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.