Has something happened to British comedy? In the period that the US produced It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 30 Rock, Flight of the Conchords, Modern Family, Archer, Parks and Recreation, Eastbound & Down, Community, Louie, Key and Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, Rick and Morty, Silicon Valley, W/ Bob & David, Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace (etc etc), what show did the UK put out that was of a comparable quality?
British comedy slots are clogged up by panel shows and comedy-entertainment hybrids. Commissioners, it is said, fear new ideas, which might explain why so many of our “new” sitcoms have crusty old names like Perrin, Open All Hours, Porridge, Birds of a Feather and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. While America’s brilliant BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg makes the daring jump into “animated comedy-drama,” with the Amazon-produced UnDone, UK commissioners are instead reanimating concepts from before the 33-year-old was born.
In the words of Harold Steptoe: “We stumble on from crisis to crisis.”
Will British TV bosses ever greenlight anything as clever as BoJack Horseman? It seems unlikely, given that major channels now circulate briefs instructing writers to submit scripts that are “not intelligent” and use “broad stupid jokes.” Or when defining their channel vision employ phrases such as “we’re not clever” and “low mental engagement.”
Something has happened to British comedy. But what? John Cleese blames commissioning editors who “have no trust in comedy producers” and “don’t understand comedy but don’t realise that they don’t understand it.” John Lloyd shares his frustration, complaining of outside interference that “stifles the best young talent” and makes shows “unrecognisable from the original idea,” while Frankie Boyle says senior management are “a layer of people whose job is to reject interesting ideas.”
Conversely, writers the calibre of Graham Linehan, Sam Bain and Richard Herring have been quick to defend the commissioning machinery, blaming instead the quality of new scripts—while Armando Iannucci in his talks seems to vacillate between sides. With such discord in the TV cosmos it’s like some comedy equivalent of The Iliad. And to have “darkness cover the eyes” would surely be preferable to watching Russell Howard & Mum: USA Road Trip.
But what do comedy writers on the ground have to say about all this? The people who actually write the panel shows and comedy-entertainment formats; those 20-to-30something-year-olds fortunate enough to have grown up on British comedy in the 90s, and unfortunate enough to have broken into British comedy in the noughties. For reasons of self-preservation we never hear their opinion on the subject. Their words, much like their dreams, dissipate in the stagnant air of a Soho pub—which is exactly where I am, conveniently, as I find myself quizzing a group of them on the increasingly diverging paths of British and American comedy.
“I read an article a while back,” I say, “about how BBC2 are keen to find a 10 p.m. format that’ll emulate Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon and The Late Late Show. Does that sound like a step in the right direction for British comedy?”
The writer who I’m addressing looks at me unenthusiastically. He has written for numerous UK comedies, and has worked in the US and even contributed material to a Hollywood movie. “History doesn’t look favourably on such experiments,” he answers matter-of-factly. “I think probably the closest we’ve come to something like that is the Charlie Brooker show, and they can only manage three a series and a ‘Best Of’ episode, which is pretty pathetic. Also, Saturday Night Live is 40 years old. 40! Why try to emulate something that old—and which has been derided for at least half to three-quarters of its history?
“It might have a chance if the BBC were to parachute in some Americans with experience to set it up, but they won’t because they’re expensive. SNL works, or worked, because of Lorne Michaels. It has one arsehole at the helm who has a vision and the passion to see it through. A BBC version would be the same old hodge-podge of producers flailing and fucking it up because the budget won’t be there.”
“A lot of these productions tend to have legions of media types on the team who want their cabs-on-expenses and boozy-Prosecco-Fridays-on-expenses and so on.”
Turning to the rest of the group, I ask whether any of them worked on The Nightly Show, ITV’s attempt at an American-style chat show. The subject draws groans from the table.
“My agent approached them to see if they were looking for people,” says one writer, whose long list of credits includes writing a BAFTA-winning best comedy. “They wanted me to do a day-long trial for free just to be considered—because clearly a decade working professionally as a writer counts for nothing. I said no, and it looks like I dodged a bullet.”
“What do you think went wrong with the show?” I ask.
“Well, if I were I to make it,” he says, “priority number one would be to assemble a first-rate, well-paid writing room. But that never seems to be where the money goes. I personally don’t know anything about The Nightly Show, but in my experience a lot of these productions tend to have legions of media types on the team who want their cabs-on-expenses and boozy-Prosecco-Fridays-on-expenses and so on. They need to be told: NO. This is comedy; it’s about working hard. If you want that lifestyle, go and work in fashion or PR.
“I’ve heard really well-paid panel show writers, when asked if they would write a sitcom, say: ‘What’s the point?’
“I think the problem with British attempts at making US-style chat shows is that no-one cares about the craftsmanship of great jokes. No-one cares about the atmosphere. Watching Letterman, or Leno, or Ferguson, felt like welcoming a treasured drinking buddy into your home each night. The buzzword on British chat shows is always ‘warm,’ which means a bland host making references that aren’t even jokes to pop culture. Jordan has big tits! The Brit Awards was on last night! Look at this clip that was trending on Twitter! There’ll be no Johnny Carson, Rodney Dangerfield one-liners or Stephen Colbert corpsing. No Letterman squaring off against Pekar or Kaufman. Not even anything as organic as Jimmy Fallon laughing along with the audience.”
“But if channels are so interested in US TV,” I say, “does that mean it’s time for British writers to start writing and pitching sitcom scripts in the American mould?”
“No,” replies one slightly haunted looking writer, who has twice had major channels option, develop and cast sitcom scripts, only to then pull out at the last minute. “The incentive of writing a sitcom right now is too weak. The development process takes years, and then you’re left hanging on for ages for a yes or a no. You’re overly reliant on the attachment of big name stars, the commissioners who champion your script come and go, and, to top it all off, the money is appalling. In fact, I’ve heard some really well-paid panel show writers, when asked if they would write a sitcom, say: ‘What’s the point?’ It’s a bad deal.”
“The UK TV model is essentially designed to not make TV.”
“And if you manage to get a pilot commissioned and made, the whole process from production to feedback can take 18 months to two years,” adds the writer with the BAFTA-winning comedy credit. “And by that time the commissioner who green-lit the project has left, and their replacement wants to wipe the old slate clean and start over. So nothing gets made. It’s one of a billion ways in which the US is better. There’s a dedicated pilot season in which shows are judged, rather than the on-a-whim bullshit we have to put up with. The UK TV model is essentially designed to not make TV.
“Occasionally I get a good idea for a show—something which I know I could write well, and which would be a great script—but the trouble is you’re dealing with ‘the uncreative crust of comedy commissioners,’ as (former BBC Controller of Factual) Tom Archer calls them. People who say, and this is verbatim: ‘We’re making a show for thick Northerners.’ I’ve been asked, ‘Will the idea appeal to women?’ as though all 35-million women in the country are one interchangeable blob. I’ve heard the phrase, ‘I mean, obviously we understand all the smart gags here, but the audience won’t.’ I’ve pitched a show similar to Silicon Valley, set in the tech bubble in Shoreditch, and they’ve said: ‘B-but a person in Huddersfield won’t know what Shoreditch is!?’ That’s the logic you confront. And you just have to bite your tongue.”
“What about radio?” I ask. “That’s always been a fertile ground for new ideas. Is radio any better than TV right now?”
“There hasn’t been anything that’s been pointed out and brought to my attention,” says a female writer with credits across comedy and childrens. “A sort of ‘you have to listen to this’ type of thing. So from that, I’d say it’s probably worse.
“I personally have never listened to more comedy—but it’s in the form of podcasts. And they’re all American. It’s so disappointing that we haven’t embraced podcasts over here, the way they have in the States. Two or three of the shows I listen to have been spun off into TV series—you just couldn’t imagine that at all over here. Considering that radio comedy really has only one home—the Beeb—I’m stunned there hasn’t been more homegrown podcasts springing up.”
“British commissioners genuinely seem to think this is what the audience is worth.”
“Is it possible to get any interesting homegrown comedy on UK TV now?”
‘The odd gem still slips through,” says Mr. BAFTA. “The Detectorists, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. But you’d have to be a lunatic not to see how many billions of leagues ahead of us American TV comedy is. Just look at the stuff Comedy Central US produces. There’s South Park and The Daily Show—when it was under Jon Stewart—legendary, era-defining shows. There’s Inside Amy Schumer, Review With Forrest MacNeil. Smart, funny, inventive new concepts. And then you look to Comedy Central’s UK schedule—primetime, no less—and what are they showing? They’re showing Dogs Make You LOL—a compilation of funny dog videos taken from YouTube. British commissioners genuinely seem to think this is what the audience is worth.”
“I can already hear people asking ‘Why don’t you just go to the US?'”
“It’s not that easy to up sticks and go and work in America,” Mr. BAFTA replies. “If it was, we’d all do it in a heartbeat. You either need a ton of money to set up a new life there—hard to come by—or you need to have had a good quality show of your own made in the UK to use as a calling card—also hard to come by, for the reasons we’ve discussed.”
“Plus to write for US TV you need to be part of the US Writers Guild,” adds Mr. Two Options. “The US Guild is a powerful institution that fights for the rights of writers, whereas the UK Guild were pleased because they managed to get trainee Eastenders writers the minimum wage. Seriously. They got TV writers the same paycheck as McDonalds workers and they considered it an achievement.”
“It’s all so frustrating because when we’re at our best, we are unrivalled.”
“Is British comedy is dead?”
“No, but it is on life support,” states Mr. BAFTA ominously. “And there’s a bunch of writers, performers and producers looking in on the operating theatre but locked out, all saying ‘Let us in, we can help.’ Inside, ignoring them, are the commissioners. They’re tending to the patient in their own way—which is like a honky-tonk slapstick film, with tubes being shoved in the wrong holes and vital equipment being unplugged and bleach being injected instead of anesthetic. Eventually the commissioners will kill it. And while everyone who genuinely cared is outside grieving, they’ll just shrug their shoulders and blame someone else for their failure—that’s probably their greatest talent overall—and then they’ll walk away, straight into another high-paid TV job fixed up by one of their school chums. What will they destroy next? Current affairs? Documentary? They’ll get there in the end. They’ve already put a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ sign on the end of British Drama’s bed. Comedy is the canary in the coal mine. TV people, in all roles and sectors, would do well to remember this.”
“It’s all so frustrating because when we’re at our best, we are unrivalled,” complains Mr. Two Options. “Everyone goes on about the genius of American comedy, particularly now. But they’re winning only because our side is playing the B-team. I’m Alan Partridge, The Office, Brasseye, Father Ted—they all crush anything America has ever made. Let’s be honest, Partridge shits on 30 Rock. We can be number one again. But we have lost our way, obsessing over format, demographics, channel branding, and ‘Will the audience get it? Will it offend anyone?’ I just want us to take a breath, relax and focus on one key question: Is it funny—and how do we make it funnier? We can do it. And now it’s a global viewer market, with Netflix, and Amazon Prime, and there’s the potential to be seen by millions of viewers, whoever creates a really funny show—and by that I don’t mean a show which makes the structural noises of comedy, but is actually, truthfully, honestly funny—will become Comedy God. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if it were a Brit?”