Thursday, May 17, 2012

[Insert joke here] formula is no laughing matter

I wrote this for 'Broadcast' magazine, but as you need a subscription to read it online (and they didn't pay me, I wrote it out of the goodness of my heart), I've put the full article here:

Word on the street is, well, not my street, but 'comedy' street, which is a grim place, paved with the bones of the fallen, word on that street is that comedy commissioners from Sky and ITV have been given increased budgets and told to look the BBC comedy department right in the face and just go for it. In a time of recession, viewers want laughs, and they want them right now.

When you bear in mind that as a consequence, BBC comedy types have almost certainly been told to up their game and take all the comedy writers they can think of that aren't dead out to dinner to be schmoozed and tickled up and ruthlessly pumped for ideas (actually may as well try the dead ones too, you never know), this would seem to usher in a golden age for the comedy writer - assuming commissioning types aren’t just intent on paying actors to write their own material. But actors can't write everything, they get distracted too easily by boobs - often their own - so surely some of us (I'm a comedy writer, you can tell because I'm behind on the mortgage and my wardrobe door just fell off) can reap the rewards.

Although the consensus does seem to be that what the massed hordes of money-hurling commissioning editors really want is 'traditional comedies packed with jokes', which makes me slightly suck my teeth and make a worried face. Not because I don’t like ‘traditional comedies’ (whatever those are) or jokes, I love jokes, but because this often translates to commissioning editors wanting scripts packed with what they recognise as jokes, i.e. a constant stream of leaden one-liners. And nothing else. Because a worrying number of people in the television comedy world only read the talky bits of the script, the nicely-centred bits the actors will be reading out loud, and ignore all the other stuff, which the director will probably deal with.

‘Here is a script,’ they will say, proudly waving some paper in the air, ‘that is a proper comedy script, and you can tell because there are three jokes on every page!’ And they know, because they forced the producer to force the writer to go back and make sure characters amusingly insulted one another, or made a comedic observation, or a snappy comeback, and there we are, done. Objectively, 3 x wisecracks per script = funny.

(Actually, exec types get moaned at whatever notes they give, and often unfairly, because they can sometimes nail very concisely what’s wrong with a script. Stephen Fry has complained about getting a note that one script needed to be ‘ten per cent funnier’, but I must admit, that seems to me to make perfect sense, although it would be cheating to just say that every time).

But if you look at the best comedies, they aren’t just people cracking wise with one another. My current love, ‘Community’, is crammed full of wordplay, and slapstick and rich observations of characters, and have at least three of what our PM would call ‘lots of love’ moments per minute.

So, am I saying commissioning editors are all idiots who don’t even know how to read scripts properly? Of course not! I’m saying most of them are, which is very different.

James Henry wrote for ‘Smack The Pony’ and ‘Green Wing’ and has no comedy scripts currently in development, although plenty of drama scripts, so in your FACE comedy commissioners. 


JonnyB said...

Great article.

I was going to go on to add a line like: "I bet it will go down as well as a XXXX in a XXXX!" but I lost the will to live whilst thinking of something.

Boz said...

Oooo very good.

John Cowan said...

Traditional? Packed with jokes? Easy-peasy. Rewrite The Importance of Being Earnest for modern Britain's class society (no copyright to worry about, so full steam ahead). It can't lose. Oscar probably stole half the jokes from some unremembered playwright anyway:

"I wish I'd said that!"

"You will, Oscar, you will." (Whistler)