Taking Rejection

Ed Milliband believes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that’s absolute tossballs.  I’ve never been the same since my mate gave me some funny looking mushrooms he found on Dartmoor one autumn morning.  They didn’t kill me, but every day I look in the mirror and ask myself; ‘Is this a future prime minister I see before me?’ And every day I answer; ‘No, it’s a multi-coloured marshmallow face, now let’s get the crack-pipe a’ smokin’ and seize the day.’  Bet you a tenner I last longer in my job than Ed.

Learning how to deal with the tough times is a necessity in the world of showbiz.  Rejection happens a lot.  It’s like being a spotty teenager for your entire life as execs and commissioners tell you your idea smells and they wouldn’t snog it even if you were the last development producer on earth.  The likelihood of either getting the first job you go for or winning a commission for your first ever idea is very close to zero.  Unless your mum/dad is a high ranking television exec who can usher you through the door or you genuinely are the huge talent you think you are then be prepared for a lifetime of repudiation with the occasional bout of acceptance, joy and exhilaration.  The good times are worth it.

The first thing to do is to accept it’s going to happen.  Be enthusiastic, chase your dream, but also be realistic if only for your own sanity.  It’s incredibly exciting when you think you might have a chance.  Throughout my career I’ve gone through the process of meeting people for jobs and occasionally getting them and often not.  At the same time I’ve always tried to pitch my own ideas and most of the time they fall into the pit of development despair.  Occasionally they pique someone’s interest and when they do it is incredibly exciting.  Experience tells you it is just the first fence in a Grand National style race where the vast majority of ideas will fall horrifically and end up in a tin of dog food or a crispy pancake.

I’ve talked before about the currency of ideas and this is one of the major reasons to keep going in spite of rejection.  They do open doors and get people interested in you and can lead to other opportunities even if that particular project stumbles and fails to make it, even as an each-way bet.  Here’s one example of excitement, hope, rejection and redemption.  Someone should make a film of this blog.  Or at least work up a treatment, maybe shoot a taster and then bounce it around in development for eternity.

Nearly ten years ago I was working in factual programming as a freelance producer / director and trying my hand at comedy in whatever free time I had.  I’d tried writing a few things, done a moderately received Edinburgh Fringe Show, and was regularly dying on my arse at stand up venues across the country.  But then I had an idea to combine comedy with documentary (I know. This has never been done, has it?) and pitch an idea.  It was about testing quick-fix, self-help type ideas to get rich, successful, find love and I was going to thrust myself into those techniques as a journalistic fall guy.  Through my factual work at Tiger Aspect I had met a comedy producer, Lucy Robinson, who actually showed an interest in my work and offered incredibly helpful and straightforward advice.  Often she was critical and rightly so.  It’s important to remember that if an industry figure is willing to give you their time then they already think you have some talent, so if they give you constructive criticism then take it with grace.  You may or may not agree with every or any point, but they are trying to help.  Ignore them at your peril.

Lucy had moved on to work with Channel X, took my idea to them and it lead to my first meeting with Jim Reid and Alan Marke, which was incredibly exciting.  Going to the office and seeing posters of the iconic shows they’d made was nerve-wracking, but here were two decent guys who, in spite of the warehouse conversion office setting, didn’t have a hipster/media wanker bone in their bodies.  And they wanted to talk about my idea and how we’d develop it.  They agreed to shoot a taster.  I knew that to get a production company on board with an idea was a massive step forward.

The idea of the show was to look at quick fix ideas and expose their ludicrous nature, and we decided to film me trying out some techniques to meet and impress the opposite sex, as this seemed like a straightforward thing to set up, and something we could shoot in one day, on the street. I know this sounds bit Dapper Laughs and given the fact that this has been in the news, followed by the reports about Julien Blanc and his hideous ‘techniques,’ I’m a wee bit nervous about showing it to you. But hopefully it’s clear that, unlike Dapper, the joke was on me as the whole thing descended into hideous awkward chaos. Maybe I should retire the Matt Tiller character. If you’d really like to see what I did then it’s here.

After the shoot, I wasn’t sure how it’d gone and thought it might just be a bit shit. My first edit of the taster was poor — it was a lesson in being too close to the subject as Lucy came in and totally turned it round and made the best of the material. She told me Jim and Alan had a meeting set up to pitch a handful of projects to the BBC and would show them the taster. I was nervous and trying not to think about the fame and riches that inevitably lay ahead of me.  Take that school chemistry teacher who said I had no flair, my time has come.1

After the meeting Lucy called to tell me that the Head of Comedy at the BBC loved it.  Of the ideas Channel X pitched, this was the one they wanted to take forward. She sounded excited.  I was excited.  It was exciting.  All they had to do was convince Stuart Murphy at BBC Three to commission it and I would be on my way to fame, fortune and a Twitter backlash as soon as Twitter got invented.

But alas, as you can probably guess from my lack of either fame or fortune, it was not to be.  Stuart watched it and apparently liked it and thought it was funny, but didn’t want to take it further.  The main reason was that there were plenty of white, middle class comedians he liked, would love to work with and couldn’t find a place for, so didn’t feel this was something he could bring to BBC Three.  Even though I was obviously gutted, I couldn’t argue with that and have never felt bitter about that decision.  I knew there was a wealth of talent out there pitching ideas and there were top level stand ups and character comics who deserved breaks far more than I.

Following on from the taster I took an idea based on it to the Edinburgh Fringe, Matt Tiller… Ladykiller, which was fun.  It was a show that could go brilliantly or hideously as it involved a huge amount of audience interaction, but overall it was a great experience.  And it was while I was in Edinburgh performing that Jim at Channel X first approached me about working for them.  A few weeks later I had moved to Manchester and was developing television comedy.  So, even though the venture was in many ways a failure, (well, not in many ways, it was a failure) it had a real positive impact on my career.  So, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill having recovered from a bullet to the head and eventually lopping the top of Lucy Liu’s head with her Hattori Hanzo sword, it was success hewn from the steel of failure.  Except, in spite of the title of my fringe show, I didn’t actually kill anyone.

1 Maybe he was just annoyed that I accidentally filled the school chemistry lab with chlorine gas forcing the class to evacuate.

You Don’t Have To Be Mad…

I should be writing about BBC Three, but many other people have said things about it.1 Suffice it to say that less slots for comedy is bad for people who make comedy and the people who love it. Yes, there were some poor BBC Three shows and many would argue that I made one of them, but it was neither the worst comedy ever made nor the lowest rated. It was definitely one of the cheapest and gave an opportunity to a great deal of new talent on and off screen. Where would I be without BBC Three? I’d still be here. Without my parents I’d be in serious existential trouble, but without BBC Three I’d be desperately hurling my projects at another channel.

In my view the most important thing is how much is being spent on original programming and I find it worrying that money saved from the BBC Three move online is going to be spent on mainstream drama.  Those dramas are more likely to generate commercial revenue, but in doing so you’re compromising the talent stream and I think there’s less chance of finding something original and exciting… I could go on.

Anyhow, back to business. A student contacted me with a couple of questions, so I thought I’d try and answer them and share those answers with the world. My answer to his first question may make you think that I am in denial, but I’ll leave that for you to decide…

Hi Matt,

I’m a student at Salford University, BA hons Performance & Comedy, and i’m currently writing a ‘surreal’ comedy pilot. I’ve actually been recommended to ask for some advice, as i’m acting as a producer for our sitcom.

1) How do you not go insane?
2) Do I use what I think would be funny to an audience, or just funny to myself?

Thanks, Matt.

Thanks to Stephen Cotter for the question and I quite like the double use of Matt. Repeating my name at the end of the message seems sincere as if hopefully appreciative of an answer. It’s flattering, so I have succumbed to that flattery by responding…
1)  Just pull your socks up Stephen or get someone to give you a good, hard talking to.2  An executive producer, for example.  They can occasionally be of use.  That’s how my former commando Sergeant Major Dad would probably have suggested you deal with the trials of being a producer.  But then, who’s to say I haven’t gone insane?  You don’t have to be mad to work in comedy, but you do have to eschew irritating slogans… because it helps.

If I am honest there have been times of incredible stress both during development when I have been sat at a desk staring at walls wondering when someone is going to call and give me a chance to make something. And then I give myself a slap across the face and start developing a new project while waiting for news on those I’ve already pitched. I have also talked to friends and colleagues who work in the industry to get advice and friends outside the industry to get some perspective and move on.

In production, there are different level of stress. All productions are hard work. There’s never enough money or time and filming days are long. As a producer you hope that by the time shooting begins, much of your hard work is done. If you’ve got a good team together then that eases much of your stress. If everything is in place then it’s a case of keeping everyone happy and just intervening when needed. On the first filming day of the first comedy I produced I remember wondering what I was supposed to do. Scenes were being shot, the crew were working hard and doing their jobs. I had some thoughts on each scene of course and the writer had some thoughts, so I made sure we combined our notes and then discussed with the director, so they weren’t getting conflicting suggestions. Sometimes the director would come to us with questions and try and find the answer.

Alongside this you have to look ahead to the next day, the next week and try to anticipate issues. The weather’s looking shit tomorrow, do we change our plans, can we? A particular actor is not available if we change the schedule, maybe we can look ahead and switch things to a day when they are. How do we make best use of all the various lines in the budget? Perhaps these are not applicable to a student production, but the ethos and methodology are.

So while all of that is going on it’s difficult to actually go insane. Maybe once the shoot is over and you’re in post it’s easier for doubts and stress to take over. There may be several different ways of editing a scene, you’ve tried them all and can’t fathom which is best.

My main advice is to catch up on sleep in between times.

2) This is a bit trickier and it is all subjective. But my simple answer to this question is to start with the latter (what you think is funny) and then check that it is the former (funny to an audience).

There are many producers who have been performers. I am one and occasionally still throw material at an audience and hope laughter and appreciation rather than tomatoes come back at me. Although I do have a deep love of tomatoes that my girlfriend finds a bit odd. I am nuts for tomatoes. If I get prostate cancer I am going to be fucked off. I have written something that was funny in my head, shovelled it onto an audience only to find that either my head was being distinctly unfunny or on that day the answer to question 1 was ‘I am.’

If you can’t perform your material live then you need to find a way to test it out. A script reader who will really give you an honest opinion. Not what you want to hear and not someone who’s just critical because they don’t like the fact that you got off your arse to make something. Those people are few and far between. I’ve got my girlfriend and my mate John. My girlfriend will tell me if she thinks something is shit, while John will try really hard to like something, but I can tell when he thinks it doesn’t work and then I push him to tell me the truth and eventually he gives in and admits that it doesn’t really work. I can always tell from his first reaction that it didn’t work. I’ve also got my bosses and commissioning editors, but they get to see it once it’s gone through my own personal comedy Jesuses.

When I was growing up I loved television comedy. Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, the Monty Python films, The Young Ones, Alexei Sayle’s Stuff and Vic & Bob when I was a student. Some of those shows would be considered surreal or to have elements of the surreal. I didn’t analyse them back then, but I think there has to be a reason, a purpose or a drive to each episode. I felt this very clearly when watching The Mighty Boosh and I enjoyed some episodes far more than others. I loved the double act dynamic and the world they created. But, for me, the most successful episodes were those where the narrative really paid off, where the structure felt really solid and the lunacy hung from it comfortably rather than watching a big mass of lunacy running in all directions while you run around trying to inject the plot with drugs to bring it into line. Maybe I’m just some kind of comedy Nurse Ratched trying to stop the crazy kids having fun. Sorry kids.

I feel like the last paragraph was a bit TV executive. So I’ll smash that image by saying. Just fuck the system and create, yeah Stephen? Reading that back just makes it sound worse. What I’m saying is ignore me and do what you want to do. If it works, great. If not. Try a new idea.

How’s that for advice? I have just been given my pill and am going for a lie down now.

Anyone got any tomatoes?


1 1 Here are a couple of interesting blogs from comedy director Ben Gosling Fuller and Bluestone 42 writer James Cary, whose blog is a useful source of advice for writers in particular.

2 I was going to say slap across the face here, but one of my personal Jesuses mentioned later in this article suggested I refrain from metaphorical violence and on balance I think she is right.