Media: Darts + coffee + muffins = satire

`11 O'Clock Show' writer Charlie Skelton discloses the secret winning formula of Channel 4's hit comedy

Charlie Skelton
Tuesday 28 December 1999 01:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


THE ONE good thing about arriving at the office at 7am with a crippling hangover and having to spend the next nine hours trying to come up with topical one-liners when all you want to do is curl up under a desk with a duvet and cry, is that at least Vanessa Feltz is fat.

You might open the papers and realise that the world is full of earthquakes and wars and plane crashes and rail disasters and cancer, but the fact remains that no matter how bad it gets, Feltz is still a porker. There is still something to laugh about. It will be a dark day for the 11 O'Clock Show if that lady ever dips under 12 stone.

The first poor souls to stumble into the office are a writer and an assistant producer. To them is entrusted the vital task of organising the first of the day's three-leg darts matches. Darts has long been recognised as a crucial ingredient in the writing of comedy. Was it not Aristotle who first defined comedy thus: comedy = darts + coffee + muffins + Rod Hull + slippery roof? Using this tried and trusted formula it is possible to write a topical joke about anything at all.

Between darts legs, a list of the day's most important news stories is drawn up. This is then carefully thrown away and replaced with a list of any story involving rudeness, nudity or overweight television presenters. Then this is thrown away, and everyone goes and plays darts. Don't get me wrong: comedy writing isn't all just darts, darts, darts. Topless wrestling plays its part as well.

In the five minutes left before the main 9am meeting, everyone sits down and has a quick look through the papers. Some of the more technologically advanced members of staff search the Internet news sites. Sky News is on in the background. And Neil, who is one of the writers, checks for any late-breaking tactical crossbow news in Soldier of Fortune.

The 9am meeting is where the big decisions of the day are made. It's a very exciting meeting, and it's extremely rare for more than about four or five people to fall asleep during it.

The meeting is led by Dominic English, the series producer, and a very important man. You can tell he's important because he eats by far the most muffins. Everyone round the table pitches in with ideas, jokes, picture gags, suggested targets, and the usual end result, after 20 minutes of high-octane debate, is that we decide to make a joke about Vanessa Feltz being fat, and that we should order more muffins.

At about 9.30am, we all go and get on with our assigned tasks. As a shape to the day's show develops, it's up to the day producer to co-ordinate the writers and researchers, prepare for the guest, liaise with the VT team, finalise the running-order and flirt with their assistants.

Over in the corner, the VT team try and work out what Iain Lee will be asking people in his topical vox pop. Damon, one of the directors, suggests he go up to people and ask them "are you a gay?" After a couple of hours of free toast and computer golf, it's agreed that this is the best plan, and they head off to Elephant and Castle.

When writers have finished an item, they sidle meekly into Dominic's office, and read it out to him to see what he thinks. His response might range from a simple pelting with regurgitated muffin, to a more thoughtful request to go away and try and make the item "a bit more broad narrow" in which case you know he really hated it.

When Dominic and the day producer have settled on the content of the script, it gets faxed to the lawyers at Channel 4. Their job is to try to take out everything that might get Channel 4 taken off the air or any of the writers shot. Then as a precaution, they remove every fourth word, and the punchline to every other joke. Just to be on the safe side.

The producers plead for a reprieve for their favourite jokes, sacrificing other, more hopelessly offensive gags to the cause. Finally, if they're not libellous, and not too tasteless, the jokes are put onto the autocue, fed into Daisy [Donovan] and Iain's brains, come out of their mouths, into some wires, and sent into your television screens. It gives me goose bumps just to think about it.

Perhaps now you have some small idea of the immense work that goes into making a single episode of the 11 O'Clock Show. Or perhaps you have doubts that this is how it gets done. If so, then feel free to come to the office at 8am, strip off your T-shirt, and I'll prove it to you, Graeco-Roman style. No biting.

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