David Baddiel and Twitter: a situation comedy for the social media era
The comedian tells Adam Sherwin how his new project is catching up with the changing way we communicate
His career has encompassed screenplays, stand-up, novels and the ultimate anthem for ever-hopeful England fans. But now David Baddiel hopes to reboot the traditional family sitcom, which has become an endangered television species, by dragging the genre into the digital age.
The comedy writer and performer has devised Sit.com, an ambitious new show for Channel 4 at whose heart is the internet’s dominance of domestic life.
Webcams, tablets, Facebook and Instagram provide the backdrop for the Redwood family’s daily dramas in the show which reflects “the way we live now”.
This year Baddiel has enjoyed a successful return to the live stage with his stand-up show, Fame: Not The Musical, an examination of his life in the spotlight, including the humbling experience of being mistaken for Ben Elton by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Yet he fears that scripted comedy is being sidelined within mainstream television.
“Comedy has become a bit endangered in the schedules,” he said. “We get a lot of factual entertainment shows which are entertaining and cheaper to make but it makes comedy more of a fringe thing.”
Baddiel, the Cambridge graduate who first burst onto screens with The Mary Whitehouse Experience sketch show in 1990, added: “The family sitcom was once the heartland of TV but now comedy has become niche. Comedy is a great art form so it’s a real shame when it gets shunted around the schedules and not thought as something television should support and invest in.”
The old-school 2point4 Children-style sitcom has become “dated and hackneyed”, Baddiel concedes. Sit.com takes its inspiration from Modern Family, the multi Emmy-award winning US series which celebrates the diversity of contemporary households and plays to 15 million viewers.
Channel 4 has commissioned three pilots for 2014, including Sit.com and Flack, a vehicle for Sheridan Smith who plays a celebrity PR, which the broadcaster singled out for their “witty, clever, knowing scripts that reflect the complexity of modern life”.
Baddiel said: “It’s great that Channel 4 is investing in comedy because it’s not happening so much elsewhere. On BBC2 they have lots of successful returning shows so there’s not much room for new stuff.”
Baddiel lives with his partner, comedienne Morwenna Banks, and their two children, and Sit.com is informed by the family’s own reliance on technology.
“I find myself communicating with my partner by email even when we’re in a room above each other. You find yourself asking whether we’ll meet downstairs for lunch by email. People are spending 50 to 60 per cent of their time communicating in front of a screen.”
Television must adapt to reflect this change, he claims.
“Sit.com will have to look different. Television was really frightened of showing screens, on the screen. You might just see the reaction when someone received a text. But handheld devices have produced a profound change in our culture in a domestic and mundane way. It’s the way that everyone communicates.”
The 49-year-old Baddiel is working with a younger co-writer, Barnaby Slater, to ensure the script incorporates the latest Instagram and Tumblr crazes.
Sit.com’s appeal will rest on Baddiel’s conviction that technology is not merely the preserve of the young.
“The old BT ads used to have kids explaining to parents how broadband worked, but now mum is constantly tagging on Facebook and grandma is online, too.
“It’s embedded in our world on a microscopic level and that’s the cross-generational world in which Sit.com is presented.”
Sit.com’s characters include the father of the house who fancies himself as a web entrepreneur but finds that all his “killer apps” have already been invented, a step-mum trying to stalk the children on Facebook and a teenage daughter whose intimate blog takes personal revelation a step too far.
The tech-guided scenarios feature a neighbour suspected of piggy-backing on the family wifi and the chaos caused by an Amazon delivery. Norman Lovett, the Red Dwarf star, plays the “silver surfing” granddad.
“It has all the normal sitcom stuff, the family tensions, hopes and dreams raised and dashed but played out in this world with people communicating through their devices,” Baddiel said.
The pilot, which Baddiel will write and direct, will be shot early next year. He plans to make cameo appearances should a full series follow but already has a prolific 2014 planned. There will be a musical version of his 2010 film The Infidel, a nationwide tour for Fame, a children’s book and a new Radio 4 comedy panel show.
There may not even be time to add a samba update to “Three Lions” for next Summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
An active presence on Twitter with 324,000 followers, the Jewish comedian has used social media to debate his opposition to the continuing use of the word “yid” by Tottenham Hotspur supporters. In the Fame show, Baddiel undertakes a literary examination of the – sometimes anti-Semitic – responses that his Tweets receive.
He said: “I’m able to deconstruct the dialogue I have on Twitter. But I haven’t Googled myself for two years. We are quite exposing of ourselves on Twitter and there are people on Twitter who helped inform the sitcom characters. The show is more based on my domestic experience, noting how my children are growing up harnessed to the net.
“Twitter seems to have an older user group than Facebook. I think that’s because Facebook is about raising a flag and saying ‘this is who I am, this is who I like’ whereas Twitter is about holding a conversation, which you prefer as you get older.”
A cerebral presence in a comedy world currently dominated by wisecracking panel-show performers, Baddiel has found his pitch for sitcom glory to be his most challenging yet.
“I’ve been script-editing David Walliams’s (BBC1 comedy) Big School but the discipline you need to write a sitcom is something else,” he says.
“You only get 22 minutes and you have to squeeze in three to four plotlines and a range of characters. That’s what shows like Modern Family manage so well.”
If Sit.com works, it could prove the successor to one of Britain’s most fondly-remembered series, which made a different kind of screen its focal point.
“The central context for The Royle Family was that scene of the family sitting round the TV set. Although it’s a different kind of family, what the TV was to The Royle Family, the internet will be to Sit.com.”
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