TV comedy experts examine the challenges facing the genre

TV comedy experts examine the challenges facing the genre

By Stuart Kemp,
Friday, 20th November 2015
Nerys Evans, Simon Lupton, Gregor Sharp, Jessica Knappett and Boyd Hilton
From left to right: Nerys Evans, Simon Lupton, Gregor Sharp, Jessica Knappett and Boyd Hilton
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

UKTV's Simon Lupton told RTS audiences that channels need to be more confident and put sitcoms in primetime telly slots. But is it really that simple? 

The classic sitcom no longer rules the TV schedules in the way that shows such as Fawlty Towers, Open All Hours and Porridge did in the 1970s. Or does it?

A panel of TV practitioners attempted to tease out the answer last month at an RTS early-­evening event, “No laughing matter: how does comedy fight back?” This stimulating debate made one think that we could be living through another golden age of TV comedy without necessarily knowing it.

“When you look back at those titles of the 1970s, the appetite for shows such as Only Fools and Horses [on UKTV Gold] remains insatiable,” said UKTV Senior Commissioning Editor Simon Lupton. “If we could make more sitcoms and make the channels feel more confident about putting them in primetime, right in the heart of the schedule, and take the risk that they will deliver a big audience, that would be good.”

Lupton joined UKTV in 2014, tasked with commissioning high-quality scripted content. He oversees comedy on UKTV channels Gold and Dave. He cited next year’s return, on ITV, of Birds of a Feather to ITV, for what will be its 12th series, as a vote of confidence in the traditional sitcom. Peter Kay’s Car Share, which debuted on the BBC iPlayer before being shown in primetime on BBC One, was also highlighted as a shining example of the genre.

“Quality is always variable and there was no period when all comedy on TV was universally strong,” Gregor Sharp insisted.

Nerys Evans, Channel 4’s Deputy Head of Comedy, noted that the 1970s were regarded as the golden age of television across all programme categories, not just sitcoms.

“You had three channels that 20 million people watched quite regularly,” Evans told the audience. “You’re not really comparing like with like if you think of how many places there are these days to watch comedy.”

But while the number of channels and platforms had proliferated in the intervening decades, panellists felt the standard of TV comedy had remained high. “If you get the show right, there is a huge audience for comedy. It doesn’t have to be baking, dancing or singing to get big audiences,” said Lupton.

Original sitcoms for UKTV channel Gold include the three-part Bull, starring Maureen Lipman and Robert Lindsay, written by newcomers Gareth Gwynn and John-Luke Roberts.

It also has upcoming an comedy drama, Do Not Disturb, starring Catherine Tate and Miles Jupp.

But had the quality fallen off, with the fresh crop of TV comedy falling short of the so-called golden age, probed event chair Boyd Hilton.

BBC comedy commissioner Gregor Sharp cautioned against rose-tinted glasses when comparing the classics with today’s shows. “Quality is always variable and there was no period when all comedy on TV was universally strong,” he insisted.

Comedy creator, actress and writer Jessica Knappett said that there was a tendency to romanticise the past. Her third series of Drifters is rolling out on E4, Channel 4’s youth-skewed channel.

“I’m sure there was a lot of terrible comedy in the 1970s, as well. If we all sat down and watched the telly from 1973 tonight we’d have a terrible time,” she said. “I’m here to stick up for the present.”

Hilton turned to the current crop of TV comedy. He name-checked the BBC’s Cradle to Grave, Boy Meets Girl and The Kennedys, plus Channel 4’s Chewing Gum and Drifters as proof that comedy in 2015 was in rude health.

“I don’t think we should lose faith in the form just because it’s not delivering quite the numbers it has in the past,” said Lupton. “There have been some attempts in recent years that haven’t been good enough.…

“Over time, you do it and, if it doesn’t work, it damages the form,” Lupton said. “I think [the sitcom] is alive and kicking and we’re deliberately going into that space.”

The challenges to traditional broadcasters and programme-makers are coming from sources that didn’t exist in the 1970s. Deep-pocketed, online giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are emerging as bidders for comedy talent used to working in TV.

They promise creative freedom and big money to write original shows. Netflix is debuting Master of None, created, written and directed by Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari this month. Meanwhile, Amazon Prime is enjoying success with the darkly comic Transparent, created by Jill Soloway.

The arrival of video-on-demand services, pumping cash into comedy – and their schedule-free model – adds to the pressure on broadcasters to maintain talent relationships and find audiences for comedy.

Lupton said that VoD services were changing the way viewers consumed comedy. “Netflix has thrown down the gauntlet,” he said. “There’s going to be a whole generation of viewers for whom the thought of coming back to something once a week over six weeks to decide whether they like a show is going to be completely alien.

“Viewers will wonder why they can’t just watch it all in one go, or at least the first three episodes, and decide if they like it.… We, as linear channels, have to find a way of combating that.”

Knappett, herself a product of E4’s ambitions to back fresh talent, believed that the prospect of creative freedom had huge allure. “People do want to be left alone, to an extent,” she observed.

But Evans, who helped steer shows such as Drifters and Catastrophe to screen, cautioned against the desire for outright creative freedom.

“If you’re just given a blank cheque and told to go off and do ‘whatever’, you’re not really going to have the safeguards that you have when working closely with a channel that really knows you and has worked with you and can advise you,” she said. “I’m not talking about micromanaging. We’ve got years of experience of producing comedy and can help and advise on how – hopefully – to make things better.”

Sharp played down any suggestion that talent was not given creative freedom at the BBC. He singled out Mrs Brown’s Boys, created, written by and starring Brendan O’Carroll: “He [O’Carroll] goes off and writes the scripts and turns up very late in the day and makes the show. Mackenzie Crook is the same with Detectorists.”

Sharp described launching a new project as “incredibly difficult”, compared with working on a second or third series of a show that had found its feet, with an established cast.

“You want to be as supportive as you can. It’s genuinely tricky,” he explained, emphasising that people were choosing what shows to watch in different ways nowadays.

“On iPlayer or 4oD, people tend to search by genre. People go looking for comedy, so it’s a question of how strong channel identities are, because that guides the audience,” Sharp suggested.

This was why the decision to move BBC Three online next year was regarded as a blow by many comedy writers and performers. They have argued that the move will rob a new generation of a platform on which to build a following.

Knappett thought that the move felt like “a door closing – it’s an opportunity that’s been taken away from me. It isn’t going to help attract an audience for comedy.”

She was concerned that fewer broadcast slots were “a sure-fire way for the BBC to become more racist, classist and sexist overnight”.

Unsurprisingly, Sharp did not share her anxiety. “If we had the choice, we would probably prefer to have the channel exist as it does now, but it’s really about the quality of work. Great-­quality work will always find an audience,” he insisted.

Sharp also pointed to the BBC’s pledge to push more BBC Three programmes onto BBC One and Two’s schedules: “In strict overall numbers, although there has been a cut in the budget for the service, comedy has been very well protected within that.”

So could the broadcast closure of BBC Three mean opportunities for the other comedy commissioners, asked Hilton.

It was not that simple, said Channel 4’s Evans. “I’m sure we’ll have more things pitched than we had before, but it has got to be right for us,” she said.

UKTV’s Lupton said that he was in the enviable position of having a CEO – Darren Childs – who was passionate about creating original comedy.

“Scripted is very much a huge part of it,” Lupton said. “As long as we pick shows that work, we’ll continue to commission in that format.”

He warned against simply aping what was being done “brilliantly elsewhere”.

Lupton conjured a laugh from the audience with his quip that UKTV also watched what worked and what didn’t at the BBC because “we’ll be getting it in a few years’ time”.

‘We don’t really do much team writing [here] on shows because there just isn’t the money that the Americans have,’ said Channel 4’s Nerys Evans.

Everyone agreed on one thing. Comedy remains a serious business for the UK television industry. Get it right and laughs will attract audiences and loyalty like no other. Get it wrong and it’s sad times ahead.

‘No laughing matter: how does comedy fight back?’ was an RTS early-evening event held at The Hospital Club, London, on 13 October. It was chaired by Heat TV Editor Boyd Hilton. The producers were Kerry Parker and Vicky Fairclough.

Photo by Paul Hampartsoumian

Are US writers’ rooms the way ahead?

The speakers discussed how British writers’ rooms work, why long-running British comedy series are conspicuous by their absence, and the thinking behind commissioning in volume.

‘We don’t really do much team writing [here] on shows because there just isn’t the money that the Americans have,’ said Channel 4’s Nerys Evans.

Writer Jessica Knappett said she couldn’t imagine the pain of having to write all the episodes necessary to match the US output of a Big Bang Theory, Friends or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But it was a pain she’d like to have.

‘I’m very envious, in a sense, of their budgets… and I love the idea of team writing and showrunners and everything. I think it’s a great way to write,’ said Knappett. ‘I’m also envious of how long an opportunity they are given to grow an audience. You need the time to break it in and, as a writer, need that time to understand your own voice.’

Long-running shows rest on the imagination of individuals.

‘We can’t put pressure on individual writers to write in that volume, there’s a bit more caution about how shows will fare over the long term,’ said the BBC’s Gregor Sharp.

Sky’s commitment to the supermarket sitcom Trollied – it returned in November for a fifth season, with a run of eight episodes – was heralded as an example of volume commissioning.

‘The work ethic of the American system is incredibly intense. That’s not to deride anyone working in the UK, but the culture there is ferocious,’ Sharp said. He mused that having a writers’ room didn’t necessarily make the scripts ­funnier, it just meant longer series.

Lupton said that he commissioned three pilot episodes for Bull for business and creative reasons: ‘Scheduling a single half-hour is a nightmare, you just can’t justify the marketing spend to promote it. And it gets lost in the schedule, particularly when you don’t have a huge amount of original content anyway.

‘By putting on three episodes, you can schedule it properly, get behind it and promote it.’

Evans noted that, while drama productions can get people to come in and write episodes, for comedy this approach is a much rarer thing.

‘It’s not an easy thing for creators and original writers to hand out. It’s a closely guarded skill,’ she emphasised.