Edinburgh 2013: Thereâ€™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 theyâ€™re actually quite helpful â€“ depending on who you asked last month. Notable men called John either â€œdespairâ€ 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 â€œFeed My Funnyâ€ and Channel 4â€™s â€œComedy Blapsâ€ are excellent initiatives designed to help acts bridge the gap between relative obscurity and that elusive first TV commission.
But TV comedyâ€™s looking more and more antiquated by the year. The thing that interests me is how independently produced comedy â€“ both live and online â€“ is wiggling its way into the mainstream consciousness, led by the aforementioned Richard: Richard Herring.
Every comedian out there â€“ whether theyâ€™ve been writing comedy for 10 years or 10 minutes, and regardless of whether they find Herring funny â€“ should pay attention to what heâ€™s doing, because itâ€™s brilliant. Heâ€™s not hoarding all his ideas under the mattress in the hope someoneâ€™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 â€œabout the funny, not about the moneyâ€. Given the attitudes of some people Iâ€™ve had the misfortune of working with in the past â€“ writers motivated by a craving for glory, money and recognition ahead of a genuine passion for what they claim to do â€“ Herringâ€™s approach is not only admirable, but inspiring.
As a result: heâ€™s put out hundreds of hours of sprawling, esoteric, puerile and obscene comedy for free. Itâ€™s earned him more fans and more kudos than saving his ideas for that special someone at the BBC ever could. Heâ€™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 â€“ into creating more comedy for his audience. Similarly, itâ€™s been a relief to see sketch group Pappyâ€™s â€“ having just launched their first sitcom on BBC3 â€“ still committing to releasing their wonderful free podcasts (albeit less regularly).
These acts â€“ who donâ€™t need to release their material for free â€“ have prompted me to discover other acts, other talents that Iâ€™d never have listened to before, and now would happily shell out to go see live. When I pay for Herringâ€™s podcasts or to see him in Edinburgh, or I buy an extra ticket for a friend to go see Pappyâ€™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 Greggâ€™s and thinking â€œYes mate! Take my money! I want you to have it because you love making pasties and I want to reward you for it!â€
Thereâ€™s still a fair bit of cynicism about the internet as a medium, but I share Herringâ€™s enthusiasm for its potential: itâ€™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 arenâ€™t even good. But thatâ€™s kind of what makes it an exciting thing to be a part of.
Itâ€™s not about â€œgoing viralâ€ â€“ despite how every budding filmmaker feels, thatâ€™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 shouldnâ€™t be the aim in the first place. Herringâ€™s recent podcast chat with Stephen Fry made the national headlines for obvious reasons, but that wasnâ€™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 comedyâ€™s so â€œsafeâ€ at the moment is because thereâ€™s no room for failure, and thatâ€™s reflected in the pressure on new acts taking shows to the Edinburgh Fringe. Itâ€™s no longer seen as a place to experiment. Youâ€™re expected to turn up and be perfect and if youâ€™re not great, youâ€™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 â€œbouillabaisseâ€ of a sitcom script (come on, John Warburton â€“ 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 â€“ then put another idea out there and let it â€œfail betterâ€ than the first one. Releasing material without it passing through the hands of TV execs might mean itâ€™s more likely to â€œfailâ€, but thatâ€™s what makes its successes really spectacular.
Itâ€™d be wonderful if comedy commissioners were more daring, maybe took a bigger chance on the talents behind their web seriesâ€™, 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 youâ€™re prepared to believe in it yourself and take a chance on your own material. The risk remains. Itâ€™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 â€“ as long as comedians are prepared to take a punt on themselves.
â€˜Casual Violence: House of Nostrilâ€™ 15:45 â€“ Beside, Pleasance Courtyard 4-25th August