Let's ditch the boring sketch shows

Graham Linehan, the creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, is annoyed by the lack of risk-taking in British TV comedy, he tells Mark Hughes
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The Independent Online

Coming from the man who helped create The Fast Show, Harry Enfield and Chums and Little Britain it may sound strange, but Graham Linehan says it is time for repetitive sketch shows such as these to disappear from our television screens.

Linehan, one of the UK's most celebrated comedy writers, who penned Father Ted and, most recently, The IT Crowd, says the lazy formula of using the same characters and jokes in slightly different situations and scenarios week after week has become tired.

"I directed the pilot of Little Britain to help Matt Lucas and David Walliams get a foot in the door. When it started I thought it was so inventive and changed the game but people saw its success as an excuse for repetition: getting a funny character and grinding it into the ground," he says.

"It's something that has been done and now I think people should definitely stop doing sketch shows that rely on repetition. Catherine Tate and everyone else should just stop doing it. Sketch shows should be about variety, but people feel that audiences, if they like something, need to be given more of that thing. That is untrue. Audiences do not know what they like. They only know when they see it and our job, as comedy writers, is to create new things and that involves taking risks and I think, at the moment, there is a lack of risk in British comedy."

It is one of many forthright views the comic has on the state of British television today. Last year he attacked BBC 3 for its content and he remains unapologetic.

"I generally do not like the idea that young people are stupid and the only way you can appeal to them is by stupid television," he says. "I hate those freak show documentaries that are always on BBC 3 and the idea that seems to prevail that sex is incredibly funny. It is immature and I hate it. I do not think you have to chase a young audience by talking down to them and that's what BBC 3 seems to do. It is like watching your grandad break dancing. It is just embarrassing."

So how should new comedy shows attract the young audience that television executives so crave? "I think what you do is talk up to them," Linehan says. "And you let people catch up. If they do not get a reference let them look it up themselves. They will find themselves enriched by it."

The criticism aside, Linehan does have one compliment for the channel, albeit a backhanded one. "I thought Pulling [a sitcom about three female flatmates struggling with dating and drinking, which was cancelled by BBC 3 last year] was great," He says. "One of the best things of the last 10 years, and it should have been given a third series."

A huge fan of Twitter, Linehan is aware of how the internet threatens to impinge on the money-making power that once belonged to television and DVDs. But he says that the answer is not to fight it, like the music industry has done.

"I think we have to embrace the Internet," he says. "We shouldn't be scared of it because it is here and it is here to stay. Executives in the music and television industry that are scared of it are dinosaurs. I can understand their fear to a certain extent because CD and DVD sales are plummeting but you have to look at the positives."

He cites the example of a Monty Python clip on YouTube that has helped increase DVD sales by 900 per cent. "It allows you to reach new markets. The IT Crowd has a really good following in the States. People who would never have seen it in a million years are now able to watch it. Also, people equate the internet with being free. I don't necessarily agree. I think people like the internet because it's instant. I use itunes because it is at my fingertips, on my phone. I still pay for albums though."

Does Linehan fear for British television due to the influx of American shows such as The Wire, Lost, Heroes and Curb Your Enthusiasm? "I think it is a bit of a myth that American television is much better than British TV. I get constant emails from people in America telling me how bad their television is. And I tell them if they knew how contemptuous people are about television in Britain they would be amazed. We are a self-lacerating society but I don't think America has produced anything as good as The Office for a while. And we have produced other great comedies like Peep Show and Outnumbered.

"That said, I think Seinfeld is the greatest sitcom ever made and I think Larry David (the creator) is a genius. But even he isn't infallible. I think he has stretched himself too far with Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everyone seems to love it, but I think it is overrated. I hope he never reads this."

The DVD of series three of The IT Crowd is out now