An astonishing evening last Sunday. I went to the Emmy awards in Los Angeles, as part of the writing team for HBO’s Veep. It won Emmys in four categories: outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series, outstanding writing for a comedy series, and the really big one – outstanding comedy series. For that last one, I was one of the names on the citation so I got to jump on stage with the whole gang, experience the backstage whirlwind of interviews and pictures, and best of all get a shiny Emmy with my name on it to keep forever.
In TV, you can’t get bigger than the Emmys. Not many British people get to win one, but that night a whole load of us did. Although Veep is all about American politics, all the writers have been British (though that’s changing for season five). It was like our club winning the Champions League. It was all such a dizzying swirl I couldn’t give an account of it in order, but a few things stood out:
– When they announced that Mel Brooks was giving out the award, I felt a sudden surge of near-certainty that we would get it. Mel Brooks! It would just be too perfect to not happen.
– Professional reporters can ask pretty stupid questions. One asked Armando Iannucci, the show-running producer, how he felt about depriving Modern Family of what would have been a historic six Emmys in a row. What was he supposed to say? “I feel so guilty that five years of hard work on my show has resulted in this Emmy” or something? He answered this one pretty well, saying he preferred to think of it as the first time Veep had won. But really, come on.
– The trophies themselves have totemic power on the evening. At the HBO after party, there were about 13 statuettes on our table. Together they glowed like a camp fire. We gathered round, grinning and basking in the warmth.
– People love to grab your Emmy and pose with it. A few photographs is okay. But a group of four dicked around with one of Tony Roche’s Emmys for a full quarter of an hour. The urge to swoop in and gather the trophy back becomes strong. Hard-won is an Emmy: you want to keep it close.
– You really want your hand luggage to be searched at the airport, just to give you another excuse to pull the thing out and look at it.
I will calm down at some point and stop thinking about it. But not quite yet. Doesn’t happen every day.
There was a man I was talking to in the pub and he wound me up. It wound me up that he wound me up because he was a lovely guy. Stood his round, thoughtful, conscientious, witty. All you things you want from a friend of a friend in a pub. I had to rein myself in so I didn’t become the bad guy. The problem was that he was occupying a position which is guaranteed to have me gnashing the table.
When he found out I worked in telly, he mused on the fact that he didn’t own one. He had a baby, and wondered if he should expose his kid to TV. If he didn’t, would he be depriving them of something? He was genuinely interested to hear my point of view. Me, I love the telly, because at its best it’s an exciting, enthralling window on the world. But if you don’t see it that way, that’s your personal taste and I won’t argue with it.
Then I discovered: he makes documentaries. For television.
I will not stand for this. No no no. No. I’ve worked in television for 23 years now. Over those years I’ve been astounded by the number of people I’ve met who are established TV professionals, but who feel so little love for the art form that they won’t actually watch any of it. Sometimes they hold it in contempt. Mark Kermode is a film reviewer I always enjoyed. Then in 2007 he wrote this piece explaining how he was watching TV for the first time in years. He’d stopped watching on principle, believing it to be intrinsically inferior to cinema. That’s okay in itself; my problem is that in those years I’d watched him many times as a TV pundit. Television was beneath him, yet he clearly thought it was about the right level for me and millions of others. The Times once printed a spluttering letter I sent concerning one of their writers who celebrated her TV non-ownership – despite sometimes making BBC TV shows funded by licence payers. She’d been told The Office was good; she claimed she never needed to watch it, because she’d heard enough about it to know everything. TV by osmosis.
No, no, no, no no no. Again no. This sort of attitude pops up in the TV industry all too often, and television must not put up with it. If you’re a practitioner, you must be a viewer too. It’s compulsory. No argument.
I have a standard method of reasoning with the TV makers who watch no TV, and I deployed it in the pub. You take the other guy’s position regarding telly, transpose it to another art form, and invite their comment. It doesn’t much matter which art form. They won’t have a leg to stand on.
Say you work in theatre. Would you work with with a playwright who told you he didn’t like plays and never watched them? No.
Would you watch a film by a director who told you she didn’t like movies? No. I bet Mark Kermode wouldn’t either.
You never find musicians who don’t like music, dancers who don’t watch dance, football managers who never see football, painters who never look at paintings. If I was hiring an architect, I wouldn’t pick the one who said “oh, I never look at buildings. I don’t really like them. And I’m not sure I should ever show my child a building in case it corrupts them.”
You don’t hear of people like that because they’d be run out of town. The one art form where they exist is TV. A minority, but there they are, and telly tolerates them. It shouldn’t. Not ever.
Give me telly by people who love it. They make the best stuff. Any interview with Richard Osman will show you his deep fascination with game and quiz shows. That’s why it’s him who brought us the sublime Pointless. When asked what the T stood for, Russell T Davies said the T is for Television. That’s the stuff!
The dedicated non-tv-watchers are compromised now, in a way they weren’t just a few years back. The man in the pub had Netflix, and loved one particular comedy show on it as much as I do. I pointed out that he effectively WAS watching telly, even if he didn’t count it as that. Yet he drew a distinction. That was a show he really wanted to watch, and had sought out. The idea of coming home, turning on the telly, and seeing what was on was utterly alien to him. I asked him what he’d think of an author who simply couldn’t understand the urge to wander into a bookshop and browse the shelves. To his credit, he took the point. He was a good guy. Just holding a ridiculous position. He promised to get a TV.
TV makers mustn’t be meek about this. Don’t let it slide. Have some pride in the art. If people we work with say they don’t watch telly, challenge them. Hold their feet to the flames. Let’s give them one week to start watching. And if they can’t manage that, they should get out of the way and leave it to those of us who do.
All professions have their own terminology. Comedy writers love to create their own. I asked some writers I know what terms they like to use, and they were pretty eager to tell me. I compiled some of the results here, in a little glossary. Some of these are in common circulation; some are only used by one or two people. At the very least they should give some insight into what the hell it is writers do all day.
Ruffle – an aspect of a joke (a name, or reference) which is getting in the way and making things less clear. In the script editing process for the BBC2 comedy ‘Whites’, there was a reference to a character called Jamie, which made you think of Jamie Oliver. That was a ruffle, so it went. [Via Simon Blackwell]
Bicycle cut – aka the bicycle joke, or a “Last Of The Summer Wine.” A character ends a scene by firmly stating that they will not do a certain thing. The next scene begins with that character doing that thing. Roy Clarke wrote tons of these for Compo in Last of the Summer Wine. “You’re not getting me in that thing with wheels and no brakes!” Cut to Compo, at the top of a Yorkshire hill, poised to go downhill in that thing with wheels and no brakes. [via Graham Linehan]
Gilligan cut – a common American term for the bicycle cut. Derived from ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ The term Gilligan cut is never used in the UK because Gilligan’s Island has never been shown there.
Chutney – stuff that characters are saying in the background, which you don’t normally add into the script until very late because it’s not material which needs jokes. Writing for Veep, chutney often takes the form of perfectly serviceable political speeches, while the real funny material is going on amongst other characters in the foreground. I don’t know if this term exists outside the Veep/Thick Of It writing team.
Scud – a joke that ends up getting the wrong target. E.g. “the energy companies have done some truly appalling things– one of them based itself in Newport.” The punchline is saying that Newport is shit, and not saying anything about the energy companies. Named after the outdated and inaccurate Soviet missile used by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war. [Via Pete Sinclair]
Two Sock – when you find yourself using two jokes/motivations/expositions, when only one is necessary. [via Kieron Quirke]
Fridge – the piece of paper, noticeboard, book or computer file where you put the jokes you cut for whatever reason, but which may work in another time and place. ‘Fridge’ came from Gareth Edwards, are lots of writers have different names for the same thing. Sarah Morgan has a ‘bottom drawer.’ Dave Cohen has a ‘shoebox.’ Greg Daniels calls it ‘the sweetie bag.’ When writing “In The Loop,” Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong called theirs ‘the fun bucket.”
The restaurant on the corner – (American) – a bit in a script where no matter what joke you put there, it’s still never quite works. I’ve also seen this called a ‘Bono’, after a restaurant opened by Sonny Bono in Burbank, California. It shut quickly, as did every other restaurant which opened on the same spot. Writers working nearby decided the corner must be cursed. If you have a Bono in a script, it will be a gradual realisation, because it always feels like something SHOULD work there, and you might try a dozen or more things before the truth dawns. You can only deal with a Bono by taking apart and rebuilding a larger section around it – probably the whole scene, maybe even a bit more. [via Dave Cohen]
Killing kittens – removing jokes which you really love, because they’re getting in the way of the story. [Chris Addison]. Also known as “stripping the car.” [Joel Morris]
Bucket – strong, simple idea to contain all the nonsense you want to put in. “Parody of air disaster film” is a great bucket. [Joel Morris]. Not related to ‘fun bucket.’
Oxbow Lake – the rewriting process produces these. A bit in a script which used to have some plot/character importance, but as the story has changed around it, no longer has a purpose. You have to remove it on the next draft. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong use this term. Me and Kevin Cecil call them ‘hangovers.’
Rabbit hole – a fact you check on the Internet and that’s the rest of the morning gone. [John Finnemore]
Joke impression – a line that sounds like a joke, and has the rhythms of a joke, but isn’t actually a joke. Also known as “hit and run” or “Jokoid [John Vorhaus, from his very good primer “The Comic Toolbox”]. A joke impression has its uses. When you are thundering down a first draft, and are more concerned about the overall structure than individual jokes, you can slot in a few joke impressions at spots in the script where a good joke is hard, in the full knowledge you can come back later and fix them. I’ve been told of a more aggressive use for them too. I was told that when Jim Davidson has one of his joke writers in the audience, he picks out one joke which is clearly a dud, a joke impression, and tells the writer he’s going to deliver it anyway and make the audience laugh – even though it doesn’t make any sense. The subtext: Jim is saying “I’m the one who brings the magic, not you.”
Fridge joke – related to joke impression. The audience realise they laughed at something that didn’t actually make sense, but 10 minutes after the event. (via David Tyler)
Gerbeau – a joke that literally nobody but you is going to get, but it does no damage, so it stays in. Derived from “please yourself,” which shortens to “P .Y.”, Which then becomes Gerbeau after PY Gerbeau, the guy who ran the millennium dome. The term Gerbeau is itself a nice example of a Gerbeau. [Via Joel Morris]
Plotential – and the idea or situation which has the potential to be developed into a full-blown plot. As in “does this idea have potential?” [via Sam Bain – though he doesn’t stress that he and Jesse Armstrong are mostly taking the piss when they say this in conversation]
Nokamura – I read this online once but haven’t been able to relocate the page. The most nightmarish of writer’s problems. It’s when there’s a huge issue with a script which effectively means that the whole thing is holed below the waterline, and should be junked. This derives from the Cheers writing team, who once hinged a storyline on the highly doubtful premise that the surname ‘Nokamura’ was intrinstically hilarious. Come the day of the record, the studio audience sat silently through all the Nokamura material. The writing team knew it was a dud. They had about 24 hours to rewrite the entire episode with a new central idea, in time for the second studio record the next day. This thing of having two studio records for one episode, giving the team a day to sharpen the jokes based on the audience reaction the day before, is well established in US studio audience comedy. It’s also a very expensive luxury unavailable to British shows with their smaller budgets. To my knowledge, the only British show to ever enjoy this perk was Victoria Wood’s dinnerladies.
Nunya – a work at an embarrassingly unready stage. If anybody asks about it, you say “nunya business.”
Cut and Shut – a term borrowed from the motor trade (welding two halves of two cars together). This refers to a conceit which is essentially to normally incompatible ideas, bolted together. An example: Big Train’s cattle auction, where they are not cattle, they are new romantics. (via Jason Hazeley)
Frankenstein draft – a script that suffers over time from bolting on too many slavishly implemented notes.
Frankenstein (verb) – Joining already-written scenes together in a highly inelegant way. You know it’s not pretty, but it’s a temporary tool which might give you some idea how the completed sequence might work. Frankensteining is very common when writing animated movies, in which the scripting is often done alongside storyboarding. [Andy Riley]
Pitcheroo – anything which reads well in a pitch document or story outline, which you know won’t quite hold water when you are writing the actual script. But very handy if you’re up against it time wise, and you need to convey what it is you’re intending to write, but you haven’t got the hours to crack every single story beat. An example might be “They escape from the party, and then…” How do they escape from the party? Won’t they need an excuse, or will they climb out the window? Who knows? You know you’ll need to cover that in the end, but so long as it’s followed up with a funny idea in the second half of that sentence, you can get away with it for now. Because most people read pitches and story outlines much too fast, effective pitcheroos are never spotted. [Andy Riley/Kevin Cecil]
Bull – coined by Sid Caesar. A line which diminishes the speaker’s status, against their intent. Example: “I don’t need anybody to help me look stupid.” (Via Paul Foxcroft)
Laying pipe – this one’s commonly used in America. It means planting the exposition which is necessary for the audience to understand what’s going on. This can be done elegantly; like in Monsters Inc, where the first 15 minutes of the movie lays out a mass of exposition about how the monster world works, but all with scenes which also advance the story and have jokes in. Or it can be done bluntly; like in Looper, where the complex rules of the world are explicitly laid out in voice-over.
Shoe leather – similar to laying pipe.
Crossword clue – a joke based on a brilliant verbal trick or pun… At which nobody laughs. (via David Tyler)
CBA – Meaning “could be anything.” [via Graham Linehan] A joke where a key component is interchangeable with many other options. “I was kissing him but all I could think of was which pocket my tic tacs were in.” The tic tacs are a CBA, as is the pocket. Many Victoria Wood jokes referencing brand names are CBAs.
One of the best things about being a scriptwriter is walking on to the set. For so long, you’re visualising a place in three dimensions as you spend months shuffling around characters, plots, ideas. You get so used to it being an imaginary place, existing only in your head, that it’s a tremendous psychic jolt when it actually gets built and you step into it for the first time. Your mind goes: My God! I Can’t Believe They Made That!
I’ve done this job for quite a few years, so arranging a few sofas and chairs in a living room set doesn’t quite shock me any more. Now that I’m writing for Veep I’m seeing the American budgets make big American things and the MGICBTMT effect is stunning again. Last year on season three on show, Kevin Cecil and me co-wrote an episode called ‘Clovis,’ named after the imaginary silicon valley company that Selina Meyer and her team visit. I worked out the entire rationale of what it would be called that. It’s named after the Clovis point, kind of flint spear tip found over much of North America, dating from about 15,000 years ago. Clovis the company would themselves say: “just as those early settlers of America designed a universal tool for their civilisation, we are designing the new universal tools for ours.” I knew this would never make it into the show because it didn’t have jokes it. But I was enjoying being intellectually rigourous about the whole thing. I passed these thoughts on to the director to pass onto the art department.
When I got on the set, I was imagining there might be a couple of posters stuck to the wall featuring a Clovis point on them somewhere. What I was NOT expecting was a huge clovis-shaped megalith for the characters to walk past. I was beside myself with glee. You’ve never seen someone get so excited by a big assembly of wood, wire, plastic and paint.
The monolith barely features in episode itself. And an even madder thing didn’t feature in the episode at all. It was set in San Francisco, but filmed in Maryland, so to make the whole thing look more Californian, four palm trees were uprooted from a much warmer east coast (somebody told me South Carolina), loaded on a truck, driven up the coast, and inserted into the ground for just one day. I’ve never seen full size trees moving for television before. The trees didn’t make the edit.
I love big sets. It’s such a treat. And in more reflective moments I consider the carbon footprint. But it’s such a fun way to destroy the world.
Part of the comedy writer’s job is to spot the buzz words and cliches of the age, and either avoid them, or use them in a very particular way; by putting them in the mouths of your most (intentionally) annoying characters. If there is a character in a show who tells everyone to chillax, or talks about things “going forward”, The chances are it’s the one that the writer/writers wanted us to feel irritated by.
There is one word which has been so overused for so long that I’m constantly surprised it hasn’t attracted more flak. It deserves some. It’s “Passion.”
Hotels always seem to have a passion for service. Delicatessens boast of their passion for food. Job interviewees are ordered to bring along their passion for coffee, or communication, or learning, or innovation, or excellence. Passion, passion, passion. As soon as you notice the word you see it everywhere. It’s the ultimate cure-all. When you have passion, apparently, everything is solved. And of course it gets applied in my job. Time and again aspiring writers are told that they need to have a passion for it.
Well what’s wrong with that? You might ask. Passion has to be a good thing. It can be – but we’ve got to understand what it is and what its limits are. People love to talk about passion because bestowing “passion” on anything is deliberately invoking the imagery of sex. And sex is sexy. Passion is a dark-eyed flamenco dancer with fabulous dress and a rose between her teeth. Who wouldn’t want her around?
Passion, as we now use the word, is a child of the 60s. It’s about the fulfilment of your personal emotions. So long as you are serving your own needs in this way, you’re bound to be on the right path, or so the narrative goes.
Passion certainly has its uses in writing. It’s probably what got you into in the first place. When you are gripped by a new idea and you simply can’t scribble it down fast enough because of the possibilities racing through your head, that’s passion. Great. But there’s a problem: passion is a state of high emotional arousal. Nobody can live like that all the time. What do you do when you’re a couple of months into working on that project, and you still aren’t sure what the ending is yet, and one of the characters still isn’t working, and it’s all become heavy going? Perhaps that passion is flagging. Perhaps it’s gone. Perhaps it’s working against you – and you passionately want to throw it all out and go and play in the sunshine. That’s when you need something more powerful than passion.
Here’s where I reach for the words of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was an absurdist writer in revolutionary Russia. He wrote unhinged little stories, many just a paragraph long. He founded an art movement called Oberiu which turned out slogans like “Art is a cupboard!” and “we are not cakes!” As Stalinism tightened its grip, you couldn’t get away with this sort of thing any more, and eventually Kharms was interned by the NKVD. He died of starvation in a prison during the siege of Leningrad. So there’s no doubting his dedication to his art. Amongst a small collection now entitled “the blue notebook”, because that’s what he happened to write it in, he put down this luminous aphorism:
To have only intelligence and talent is too little. One must also have energy, real interest, clarity of thought and a sense of obligation.
When I came across this a few years ago, it struck me as a great set of guidelines to writing. I would argue that the last item on the list is the most important.
Sense of Obligation. Like duty, or responsibility, it’s not an easy sell. It sounds like such a drag. It speaks to us from the pre-1960s era when people were burdened with the task of thinking about things that weren’t themselves. Obligation is Passion’s slightly frumpy sister. Doesn’t get as much interest from the boys. Goes out to milk the cows and dig the ditches while Passion fusses over her toenails. She’s not nearly as sexy as Passion. But by god she’ll get the job done, long after Passion has declared herself too tired, dashed her fan to the ground and stomped off in her big shoes.
This sense of obligation – a flinty, bloody-minded determination to get the job done regardless of anything, because, well, we’ve just got to – is a trait shared by just about every professional comedy writer I know. In the end, that’s what you need just as much as Passion to get you over the line.
So by all means be passionate in your writing. But if you are still writing when the great muse passion has stood you up – then you’re a proper writer. And don’t worry, Passion will come back. She always does in the end.
I posted about this earlier in the year; now d-day has come. My friend Marcus Gipps, who in his day job is a publisher at Gollancz books, decided to be a publisher in his spare time as well. He’s collected together all six books in the Uncle series by J.P. Martin. These are an extraordinary series of children’s novels which first appeared in the 60s and 70s but have since fallen out of print. However, they have picked up a strong cult following in the intervening years. Marcus tells me that cheaply produced copies of the last couple of novels have changed hands for hundreds of pounds.
Marcus’s “The Complete Uncle” is a beauty of book – cloth binding, all the original Quentin Blake illustrations scanned in afresh, and additional material from Neil Gaiman, Martin Rowson, Will Self, Richard Ingrams, JustinPollard, Garth Nix, Kate Summerscale and (I think you’ll see what I’m building up to here) Andy Riley. I’m drawn Uncle, the elephant who is the main character of the books, as I see him.
Most copies have already been sent out to the backers of Marcus’s kickstarter, but there’s a few left over for general retail. These are being sent out to Waterstones, British Amazon, and some independent bookshops too. These six books are some of the most beautifully imaginative and funny fiction I’ve read in ages.
I’d better add something up here which we’ve been working on for a couple of months: me and Kevin Cecil are adapting one of David Walliams’ bestselling children’s books. It’s going to be a big BBC1 special. The BBC did the same thing with one of his other books, Mr. Stink, in 2013. That starred Hugh Bonneville, Johnny Vegas and Sheridan Smith, and turned out to be quite a big hit.
We’ve worked with David quite a lot before – on Little Britain and Come Fly With Me. It’s great to be doing it again.And the great thing about this one is, it earns me quite a lots of cool points with my eight-year-old son.
David is ridiculously busy at the moment, what with having a child, filming a new sitcom, and judging Britain’s Got Talent, all at the same time. He’s probably writing a new book as well. But the TV gangsta granny is already in great shape script-wise. We hope to be pulling in some big comedy names for the main parts in the near future. I’ll tell you as soon as we have them. when people hear about the project they often ask if it’s animated – but it’s most certainly going to be live action.
Anyway, more of the details are available here.
I’m delighted to trumpet about an exciting new project which I’m a small part of. My friend Marcus Gipps, an editor at the fantasy and science fiction publisher Gollancz, is a lifelong fan of the Uncle books by J. P.Martin. These are a series of six children’s books published in the 60s and 70s which relates the adventures of a pompous elephant just called “Uncle” who lives in a staggeringly vast castle called Homeward. As well as exploring his own infinitely large house, he must constantly do battle against the anarchist Beaver Hateman who lives in the rival castle of Badfort.
From this brief description it may sound a bit like Babar the elephant, or innumerable other children’s novels. But as soon as you read a page or two of these books, you realise you are in the presence of a startlingly original imagination. The court of Uncle contains a one armed badger who is always there, but seldom speaks. One of the main characters at Badfort is Jellytussle, a creature made entirely of jelly. The family who run Uncle’s art gallery are terrorised by a giant slimy fist which reaches through windows to grab them. The tallest tower in Homeward turns out to contain a Fritzl–like colony of children who have never been outside it. These mindbending jolts just keep on coming. Over the years, the books have picked up a lots of famous admirers including Spike Milligan, Will Self and Neil Gaiman. Best of all, the illustrations are by Quentin Blake, surely the seminal children’s book illustrator of the 20th century.
Surprisingly,despite all this cult success, the books have been out of print for years. tatty old paperback editions now change hands for hundreds of pounds on eBay. Marcus decided it was time to get the books back out in the world – so he has made a kickstarter to get them published in a single beautifully bound volume.
The kickstarter went to live yesterday (27th March) with a target of £7000 – which it smashed through in four hours flat. So the reissue is definitely going to happen. I’m doing a new drawing of uncle for the book, and writing an introduction. Other drawings and/or introductions will come from Martin Rowson, Neil Gaiman, and others. It will be on high-quality acid free paper. if you buy a copy through the kickstarter there are all kinds of options for goodies you can get with it, starting with getting your name in the thanks when it’s published. The book will cost £30 – which I know is a bit of money, but you’re getting six whole books in one volume for this, plus all the additional material from myself and others.
Follow the link to the Kickstarter to find out more. but, really, I can’t recommend Uncle enough to you. It’s the great lost gem of British children’s literature.
This morning I did my first live appearance of the year… Some onstage cartooning for Mark Watson’s 25 hour comedy marathon in aid of Comic Relief. If you haven’t heard of this – Mark is a comedian who invented a new genre of stand-up a few years back: endurance comedy. Over the years he has done several shows which were 24 hours long. A one-hour comedy performance is knackering enough. This, his longest ever at 25 (in honour of the 25 years which red nose Day has been going for) will apparently be his last marathon gig. As I write this, he is more than halfway to the end, but he’s still got 10 hours to go.
And the great thing is, the whole thing is streaming live here: http://www.rednoseday.com/whats-going-on/mark-watsons-25-hour-comedy-marathon . There are lots of ways to give money to comic relief, but the easiest today has to be sending a text to 70005 with just the single word “MARK”. You will automatically donate five pounds.
The other reason I’m telling you all this is that all the pictures I drove over the 45 min or so I was on stage will be up for auction! I’m not completely sure how they’re going to do it, but if you follow the hash tag #25hours on twitter, they will probably tell you at some point. Failing that the web address I gave in the last paragraph should have some info.
perhaps inevitably, all the drawings are bunny suicides. There’s lots of other things I could draw, but you know how bands normally play their biggest hits at charity gigs? I suppose cartoonists are like that too.
As soon as I learn precisely how you can get hold of these I will tell you here. Every penny will go to Comic Relief.
It’s coming up to 10 years since the Blankety Blank Comic Relief sketch, starring Peter Serafinowicz, Matt Lucas, David Williams, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Sarah Alexander, and Martin Freeman.….
That’s quite a lineup. Me and Kevin Cecil were slightly involved in it – it was very much Peter’s baby, but we were asked to spend a couple of hours throwing in a few extra ideas. Hard to be precise which ones 10 years on, but I’m pretty certain we wrote a lot of the bad tempered exchanges between Martin Freeman’s Johnny Rotten and Simon Pegg’s Freddie Starr.
It feels like a long time ago now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this cast wasn’t all that famous when this was broadcast. Little Britain wouldn’t appear on the TV until later in 2003. Shaun of the Dead premiered in 2004. That’s why this stellar lineup was tucked away quite late in the evening of Red Nose Day. And because it was quite late, it was allowed to be quite weird. The words “yellow reggae” cracked me up at the time, and still make me laugh now.
But looking at this footage a few days ago, it doesn’t seem nearly as weird as it used to. This brings me to the second reason why it feels like a long time ago: the presence of Johnny Rotten. For the benefit of those too young to remember, Blankety Blank was one of the lightest of light entertainment shows which dominated the early evening schedules in the 1980s. It was built on a fairly flimsy premise– a simple word association game – but that didn’t matter, because it was just an excuse for Terry Wogan to engage in genial chats with half a dozen celebrities at once. The personalities on the show were for the most part well-known faces from other comedy and entertainment shows. With the exception of Kenny Everett they were a safe and cosy bunch. When Peter wrote this Blankety Blank parody in 2003, the mere idea of having the fearless and dangerous Johnny Rotten on a mainstream light entertainment show like Blankety Blank was a preposterous joke.
In 2013, it’s no longer incredible, because it’s already happened. Under his more grown-up real name of John Lydon, the formerly unusable punk god did a whole series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. That culture clash between him and the stars of panto was mined to the full, but this time for real instead of in an unhinged Peter Serafinowicz sketch.
This is just one example of what you might call The March of Absurdity. It’s a real problem for comedy writers. Comedy thrives off barriers and taboos. Then you’ve got an expectation to subvert, and you’re in business. Less barriers means less unwritten codes for comedy to scrape up against. When I was a kid, the Morecambe and Wise show once featured Angela Rippon, a newsreader whose name and face were known to everyone in the country, as one of a line of dancing girls. At the time this was considered utterly mind blowing. A BBC newsreader! Dancing! With just tights on her legs! These days, Children In Need love to get newsreaders dancing. We now expect our newsreaders to fool around in funny costumes. What was once a bold comic idea gradually became the norm. So – it’s a lot less funny.
There’s another one which sticks out in my memory. Me and Kevin wrote a lot of The Armando Iannucci Shows, a Channel 4 series which though it didn’t make a big splash when it aired in 2001 has since become obscure cult viewing. One of the programs follows Armando as he goes to see “Ibiza Uncovered – the Opera.” Ibiza Uncovered was a very trashy late night show, really just an excuse to show lots of flesh. Unthinkable that it could be turned into an opera, so we had great fun writing the lyrics. “The club is charging £20 admission/do they still have the sex show at Manumission?/no, but Paul Oakenfold is on the decks./Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie’s on the decks.” Just a couple of years later, Jerry Springer the Opera was a massive stage hit. Without it, it seems unlikely that the Royal Opera house would have been able to put on an opera about Anna Nicole Smith. Opera about low culture subjects? People are fine with that now. So that sketch couldn’t work if we wrote it today.
When mainstream culture delights in playing the comedy writer’s game of juxtaposing things to get amusing results, it makes it a whole lot harder for people in my profession. What looks crazy and impossible now might just be commonplace in a few years. So, here’s my plea to society and the media: put up more barriers. Be more sober, more serious. Create more taboos. Make more lines which can’t be crossed. The comedy writers will thank you for it.