Where have all the great British sitcoms gone? Where are all the genius comedy writers? Remember the 1990s? Back then, The Day Today, The Fast Show, Bottom, Knowing Me Knowing You, I’m Alan Partridge, The Paul Bearer’s Revue, The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer, The Saturday Night Armistice, Father Ted, Fist of Fun, This Morning with Richard Not Judy, Brasseye, Operation Good Guys, Adam & Joe, Big Train, Spaced, People Like Us, League of Gentlemen, That Peter Kay Thing and Attention Scum—among many others—would light up our 13” TV screens, make our dreary grey British living rooms sparkle.
In the last decade, what comedy was broadcast on British television that could match any of those 90s shows? What must the script readers and TV commissioners be thinking? Are they thinking? And have they really proven themselves fit to sit in judgement upon comedy submissions?
All of these questions were whirling through my brain when I saw him, Iain Coyle, big shot commissioner for the comedy channel Dave, go toddling through a certain private members club, as I had been told he would do, by persons who wanted me to take a shot at him. (N.B. Broadcast Now would charge you a lot of money for this sort of content.)
‘You worship at the shrine of the established,’ I said to his face, ‘the things you televise are the perfection of the felicitous expression of the inane. Don’t tell me that you have not dreamed the dream and attempted to write comedy; for you have failed.’
‘Hello,’ he replied, ‘I’m Iain.’
After hurling some more insults at him, relating to his channel, profession, and manliness, Coyle to his credit took me aside and agreed to a short interview about the present state of TV comedy commissioning.
He was aware of the epithets that fly about when people in the industry discuss comedy commissioners: Professional lunch takers. The uncreative crust of television. People whose job it is to reject interesting ideas. Why exactly they have come to be held in such contempt is probably best explained by the story he relates to me about a recent encounter: ‘I met someone the other day who had gone into [a major channel] and pitched a load of comedy ideas,’ he told me. ‘The commissioner had said, “Mmm, no, they’re not quite right”—and this is to talent that’s on the cusp of making it big—and then they’d said: “I tell you what we would go for—if you can get me Amy Schumer. We’d be interested in doing something with her.”’
‘Amy Schumer?’ I choked.
‘And this producer had to explain to the channel that they’re not going to get Amy Schumer. Amy Schumer is a movie star. She doesn’t need to do a show that, on a good day, 700,000 people will watch. Oh and the other name they were interested in was Tina Fey. Tina Fey and Amy Schumer.’
‘With a cameo by Chris Rock?’
‘Exactly. And that’s the reality of producers going in to pitch to channels now. It’s hard.’
BROADCAST NOW WOULD CHARGE YOU A LOT OF MONEY FOR THIS SORT OF CONTENT
And knowing that Coyle was there that night for a recording of As Yet Untitled, a Dave show now into its eleventeenth series, I ask him who brought the idea to him, and whether the process of its commission had involved the same Kafkaesque set of obstacles he and his ilk wittingly or unwittingly inflict on aspirants.
‘No, because the idea was partly my own. I’d just started at UKTV (the owner of Dave), and I asked them “Why aren’t you doing a late night thing, really cheap, with young comics just sat around talking?” And they said “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Which I now know means “No, no, no.” And so the thing that stopped it from being a “yeah, yeah, yeah” to a proper “yeah, all right—let’s do it,” was putting a celebrity name on it.’
‘So without Dave’s big book of contacts it would never have been made,’ I grumbled. ‘Why can’t you cretins measure a show’s potential on the strength of the script or idea anymore?’
‘Well it’s sort of perverse in a way. There’s more choice now, and there’s more outlets to put stuff on, and so there should be more opportunity. But actually it’s the complete opposite, because everybody’s chasing the same audience, and so a celebrity name, in theory, gives you a better chance of getting that audience. That’s why no one’s prepared to take any risks. And why there are so many copycat shows.’
‘But why is everyone chasing the same audience?’ I asked. ‘Why not chase the large audience that’s gone off the radar, and is watching all the latest US stuff online?’
‘Because if Comedy Central is playing Friends 24/7, they know 20- or 30-thousand people will watch it. They know exactly who those people are, how much revenue they’ll get for advertising, and they can plan off the back of it. But if they make something new, say with Dane Baptiste, they have no idea who’s going to come to it. But if they’ve got Dane Baptiste and then Phil Jupitus appears for 2-seconds, then when you’re going through your EPG you’ll see Phil Jupitus is on, give it a try and if it’s any good you’ll stay, if it’s not you won’t. That’s the thinking. So it’s all to do with advertising and revenue, basically.’
‘So comedy has in essence been gobbled up by the comedy-entertainment genre? No sitcom, unless somehow you have a rolodex of celebrity contacts, like Dave?’
YOU’RE WRONG IF YOU THINK A BRILLIANT SCRIPT WRITTEN BY A NOBODY CAN’T GET MADE WITHOUT A FAMOUS PERSON INVOLVED.
‘You have to remember that sitcoms are really expensive, and they take a long time to get made, and a long time to get through. But you’re wrong if you think a brilliant script written by a nobody can’t get made without a famous person involved. I don’t think that situation is dead; it’s just become more difficult.’
‘When was the last time it happened?’
‘Well, The Inbetweeners came from. . . . admittedly an ex-Channel 4 commissioning editor. But that came from nowhere, and with new talent. Again, written by two ex-Channel 4 commissioning editors. One of them used to be my runner, depressingly. And I think E4 and ITV2 still want to try sitcoms.’
I could only laugh.
‘But at least they’re trying! I mean, there’s no reason why you can’t watch a great sitcom on ITV.’
‘Except that no one’s watched a great sitcom on ITV for a quarter of a century.’
‘I’m struggling to disagree with you there. . . . I suppose they could point to Vicious?’
‘As a sitcom.’
THERE’S A LOT OF PAIN IN THE ARSE POLITICS
I switched subjects. With commissioner wages reputed to be in the six-figure range, I was curious to know what it is they do from day to day to earn such an impressive packet.
‘Day to day I get ideas sent in and I have to work through that backlog, over an allotted period of time which I never manage—if I really liked it I would have got back to you by now—and I take meetings every day, people are pitching ideas to me the whole time. There’s a lot of pain in the arse politics.
‘The rest of my time is taken up with being an exec on a show. Previous to this I would be an exec on one show and be with my team, but with this commissioner job I’m execing six shows at once, so with one of them I’ll be making sure that the casting’s right, another one I’ll be re-writing scripts, another one I’ll be in studio, another one I’ll be in the edit.’
‘Isn’t that a conflict of interest?’ I asked. ‘You telling producers how to make their own idea?’
‘It’s not a conflict of interest because I’m the customer. All I’m saying is, “that doesn’t work for our audience,” or, “what you’ve done there is not very good, you need to do this.” But I’m not one who says “this has to be like this, bring this to me now, it has to be good.” I try not to be a wanker.
‘I’m basically a gatekeeper. With any show we have to take it upstairs, to the internal UKTV board, and then they have to take it to the mysterious illuminati who are the shareholders. So the days of commissioners being able to just spend shitloads of money independently and on a whim are long gone. You can’t go sloshing money about anymore. It’s not the early 90s.’
‘But sloshing money about resulted in many of our best ever comedies.’
‘It resulted in a lot of shit as well.’
‘In the last decade, what comedy was broadcast on British television that could match any of those 90s shows?’
Coyle’s face clouded over. ‘Was Father Ted in the last decade?’ he asked hopefully.
‘I’m just trying to think of what I love at the moment, but it’s all American. . . .’
‘Speaking of the 90s, I remember you presented Funny Business on ITV, interviewing comics. Have you abandoned your comedy ambitions? Did you. . . . fail, as a writer and performer?’
‘I didn’t fail, but I do get frustrated at not being able to do so much writing and stuff, because I used to write scripts a lot. Not sitcoms, but scripts for shows I was working on. But I was never really a performer. I talked to funny people and tried to be slightly wry around them. But now I’m a greying, portly, 50 year old man, and the opportunities for that sort of person are quite slim. In fact I can’t remember anyone of that ilk who managed to break through.’
GO OUT AND SHOOT IT YOURSELF.
‘Is there any glimmer of hope you as a comedy commissioner can offer new comedy writers?’
‘Just go out and shoot it yourself. It’s not that hard. If you’ve got a funny idea then go out and make it. Nothing is as exciting to a middle-aged man who works in comedy than the shiny beads of moving footage. So if you can film something, no matter how short, so that they don’t have to engage their imagination, that’ll really help you.’
‘But if they can cast it and film it, and edit it, in addition to writing it, why do they need you at all?’
‘They don’t need me,’ he shrugged, as he rose from his seat. ‘But if you’re sat in a Solihull bedsit churning out scripts and getting nothing from it, then get the bloke in the next bedsit to film a bit of it for you. You can film and edit stuff so cheaply now. Why would you not use that?’
‘Failure!’ I yelled, as I watched him thread his way through the crowd, heading for the studio where he would oversee the filming of another episode of As Yet Untitled.
What title would you give this story?