(This blog was also published on the Chortle comedy website and in the Huffington Post)
Yesterday, I had tea with a very good but not yet famous comedy performer.
He was, quite rightly, lamenting the homogenised nature of comedians on television and said he did not think he was suitable for television because he liked to try to be original.
This is a complicated area because, much as I admire Michael McIntyre’s act – and I do – I prefer to see an act which can be brilliant but which may, on occasions not quite work – rather than an act which is slickly guaranteed to be effective 100% of the time and exactly the same every performance.
Yesterday, to the very good but not yet famous comedy performer, I mentioned a middle-ranking English comedian whom I admire.
He has an act which he performs and it is a very good act which he regularly updates and tweaks. When this comedian has a good audience, he is reliably funny. Very good value for money.
When he has a rowdy audience, however, he is far, far better. Because, if he is heckled or interrupted in some way, it sets him off at a tangent from his regular act. He soars away from sentence to sentence to idea to idea and can be brilliantly funny, then he comes back to the backbone of his regular act, then he will soar away again on surreal tangents, playing to the unpredictable audience’s reaction.
This is not necessarily what TV wants, though.
Another act we talked about yesterday used to be reliably unreliable. The comedian updated and varied his act regularly but there was a certain predictability about it. Perhaps 20% or 30% of the act did not work. Perhaps 70% or 60% of the act would be successfully funny, though nothing special. Very often the remaining 10% of the act, though, could be utterly brilliant – sheer near-genius comedy. The downside was that, occasionally, that 10% did not happen. But it was always worth seeing the comedian’s act because of even the promise of that 10% of totally original genius.
Again, though, that is not what television wants.
Television is an expensive business and requires an act which can be pretty-much guaranteed not to fail or sag. You do not want to throw away an entire recording. You have to know what to expect. The director ideally needs to know exactly what the act will do verbally, visually and spatially – where he or she will be on the stage – so the cameras will catch the right angles. And the act is best for the director when it is exactly the same in the rehearsal, the dress rehearsal and during the recording.
Reliability is what TV ideally needs.
But reliability and comedic genius are not necessarily the same thing.
So does this explain why there are so many middling-but-not-very-original comedians on TV?
Yes and no.
My advice to the comedian with whom I had tea yesterday was the same as it always is to comedians.
If you approach a television researcher or producer, your viewpoint should not be that you are a small unknown comedian approaching a bigtime person who can help your career develop. Your mental viewpoint should be that you want to help the television researcher or producer develop their own career.
The TV person has a life and career just as you do. They are struggling to maintain their job, to get new and better jobs just as much as you are. You are dealing with an individual human being not a large monolithic company.
Keep repeating to yourself:
“This other person is a frail human being too. He/she eats, shits, farts, gets ill, needs to make money to survive and will die alone just like me.”
The way that TV person can develop their career is by appearing to spot talent other people cannot spot or have not yet spotted. So, perhaps surprisingly, they really are looking for originality although – this is important – they are looking for “controllable originality”. They really are not looking for someone who is a clone of 25 other comics people have already seen on TV.
That will not get them a promotion from researcher to producer or get them a job on a better TV show with a higher salary. They will succeed if they can spot “the next new big thing” before anyone else. Even if they cannot find originality, they have to be able to say to the person above them who takes decisions (or to the person who may give them their next job) that they found this act with mainstream or at least accessible cult appeal who is actually very original and unlike anything seen before.
The technical term for this in the world of television is “bullshitting”.
There is, at this point, though, a fine balance.
The thing they are looking for is “controllable originality”.
The fine line between these two words is complicated by how effective the producer or director is. The better the producer or director, the less controllable the comedian has to be.
Several years ago, a TV director I know who lives in a far-flung corner of the UK stayed at my home in London while he was directing a TV series for a minor channel. He was directing an unknown comedian in a show which roamed around the streets and, by and large, had no script. It relied on the comedian.
The show was semi-anarchic and – as I know because I worked on the legendarily anarchic children’s show Tiswas – you have to be very organised to create effectively what appears to be anarchy. If you do not have control, the whole thing may fall apart into tedious, disjointed irrelevance.
The director of this new would-be anarchic TV show would come home of an evening raving to me about how irresponsible and uncontrollable the comedian – who was taking drugs at the time – was.
The director would tell me all the irresponsible, uncontrollable things the comedian had done and I would think, but not say:
“Well, that sounds great to me. You should be going with the comedian and trying to cover what he does, rather than keep him to the rough script you are trying to follow.”
What was required was a totally self-confident director which this one was not. The director had to be confident that he could edit his way out of any problems and this one was not.
The comedian was a young Russell Brand.
I was also at the studio recording of the first episode in an expensive TV series starring Michael Barrymore. I knew the producer who was – and is – an utterly brilliant director of entertainment shows. This, though, was one of his first shows as a producer.
Michael Barrymore (after he got over his initial urge to imitate John Cleese) could be wonderfully original – almost the definitive uncontrollable comedian who needed a strongly confident producer and/or director.
In the TV recording I saw, which involved Barrymore going into the audience a lot and interacting with real people, the show kept being stopped because Barrymore kept going off-script. The floor manager would stop the recording and, relaying directions from ‘the box’, remind Barrymore that he had to say or do X or Y.
They were trying to keep him and control him within a structure which was too tight. Barrymore had to have a structure to control the potential anarchy. But it had to be a loose structure and you had to put him on a long leash and just follow what he did. The producer in question did manage to do this as the series progressed.
One brilliant piece of lateral thinking which I did work on was an entertainment series for the late but not too lamented company BSB (later bought by Sky).
It was a large, complicated variety show and the producer employed a director who had little experience of directing entertainment shows. But what he did have was (a) a sense of humour and (b) lots and lots of experience directing sports events.
This is relevant because directing a sports event means covering an event which has a loose structure but within which you do not know exactly what is going to happen. The director has to be prepared for anything to happen and to have the cameras in the right place to catch it when it does.
He was a very confident director working for a justifiably very confident producer and it worked well although, because it was screened on BSB, it got zilch viewers.
This comes back to what researchers and producers are looking for when they see or are approached by comedians and, indeed, any performer.
They think they want and are looking for true originality… but, if they are not particularly talented researchers or producers, they will compromise according to their lack of talent.
The phrase is “controllable originality”.
The more talented the TV person, the more important the word “originality” is.
The less talented the TV person, the more important the word “controllable” becomes.
As we can see from current TV shows, there are an awful lot of less talented and less confident TV people around.
But it still remains the case that, to sell a truly original act to a TV person, you have to emphasise its originality… though you also have to emphasise its controllability and potential mainstream or large cult appeal as well as suck on the TV person’s ego like a giant tit – which the TV person probably is.
The key thing is not to look at the ‘sell’ from your own viewpoint as a little unknown person approaching a big TV company.
You have to look at the situation from the small and possibly untalented TV person’s viewpoint –
“What will this performer do for ME? How will using this performer advance my own career and increase my own job prospects?”
Do not compromise on the originality of your act – just sell it with ‘spin’ appropriate to the wanker you are approaching.