I helped to write a sitcom this week. It was with Jane Bussmann, the brilliant writer on Smack the Pony, Brass Eye and South Park, among other twisted TV gems. I wasn't the only one; there were about 50 of us in the basement of London's Soho Theatre on Sunday night, lending a hand on her new six-part sitcom.
Distinguished Ladies is set in the fertile comic universe of a celebrity gossip rag. The pilot episode stars Bussmann as a journalist with high ideals and her nose in the gutter, Sally Phillips as her appalling editor and Olivia Poulet as her deputy. Morgana Robinson and Kayvan Novak also appear. By any standards, it is a dream cast. The sort you might hope to find on Sky, Channel 4 or the BBC. But Distinguished Ladies has not been made by any of them. Bussmann is doing it herself.
Well, almost. There is her collaborator, the film-maker, Naisola Grimwood, and then there is the audience. Bussmann has been reading out scripts to comedy fans around the country for a while now. She plays all of the parts herself and shows the odd, rough clip; tickets are cheap. On Sunday, I heard the first two episodes, about a scoop involving an "up-skirt" shot of Kate Middleton and a charity gala featuring Madonna. It was uncensored, filthy, scurrilous and silly – the sort of thing to give a BBC commissioner nightmares.
By staying "outside the system", Bussmann will avoid the dreaded red pens of over-cautious television executives, and, she hopes, will make the sitcom she wants to make, and that fans want to see. She records audience reactions on a laptop, and puts them through her "funny-o-meter", or colour-coded spreadsheet. Each time a gag gets a laugh, it gets a colour. "If a joke isn't purple after 7 or 8 readings, we chuck it out," she says. "If you're not making the people in front of you laugh, why go on? Cut it out. We're not blokes, we're not arrogant. We don't think we've got the last word on what's funny. Working from the point that the audience is smarter than us, we go with whatever they like. It's evolved into something that's pretty much written by the audience."
It is a method born of bitter experience. Having started out working with Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris (including on the infamous Brass Eye paedophile episode, "the most complained about comedy of all time"), a decade ago, Bussmann found herself writing pilot after pilot that didn't make it past the "meeting with two men called Jeremy" phase. "The Head of Comedy at an unnamed channel told me the audience was stupid. Then the bloke at the rival channel told me that comedy was dead and no one wanted to laugh any more. I thought, 'If you two are running the show, there's no point'. I booked a one-way ticket to America – and didn't come back for 11 years."
After a few soul-mangling years working as a showbiz journalist in LA, she flew to Uganda to interview a peacemaker and ended up investigating the warlord Joseph Kony. That became a book, Worst Date Ever. Her further experiences in Africa – she currently lives in Mombasa – also inspired a stand-up show, about "the poverty industry" called Bono and Geldof Are C*nts.
She is now working to get Distinguished Ladies to screens. The current idea is to film it in front of a studio audience then set up an internet channel, in conjunction with a brand (just as Alan Partridge teamed up with Foster's for a web series in 2010, but with more interactive elements).
"A successful TV sitcom might get 700,000 viewers. You can get more than that online and people can see it all over the world. We basically want to cut out the middleman. Just have the actors, the writers, the crew and the audience," she says. "You really don't need a TV channel at all." If she's right and her Distinguished Ladies take off, they could change the face of sitcoms for good.
Watch the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/80571140
Radio 1 does comedy
It’s odd that Radio 4 has the stranglehold on radio comedy. Young people like laughing too, BBC. This week, not before time, Radio 1 took note of the stand-up boom and unveiled its first ever comedy show. The Comedy Lounge is a half-hour spot in Phil and Alice’s Monday night show, at the swear-friendly time of 10.30pm. You can tune in or watch online as the gig streams from the “Lolz Lounge” (aka the Live Lounge) in front of some trad red curtains and a live audience.
The debut guests were Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee Carl Donnelly and Tom Rosenthal, who made for a nice mix of laid-back and neurotic. The format was a bit rigid, with the two comedians told to pick a pet gripe and “rant for four minutes” in a comedy battle. They still got some good laughs in, about mobile phones and breakfast cereal. If future guests are allowed off the leash to do what they do best, be funny without rules, it might just work.
What I Watched
At Ovalhouse Theatre, London. Jamie Wood’s show/ interactive tennis match about his childhood obsession with Bjorn Borg. Completely bonkers and occasionally very funny, thanks to a game audience.
On BBC3. Jack Whitehall’s new chatshow, which he co-hosts with his 73-year old reactionary father, Michael is improbably good value. Anyone who has ever been embarrassed by their parents will snigger along in sympathy.
On Conan O’Brien. Will Ferrell’s absurd anchorman pledges his support to Mayor Rob Ford - in song. Features jazz flute. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhhpz9pKyj8#t=155