What's the best way to go about writing a BBC comedy? If you were to make a sly joke you might say that the shortest route to prime-time is to set your sitcom in the BBC. W1A is having a whale of a time in its plum 10pm slot, gently tickling the bureaucratic excesses of the corporation while doling out cameos to its great and good. The take-home message: as Ian Fletcher might say, we might be ridiculous, but we're still the best that you have; that'll be £145.50, please. (To be fair, the show hit its stride in its second episode this week, thanks largely to Siobhan Sharpe's inept live tweeting of Woman's Hour.)
What’s the best way to go about writing a BBC comedy? If you were to make a sly joke you might say that the shortest route to prime-time is to set your sitcom in the BBC. W1A is having a whale of a time in its plum 10pm slot, gently tickling the bureaucratic excesses of the corporation while doling out cameos to its great and good. The take-home message, as Ian Fletcher might say, - we might be ridiculous, but we’re still the best that you have; that’ll be £145.50, please. (To be fair, the show hit a stride in its second episode this week, thanks largely to Siobhan Sharpe’s inept live tweeting of Woman’s Hour).
There are more in-jokes to come. Last week Shane Allen, Comedy Controller at the BBC, announced the revival of the Sixties strand, Comedy Playhouse. Of the three titles announced, one, Over to Bill, will feature Hugh Dennis as a disgraced BBC weatherman. Written by Red Dwarf’s Doug Naylor, the farce begins with the presenter’s dismissal for making an on-air, off-colour joke about the north of England. His name? Bill Onion. You know, like Michael Fish. Funny.
In May, Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse will star in an hour-long spoof of BBC2’s output, from I, Claudius to The Great British Bake Off, which will “lampoon every iconic programme and every genre and every major talent”, according to a BBC insider. It will be the centrepiece of the channel’s 50th anniversary celebrations, which will also include a documentary about the Fast Show.
So the BBC finds the BBC hilarious, but what of outsider talents? The good news is that one does not need to be a White City staffer with first-hand knowledge of broadcasting bureaucratese to get a foot in the door. The BBC is, to borrow from Ian Fletcher again, “reaching out.” This month it published a guide for aspiring sitcom and sketch writers.
Writing for Radio Comedy is available to download for free as an ebook from iTunes, or as a website. It is a nice little package, which does a fine job of boosting the BBC’s radio offerings, which may be somewhat less glamorous than its television counterparts, but are certainly no less illustrious. Alan Partridge, The Mighty Boosh and Miranda were all born in a soundproof booth, so too Little Britain, Flight of the Conchords and The League of Gentlemen. The BBC produces 170 hours of radio comedy a year, making it “the single largest producer of comedy in the world.”
As any regular listener of Radio 4 knows, its comedies tend to fall into three categories – gentle sitcoms at 11.30am, larky quizzes at 6.30pm and experimental sketches, fresh from the Fringe, at 11pm. A steady trickle make the leap from the airwaves to the small screen. In and Out of the Kitchen, featuring Miles Jupp as a beleaguered food writer, and Party, Tom Basden’s sharply original political satire, are just two recent series now in TV development.
The ebook offers all manner of tips, from how to write one-liners for News Jack to how to pitch a sitcom. A lot of it is common sense. “Don’t go with the first idea that you think of. If it’s the first thing you come up with, it won’t be that hard for other writers to come up with it too.” Or “Another good question to ask yourself; ‘is all of it funny?’” It also lifts the lid on shadowy figures like additional writers and agents and murky processes like development and commissioning. It is as detailed and bureaucratic as one might expect. There are a lot of rules.
For any aspiring writer the guide is a solid starting point. To its sage advice, I suggest one addition. The best comedies to emerge from BBC Radio in recent decades have been the best precisely because they don’t sound the least bit like a typical BBC Radio comedy. Writing to rule, or to tickle the belly of the BBC, is rarely the way to big laughs.
Why London's best for laughs
Stewart Lee has devoted the next episode of his Comedy Vehicle to London and Andrew Maxwell’s new stand-up show will celebrate life in the capital. Meanwhile Hackney takes centre stage in Rev and Portland Place in W1A. Next week London Live, a new 24/7 channel which launches on Freeview 8 on Monday, will add more London sitcoms to the schedules. Among 10 comedy commissions are Grass Roots, a mockumentary about a lower league football club starring Edward Aczel; The T-Boy Show, featuring YouTube star Tolulope Ogunmefun as a rich Nigerian boy who comes to town to live with his aunt; and Alex Zane’s Funny Rotten Scoundrels, a stand-up show recorded at Century Club on Shaftesbury Avenue. London has never been funnier.
What I Watched…
On BBC2. Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Miles Jupp, Kayvan Novak, Joanna Scanlan, Simon McBurney… The divine cast is reason alone to watch this gentle church sitcom. To think that we used to put up with The Vicar of Dibley.
At Soho Theatre. Parris is a rising star in musical comedy and The Commission is a lively showcase of her pitch-perfect ear for parody. Check out her spoof X Factor winner’s song, “I’m Amazing” on YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/pnjpl47
At the Chortle Awards. All comperes should be a bit more like Smith - laconic, chaotic, extremely efficient. The kind of host who chucks the awards on the floor to check if they are breakable (they were).