It's a funny business
Sunday 20 September 1992
A TRAILER for Second Thoughts, a successful ITV sitcom: James Bolam, former Likely Lad, sits at the kitchen table, looking irritable; Lynda Bellingham, his girlfriend (they're not married, although they're both middle-aged; that's the point of the comedy, that's the 'situation') stands huffily off to the side. Bolam, with typically grumpy delivery, says: 'The only house I know with more arguments than this is the House of Commons.' The studio audience laughs. No, the studio audience laughs wildly.
The House of Commons] That's the punchline of a joke that made it as far as a prime-time comedy script? No, worse - it's the punchline they use in the trailer, which means they think it's one of the best lines in the show. And all those people in the studio audience laughed their heads off? This makes you think, as you think when you see nearly every sitcom trailer: how can they let this happen? How can prime-time TV comedy be like . . . this? Or is it just me? Do people set out to make sitcoms bland and unfunny?
No, they don't. They try to make them funny. And sometimes they succeed. Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who have written some really funny comedies (Birds Of A Feather, The New Statesman), and some less funny ones (Holding The Fort, Relative Strangers), believe that writers and editors never intend to create bland, safe laughs. 'What do you mean? We set out to create the kind of laughter that goes with the compulsive emptying of the bladder,' says Gran. Marks says: 'The script editor is going to spend his day sitting at a desk reading through 30 scripts. Your intention, as a writer, should be to make him fall off his chair in the first couple of pages.'
But the process of making a sitcom - finding a funny idea, getting lots of people to discuss it in meetings, for weeks on end, then writing and rewriting it, finally having it performed in front of a nervous studio audience . . . the process is so complex and tortured that it's almost bound to fail. By the time the show is in the can, nobody knows if it's funny or not. They've heard the jokes a million times. The first real test of a comedy is a guy with a zapper, sitting at home, totally in control. Before that moment, by which time it's way too late, all the polls have been rigged.
A STUDIO audience, 50 or 60 people, is standing outside the BBC's Television Centre, waiting to be led in by a security man. Their job is to laugh, and they're visibly nervous. What if it isn't funny? The sitcom is Sitting Pretty, by John Sullivan, who wrote Only Fools and Horses and Just Good Friends, which were funny. He also wrote Dear John, which wasn't very funny, and which has, like so many other sitcoms, slipped from our folk memory.
This is a typical studio audience, cruelly described to me by a sitcom writer as a very 'checkout' crowd - bank tellers and shop assistants, grinning grannies, a traffic warden and his girlfriend, office workers whose companies have block-booked tickets. They file into Studio 2, a gloomy room with a stage and all kinds of rigs and contraptions hanging from the ceiling. On the stage is an untidy kitchen and a plush-looking sitting-room. Class conflict. We sit down. Sitting Pretty has come this far. Will the studio audience provide it with a decent laughter track?
Three sets, four or five people who don't get on, but are forced to share cramped surroundings. That's sitcom. And sitcom is subject to these formal restrictions for very logical reasons. There aren't many people in it because the sets are small. The sets are small because you have to get them all on the same stage. And you have to get them all on the same stage because sitcom is, essentially, theatre: it works better with a studio audience. So you can hear the laughs as well as the joke. So you know when to laugh.
This is the moment that the producers and script editors and writers dread, the moment which, they have deluded themselves, will signal whether the show is a hit or a miss.
The warm-up man comes on; he's middle-aged, in sports jacket and tie, with bouffant grey hair, a boyish face. 'Now, if you're good,' he says, 'and if you give us a lot of spontaneous laughter, our executive producer, the award-winning Susie Belbin . . . well, she might just put all the drinks on the house.' Everybody titters. 'But then again,' he says, 'that's like Bernard Matthews saying 'Trust me' to a turkey.' And what happens next is fascinating. People laugh. Bernard Matthews] Trust me] A turkey] He's told a joke, which we understand, which we get. But this laugh sounds odd. It's not quite a sudden roar - it starts with a titter, and then everybody knows that everybody else has tittered, and then it comes, 'H . . . h . . . hah]' You can feel the relief.
The warm-up man continues, as he will throughout the session, during all the difficult moments when cameras have to be moved, when scenes have to be reshot, when technical difficulties need to be resolved. He is brilliant. He works on the principle of fear and relief. He'll point somebody out. You think: my God, he's pointing. It'll be me next] And he says: 'Where do you come from?'
'I heard you the first time. I'm just sorry.'
And after he's got your heart in your
mouth, he'll say something not particularly funny, but unthreatening. You laugh with relief. He points at the camera-crew, going about their hurried, fiddly business, and says: 'They're a great crew. One of the finest teams in captivity today.' And you laugh your head off. He's manoeuvred you into a position in which you are primed to laugh at unfunny jokes: absolutely ideal. And then he explains what Sitting Pretty is all about.
It's about a rich woman whose husband dies. It turns out that he owed a fortune; now she's poor, now she must move back to her family - her hypochondriac idiot of a father, her wise old bird of a mother, her ex-hippie sister who's never moved out. And it's a family she's lorded it over for years - she's been a flash stole-wearing Mercedes-driver; they've stayed on in their crummy chicken farm. Like many sitcoms, it chimes in with the times: this is a Nineties comedy, a recession-comedy.
The actors walk on, ready to run through the first scene. Diane Bull, who plays Annie, the central figure, gets in position. She's in the plush room, holding the phone in her hand. The cameras start to roll. Something is about to be revealed. Silence. Will it be funny?
EVERYBODY involved in sitcom tells you the same thing - it's only funny if the characters are funny. It's not about jokes. And it's about 'real' people; in other words, people with contemporary problems. So the history of sitcom, from 1951's I Love Lucy the first-ever hit sitcom (wacky would-be independent housewife keeps finding out that home is best) to, say, last year's Bottom (two filthy sex-starved nerds fart and puke and keep failing to get off with girls), chronicles the break-up of the family, as well as reacting to every other minor social change across the decades. Think of a social change, and somebody will have written a sitcom on the back of it.
Of course, they're not all intrinsically funny. Maurice Gran, who, with Laurence Marks, has written a new show called Get Back ('It's about this guy, he's a bit of a prat, who's made a lot of money in the Eighties and loses it in the slump, and he's forced to go and live with his father in some council flats'), says: 'They're all reflections of their particular era: Hancock was about a guy, he's just finished his National Service, he's got a bit of education, he wanted what (Harold) Macmillan was offering. Steptoe was about a young man, full of hope, in the Sixties, trying to escape his family's poverty. Till Death Us Do Part was about the crumbling of the East End.' And Get Back, like Sitting Pretty, is about people who were rich in the Eighties, and aren't rich now.
You only have a handful of characters in a sitcom. That's the most important thing about it - there's absolutely no room for slack. So each character must have a believable conflict with every other character: if it works, you'll be primed to laugh the moment someone walks in on someone else. That's why so much sitcom is so bad - it's amazingly difficult to arrange.
Julian Clary, whose new sitcom Terry And Julian has just started on Channel 4, says: 'Writing a sitcom is much more difficult and long-winded than I thought it would be. It's a lot more complicated than knocking out silly questions about sausages.' The show is about a heterosexual slob who is forced to take in a lodger. The lodger is the homosexual Clary.
'You can think of funny lines,' says Clary, 'but there has to be a reason for a funny line to be there, it has to be part of the plot. In a way, the funny lines are the last thing you put in. Now I realise how clever sitcoms are when they're good.'
Of course, they're mostly not good. 'Writers,' says Anne Pivcevec, a comedy script editor at the BBC, 'are so lazy. I don't know why. They just don't understand how much work it takes, how much there is to think about. They just think: that's funny, and now I'll go on to the next thing.'
The sitcom writer, Marks believes, must resist the temptation to rely purely on jokes rather than character-based situations. 'If you say the words bum, tits, knockers, or bollocks, they'll laugh,' he says. 'A man is sitting in a restaurant. The waiter comes. 'Is that bum soup or knocker soup?' People laugh at that. They laugh out of embarrasment. But you have to do much more than that - that's lazy.'
But sitcoms routinely fail, not because they're lazy, but because they're not funny. They're just not funny, and nobody knows it, or why, until it's too late. Bad ones outnumber good ones three to one, but it's only the good ones you remember, which causes a nostalgia effect - sitcom always seems to be worse than it used to be. It's not.
You remember The Likely Lads (Rip Van Winkle Terry comes back home after five years in the army, having missed out on the Sixties); you remember The Liver Birds (two girls sharing a flat; one of them feisty, the other a prude), but do you remember Mind Your Language (attractive young man works in a language school)? Do you remember Get Some In? You remember Citizen Smith, and Man About The House. But do you remember Holding the Fort, a 1980 sitcom written by Marks and Gran, starring Peter Davison and Patricia Hodge? They have a baby, and can't make ends meet; as an army officer, the woman has a higher earning potential than the man. So she goes back to work, and he looks after the baby. He says: 'I'm going in goal and you're . . . moving into the attack.'
Or Relative Strangers, also by Marks and Gran, in which Matthew Kelly, an ex-hippie waster, is visited by a 17-year-old boy who turns out to be the son he never knew he had? He says: 'I can't be your dad, John, I wouldn't know where to start.' The kid says: 'You did once.' These are comedies written by brilliant writers. But somehow they didn't quite gel.
And will we remember Second Thoughts in 10 years' time? Or So Haunt Me, in which a London household is inhabited by a Jewish ghost? Or After Henry, which is about a family after the father has died? Or The Upper Hand (successful woman, creative director of an ad agency, discovers that her status frightens men off, so she pretends to be a secretary)? Or, for that matter, the incredibly popular Fresh Fields, a present-day English version of I Love Lucy?
THE THING about comedy is that everybody disagrees about it. You tell a joke; some laugh, some don't. And the further away you get from the actual joke, the worse it gets.
What if your job is to tell the actor how to deliver the punchline? Or if you're the guy who reads the scripts and has to explain, to his boss, why they're funny? Think about it: your job depends on explaining jokes to your boss. You begin to share his sense of humour. And he, of course, has to guess what makes his boss giggle, who has built up a great feel for what tickles his boss . . . and so on, right up to the Head of Comedy. And what makes the Head of Comedy laugh? From the available evidence, neighbours popping in to borrow a cup of sugar at an inopportune moment, people pretending to be posh and living with Michael Elphick at the same time; that sort of thing.
'That's why sitcoms are usually so bland,' says Steve Coombes, who has written many sitcom episodes, including Birds of a Feather. 'The jokes have to pass through 11 sets of hands. The ones that make it are lowest-common-denominator jokes. They're bland and safe. Really good sitcoms happen by accident.'
For various reasons, mainly because sitcom is cheap - small casts, hardly any filming outside the studio - television companies are striving to make more of them. So they're employing loads of people as comedy development specialists, 'comedic consultants', talent-spotters. These people trawl the clubs, or, alternatively, try to persuade established performers like Sean Hughes and Julian Clary to cross over to sitcom. 'Comedy is something that benefits from hard work, from going over it and over it, polishing every joke,' says Justin Sbresney of the BBC's new Comedy Development Unit. Sbresney, a fan of American sitcoms like Cheers, Roseanne, and Taxi, is interested in the American approach, in which large teams apply themselves to comedy scripts, polishing them and polishing them, putting more and more jokes in. Of course, this can work really well, if the team gets on. But it can be a nightmare if they don't. Cynthia Heimel, who wrote for the American version of Dear John, says: 'It's terrible. You all sit in a room: the Executive Producer, the Supervising Producer, the Producer, the Co-Producer, the Executive Story Editor, the Story Editor, and the Term writer. That's the hierarchical order. The writers get treated like dirt. It's incredibly competitive. Whose jokes do you think are the ones that get used? I wasn't even allowed to sit in the wrong chair. Network people are the scum of the earth.'
Sbresney says pensively: 'You can never really be sure if it will work - it might look funny on the page, and not on the screen. Or the cast might not gel.'
That's the thing about comedy. You just can't tell whether something is or isn't funny, until you laugh. Or don't. But everybody in comedy development has their theories. You've never heard so many theories. 'There are two types of joke,' says Steve Coombes. 'Jokes that teacher tells at the expense of the pupils, and jokes that are cracked at the expense of the teacher.' Paul de Vos, of the BBC, says: 'Who was it that said there were two basic jokes - fish out of water and the odd couple? Well, I think that's partly right.'
The BBC has even produced 'guidelines for new writers', which says: 'Your initial pilot script must tell a self-contained story that introduces your main characters and sets up the premise from which the comic conflict will follow. Most importantly, it must be funny.'
At the Edinburgh Festival, writers and producers are giving advice to an audience on how to write TV comedy. The talk is called 'No Laughing Matter'. After about five minutes, it's obvious that, while people agree that comedy should be funny, this is about the only thing they can agree on.
'All the writers I know,' says Rory McGrath, 'want to write good, challenging stuff. But the broadcasters don't think the public would tolerate that kind of thing.'
'Ooh]' says Mark Robson, LWT's Head of Light Entertainment. 'We have made some poor sitcoms, it's true. But there are pressures. You can't get it right all the time. You have to process things quickly. Instant success is demanded.'
One of the problems with comedy writers, Robson continues, is that they are not prepared to adapt their writing to the market, to admit that writing is, in a sense, a business. 'Comedy writers just are not going to be able to write everything they want: they have to learn to adapt.'
Ian Pattison, writer of Rab C Nesbitt, chimes in: 'Business was what I wanted to get away from when I became a writer] I mean, when a writer leaves his ego behind at the door, he also leaves his self-respect] You won't get a fresh original sitcom with the kind of approach that Mark has . . .'
DIANE BULL puts down the phone. We're laughing. She's finding out all these terrible things - her husband has died, he was with another woman when he died, he hasn't left her any money. She goes to see her solicitor. She says: 'Don't beat about the bush.'
'He died owing a fortune.'
'Oh, go on - beat about the bush.'
Between scenes, the warm-up man says: 'We've been listening to your spontaneous reactions, and our award-winning executive producer Susie Belbin, she likes you. What we used to do, we used to have spikes under the seats, and if you didn't laugh, we'd jab the spike up through the seat . . . we had to stop that, because people were coming back week after week for that.'
In the next scene, Diane Bull talks about how she went to a party in the Sixties and saw Rod Stewart. 'Of course, he wasn't known in those days, so we just thought he was a bloke with a big nose and ignored him . . .' We laugh. We laugh a lot. But is it funny? Is she a good character? It's impossible to tell. Nobody will be able to tell until they switch on their set at home, sit down, and get the zapper in their hands. Then we'll know. -
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