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The art of a successful comedy

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05 September 2017

Roughcut TV's head of comedy Alex Smith on how comedy has had to up its game in the multichannel, VoD landscape

On my return train from Edinburgh to Kings Cross, my feet and gluteus ache from zig zagging across the hilly city for a week. The physical cost of searching for the next great TV comedy.

There’s a saying in US Network comedy that the three most important things for a hit show are casting, casting and casting. It feels outdated now. Casting is still hugely important and chemistry is everything, especially in comedy. But since multichannel fragmented the audience and VoD fragmented the fragments, it’s simply not enough. 20 years ago there was a list of 10 - 15 ‘comedy royalty’ stars you could put front and centre and guarantee a launch of 6+ million. Today you can probably count them on a twix.

This is a healthy shift too however. It’s forced the whole package to up its game, and as such authorship is top dog. Comedy has to have identity now, a brand, a freshness to the pitch and brilliant writing. This is evident in Sky’s decision to move comedy to 10pm, and go for a more grown up and provocative angle with less emphasis on viewing figures and more on talkability. Leaving behind the days of lighter comedy like Stella and Mount Pleasant. Equally this doesn’t mean everything has to be dark and niche - Catastrophe and Car Share were hits with broad appeal, tons of heart and classic comedy values.

You need to know your audience well and serve them up a show which finds them with pinpoint accuracy. Roughcut TV’s People Just Do Nothing did this brilliantly, connecting with a very willing but ultimately sceptical BBC3 audience who can smell fake a mile off. But doing this regularly isn't easy. People Just do Nothing took years of graft and slow building before it picked up the Bafta and RTS for best scripted comedy.

Roughcut has a good track record of ‘successful’ comedy, also making Trollied, currently shooting series seven and Cuckoo returning for series four and five. But there’s no magic formula - a few basic principals, but each project has to have a unique approach. The only constant at Roughcut is intense script work. We put writers through the ringer. And the script is only ready when it’s ready. Not when the schedule says it is.

We also don’t over-develop at Roughcut. We keep a lean slate of projects that we think could find a real and specific home. As such we don’t over-pitch to broadcasters. We’ll take a handful of ideas and if one or two get shot down, we don’t send something else to replace it. Hopefully the overall effect is that broadcasters only receive fresh brand new ideas specifically tailored to them. So we try not to take on too much internally. There are hundreds of great ideas out there and exciting people behind them. So you simply can’t option them all. You have to go with gut.

Which is what seeing eight shows a day for a week in Edinburgh is all about. A gut reaction. Is it funny, and different and compelling enough that I’d want to see it six times in a row on the small screen? Usually not, but if you cover enough miles you might just find one.

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