Friday 20 September 2013

There is Plenty of Decent Comedy on Radio 4

So, Liam Mullone has written an article about Why there isn't Any Decent Comedy on Radio 4? in Spectator. And I'm quoted in it a few times.

Which would suggest I think there isn't any Decent Comedy on Radio 4.

Which isn't, of course, true. Not least because I've written some comedy for Radio 4 recently which is, I hope, decent.

Moreover, anyone who's read my blog will know that I'm a huge fan of BBC Radio and Radio Comedy - and only last night was urging people to write for Newsjack, which is a brilliant way of getting started in comedy writing. And why writing for radio is just a great thing to do (see here).

I spoke to Liam about radio comedy because I like Liam and find his comedy voice interesting and subversive as far as the comedy scene goes, so we had a nice chat. And also I'm passionate about Radio Comedy and want it to be as good as possible. So when we were talking, it was more in a context of reasons why it sometimes isn't good, or why particular choices are made.

So let's nuance this all a bit. I said something along the lines of:
The BBC is desperate for new comedy voices. That’s why it returns to the Fringe each year. But because getting on to Radio 4 is an achievable aim for a Fringe performer, many shows, perhaps subconsciously, are written for radio. They’re made to be picked up and slotted in without anyone having to rethink them. So a lot of things sound like Radio 4 even before they get aired.
And I think that's true - although it sounds a little negative. Because BBC Radio 4 (and 4 Extra) puts out more original comedy content that pretty much all other TV and Radio comedy combined, there's a realistic chance that if you're a good writer (and performer), you could land a slot on radio 4. And if you're trying to be seen and progress your career in Edinburgh, you might be aiming for one of those slots. So subconsciously, you could end up writing a show that can be adapted for radio quite easily, which may inhibit creativity and originality. Having said that, most of the shows I saw at Edinburgh this year were not very 'radio-ish', so maybe people are good at avoiding that.

Comedian Talking
Another thing that can happen is that when an interesting comedy voice is found, the rush to get them onto the radio might also lead to a 'comedian talks about stuff for half an hour on a theme' radio show. There are lots of them about - and some of them are great (eg Jeremy Hardy Speaks the Nation among others). I've co-written several series of Milton Jones's show where we've tried to avoid that, and written a Ripping-Yarns-meets-Goons-style story so that show is greater than the sum of its parts. That's the idea, at least. Mark Thomas's Manifesto is another decent twist on 'Man talks for half an hour' and Mark Steel's In Town.

There is also the issue that vast majority of comedy is made for a Radio 4 audience, who are not, by and large, a Radio 1, 2 or 3, Five Live or 6Music audience. So if you're after Radio comedy and aren't a regularly Radio 4 listener (which I am) there way well be a similarity in tone or style. But that's not always the case. One of my favourite shows of recent years is Bigipedia - which somehow manages to sound like the internet. It's brilliant, full of jokes and ideas (and I don't think is returning for a third series, sadly. No idea why).

Religion, Radio and Comedy
Moving on, I also said something like: 'Radio 4 won’t have religion in its comedy.’ I'm not sure I said it exactly like that, but religion and comedy together is something that Radio 4 audience tend not to like and complain about most vociferously. And so producers are rightly nervous about tackling religion with comedy.

There are reasons for this.

Religion is very personal and so the chance to offend is high. That is not to say it should be done, but you have to know why you're doing it. In my experience, comedy people tend not to be religious. And religious people tend to have a tin ear for comedy. So this is not a happy relationship. I've written lots of this subject in other places since I'm an unusual case being a comedy writer and a professing Christian. Given the number of people and ideas competing for Radio 4's comedy slots, it's probably easier to pick someone that tackles subjects other than religion - because we all want a quiet life, right? Which brings us to:

And Finally
I said "And everyone’s terrified of being fired. So nobody wants to shake things up much." Firstly, it's hard to shake things up when Radio 4 Comedy is one part of one station's output which has a particular audience. But secondly, this statement is true of most people on salaries in most organisation in most walks of life. If you're paying off a mortgage and have to provide food for you kids, your main aim at work is to do the best you can without being fired.

Why would people working at the BBC be any different? We have incredibly high expectations of the BBC - because we're proud of it. We hold anyone who works there to a higher standard, which is not entirely fair because it's one of the most recognisable and trusted brands in the world. And its ours.

And despite the constant barrage from self-righteous MPs and tiresome Daily Mail columnists, the BBC continues. And BBC Radio 4 keeps putting out scripted comedies gems like Cabin Pressure, Bleak Expectations, That Mitchell and Webb Sound, Bigipedia, Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off, Old Harry's Game, Party, In and Out of the Kitchen, Elvenquest, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, Nick Mohammed in Bits to name but a few - as well as the stalwart institutions like Just A Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, The News Quiz and The Now Show.

In short, Radio 4 Comedy has a pretty decent hit rate and have a profoundly beneficial effect on the British comedy scene. But then, no-one's going to print an article about that, are they?

Thursday 19 September 2013

Should I Make a Youtube Video? Part 2

In my last post, I said that making YouTube videos is mostly a waste of time - if you want to be a sitcom writer. And you're not a writer/performer. I give my reasons here.

Here's what I'm advising against most of all: making the sitcom yourself with some friends as a way of 'getting the idea out there' or showing that the idea 'can work' or 'building an audience'. It won't sell the show, especially if you're trying to write something that works as a half-hour show, rather than a three-minute sketch. TV sitcoms cost at least £250k an episode, and these are not lavish productions with actors being picked up limos. Next to these shows, it's hard to make your own show which does justice to your idea. So I maintain that the best way to sell a well-written sitcom is to write a script really well and send it producers who make things that you like. For more on that, see here and here and here.

The Upside of YouTube
That is not to say if you have a go at making your own show for YouTube, you won't learn some valuable lessons, make some good friends and have fun. But everything takes time and money - and that's time and money that might be better used elsewhere.

YouTube is brilliantly democratic and immediate, so there's nothing to stop you making a show that is extremely topical. Write/Performer Dave Cohen (who has credits on Have I Got News for You and Horrible Histories) did his own topical show for a week called Britain's Got People. Or maybe you have an idea or persona that lends itself to talking directly to camera, like Jenna Marbles.

Other Web
If you're looking to write something other than a sitcom script, the web does open up a whole range of possibilities that might well be worth pursuing.

Podcasts cost virtually nothing to make and can almost sound broadcast-quality very easily. If you do something that's regular and high quality, people will notice, including producers. Eventually.

There's also blogging or other forms of written online comedy - which are worth considering if you can do them well and regularly. The Onion is a notable example (which I think started as a printed leaflet to sell pizzas). The greatest British example is the wonderfully demented Framley Examiner, written by guys like Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley who've gone on to write with Charlie Brooker on Screenwipe and A Touch of Cloth.

I'm not sure if there was never a better time to be a comedy writer - given the opportunities - or whether this is the worst possible time - given the numbers of people trying to be writers. The point is that there are opportunities to show what you can do that don't involve persuading someone to lend you lights and a boom. And I would encourage you to take them.

But right now, you should be writing for Newsjack which is running on BBC Radio 4 Extra at the moment. Here's why.

Monday 2 September 2013

Should I Make a YouTube Video?


Too stark? Okay, then.

Probably not.


I get asked this question quite often from aspiring writers and it's writers I'm talking to here, since those are the only people I feel qualified to talk to. I’m a writer. I’m not a writer-performer, a wannabe director or an aspiring producer. I write scripts. Do you want to write scripts for a living? If so, I think you should give YouTube a wide berth.

The Allure of YouTube
YouTube beckons all of us, like a shiny casino inviting us to spin its wheels of fortune. There is something exciting about the internet. It seems democratic. There's nothing to stop your video getting 15 million hits and being an overnight sensation.

But be careful. We are moths to its flame. Even if you've made a really good three-minute video, there's no guarantee that this will lead to the kind of work you'd actually like to do. It might lead to other things, of course, so I'd never say never. But if you're a writer, think hard. Ask yourself how this is actually going to help. And bear in mind that a really good three-minute video is waaaay harder to make than you might think.

And this video may actually hinder you and your idea.

I have heard producers on panel and Q&As say 'If you can make a little taster, then go for it' but I really don't think that's great advice, I'm afraid. Turning your idea into an online video may well inhibit your vision and creative freedom in the quest to make it filmable on a budget - thereby making it less attractive to producers with no imagination whose job is to read scripts and imagine how they'd work and be funny.

But let's not get hung up on them. You can't control the industry. None of us can. But the temptation is to take control of your career by making something. Doing something. Like a taster of your idea. That feels like something. But, unless you have deep pockets or stunning contacts, you'll almost certainly be selling it short, unless you have the good fortune of thinking up something that is cheap to film.  If you're making a Youtube video, you're making TV on your own - and TV is expensive. Even bad TV costs a lot.

The Problem and The Pain
The problem with many homemade videos is getting the sound, vision and content to join up. Usually one of these is defective, which gets in the way of the comedy and spoils it. Sometimes, these things come together into something half-decent, but then it's far too long. A while ago, I spoke to a guy who made a respectable YouTube clip of his idea, and it was ten minutes long. I suggested he cut it down to a punchy two minute trailer. But he couldn't face binning all that torturous hard work. It's understandable. But let's learn the lesson, even he can't bring himself to.

But what's the big deal? It's just YouTube. Your video doesn't have to look amazing, anyway, right? Hmmm. Youtube is full of ripped clips of big budget movies, pop videos bankrolled by record labels, brilliantly edited mash-ups and glorified commercials paid for by sponsors for whom fifty grand is loose change. Online, your clip is competing with all of these. As well as iPlayer, Netflix, Bit Torrent and porn.

All this said, YouTube videos can probably help writer-performers - where the writing and performance are integral. In fact, all the best YouTube videos I've seen are by writer-performers. But this is not a long list - for the reasons given above. Right now, only about three decent original YouTube videos spring to mind which I can say, hand on heart, I really like and have watched more than once and gladly shown to other people. They would be Special Forces, Thank You Hater and Blinded by Love (look them up later. I'm talking.) They've mostly been made by people with some decent credits under their belt and they sort of know people who helped them get it made and looking good. And they all took ages.

But Why?
And maybe you could do that to. But if you're a writer, not a writer/performer, why would you? If you work really hard, spend several hundred pounds on some props, food and editing, call in all your favours and drive yourself into the ground, you might produce a half-decent YouTube video. Half decent. It's probably a shadow of the idea in your head, a bit too long, one of the actors isn't great and you can hear traffic under the dialogue.

The world doesn’t need more half-decent YouTube videos. It does need decent scripts. 

Write a Script
Decent scripts will get you work. Really. They will. And you might have the power to make one of those, not least because they don't require a team of ten people and a ton of blagged favours. You can write a thirty-five page sitcom script just like anyone else. Your script will look exactly the same as those by Richard Curtis or Galton and Simpson. When it lands on the desk of a producer, they don't know who you are or what to expect. You can start your show with 'Admiral Nelson stands on the deck of his ship' and it won't look rubbish. And you won't be able to hear traffic from the A303 underneath.

But that script will take time, attention, honesty and several rewrites. If you have money to burn on a YouTube video, spend it renting a run down cottage in the middle of nowhere without an internet connection for a week or two. Finish that script and until you're actually happy with it.

I could bang on about what business people call ‘opportunity costs’, but you probably get the idea.

Should I make a YouTube video? Many would just say 'yes' because saying 'no' makes you look grumpy and curmudgeonly. Well, it's a bit late for that, so I say to writers 'Almost certainly not. Write a decent script.'