Woo hoo here we come, episode 200 of Sitcom Geeks! How on earth did we get to that? I still can’t quite believe that it’s SEVEN YEARS since we started our nichest of niche little podcasts. In 2015 Britain was still a member of the EU, we were still rubbish at football and in America people were laughing and saying Donald who?
Now – you may be surprised to read – is a great time to be writing comedy. I’ll tell you how a little later. But first, the challenges.
The year we began broadcasting was not bad for new sitcoms. Car Share, Chewing Gum and Catastrophe all appeared for the first time in 2015 and achieved big success for their creators.
Other notable shows from that year included Pompidou, written and performed by Matt Lucas and Julian Dutton, and Miles Jupp‘s radio transfer In And Out Of The Kitchen. Should have begun your titles with a letter c, fellas. Schoolboy error.
Ten years earlier was a quiet time for new sitcom: Green Green Grass and According To Bex began in 2005 along with Help, Ideal, Extras, Nathan Barley, and a slew of newspaper articles asking if sitcom was finally dead. No doubt Graham Linehan will have written an article himself to the contrary – and The IT Crowd emerged by way of answer soon after. Closely followed by Not Going Out, Miranda and, ah, Mrs Brown’s Boys.
I mention all these because even the smallest glance beyond those figures tells you two of the least comforting truths about where sitcom is heading. No need to re-write that “Death of the sitcom” article just yet, Guardian opinion writers. But be aware that the number of new audience sitcoms made in those three chosen years drops from seven. To two. To zero.
And, of the five shows I mentioned from 2015 every single one stars the person who created and wrote it.
Sitcom is alive and well but remains firmly in the clutches of the writer-performer.
One further cause for concern has been the decline of the BBC as a training ground for new comedy writers. THE training ground. Almost every writer who achieved success in comedy in Britain over the last 50 or 60 years began their careers writing material for shows with open door policies that originated at the BBC.
The revolution that was alternative comedy blew up the old ways. Before The Young Ones, there were two routes to comedy – the mostly northern, mostly working-class club circuit and the southern, mostly posh University Revue route. Anyone could make it in comedy, provided you were clever enough to get into Oxford or Cambridge.
When I walked through the BBC comedy doors for the first time in 1983 – as anyone and everyone could back then – the department was dominated by male Oxbridge graduates. Of the 16 producers along that famous corridor, recently home to the likes of Douglas Adams and Griff Rhys Jones among others, one was female, one hadn’t gone to college and around three or four weren’t Oxbridge.
But for all the sense that this was a bunch of privileged boys continuing their university careers courtesy of licence fee winnings, they weren’t slow to move with the times. They encouraged dozens of new writers and performers to develop ideas and paid us to write scripts and make pilots.
Soon after, when Margaret Thatcher introduced Channel 4 and enabled independent producers to make shows for the BBC those apprentices who had learned their trade at the corporation went off to achieve their own success through the development of Hat Trick, TalkBack and many more TV companies.
People talk about golden ages, and often they mean golden ages for them. I can’t deny that for the first 30 years of my career I made a living performing then writing comedy without having to compromise my own views or ideas.
This period is when you start to see the origins of the word “woke”, which at the time referred to a world view that was popular with most comedy audiences. In the 90s it was called “market forces.” The giant companies whose adverts bankrolled ITV discovered that their brands were suffering by association with old-fashioned comedy, and as a result several prominent entertainers including Benny Hill and Jim Davidson were cancelled, to use the word of the moment.
The easiest target for lazy politicians is the supposedly right-on woke BBC, yet it was the BBC who revived Davidson’s career. Still, no need to allow facts to get in the way of a good story, and it’s from this point that we start to see the demise of the BBC as comedy’s premier training school.
Successive governments of all persuasions left and right continued to bash the BBC, and money was drained from the hugely important area of creating new talent. Since around 2008 (remember Sachsgate?), if you’ve wanted to make comedy you’ve had to be careful not to upset the government of the day.
More recently the financial model for TV has shaped a world that has ensured that the gap between new creators and the production process has turned into a chasm. Take Avalon which began in the 1980s, capturing up-and-coming stand-ups and feeding them into the cosy British TV system. They’re now a global media company whose centre of gravity has moved to North America. TalkBack a modest little outfit founded on the royalties Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones made from their 1980s adverts, is now part of Fremantle, itself part of Pearson, owned by European giant RTL.
Have I depressed you enough yet? There’s more.
Until very recently I was still telling new writers that “the quickest way to kickstart your career in comedy is by writing topical jokes for the BBC.”
It remains one of the few remaining open doors in the increasingly sealed off comedy industry. But the competition is huge. Hundreds and possibly thousands of wannabe comedy writers from around the world are free to send in their gags or ideas to the range of topical comedy shows that have developed in recent years.
If you want to get that all important first writing credit, you’re going to have to invest a huge amount of time and energy, for literally no money. Well, 10 quid or so per line if you’re lucky enough to get one broadcast.
So come on Dave, where’s this good news you promised us more than a thousand words ago?
A couple of weeks ago I visited the Edinburgh Fringe, for the first time in yonks. This was the first live festival since 2019 and there was a real sense that comedy was back. Stand-up remains the biggest show in town, but the largest buzz was around the online sketch performers who had turned up.
Sketch shows have become yet one more casualty of the decline in BBC training, but YouTube and TikTok have taken over as the platforms where new creators can learn their craft.
Why is this good news? Or any better than the previous dominance of stand-up? The stars of Edinburgh 2022 are still writer-performers.
The answer is that sketches need writers. Stand-ups do too, but that’s a different type of writing. The best gag merchants can get work as writers for comedians on panel shows, but the best sketch writers can get work as sitcom and movie screenplay writers.
But Dave, you said there aren’t any sketch shows now? What use is that?
The answer is that there are now unlimited opportunities for sketch performers, but thanks to the algorithms of social media platforms the pressure is on for them to create more content.
Find your way over to the BCG’s online sketch page, and you’ll discover dozens of great performers. Some of the sketches are funny but there’s a lack of consistency. They can make more, better sketches, but they need writers. They need you.
Some of the greatest sitcom and movie writers of the last fifty years began their careers writing sketches. Just as novelists learn their craft through writing short stories, comedy writers can discover how to create worlds, characters and compelling narratives by writing two-minute episodes.
One of the reasons we started Sitcom Geeks was, okay I’ll admit it, we liked the sound of our own voices. We also thought we had enough good and bad experiences between us to help new writers develop their skills in less time that we had through decades of trial and error.
It’s never been easy to get stuff made by the big companies, and it hasn’t got any easier since 2015. But there are performers out there who need new material. New writers. The least we can do is improve your options by helping you to become better at your craft.
That remains the number one aim of the podcast. Write more, read more, practice the art. Don’t expect a glamorous new career to fall into your lap. But wherever it takes you, be sure to make the most of the journey.