostly mugshots of comedians you half-recognise from panel games looking off into the middle distance, or pulling a funny face that is calculated to look like they’re not trying pull a funny face.

Then there are posters for rookies sketch groups with photos of the team lying on the ground looking, heads together, hoping to be the next League of Gentlemen.

I walked up the Royal Mile just now. Street performers were out. There were a few small crowds. But the air was subdued – or restrained. I wasn’t handed a single flyer by an optimistic medical student in a lab coat inviting me to a show named after a medical pun on a Hollywood movie. Everyone is keeping their powder dry. It’s as if we’re all sitting on a powder keg that will soon explode into a spectacle that will be almost visible from space. Some bits will go higher and higher, rising fast, attracing lots of attention. Others will be a disappointing damp squib. But right now, nobody knows exactly what's going to happen.

After the explosion and excitement comes the reality as people start to pick over the debris. Performers, writers and directors look at their show and realise that isn’t as good as they thought it was, and probably isn’t fixable. They try not to resenting the success of others, or the marketing budgets of the bigger hitters (I am now well aware that Chris Ramsey is playing three nights later in August. For three nights, that's a lot of poster). Others have no idea how flawed their show is and continue to perform to baffled or absent audiences in a stupor of self-deluded madness. Soon, performers, comedians and producers will be beginning sentences with phrases like ‘You know what we should do next year…’ And they keep coming back. They keep planning next year because Edinburgh is extraordinary.

The cynicism hasn't kicked in yet. Right now, everyone the city if filled with optimism and hope. And with good reason. Edinburgh makes stars. It’s not quite rags-to-riches. More rags-to-slightly-nicer-rags. But newcomers, rookies and outsiders can get noticed. They can cause a stir. They can get an audience. That’s one upside of the festival running for the impractically ruinous three and half weeks. An unknown can become known during the first week – and then sell out for a fortnight. That performer or comedian or writer can enjoy being the talk of the town at the Greatest Festival on Earth. I had the tiniest taste of that in 1999 when my show was nominated for Perrier Best Newcomer. It felt amazing.

That’s why I’m back here 14 years later. This time it’s not a sketch show but a new play I’ve written about science and religion called The God Particle (1-25 August (not 13th) at 12 noon at Just the Tonic). I’m here because every day, tens of thousands of people arrive and want to watch something new, interesting or quirky – the kind of thing they can’t get from the TV, Radio or cinema. They get off the train and ask ‘what’s good?’ And people tell them. Sure, they’ll be sucked in by a gimmick or two, and may regret it. They may also perfectly good time watching an up-and-coming comedian they’ve seen once briefly on the telly. But they’ll also go and see that new play about growing up in Oman that everyone is talking about, or that one-woman show about landmines that shouldn’t work but does. Or that guy who just tells an astonishing story. The Fringe has some kind of meritocracy.

And that is what makes Edinburgh so special.

Having said all that, I may feel differently in few days.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Seven Deadly Sins of Giving Notes to a Comedy Writer

So, I've been very fair about the fact that TV Comedy, like all industries, has its share of chumps, twonks and clowns (and not clowns in a good way, if there is a good way). And sometimes, good TV execs, producers and script editors give notes as if they were a chump, a twonk or a clown. And so, on behalf of comedy writers in Britain, here are Seven Deadly Sins that TV Execs, good and bad, can commit.

1. Skimming
Have you read the script you're commenting on? Have you actually read it? Properly? Twice. Or did you skim it on the tube on your iphone? This script took me at least three solid weeks to write. (A week of storyline and planning, a week of writing and another week rewriting). That’s at least at least 75 hours of graft and screaming at the wall. And I’ve discounted the hours spent on Facebook/Twitter/Youtube etc. I spent 75 hours on this. Could you spend 75 minutes? The “moment you feel is lacking” is actually there on page 23. It’s the one after page 22.

2. Blanking
You've somehow blanked our last meeting out of your mind, and now you are now giving me a note that flatly contradicts something you said before. I know you’re busy and are execcing a number of projects – and I’ve script edited shows and made this mistake – but it is incredibly annoying to be on the receiving end of it. Because you have no memory of what you said at the last meeting, I now have to pretend that you haven’t just contradicted yourself, otherwise I’m going to sound defensive. And now I don’t know what to think. alternatively, you know you're telling me the opposite of what you said before and you're not admitting that the advice last time was a bum steer. That's fine. Admit you made a mistake - and I'll admit that some of my jokes are crap.

3. Glibbing
Writing is hard. Really hard. Harder than sitting through departmental meetings wondering where you’re going to find the next Russell Brand/Russell Howard/Miranda Hart. So don’t say things that imply that writing TV sitcoms is easy. It is not. Here’s the main one: “Once that’s sorted, it basically writes itself.” It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. It really really doesn’t.

4. Second-Guessing
Stop trying to second-guess what your boss’s boss's boss wants. That's just too many variables and it's an utter waste of time. By the time we've finished the script, at least one of those personnel will have changed, so the whole endeavour of second guessing is pointless. Do you like the script or idea that’s in front of you? If you do, back it. Sell it. Champion it. Channels don’t know what they want until they see it. You know that. I’m sure they didn’t think they wanted The Office, or Miranda, or The Royle Family – until they read a script or saw a pilot. If you like the creative vision of a project, pursue it and hone it. There is no point in changing it because 'everyone's into pirates right now'. If you don't like the idea in front of you, say so, let's draw a line under it and think of something else.

5. Over-Worrying
Do you get the joke? If you do, don't worry that other people won't. Don’t assume the audience are dumb. Some of them are actually paying attention to what’s happening in the show. (See Skimming). "I’m not sure people will get that reference? Have people heard of that?" Why would you assume that you have and no-one else has? "I mean, I get it. I just don’t know whether everyone else does." You assume that because we work in television, we're smarter than average? Hey, all the smart people are making tons more money than us being doctors, lawyers and bankers. We’re the idiots. If you get the joke, no offence - it's probably fine.

6. Assuming We All Have Money Trees
I don't have a tree that sprounts fivers all year round. I get my money from where everyone else gets theirs. From providing goods and services in exchange for money. I’m working on an idea you like. You’re getting paid. Can I get paid please? Soon. More on this here.

7. What is the Seventh Deadly Sin? Over to you. Leave comments - or tweet that at me here.

See also - Responding to Notes like a Pro.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Top Heavy

There’s a lot of text being generated about a post by a nice man whom I’ve spoken to once or twice called John Warbuton who had a bad experience making a pilot of a pub-based comedy called Inn Mates for BBC3. It was so bad, he left television altogether. I have some sympathy with his frustration. I remember watching the show when it was broadcast and it didn’t quite hang together. And given the show had departed from John’s original creative vision, it must have been frustrating than he didn’t get to make the show he set out to make.

This has whipped up an anti-executive feeling among some writers, resulting in some big guns like Graham Linehan, Sam Bain and James Corden going in to bat for the execs – although no one is pretending all execs everywhere are fonts of script wisdom and good notes. There is a summary of all the above here.

Pic by Recovering Vagabond via Flick
Is TV Comedy Top Heavy?
My first contact with the BBC as a writer was in about 1998 and in the last 15 years, I’ve met quite a lot of Producers, Executive Producers, Development Producers, Script Editors, Heads of Comedy, Creative Heads of Comedy and Commissioning Executives. Is TV Comedy top heavy? Given that none of those job titles I’ve just mentioned are made up, probably. But let’s put things into perspective.

Some politicians are nice, some tactless, annoying or in the job for the wrong reasons. And none of these attributes dictate how effective that politician is. And it’s the same in NHS, MOD, BP, BBC, BA, Honda, Channel 4, Paperchase, The National Trust and Sky.

Some TV Comedy executives are just plain bad at their job. That’s okay. There are plenty of terrible writers too. Some TV Comedy executives are bad at parts of their job and good at the bits you don’t see. Or they’re good at the script bit, but they didn’t get your show commissioned because they weren’t pushy enough with the Channel Controller who probably would have given in if they’d pestered for long enough.

It's Complicated
There is more to being a TV executive than giving notes. Why? Because TV companies have shareholders and need to make money. Because BBC gets a licence fee it has to justify and is crucified by a sneering press every time it’s deemed to put a foot wrong. And if they’re going to make 6 x 30mins episode of your show, they’re going to be spending at least £1.5million on making your jokes appear on the telly. That’s a lot of money. You’re going to get notes. And questions. And last minute idiotic flights of creative fancy from tired, scared people who don’t know when to keep their mouths shut. It's how the business works. It's how business works.

All of the above means that I’m not surprised that in the last 15 years, I’ve had perfectly good shows turned down for bad reasons. I’ve written sitcom pilots that were aimed at the wrong channel. I wrote a pilot script for BBC3 a few years ago for an initiative that was specifically designed to find hits that could crossover to BBC1. And was told my script had been turned down because it felt ‘too BBC1’. It happens. I’ve received notes that I knew at the time were wrong, but I acted on them and made the script worse. I’ve had scripts commissioned or ideas optioned that probably weren’t a very good idea in the first place. I’ve had decent shows that I’ve loved vanish into thin air because a key person has left the corporation or company (I had one of these last year. It was annoying and painful) and their replacement had no discernible interest in me, my work or that idea.

I’ve had good experiences of executives – some who worked at the BBC and some at indies. At BBC Comedy, I’m having a very good experience with Bluestone 42. A key executive early on liked the basic idea and let us get on with it – and then backed our vision once we had a script. I’ve had some good experiences at indies, like Big Bear Films, writing for My Hero for BBC1. And by 'good experience', I mean that I got notes on every draft of my script from Jamie Rix, who’d also collated notes from Paul Mayhew Archer (Writer, Vicar of Dibley), Paul Mendelson (Creator, May to December), John Stroud (Producer, Game On), Marcus Mortimer (Director, Alexi Sayle’s Stuff). That was a lot of notes. From people who know a bit about comedy. Even so, some of their notes were still wrong and my job was to weigh up which. So I repeat, if you want to be a screenwriter, get used to getting notes.

Ultimately, you’re the writer. You’re name is at the front of the show. You don’t have to change stuff if you don’t want to. But if you’re just starting out, it’s hard to be 100% certain of your creative vision – and you’re better off listening to advice. Likewise, if you're older and experience, you might be quite bad at listening to good advice. If you really don’t want to make a change, that’s fine. But if you dig your heels in and it fails – which is likely, even if you know what you’re doing – you only have yourself to blame. And that can be even more painful.

And on the other hand, there are some things that comedy execs do that are really annoying. Here are the 7 Deadly Sins of Giving Notes to a Comedy Writer.