Tag Archives: sitcom

Comic Laura Lexx – a comedian/writer who could be on the cusp of success…

The last time comic writer and performer Laura Lexx was in this blog was back in July 2015 when she was about to stage her first solo Edinburgh Fringe show.

Laura Lexx, when last espied in this blog in 2015…

This week, she will be starting the run of her fourth solo Fringe show Knee Jerk at the Gilded Balloon venue.

I think her career turned an important corner with her appearance on BBC TV’s Live at the Apollo show last Christmas. So I asked her about it.


“London is probably the place I gig least” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

JOHN: Success is strange in comedy…

LAURA: Yes, it’s weird. You look at someone and think: Well, they seem to be doing very well, yet no-one’s ever heard of them. But they’re doing a 110-date UK tour, so people HAVE heard of them, yet TV isn’t… it isn’t doing… Well we still have TV held up as ‘the thing’ and actually maybe it isn’t ‘the thing’ any more.

JOHN: People say the live comedy ‘circuit’ is dying.

LAURA: Shut up! No it isn’t! I gig six nights a week quite happily all round the country – there are loads of gigs everywhere; there just aren’t the big chains of gigs (like Jongleurs) any more. You have to know lots of individuals and get on with it. London is probably the place I gig least.

JOHN: Really? Why?

LAURA: It pays absolute dogshit. Apart from the Comedy Store, I don’t think I know a single other London club that pays more than £200 a night.

JOHN: Whereas, if you play, say, up North…?

LAURA: Yeah… £250, £240, £220.

JOHN: With accommodation?

LAURA: Sometimes, yeah.

JOHN: Transport?

LAURA: Not usually.

JOHN: Your Live at the Apollo appearance must have got you loads of online hits and a higher profile.

LAURA: Kinda. It did. But I got way more general public interest and followers from doing Ouch on BBC Sounds because of my set on mental health.

JOHN: Why?

LAURA: I think because all the stuff I did on mental health and more niche topics at the Apollo recording got edited-out of the final cut. You do 20 minutes and they edit it down to around 8. What was left was a funny but mainstream thing which didn’t have much shareable viability online.

Whereas the stuff I did on Ouch about not having children and climate change and eco-anxiety did have shareability online and I picked up thousands of followers from that.

JOHN: So a niche subject actually got you greater hits than a mainstream TV show.

LAURA: Yeah. I guess cos there’s less of it and you’re maybe saying something people haven’t heard before.

JOHN: And, of course, on the Apollo show, all the niche stuff was quite reasonably edited out. It’s a mainstream show and…

Live at the Apollo – the Christmas Special show, 2018, with (L-R) Gary Delaney, Sarah Millican, Laura Lexx and Ahir Shah

LAURA: Why reasonably, though? It was just as funny as the other stuff. It just happened to be on the night Ahir Shah also had a joke about anti-depressants and you couldn’t really have two comedians on (LAUGHS) the Christmas Special going on about anti-depressants. Which is OK. That’s up to the producers. It was not like they were censoring talk on mental health. We just both happened to cover it.

JOHN: It’s a very mainstream programme.

LAURA: But depression is mainstream. Lots of people have depression, so why not talk about it?

JOHN: It’s a bit depressing.

LAURA: Not if you’re doing it in comedy.

JOHN: I think you are maybe at a turning point in your career.

LAURA: Well, most of the general public have no idea who I am, so I can turn up at a comedy club at a weekend and be ‘surprisingly’ good. But now people in the industry know who I am, so I can do the things I want to do more easily and get booked in the gigs I want to be booked on. And pitching ideas is much easier now… And I think I’ve learned to be cleverer with that.

JOHN: How does one get to be a successful pitcher?

LAURA: Well, I haven’t had any success yet but I think what I’ve learned is to go to the Edinburgh Fringe already having written the stuff that people are going to want off the back of my show.

“Feminism, innit, John. It’s huge” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

Every time you do an Edinburgh Fringe show in August, you sit down in meetings in September and they say: “Oh, we liked that theme. We would like an outline for a thing on that theme”… and, by the time you have written that outline, they have changed jobs and gone somewhere else.

JOHN: Whereas, this year…?

LAURA: I have a big set-piece about netball and I have already written a show about netball.

JOHN: Why netball?

LAURA: Feminism, innit, John… It’s huge at the moment.

JOHN: Is it?

LAURA: Yes. The Netball World Cup.

JOHN: How do you make a netball show funny?

LAURA: Anything can be funny. You just need a vehicle to add funny characters to. So why not a netball team?

JOHN: So you have that eternal ambition of comics: to eventually write a sitcom?

LAURA: I’ve already done it. I’ve written one; I’m starting my second one; and I’m pitching a couple of… I have one entertainment magazine show project that I think might be on the verge of being optioned. And another idea I’m really only at the research end of, which is… (DETAILS CENSORED IN CASE SOMEONE STEALS THE IDEA!). I also have an idea for a podcast…

JOHN: There’s no money in them…

LAURA: No, but they’re really good for exposure and then you sell off the back of it. Podcasts are a massive way to boost your popularity. My idea is… (IDEA CENSORED AGAIN, TO PROTECT IT!)

JOHN: There’s a lot of politics around at the moment: Brexit and all. You told me your new Fringe show Knee Jerk is a bit political.

Knee Jerk – Laura road-tested her new comedy show before its Fringe run at the Gilded Balloon

LAURA: I’m not trying to be political like the ins-and-outs of politicians; I’m trying to be political in terms of people’s behaviour to each other, which is what I’m interested in. The general premise of the show is I want to deal with climate change and I feel climate change should be our priority as a species and as a nation and it feels like we are at what is hopefully more a death rattle than a resurgence of a lot of divisive stuff between the general public.

JOHN: Doesn’t everyone agree climate change is a bad thing?

LAURA: But who’s dealing with it properly? If a human army was invading, we would have a million measures in place. Here, we’re vaguely going: “Oh, we’ve asked this company to maybe try and do this by 2028… if they can…” And then we fail on all the targets.

JOHN: You are odd in that you’re a good stand-up AND a good MC. They are often different mindsets.

LAURA: Well, I think they’re two different jobs and I quite like them both.

JOHN: There is that cliché of a punter saying to an MC after the gig has finished: “You should try doing stand-up comedy yourself.”

LAURA: Oh God! That happened all the time! That’s why I stopped MCing as much as I was. For a while, I was MCing for maybe 80% of my gigs. I just maybe got a bit frustrated by not being able to do my act. I had all these new bits of material I wanted to get out of the box and play with and, as an MC, I couldn’t really. So I pared it back a bit and now I’m a lot happier and I think I’m a better MC for not doing it all the time.

I like gigging and writing stuff. I’m a club comic that has smashed Edinburgh too. (LAUGHS) So give me my own television show, already!… I might have a sandwich now. Do you want a sandwich?

…Laura’s new 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show…

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Ricky Gervais – “I haven’t really watched comedy for two years”

“Live long enough to punish the world…”

A couple of nights ago, I went to a preview of the first two episodes of After Life, Ricky Gervais’ new series for Netflix – available from next Friday (March 8th). He created, wrote, directed, executive produced and stars in it,

I have never really followed his career with that much interest – mea culpa – so I was taken aback by just how a good a writer – and director – he is.

The screenings were at BAFTA and there were loud, genuine laughs aplenty: sometimes because of tiny little subtleties in the scripts. A terrifically well-made six-part series. The premise is:

“Tony (Ricky Gervais) had a perfect life. But after his wife Lisa dies, Tony changes. After contemplating taking his own life, he decides instead to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on. He thinks it’s like a Super Power — not caring about himself or anyone else — but it turns out to be tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.”

The ending of Episode 2 was very very dark indeed and I can’t see a terrestrial broadcaster having the confidence – well, the bollocks – to commission it. Whether it is better described as a dark sitcom or a drama with comic elements is a matter of opinion. The cast is full of comedians and comedy actors – Kerry Godliman, Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty, Paul Kaye, Joe Wilkinson etc etc and a dog

In a Q&A after the screening, Ricky Gervais talked about the series, including why he chose that cast:


“It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny”

It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny. If you’ve got people who haven’t got a funny bone and you are trying to make them funny, forget it.

But, if you’ve got a comedians and you tell them, “Just do that,” they get it.

It’s not really just a sitcom; it’s a drama. 

I haven’t really watched comedy for two years. I’ve watched ‘Scandi Noir’ – The Bridge, The Killing, Before We Die, Black Lake, Greyzone. They’re amazing. The pacing’s different. Uncompromised. It’s for grown-ups.

That’s where HBO made their mark. When HBO came out, people said: “Why would I pay for stuff?” – “Well, because you can’t get The Sopranos.” on ABC. You won’t get The Wire anywhere.

Now Netflix have done that even better. They drop it all at once.

Everyone who’s interviewed me, I say they have to watch all six episodes. It’s better to watch them all at once or two or three a night. It does matter. (Each episode) does start where it left off. There is a story. It’s like a novelisation: one long story. If you don’t watch one, you’ll be a bit confused. You can’t watch them out-of-order or miss one, because everything comes back. So it’s perfect for binge watching and Netflix are the perfect broadcaster. They tick every box slightly better than anyone else.

To get final edit (in the past), I’ve had to compromise a bit. So it was BBC2 instead of BBC1 or Channel 4 instead of ITV or HBO instead of NBC.

Then Netflix come along and there are no restrictions – less than anyone – the sky’s the limit – 140 million subscribers – and they’re very generous. They even have the ‘C word’ in the trailer. That’s never been done.

I think when you get older, you just want to be more honest.

It’s about someone struggling. He doesn’t want to feel anything. He’s trying to make himself a psychopath so it doesn’t feel so terrible every day. He used to be a nice guy. He had the perfect life and that was taken from him.

Imagine if a man lost everything and he had nothing left to lose. Ooh! That’s interesting! He can do anything he wants. We are constrained, restrained every day about consequences. But, if there wasn’t any… or you didn’t care that the worst consequence was being dead… you’ve got nothing to fear. 

So that’s the journey for him though, obviously, it’s not going to be as simple as that.

The worst thing is your partner dying. He had a perfect life, didn’t care about anything else. That goes and you’ve got nothing… in his mind.

That’s why he’s saying awful things. In the split second where you think: Shall I say something? – Oh, I’d better not… He doesn’t have the ‘better not’ now. He thinks: Why the fuck not?

He’s experimenting. You know how a toddler pushes the boundaries? He’s a bit spoiled. And he’s not well. He’s in the second phase of grief. He’s depressed and he’s angry and he’s just trying to lash out to make himself feel better for a split second. He’s an owl in a trap.

The overall message is Life is amazing and you are definitely going to die so things have got to be really bad for you to blow that little gift. Is it worth living another ten years? It just might be. And I think that. That is me. I’m an atheist. We didn’t exist for 13½ billion years; then we get 80 or 90 years, if we’re lucky, of this amazing experience. And we’ll never exist again. So you don’t want to go too early but, when the really bad days outweigh the good, then I’m all for it – let’s knock it on the head.

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Not often you stumble on a Romanian stand-up with a humdinger musical act

Dragoş in London’s Soho earlier today

Earlier in the week, I saw a Romanian act at Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Becky Fury’s always-interesting Democratik Republik of Kabaret gig in London.

She recommended I come and see him.

The aforementioned Romanian performs as ‘Titus’ because he thinks his real name – Dragoş Moştenescu – is a tad too complicated for us. He might have a point. I dunno. ‘Dragos’ is OK.

Anyway…

It is not often you stumble on a fairly-fluent English-speaking Romanian stand-up with a humdinger of a musical act. And one gigging most nights. So, obviously, I asked: “How long have you been in the UK?”

“Four weeks,” he replied. “I intend to develop a little bit my career here. It is difficult but, although I am not very young, I think I can do it, because I think I can rely on my combination between music and comedy. I must not be one of the millions of comedians who does only comedy. This mixture between comedy and music could be more interesting than the average.”

“Indeed,” I said. “Is there much of a comedy scene in Romania?”

Dragoş Moştenescu played Costel Jurca in TV’s La Bloc

“For the moment, not much. But I did one of the most important sitcoms in Romania – La Bloc. That means a block of flats. It ran over seven years with 500 episodes. I wrote and acted in it.”

“For the whole seven years?” I asked.

“Yes. I have been in comedy for twenty years. I had Issue of The Day first. It started in 1997. It was a 7-10 minute sketch of the day. We broadcast daily. Then I was in the sitcom for seven years. And now, since it ended, it is re-run over and over again because it still works so well.”

“Do you get residual payments for the re-runs?” I asked.

“Yes, but very, very low. In Romania, there are many hands involved when it comes to money.”

In fact, oddly, Dragoş rather under-sells himself. He is credited on-screen as co-creator of La Bloc. There was a movie of the series. He also created, wrote and performed in sitcom Nimeni nu-i perfect (Nobody’s Perfect); created, wrote and performed in the comedy drama Taxes, Pictures and Donuts and directed/performed in the stage play Portret La Minut (Minute Portrait). He even created and, for two years, starred as a superhero character in TV and print ads for the Profi food chain (400 shops in Romania).

And, in 2015, he was involved in an award-winning 3-episode documentary called 13 Shades of Romanian

“So now here you are in Britain,” I said. “You seem to have hit the ground running – gigs every night.”

“I had a contact with BBC last year.,” he told me. They said they were looking for new talent to put on a stage show with the music of Gary Barlow and Take That – Let It Shine – and I was called for casting and I think the performance was pretty good but they said my age was not very suitable because they were looking for someone aged 25, maximum 30.

“I asked Why didn’t you say so from the beginning? and they said Don’t worry. Although you haven’t been selected for the moment, maybe… And that gave me a little boost.

“So I came here to the UK again in March this year. I got my National Insurance number, so I can be proper with documents and everything.”

Dragoş is extraordinarily well-researched on the UK comedy scene – and focussed.

He showed me an Elton John tribute he performed seven years ago (most things linked to Dragoş involve seven-year spans).

“Is it on YouTube?” I asked.

“Yes. I have my own YouTube channel,” he said.

He is Big in Romania but has the guts to re-start in the UK. Working every night though currently mostly on free gigs.

Dragoş: Big in Romania; re-starting here

“I will keep on going to these open mic gigs,” he told me, “because I meet people, I see how my material works here and I can change things.”

When I saw him at the Democratik Republik of Kabaret, he was doing the Beatles’ Let It Be in a dizzying variety of different styles… and a song about Dracula.

“And I have non-verbal songs,” he told me. “I have Three Minutes of Classic Music. I begin to play classic music – Beethoven – but there is a mosquito bothering me and it’s a kind of pantomime, about me trying to get rid of the mosquito with some actions on the piano.”

There are several episodes of La Bloc on YouTube.

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Is the comedy business more important to the UK than the financial industry?

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator'

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator’ of comedy

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the UK’s creative industries generate £36 billion per year for the economy and employ 1.5 million people. The Chancellor, George Osborne, called them “massively important”. So why does no-one take comedy seriously?

The English Arts Council will not give grants to comedians staging shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, because they do not consider comedy to be an art.

But, last year, the University of East Anglia (UEA) got a £300,000 grant for a three-year study into “the nature of creativity within the British television comedy industry by exploring the working practices of industry professionals, and the industrial, institutional and policy contexts that shape and inform what they do.”

The study is called Make Me Laugh. It started in January 2012 and ends in December 2014. The ‘Principal Investigator’ is Dr Brett Mills. He is Head of the UEA’s School of Film, Television and Media Studies and I chatted to him a couple of days ago.

“We’re working with loads of writers, producers and commissioners,” he told me, “following comedy projects from initial idea through to broadcast or, as is often the case, non-broadcast and abandonment and resignation and unhappiness. We’re trying to look at what makes creativity – however you define that – happen and what are the things that get in its way.”

“You’ve done previous studies of comedy,” I said. “Isn’t this just a way to get another £300,000?”

“The first project was about £4,000,” laughed Brett. “and I just interviewed people, but interviewing individuals doesn’t give you a sense of relationships and networks, the development of a project and how things change over time. One other problem was that, when I asked people how decisions were made, the answer I tended to get was Gut instinct and, to a researcher, that’s utterly useless. The aim of this project is to try to unpick that.”

Not for television research

Not for UK television research purposes

“Have you read Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman?” I asked.

“Very deliberately no,” said Brett.

“Why?”

“Because,” explained Brett, “it’s one of those books everyone says you have to read – and because there is a split in academic terms between Film Studies and Television Studies. The set of approaches you would use in Film Studies would use that book. The set of approaches you would use in Television Studies would be totally different in academic terms.”

“Mmmm,” I said, “You know the often misunderstood quote about Nobody knows anything...?”

“Yeah,” said Brett wearily.

“…which” I continued, “basically means that creativity is an art not a science. Aren’t you trying to make it a science?”

“A gut instinct, in a way,” said Brett, “is just an internalised set of things you have learned. In most industries, you develop a gut instinct.”

“So is creating and commissioning TV shows a science or an art?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a bit of both,” Brett replied. “And, if we get into the area of whether something is ‘good’ or not, are we talking about critically acclaimed or watched by a lot of people or loved by a lot of people? Or about having a legacy and being watched 10 or 15 years later? It depends what you’re measuring.”

“Anyone who makes something VERY popular,” I suggested, “is immediately attacked as being ‘trite’ and ‘low-brow’ and ‘bland’.”

“Well” said Brett, “I don’t think anyone we’ve spoken to is embarrassed about making something popular.”

“Can your research,” I asked, “explain why Mrs Brown’s Boys is loved by audiences but hated by a lot of so-called cognoscenti in the media and the comedy industry?”

“No,” said Brett, “because that’s a different project I’d love to do, which is talking to audiences. This current project is about the process by which things come into existence. Miranda would be fascinating because there is a gender division: women love it.”

“Women of all ages?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett, “and, this is purely anecdotal, but it’s a kind of family thing where the women sit down to watch it and the dad leaves the room because he can’t stand it.”

“Is there statistical evidence that more women like it than men?” I asked.

“It’s probably very likely,” said Brett, “because – although these are statistics from seven or eight years ago – the vast majority of mainstream sitcoms on television are always watched by more women than men. Men Behaving Badly was watched by more women than men.”

“Doesn’t studying comedy academically make watching comedy less interesting?” I asked.

“No” said Brett, “people who read recipes like food; it doesn’t mean they start hating food. In fact, in some ways, you start appreciating it more. Even the stuff that doesn’t make me laugh I can still find fascinating.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

A totally irrelevant image of Malcolm Hardee

“I grew up in the 1980s with The Young Ones on TV and the Alternative Comedy people doing their stuff and Malcolm Hardee doing his stuff.

“I’m very anti this idea that the aim of academic research is about cultural hierarchies and we should only look at the best: that we should construct a ‘canon of good work’.

“That’s one of the interesting things about the department I’m in at the moment: most people are interested in the popular, the mainstream. We don’t see our job as deciding what is good culture and what is crap culture.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that the audiences who originally went to see Shakespeare’s plays went to see them as Brian Rix farces or blood-soaked splatter tragedies.”

“Exactly,” said Brett. “Most of the creators of stuff that’s held up as ‘art’ now – Shakespeare, Dickens – were unbelievably popular in their own day. It was mainstream culture. Dickens wrote serial fiction. It’s not as if he had an artistic vision. He was thinking: Oh, that character’s popular, I’ll write more of him in the next episode.

“The idea that you retrospectively construct these people as artistic visionaries and so on…  No… Shakespeare was writing for an audience. He was a populist.

“Exploring popular culture is an interesting battle, because our field – Media Studies – often gets criticised as a Mickey Mouse subject, not ‘proper’. And, by looking at popular culture, you actually feed into that prejudice… I have a colleague who does research on reality television and people do just go Oh! That’s a stupid subject! But No. We’re having to have that fight and we will man the barricades.

“This current Make Me Laugh project very definitely connects to that.

“Lots of film directors and novelists whose work is seen by far fewer people are interviewed and profiled and their views are kept for posterity. And yet you have people creating popular mainstream culture consumed by millions and millions of people and they’re going to disappear into history. Nobody’s interviewing them. Nobody’s exploring their working practices whereas any old Croatian art house film director has probably been interviewed by Sight & Sound twenty times and had five books written about him.

“I sometimes ask my students: Give me a list of film directors and they can rattle off a hundred. Then I say: Tell me a television director. And the only ones they can tell me are film directors who’ve done television. They’ll say Oh, Quentin Tarantino directed an episode of CSI didn’t he?

“They’ll know Miranda Hart herself. But the producer of Miranda? The director? No. They don’t even know their names.

“These people are creating a whole range of culture, but nobody’s heard of them. To me, that’s a real outrage. And it’s backed-up by the fact that, when you contact people, wanting to interview them, their first response is: Why would you want to talk to me?

“I tell them: If you were an art house film director, you wouldn’t ask that question. You’re writing a comedy that’s watched by ten million people every week and you’re confused that I find you of interest!” That, in itself, is fascinating to me.

Dr Brett Mills’ favourite sitcom

Brett Mills’ suggestion for “the greatest sitcom ever made”

“One of the ways Britain defines its national identity is via comedy. We see that as really important. How did we define ourselves last year in the Olympic Opening Ceremony? With Mr Bean… and the Queen jumping out of a helicopter. It was comedy, comedy. comedy!

“Comedy is central to our idea of national identity and the economic value of the comedy industry is massive. Just take Mr Bean and the amount of money that’s produced around the world.

“The economic value of the comedy industry – including films, television and stand-up is absolutely massive. Yet the amount of public money that goes into theatre and opera and other cultural forms… compared to the amount that goes into, say, stand-up comedy (even though there is public money via the Licence Fee going into BBC TV) is virtually nil.

“But, then, if you talk to people in small independent production companies and suggest Shouldn’t the government be supporting you more? they tell you No! We wanna stay separate. That’s the whole point. We’re outsiders. We’re mavericks.

“The creative industries in Britain employ more people than the engineering industry and the pharmaceutical industry. The creative industries contribute more to the economy than the financial industries.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett firmly. “Television, film, architecture, design, music, computer games. The scale of the creative industries is absolutely massive. And it is still one of the areas where Britain is accepted internationally as a world leader.”

“So why are you not aspiring to be a television producer or commissioner?” I asked.

“Because I don’t have that gut instinct,” replied Brett. “Not at all. Not at all.”

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How budgets and technology have affected the type of TV comedy we see

I was at the London School of Economics last night for an event called Comedy As Commentary, in which a panel of writers and producers discussed the way in which “much comedy writing can be read as a kind of commentary on social life.”

But economics came into it too.

One of the panelists was Joanna Scanlan, actress and co-writer (with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine) of the highly realistic sitcom Getting On, set in the geriatric ward on an NHS hospital.

All of the panel seemed to be big fans of the sitcom Father Ted.

“But,” Joanna pointed out, “the budgets that were available to make television at the point that Father Ted was commissioned by Channel 4 are very different from the budgets that are available to make television comedy now.

“What has happened is that the realism mode, to-camera shoot and the limited locations are partly financially driven. If you turn up in a commissioner’s office and say we have to build these props and it’ll take a six-day shoot… The Thick Of It was initially shot in two-and-a-half days per episode and Getting On was done two-and-a-half days per episode.

“They both started on BBC4, where there were very low budgets and very low expectations for audience: they were going to build it.

The Thick Of It has ended up being a huge phenomenon, but it has never had the budgets that really go with that.

“People talk about Getting On as if we really intended it to be like that, but we didn’t. It had to be like that. It couldn’t be different (because of the budget).

“The other thing is that technology has changed; cameras have changed. You can walk around a room without a cable behind the camera so therefore you can shoot in rooms without cables becoming visible on the shot.

Peter Capaldi, who directed the first two series of Getting On, said at the very beginning Why are we making television in the way that we’re making it? The technology has utterly changed. All the conventions within the production methods you can throw away.

“So I think it’s partly about letting your imagination run wild but (with lower budgets) it’s very difficult in a world where no commissioner is going to… Well, Sky is the exception. When they started commissioning comedy, Lucy Lumsden, the commissioning editor, said she wanted touchy-feely stuff, she wanted warm stuff – which is partly about their subscribers, but it’s also that she had some more money. You could make a world. You could have more than one location.

“It obviously does affect the creative vision.

“There was a BBC do a while ago where one of the heads of Comedy was saying Ooh, it’d be nice if… and showed a clip of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – one of the most famous episodes where Frank Spencer gets hoisted up onto the steeple of the church… We can’t laugh at that sort of thing any more, because we really couldn’t afford to do that. It’s out of the question, but it would be good if we could.”

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The cruelty of comedians and how to get laughs from very unfunny situations

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee: ‘godfather of British alternative comedy’ (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Thursday this week is the 8th anniversary of the death by drowning of British comedian Malcolm Hardee a man who, it seems to me, got away with a lot of dubious actions because of his personal charm: people (often including me) simply shrugged, laughed and thought Oh! It’s only Malcolm being Malcolm!

In yesterday’s blog, Malcolm’s sometime neighbour Nick Bernard said: “He could be really quite cruel, but it wasn’t like mean or deliberate. He saw the line of humour and the eventual laugh and he thought: I’ll just go for the humorous line and fuck it!

This got me talking about cruelty in comedy to my friend Louise yesterday.

“In Charlie Chaplin movies,” I said, “they’re forever kicking other people in the bottom. It’s even in Laurel and Hardy movies. And, in Three Stooges movies, they stab two fingers in other people’s eyes. I never understood why that was supposed to be funny. Even as a kid, it seemed to me to be cruelty not comedy.”

“What about slipping on a banana skin and falling over?” asked Louise.

“That can be funny,” I admitted. “But that’s laughing at the unexpected.  Kicking someone’s bottom or stabbing their eyes out is something different.”

“It’s childish,” said Louise. “Being childish can be a good thing: innocent, curious, enjoying simple unexpected things. But it’s not realising consequences which is the downside. Not realising you’re going to cause damage to someone.

“When you talk about some of the things Malcolm did, the only people I know who would be doing those sort of things at the moment – really, genuinely – are three children I know, who are aged 4, 8 and 10. They think Oh! That’s funny! Let’s skid on that! or Oh, I’m going to throw this at that person and they don’t think it might blind the other person.”

“When Malcolm died,” I remembered “his obituary in The Times said Throughout his life, he maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences. That was written, I think, in admiration. Everyone wants to be free like that, to do whatever they want, to have no fear of consequences but, in reality, it’s a negative thing as well, isn’t it?”

“There’s a lot of cruelty in comedy,” said Louise. “People laugh at other people’s pain. On TV, there’s You’ve Been Framed.”

“It used to be funnier,” I said, “when Jeremy Beadle did it, because the clips were longer. You saw the build-up and you laughed at the unexpected pratfall. Now you just see people falling over or being hit with things edited tightly together with no build-up.

“It’s like editing the punchlines of jokes together without any build-up. It’s like saying To get to the other side… Terrible… She went of her own accord.” When you just edit together the bits where people always laugh and cut out the build-up sections where people never laugh, you lose what makes it funny.”

“And sometimes,” said Louise, “people are not laughing because it’s funny but as a nervous relief. A release of anxiety. Sometimes, when people laugh, they cry, because they are releasing tensions.”

“I think it’s all surprise,” I said. “You’re releasing your relief in a laugh. A lot of jokes are based on the fact you think you know what is going to happen and then, at the last moment, something unexpected happens… A pun… Someone slipping on a banana skin… Even observational comedy: there’s some situation you know well but the comedian shows you a sudden unexpected angle you hadn’t thought of… You laugh because you’re suddenly surprised by the unexpected.

“Malcolm,” I mused, “was a wonderful compere but not really a good stand-up comedian. He had about six jokes which he told for 20-odd years. People always said his comedy routine was his life, which is why there are endless stories about him. And, ironically, that’s why his fame may live on longer than more successful stand-up comedians. That and his autobiography.”

“And with all the stories about Malcolm,” Louise suggested, “people often laugh because he did something which you could never credit anyone would actually do. The element of surprise and shock.”

“Well,” I said, “you know my theory that all the best British sitcoms which last (apart from the ensemble ones like Dad’s Army) are actually tragedies – Steptoe & Son, Hancock, One Foot in The Grave. All terrible situations. They’re situation comedies but not, at heart, comic situations. What’s happening to the characters is not funny and they’re not ‘comic characters’ but you laugh with their difficulties. You laugh at the situations but they are not comic in themselves; it’s the way they are presented.”

“And Johnny Vegas when he started,” said Louise. “He would go on about how terrible this-and-that was and what a terrible life he had and, he said, You’ve all just come along to laugh at me!

“You know,” I said, “how I think Janey Godley is brilliant because she doesn’t say funny things, she says things funny. Her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was Good Godley! which was a comic version of her autobiography Handstands in the Dark.

“The book (which I edited) is horrific. It’s like Edgar Alan Poe. It’s terrifying. Just horrific. But she told exactly the same stories on stage in Good Godley! and people were falling about with laughter.

“People who never saw the stage show but read the reviews thought it must be in bad taste because they thought she must be making jokes about rape and murder, but she wasn’t. She was telling the stories straight without comedy, but she was telling them in such a way that the audience were able to release their tension at the end of the stories – and during them – and they did that by laughing.

“People who admire her like me and Stewart Lee have said the same thing – that she doesn’t tell jokes. She tells non-funny stories in a funny way. There’s that YouTube clip from a show which I’ve blogged about before, where she tells the audience she was raped as a child by her uncle but, later, got her uncle killed. The audience laughs. She tells them it’s true. They laugh more. She tells them she got his cock cut off. They laugh even more. The more she tells them it’s true, the more they laugh. But she’s not saying anything that’s funny and, in this case, she’s not even saying it in a funny way. It’s working purely on her personality, her timing  and her ability to ride the laughs. Now that is great comedy. Amazing comedy. Big big laughs. But not funny in itself. It’s the comedian making some unfunny situation into something which gets laughs.”

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How (some) talented British television producers put comedy talent on TV

Before you read this blog, I should point out that I have never met the comedian Jack Whitehall and, as far as I can see, he is an entirely amiable, talented chap who has every reason to continue breathing and, indeed, to prosper…

Now…

In this blog a couple of days ago, I had a chat with chav comedy character Devvo about how TV companies could not quite come to terms with the Devvo character yet the arguably similar Lee Nelson character arrived on UK TV screens.

Yesterday I asked comedy entrepreneur Bob Slayer who was helping and handling Devvo at the time, what he remembered. This is what he told me.

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Monkey Kingdom were the first production company to put Devvo on TV. They did a thing for Funny Cuts on E4, which you can see online (there are two uploads)

This one has currently had 2.1 million views:

And here is one of several short stings for a Channel 4 programme called Whatever. It has had 500,000 views:

I was in the meeting when Monkey Kingdom suggested filming Devvo in London and making it look like Doncaster. Is this normal? The very being of Devvo is that he is the Donny Soldier from Yorkshire… But, to be fair, they realised this pretty quickly and backed down. I also got a funny text from Devvo while filming to tell me he had found out the dog that they had brought in for one bit of filming was on more per day than he was.

Overall, though, the Monkey Kingdom guys did do a good job and they let Devvo get involved in the edit. We were looking forward to working with them again and were discussing a pitch to Channel 4 but then they got The Charlotte Church Show greenlighted and dropped all development projects.

Devvo then did a thing for BBC TV with Ken Korda (Adam Buxton). It was a bad start when we met the TV people in the office that the producers of My Family were using.

They filmed some great non-scripted stuff around the BBC. But then they wouldn’t let us see it prior to broadcast, let alone get involved in the edit which they did an absolute bollix job on and then put a shite laughter track on it… I hope it is not online!

(IT IS)

There were a few other things as well and then the BBC decided to make a show called The Wall. They put it out to tender to three production companies and to the BBC in-house. All three of the production companies got in touch with us to put Devvo in their pitch. Charlie Brooker’s Zeppatron was one of these and they ended up winning the pitch.

What they kept telling us was that they liked Devvo because he was the ‘real deal’ and not just someone dressed up as a chav. They expected him to be a big hit in The Wall and so we were also planning his own series.

As the show got closer, we started to get odd requests. Like could they put a laughter track on it. To which we said no because he is not just dressed-up as a chav. This happened a couple of times and they apologised that someone higher up was obviously nervous. And, of course, in the end they replaced Devvo with Simon Brodkin dressed up as the Lee Nelson chav character. That was the safe choice…

A producer guy that we met along the way who helped us out and tried to steer us through the murky waters of TV was, at the time, also producing a show written by Wil Hodgson – a sitcom about dogging. The genius of this was that dogging was just the glue that made it all work – it was always in the background and never explicit. It showcased Wil’s writing brilliantly and really showed how hilarious it is to see quite normal people in abnormal situations.

I was at the read-through at Soho Theatre with Johnny Vegas in the lead role and Cariad Lloyd opposite him. It also had Morwenna Banks and just a really strong cast. ITV gave them a development deal. Then, a few months down the line and many meetings and going backwards and forwards, ITV said We love it… but… Can you rewrite it without the dogging?!

That is like asking to make Father Ted a little less Irish… I expect some eedjit did ask the Father Ted people that at some stage but fortunately they were left alone!

It’s no wonder that we get so much shite like My Family and that Jack Whitehall is allowed to continue breathing. Please can someone stand on his windpipe?

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