Edinburgh 2013: There’s no room for failure in TV Comedy
By James Hamilton
Last updated: Thursday, 15 August 2013 at 12:30 am
TV comedy execs are either ham-fisted, slack-jawed script-slayers, or they’re actually quite helpful – depending on who you asked last month. Notable men called John either “despair” for TV comedy, or worse: demonise execs into comedy-sapping Dementors hell-bent on ruining their ideas; meanwhile, men named Graham or Sam or Richard spoke out in their defence.
Regardless of which men with first names are in the right: TV comedy is perhaps a bit too safe these days. To be fair to the BBC: its commitment to showcasing new talent via an annual deluge of iPlayer pilots is genuinely great, and both “Feed My Funny” and Channel 4’s “Comedy Blaps” are excellent initiatives designed to help acts bridge the gap between relative obscurity and that elusive first TV commission.
But TV comedy’s looking more and more antiquated by the year. The thing that interests me is how independently produced comedy – both live and online – is wiggling its way into the mainstream consciousness, led by the aforementioned Richard: Richard Herring.
Every comedian out there – whether they’ve been writing comedy for 10 years or 10 minutes, and regardless of whether they find Herring funny – should pay attention to what he’s doing, because it’s brilliant. He’s not hoarding all his ideas under the mattress in the hope someone’s going to pop along and pay him to show the public how funny he is. His motivation for podcasting and releasing much of his material for free online has been to make it “about the funny, not about the money”. Given the attitudes of some people I’ve had the misfortune of working with in the past – writers motivated by a craving for glory, money and recognition ahead of a genuine passion for what they claim to do – Herring’s approach is not only admirable, but inspiring.
As a result: he’s put out hundreds of hours of sprawling, esoteric, puerile and obscene comedy for free. It’s earned him more fans and more kudos than saving his ideas for that special someone at the BBC ever could. He’s recently started charging (very little) for video versions of his Leicester Square Theatre Podcasts, with the promise of investing the money he makes from it into bigger projects – into creating more comedy for his audience. Similarly, it’s been a relief to see sketch group Pappy’s – having just launched their first sitcom on BBC3 – still committing to releasing their wonderful free podcasts (albeit less regularly).
These acts – who don’t need to release their material for free – have prompted me to discover other acts, other talents that I’d never have listened to before, and now would happily shell out to go see live. When I pay for Herring’s podcasts or to see him in Edinburgh, or I buy an extra ticket for a friend to go see Pappy’s live with me, I feel weirdly happy to be giving them money. How often does that happen with anything else? Imagine buying a pasty from Gregg’s and thinking “Yes mate! Take my money! I want you to have it because you love making pasties and I want to reward you for it!”
There’s still a fair bit of cynicism about the internet as a medium, but I share Herring’s enthusiasm for its potential: it’s on the brink of something very exciting. I love watching established comedians alongside relative unknowns making six second loops of weird, ridiculous mini-sketches on Vine, or hearing home-made 15 minute radio pilots on Soundcloud. Not all of them are great. Some of them aren’t even good. But that’s kind of what makes it an exciting thing to be a part of.
It’s not about “going viral” – despite how every budding filmmaker feels, that’s not something you can engineer. You might spend days crafting a professionally made sketch to release online, only to be outdone by a turtle eating a raspberry, or a turtle climbing a fence, or a cat (riding a turtle). But that shouldn’t be the aim in the first place. Herring’s recent podcast chat with Stephen Fry made the national headlines for obvious reasons, but that wasn’t planned or deliberate. Releasing your own comedy is about finding your audience, and helping your audience find you. That kind of thing rarely happens overnight.
I think part of the reason TV comedy’s so “safe” at the moment is because there’s no room for failure, and that’s reflected in the pressure on new acts taking shows to the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s no longer seen as a place to experiment. You’re expected to turn up and be perfect and if you’re not great, you’re rubbish. TV execs might be berated for not taking risks, but can you blame them? Nobody wants to fail, after all. Most people are terrified of failure. And if TV execs do meddle with the “bouillabaisse” of a sitcom script (come on, John Warburton – seriously?), I imagine they do it for that reason.
But freedom to fail is mega important if you want to do creative things. You need to be able to take a punt and throw an idea out there and let it not be perfect, let it fail – then put another idea out there and let it “fail better” than the first one. Releasing material without it passing through the hands of TV execs might mean it’s more likely to “fail”, but that’s what makes its successes really spectacular.
It’d be wonderful if comedy commissioners were more daring, maybe took a bigger chance on the talents behind their web series’, and actively sought out a wider range of new comedians. But today, if you want to make comedy and reach an audience without their help, you can do it: provided you’re prepared to believe in it yourself and take a chance on your own material. The risk remains. It’s simply a question of who takes that risk. The internet has made it possible to release high quality comedy without the backing of the BBC or Channel 4 – as long as comedians are prepared to take a punt on themselves.
‘Casual Violence: House of Nostril’ 15:45 – Beside, Pleasance Courtyard 4-25th August