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The rise and rise of comedy on television

Blog
20 March 2013

If anyone doubts the power of comedy to attract viewers to the small screen, they should look 
at the viewing figures for Christmas 2012.

BBC1’s comedy juggernauts, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda triumphed over the holiday season, beating the likes of Downton Abbey and EastEnders in the ratings with consolidated figures of just over 11.5m viewers each.

“Both are broad, mainstream hits – and are successful in a way that comedy hasn’t been for some time,” says Andrew Newman, chief executive of leading comedy indie Objective Productions.

Hits like Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda are also channel defining, which perhaps explains why all of the main broadcasters have been investing significantly in the genre over the past few years.

Sky has made huge waves in comedy, ploughing resources into the genre over the past three years. From a standing start it now has eight series – such as Stella and Trollied – on Sky1 alone, as well as significant commissions on Sky Atlantic, Sky Arts and Sky Living including the award-winning Hunderby.

Despite budget cuts, the BBC is commissioning comedy across all four of its channels, offering 
a broad range of fare from a family show like Miranda through to the subversive Cuckoo and 
the cerebral The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve.    

Channel 4 has upped its output since the demise of Big Brother, and is enjoying acclaim for the likes of Fresh Meat and Cardinal Burns. ITV is active in original comedy for the first time in years, building on its long running hit Benidorm with a string of new orders. Comedy Channel has commissioned 
a slate of original UK comedy, including Threesome and The Alternative Comedy Experience, as has UKTV with orders like the revival of Yes, Prime Minister and new shows such as Us and Them from Hat Trick.

Advertisers such as Fosters are also directly funding online comedy series such as Baby Cow’s Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, which migrated onto Sky. Online platforms are also investing directly into UK comedy production, with Hulu co-producing BBC2’s The Wrong Mans, starring James Corden, and The Thick  of It. The demand for comedy has seen a swathe of new players enter the market, including drama producer Red (which is now producing shows for ITV and BBC2), alongside established comedy indies such as Hat Trick, Objective, Big Talk, Baby Cow and Rough Cut.

“It’s an incredibly healthy time for comedy. 
It can only be a positive thing that so many platforms are commissioning,” says ITV’s 
head of comedy Myfanwy Moore.

“There has never been a better time to be making scripted comedy,” adds former comedy commissioner Graham Smith of development consultancy Grand Scheme Media, who says that both distributors and brands are all keen to invest in the genre. He says that in return for £15-20k in development money, comedy can be a very good investment for a distributor – citing the fact that Sky1 comedy Spy has just been picked up for 
a remake by US network ABC. Brands are also keen to be associated with successful comedies, he adds, revealing that Grand Scheme is currently working on a scripted project that is backed by a well-known women’s magazine title.

“There are lots of creative ways a project can 
be put together. There are certainly more places 
to go for funding,” he says.

NEW COMEDY BOSSES

The genre has also been energised in recent months by the appointment of new comedy bosses at the two key broadcasters in the genre, the BBC and Channel 4. Shane Allen took over at the BBC three months ago from Cheryl Taylor, who has gone to head up CBBC. The former head of comedy at Channel 4, Allen himself was replaced by veteran comedy producer Phil Clarke from Objective Productions.

“Shane will definitely galvanise the BBC. He’s a respected figure, a funny man and people like dealing with him,” says Smith. “And although Phil has not been a commissioner, but he’s one of the most respected programme makers and will bring a new perspective for Channel 4. His appointment sends out a message that Channel 4 is still very serious about comedy.”

The comedy genre has not always been in such good health. Until only a few years ago, it was considered a market failure genre – something that most channels shied away from and that only the public service broadcasters could afford to invest in.

But now broadcasters very much recognise the value of comedy. Even though comedy is an expensive upfront investment, it can pay long-term dividends. As Friends proved, broadcasters can practically build a channel by repeating a hit comedy series. A successful comedy has a very long shelf life. Shows like Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers can resonate not just across years, but decades.

Alongside sport and soaps, it’s arguably the genre that viewers feel most passionate about. “People who love a comedy show really love them – the depth of feeling is very profound,” says Newman. “But when you do a bad comedy, people go 
mental – you might as well have done a shit 
on their doorstep. It’s an affront to them.”

Indeed, he worries that the instant reaction today to shows via social media and the internet, while welcome, can also be harmful to emerging talent. “If The 11 O’Clock show was on now, it could be strangled at birth by Twitter and the internet forum lobby.” As a producer of the show, Newman says that the talent who got their first big break on 
The 11 O’Clock Show – Ali G, Leigh Francis, Mackenzie Crook and Ricky Gervais – “needed 
a bit of freedom to grow.”

However, this passion for shows means they 
can help the channels that commission them 
to stand out, in a way that ubiquitous and cheaper factual features cannot do. “Comedy can help digital channels – it can define them and make people take notice,” says Newman.

Amongst commissioners, the mainstream success of shows like Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys appears to have hit a nerve. Many now say they are looking to hit the jackpot with warm-hearted comedies with big laughs that play to a broad audience. This represents a distinct move away 
from the quieter, more finely observed single camera comedies of recent years.

However, producers are quick to warn against broadcasters simply trying to emulate last year’s hits. “Comedy is at its best when it’s somebody’s vision, very authored and distinctive – and not done cynically,” says Newman. As examples, he cites shows like Peep Show, Miranda, Harry Hill, Outnumbered, The Inbetweeners and work by Peter Kay.

It’s a point that new BBC1 comedy boss Shane Allen is mindful of. “If you try to repeat formulas, you come a cropper,” he says.

WHAT THE BBC WANTS
Three months into the job, he’s quick to pay tribute to the legacy left by his predecessor Cheryl Taylor who “left things in a brilliant state…we are in a real boom period and it is up to us – the new regime – to build on that.”

He breaks his priorities down by channel. On BBC1, citing The Royle Family and Outnumbered, he says, “there’s a question of how we can get a brilliant new single camera comedy.” And he pays tribute to Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys. “It’s been said that his show is for the audience that comedy forgot. I love that quote. It’s a really old fashioned, joke filled comedy – and I’m all for more of that.”

Allen says he wants to bring a “bit more joy” 
to BBC2, which he notes won channel of the year and is “smashing things out of the box in every other genre.” Comedy, he thinks, has to try 
a bit harder. The output has been “quite quiet and moody” and as a result, he’s after a “few broader comedies” that are a “bit less melancholic.” Upcoming shows like James Corden’s The Wrong Mans and Graham Linehan and Steve Delaney’s Count Arthur Strong point the way, balancing more cerebral work by Stewart Lee and Charlie Brooker.

BBC3, says Allen, has got a proper focus and attitude when it comes to comedy under controller Zai Bennett. He thinks the channel is “gunning for Channel 4” – or at least the edgy, knowing space that C4 occupied ten years ago. As examples, he picks out new shows such as Bluestone 42 (a comedy about a bomb disposal squad in Afghanistan), Cuckoo and Bad Education.

BBC4 is still backing comedy despite cuts to its budget. The home of Twenty Twelve  and The Thick of   It, it’s just commissioned two new sitcoms: Up The Women, written by and starring Jessica Hynes and based on a 1910 Women’s Suffrage group, and Quick Cuts written by Georgia Pritchitt and starring Doon Mackichan and set in a hairdressing salon.

Meanwhile, Allen says he is launching a new scheme at the end of March to back comedy pilots that will premiere on iPlayer and then on BBC3. Allen says it will be ‘well funded, with proper opportunities’ and is designed to allow new talent the chance to ‘play and experiment’. “It’s really harsh to give them a six part series when they 
are in the infancy of their careers. You have 
to let them grow and learn their craft.”

SKY CONTINUES TO INVEST

Over at Sky, Lucy Lumsden is pressing on 
with the comedy revolution she initiated at the broadcaster when she arrived three years ago. 
Sky’s pledge to spend £600m on original content 
by 2014 has seen the broadcaster invest significantly in comedy.

In that time, a wave of new shows have hit the screen – such as Stella, Moone Boy, Trollied, Spy, Spa, Mount  Pleasant, Touch of  Cloth, Starlings, The Café, Mid-Morning Matters and Hunderby.

“It’s not been flash in the pan. We are here 
to stay, which is really reassuring for the industry,” 
says Lumsden. “We haven’t promised anything 
that we are not going to see through.”

Sky1 has seen many of its first run comedies recommissioned for a second series, such as Stella, The Café, Starlings, Touch of Cloth, Trollied and Moone Boy. Lumsden has also sought to make 
way for the new, such as Chickens, set in the 
First World War and co-written by and co-starring Inbetweeners’ stars Simon Bird and Joe Thomas. 
She picks out Moone  Boy, shot like an indie film, and Stella, which "does Wales on a big scale and is very warm and big hearted.” Looking ahead, Lumsden says she’d like to “inject a bit of silliness into what we are doing. I’m really keen to land an audience sitcom or two.”

Lumsden commissions across each of Sky’s four main TV channels. Female skewed Sky Living, which now airs four original series including Gates and The Spa, will see Love Matters, six one-off romantic comedies, debut this month. There’s room for an audience sitcom on the channel too, thinks Lumsden.

Sky Arts would like to develop a returnable series 
to complement its series of one of comedies and dramas that have aired in the Playhouse strand. 
Coming up is new series Psychobitches, which 
revolves around famous women from history being probed in a psychiatrist’s chair and features the likes of Catherine Tate, Sharon Horgan and Katy Brand. Lumsden says a physical or silent comedy could 
work on Sky Arts.

Sky Atlantic, meanwhile, has enjoyed success 
with Hunderby winning two of the top prizes – best sitcom and best new comedy show – at the British Comedy Awards. Lumsden says it is all about “keeping the standard high” on this “very curated” channel, which has aired Kathy Burke’s Walking And Talking and Alan Partridge: Welcome To The Places Of My Life.

ITV GETS SERIOUS ABOUT COMEDY

ITV vowed last year to boost its comedy output, hiring Little Britain producer Myfanwy Moore as its first dedicated commissioning editor for comedy in nearly two years.

She says that ITV has a robust drama 
and entertainment brand – and it made sense 
for a “mainstream channel at the heart of popular culture” to build on its hit series Benidorm 
and be more active in the genre.

So far she has greenlit a handful of series: sitcom Vicious, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi as a bickering gay couple; Cabbage and Pat, a comedy about two older women who re-embrace life;  The Job Lot, set in a West Midlands job centre; and ancient Rome slave comedy Plebs for ITV2.

Moore says she does not have to commission 
a set number of shows, but rather will commission projects that are strong enough to sit alongside ITV’s well-established, big brands. “Our comedy must feel warm and inclusive for our audience.” They can, of course, have an edge to them. Vicious,
 she says, “is going to feel old fashioned at heart, 
but there’s something modern in the story.”

Moore adds that she hopes to have several shows on ITV2, and to increase the number of ITV1 series. She explains that she is particularly looking for half hour shows that can play pre-watershed at 8.30 
and at post watershed half hours too.

Shows do not necessarily have to come with 
big name talent attached, but it’s always helpful 
to have “marquee casting.”

WHAT NEXT FOR CHANNEL 4?
As Televisual went to press, new Channel 4 head of comedy Phil Clarke had just joined the broadcaster. He declined to be interviewed, preferring to wait until he has feet under the table for a few months.

The big question is in what direction he will take the genre at Channel 4. Observers think that he may try to fit comedy into part of Channel 4’s broader strategy to become slightly more mainstream. One observer says: “I’m not saying that Channel 4 will try to recreate Miranda. But can Channel 4 do shows that have slightly more mainstream appeal, while still keeping the C4 element?”

The broadcaster came close to creating 
a returnable original domestic comedy in The IT Crowd, but its stars Richard Ayoade and Chris O’Dowd have moved conspicuously into the film world. This highlights a major issue for comedy on British television. As soon as talent becomes established, they move quickly on – whether to rival channels that have moved into the genre, to the US, to the movies, drama or for lucrative live tours.

There’s great competition for talent, which has driven up prices. On the plus side, though, the movement of talent means constant more openings for newcomers – who could become the Mirandas and Brendan O’Carrolls of tomorrow.

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