Friday, May 18, 2012

Five reasons television commissioning editors have my sympathies.

No-one made me write this, I promise. But here's the other side of the coin, as I would have gone on to write if I'd had a bit longer than 550 words for the original article. This is mostly about comedy commissioning, but a lot applies to drama as well, I suspect.

1. Over-Communication. Television commissioners (of all stripes) only have to make the slightest comment/gesture, whereupon it instantly gets picked up on by every media site/social network, then handed down from producers to writer as though channelling the word of God. Commissioners, as much as writers, are in a difficult position. After all, it's not as if they DEMAND this stuff, they're really just saying what they're a bit short of (and remember, the BBC at least have a duty to try and satisfy every part of their audience) and then everyone goes nuts trying to satisfy the perceived demand.

Only a few years ago there were murmurings from the BBC that could really do with something in the way of a sketch show for people in the thirty something bracket - at which point at least three production companies sprang into action to plug that gap (I got to write for one of them). Nine months later, BAM, suddenly there's a glut of unfortunately rather similar shows, not all of which you could entirely describe as 'inspired'.

2. Commissioners can't just commission material to their own tastes. For the Beeb at least, this goes back to the public service thing. I kind of wish they did, because commissioners tend to be reasonably bright, and often like the same sort of thing I do: smart, self-aware comedies like 'Community' or 'Arrested Development' from the US, '15 Storeys High' in the UK or 'Dat Limmy's Show' which only plays in BBC Scotland (although you can get a DVD of series 1, buy it buy it buy it).

Sadly, this kind of comedy often seem to struggle for ratings, although I always wonder if this is just a lack of commitment by the people supposed to market this stuff, who fear it's simply too clever for normal people.

Here's my favourite Limmy Show sketch:

Would 'Limmy's Show' be a huge success if the schedulers put it on in the rest of the UK at pretty much prime time? I happen to think it would, but we'll never know, because no scheduler's got the balls/ovaries/clout to try it, so there's kind of a self-defeating circle here.

3. The days when a commissioner could give a writer a sum of money and say 'there you are, don't fuck it up', have pretty much gone. There are layers of exec producers, producers and script editors between commissioner and writer these days, and plenty more execs standing in the way of the commissioner throwing his or her cash around willy-nilly (lol, 'nilly').

4. I do suspect all commissioners have, at an early stage of their career, championed some script they absolutely love, ushering it gently through the entire production process, only to see it stuck on at stupid o'clock, where it's trounced in the ratings by a repeat episode of some reality show starring people called things like 'Z-Wow' and 'The Happening'. This must have some sort of knock-on effect to morale, surely.

5. They occasionally have to deal with comedy writers. And comedy writers are AWFUL PEOPLE.

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.