Wednesday 13 July 2016

An Interview with Radio Comedy Producer

Ed Morrish
Ed Morrish has produced a ton of comedy for BBC Radio, including John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, Dilemma, Mark Thomas: The Manifesto and Spats and more recently the revival of lost episodes of Hancock. (I don’t hold this against him. They’re rather good)

I worked with Ed on Recorded for Training Purposes, and can say categorically that he’s a very nice man. I took advantage of this and used it against him by asking him to be interviewed for this blog now that he’s moved on from the BBC.

Hello, Ed. I'm in italics, just to be clear. Please feel free to answer me in plain text. Ta. Now, you’ve worked for BBC Radio Comedy for quite a few years, from early in your career. How has your time producing hundreds of radio shows shaped your understanding of comedy? What did you think about comedy going into the job - and do you see things differently now coming out the other side?

I think that I thought, never having worked in comedy at all, that there was some sort of empiric answer to making good comedy, a defined skillset you could hone. And when you got to the point that you were successful 100% of the time you were declared the 'winner' and offered the next job - for writers that's the old production line of chucking in one-liners to Week Ending until you were asked to do a sketch, and writing sketches until you were asked to write a sitcom; for a producer it would be making a successful sitcom, a successful sketch show, a successful panel show and a successful stand-up show, then you'd be offered an executive job in radio or a telly job.

And what I've learned is that no-one one knows for sure, 100% of the time, what the audience will like. If they did they would either be a commissioner at a TV network that never had any flops, or they would be a permanently-employed producer that sold everything they pitched. Neither of those people exist.

So: we're all just guessing, and the more experienced you are the better those guesses should get, but you're never going to be right 100% of the time, and that's OK. It's the audience who decide what they like and they don't care how hard you worked or how original you are or how hack other stuff is. All you can control is how good you think it is, so make it as good as you can. Ideally, better than is necessary.

That’s easier said than done!

Your stuff will never feel as good as other people's, because for your own stuff you have to go through the bits - the drafts, the edits - where it's not good, or where it looks like it's never going to work. It's like you're constructing something from cardboard and string and everyone else is carving into stone. The thing is, usually, no-one else can see the string, and your stuff is as solid as anyone else's.

Also, your career advancement owes more to serendipity than empiric qualification. Deal with it.

Ouch. Really? I guess that it is partly luck-based. Right place right time. But how does the newbie right increase their odds? What do you see writers doing that helps/harms their chances of success or a career?

I think what helps your chances is finding a producer who is genuinely enthusiastic about your stuff. Don't think you can wear them down with persistence, because it takes ages to get stuff on the air and if someone isn't going to be jumping up and down about your stuff it's not going to happen.

In radio, you need fewer people than in telly, but you still need at least one person who is appreciably animated about you. Don't read "this had some nice moments" and think "I will send them draft after draft after draft". We never want to be rude and tell you your script's rubbish (although I've tried to be as honest as possible, and have turned down perfectly decent scripts because I didn't love them), because no-one wants to be the person who said guitar bands are on the way out, but at the same time we're really only in it to make programmes we love.

I would say be cordial, and don't give up, but it's worth casting around to see if you can find the most enthusiastic person possible. They'll do you the best job.

How has the comedy landscape shifted in the time you’ve been at the BBC?

Generally speaking - it's gotten slightly smaller in TV and radio (or perhaps, hasn't expanded at the rate of the rest of the rest of the comedy world), which has made it harder to get stuff made - not only is there more competition for a set number of radio slots, but there are also now some famous people who wouldn't have considered the medium a decade ago because they could get stuff away on TV competing against you when you're pitching your new show which has unknown talent. And that's obviously tough. So the squeeze on TV has lead to a squeeze in radio.

Parochially, the pipeline from radio to TV has also dried up a little - the guy who hired me, John Pidgeon, got Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh, Dead Ringers, Mitchell & Webb, Flight of the Conchords and Genius started for radio, as well as Chris Addison's Radio 4 series that eventually became Lab Rats, all in six years (1999-2005). Since then - Miranda, Count Arthur, I've Never Seen Star Wars, Nurse, In & Out of the Kitchen... Anything else? Partly this is due to the emergence of digital TV and YouTube, because radio used to be where you proved you could deliver a series before being trusted with a TV budget, but those platforms took away that USP - in fact, superceded it because if you can do Gavin & Stacey on BBC Three that's a better indicator of what will work on BBC 2 or BBC 1 than anything you could put on the radio.

Likewise, there's now a bias towards writer/performers rather than writers, because you can go to Edinburgh and see a comedian make a room full of people laugh for an hour, and asking them to write a sitcom might feel like less of a risk than imagining whether a script written down in black and white will make 320 people in the Radio Theatre, and 1.2m people at home, laugh.

Yay! It’s not just me that thinks that there is a bias towards writer/performers. Is that trend the new normal and we the pendulum isn’t swinging back any time soon. What would your advice be to non-performing writers? (other than writing for radio, of which more later) Get some acting training? Write for a rising start? Start a podcast? Get on Youtube?


All of those are good ideas; podcast/youtube because that's the same principle as a stand-up knocking it out of the park for 55 minutes. You're asking less guesswork on the part of the producer/commissioner. "See? It works!" I mean look at People Just Do Nothing, Hood Documentary and Ackee & Saltfish - all picked up by the BBC because of really brilliant web series.

I'd warn you to be honest, though - if you're not a performer, don't, because a badly-performed thing can put people off. (So maybe the acting training/stand-up?). Maybe find a rising star and ask them to do perform it for you?

Oh. Well, I normally advise people not to bother with Youtube, but maybe you're right. I am often banging on about how new writers should try and get started in Radio. What sort of mistakes do you see rookie writers making?

I think the most common mistake is writing out a funny idea, but not in a funny way. So it's kind of amusing to think about, but won't reveal information in a surprising way - and it's the surprise that gets laughs. If you lay it all out at the start, you're sort of noodling through in a way that passes the time amiably enough, but it's not funny.

Also, don't think you're being innovative unless you've listened to a lot of stuff. "Hey, I'm really blowing your fusty, Radio 4 minds!" is probably unwise attitude to take if you've never heard The Burkiss Way.

The biggest thing is writing what you imagine a Radio 4 comedy should be like, rather than what you want to do. R4 comedy is hugely varied, way more varied than you might give it credit for - in the last year I've made shows with Lemn Sissay, Sami Shah, John Finnemore, Paul Sinha and Sue Perkins and Danielle Ward. In each case - you make the show that they want to make in the best way you possible can; I didn't mould any of them to be "more Radio 4”.

At the risk of sounding like a job interview, which shows are you most proud of? And why? And what were some unexpected knocks?

Every knock is to some degree unexpected - because if you didn't believe your show was worth its place on air why did you make it? It's an occupational hazard I suppose; survivor's guilt.

The shows I'm most proud of? Well, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme is the most successful show I've made by far - we're recording series six in October/November. But the first episode of Lemn Sissay's Homecoming is probably the best half-hour of audio I've ever made; I'm very proud of the mix of stand-up poetry (recorded in an Ethiopian jazz club), interviews, music and links recorded in a run-down area of Addis.

Spats was criminally under-rated; John-Luke Roberts remains a genius.

And Dilemma was a really interesting format for which Danielle Ward (and others) came up with really funny and difficult problems and for which we booked some really diverse (meaning different, not code for "non-white", although it was that as well) guests - there's no other panel show that's had both Dame Ann Leslie and Ricky Wilson and Adil Ray on it.

And I still believe there should have been a third series of Eddie Robson's Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, although it seems from the audience response that not enough people agree with us...

So you’ve moved on to the BBC. What next?

Mainly, making radio programmes for the BBC. Yeah, I know. But I'll be fulfilling my commissions as a freelancer - so a new series with Lemn Sissay, a two-parter with Aditi Mittal, and series six of Souvenir Programme will all happen before the end of the year. I'm also making some stuff for Audible - one large series and a few pilots so far.

Would you be interested in reading any scripts if people tracked you down and sent them to you?

In theory, although the people who've sent me scripts in the last two months might disagree. I also have two small children with whom I'm hoping to spend more time, so feel free to email me, but bear in mind I might be helping my son play SimCity, or drawing with my daughter...

Oh, and I had this idea for a show set in a 1990s video store. I didn’t really. Although we all did in the 1990s. Out of interest, what is the 2016 equivalent to the hack video store idea that you see a lot these days?

"Two siblings are very different people but jointly inherit a family business" comes up a lot; as does "Here's a tiny fictitious outpost of the British Commonwealth where events humorously mirror the political stories back on the mainland".

I also used to get "A semi-improvised sitcom based in the world of entertainment where actors play versions of themselves" a lot, and now Curb's coming back I expect that to crop up again. And the truth is there's nothing wrong with those as set-ups, per se, and I don't even know if the writers know how many other people have come up with the idea before them because most of the versions of those never make it to air.

That's the fun thing about comedy -it's all in the execution. "A sitcom set on an aeroplane" is the description of both The High Life and Cabin Pressure; it's how Forbes & Alan/John write them that make them work...

Any more advice to people wanting to be a sitcom writer? My experience of spec scripts is that nothing actually happens in the first ten pages. What have you noticed?

I think if nothing happens in the first ten pages you're lucky. Usually nothing happens in the first script. Or rather, the first script is spent setting up the sitcom. I get why people do this, but you're selling your show on a false prospectus I think, because you should know what your show is: it's the show where X and Y try to do Z (with hilarious consequences). If your first episode is "X and Y meet and a series of events conspire to put them in a position that next week they will try to do Z", that's another show. And a less interesting one.

My favourite way of getting around this was (and I'm not just saying this because you co-wrote it), Milton Jones. "Hello, I'm Milton Jones, the world-famous racing driver" - there, he's just told you who he is and what he does, let's get on with it.

So my general sitcom advice: get straight to the story. You need the audience to want to know how it turns out because that will keep them listening. Why did you watch Gavin & Stacey? Because you wanted to know how it ended - so hook them. And skip the expositional first episode that you wrote. The end of that episode is where your sitcom starts, so start there. (Then plunder the expositional first episode for gags and backstory.)

Also, remember you are taking up the audience's time, so justify that. You remember that line from Seinfeld: TV Exec: "Why will people watch this?" George: "Because it's on TV!" - that didn't really work then and certainly doesn't work now. Always be telling them something or showing them something.

Thanks, Ed. Now get back to playing SimCity ‘with your son’.

Follow/pester/heckle Ed Morrish on Twitter where he has very cleverly styled himself @edmorrish.

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