FEATURE TV COMEDY
Tell a joke to your mate in the pub one week, get signed up by Channel 4 the next. It’s not quite that easy but TV comedy is an expanding industry. The Television Festival seminars No Laughing Matter provide a beginner’s grounding in the politics of TV comedy, as Tom Lappin heard from organiser PETE BROWN.
omedy is the rock ’n’ roll of the 905,’ said BBC ‘yoof’ supremo Janet Street Porter a couple of weeks back. Rubbish of course (although it might shed some light on her taste in boyfriends) but an acknowledgment of the radically altered image of comedians on TV. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a six-part comedy series on TV was the culmination of twenty years slumming it round the Northern club circuit, achieving that elusive twenty stone girth and nicotine-stained complexion through sweat and toil and a suicidal diet of beer and pies. Nowadays it comes after two consecutive Fringes at the Assembly Rooms and a couple of shows at Montreal, and the new comics barely have a chance to grow a paunch before they are stars.
In the last year alone, Fringe favourites Paul Merton, Jack Dee and Sean Hughes have all had their own series on Channel 4. In the pipeline is a Frank Skinner sitcom, while BBC Scotland have shows already produced or in development with Arnold Brown, Norman Lovett and Craig Ferguson. All of which makes it sound relatively piss-easy to get a show on the telly nowadays. Not entirely true, although the growth in independent companies and the recent franchise shake-up have created a huge demand for new, preferably cheap, comedy programming. Already the results are being seen on screen. Whether the programmes are any good, though, is the subject of some debate. We all cheered when Gerry Sadowitz’s show The Pall-Bearer’s Revue caused Paul Daniels to tear his remaining hair out at the roots in outrage, but the show itself looked like a hastily-assembled compromise. In the rush to get the new stars of the live circuit onto the telly, producers are in danger of neutering their original appeal.
This will be just one of the topics addressed in No Laughing Matter [11, a three-day seminar for TV professionals and aspiring comedians, staged as part of the Edinburgh Television Festival. Guest speakers Rory McGrath, Arnold Brown and London Weekend’s John Kaye Cooper will introduce the topic of the day, before throwing the debate open to the audience, and a panel of movers and shakers in the TV comedy industry. Organiser Pete Brown has been arranging the event for the last three years (‘I think I’ve used up all the goodwill I ever had setting it up’) as a way of bringing comedians and TV professionals together.
‘I noticed that the delegates from the TV
Festival never seemed to shift out of the George Hotel bar,’ he says, ‘let alone have any sort of dialogue with the performers. Meanwhile, all the performers were in the Assembly Rooms Club bar moaning about the people in the George. So there was no dialogue between them. I thought it would be mutually beneficial to get some
‘l’d gone oil at completely the wrong tack. It was just a load of people sitting there moaning at another bunch at people. I’d
set up a controntation, the sort of thing you
couldn’t repeat year after year, they’d end up chucking things at each other.’
explanations for the professional comedians about why their scripts had been rejected or not even acknowledged.’
The first seminar, in 1990 turned into something of a slanging match with the comedians lined up on one side, and the industry on the other. ‘I realised I’d been completely wrong,’ says Brown. ‘I’d gone off at completely the wrong tack. It was just a load of people sitting there moaning at another bunch of people. I’d set up a confrontation, the sort of thing you couldn’t repeat year after year, they’d end up chucking things at each other. Marcus Planton who’s the controller of LWT got ripped apart by everybody, and I just thought “oh no this is a nightmare, I’ve abused a friendship” but Marcus came out afterwards and said “that was brilliant! we’ll sponsor it next time.” Extraordinary.
‘Last year I changed the emphasis very much towards amateurs, who think they might have aspirations or might even have talent, but have absolutely no idea how you go beyond the university theatre group. So it became a solid hands-on type of seminar. Everybody gets a 50 page guide to all the major TV channels, that at least tells you the right names, the right approach, all that practical advice.’
What the debates will inevitably come back to is the top-heavy nature of TV comedy. There are countless numbers of performers seeking TV recognition , but where there are gaps, and by extension, opportunities, is in the comedy infrastructure. Writers, producers, script-editors are still in short supply.
‘Those are the people I’d most like to encourage, because that’s where the weaknesses are. We’re trying to put a team together at the moment for Trevor and Simon, and we had real difficulties trying to
/ ' ‘ . I \ .
find a director and production team who really want to do comedy. All of the people who are really good at this sort ofthing— Kim Fuller, Jamie Rix, who are very much at the forefront of comedy production — are . all people who started as performers themselves. And that’s healthy. But it makes you think, ifJanet Street Porter is coming out with those sort of crap statements about comedy, that means it is officially the BBC’s view. She was saying that you can’t serve up a programme like Top Of The Pops without a good dose of comedy. If that’s true, though, where are all these new people going to come from who are going to write it, script, edit, perform it? So I was just very keen to encourage people to look into those options.’
Brown isn’t too concerned about the specific results of No Laughing Matter. For him, it’s enough to get the people talking to each other. ‘There were one or two very tangible things that came out of it, last year,’ he points out. ‘Karen Koren was bemoaning the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to do
14 The List 28 August — 10 September 1992