'I blame Piers Morgan...'
Am I right in thinking this is your first tour? If so, why have you decided to go on the road now… and are you facing it with any trepidation?
Yes, it’s my first tour, although I have been doing shows on a one-off basis for quite some time. Why now? Well, my head is now full of stories, jokes, anecdotes etc, that I feel I can no longer inflict on my relatives and friends without their ears starting to bleed. Also, my wife said I should get out more, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m not experiencing any trepidation, as I started out in a student group that toured prisons, where I frequently had to perform sketches wearing just my underpants.
What will you be doing in the show?
A bit of everything but the show will be different every night, as the audience will be selecting the topics for comic discussion out of a top hat. The potential topics are far-ranging, and some of the bits of paper are blank, so the audience have to think up topics for those. There are cash prizes, but do bear in mind there is a credit crunch. Also I do sing in this show, but only at the very end, because experience has taught me that that’s best.
You’re probably best known for topical humour. Is now a good time for satire? Is it easier when the government’s on the ropes, or is better when there’s a strong government, like Thatcher’s in the Drop The Dead Donkey age?
Well, actually, we started Drop the Dead Donkey in 1990, when Mrs Thatcher was beginning to wobble, and showing the early signs of madness. After her we had Major, whose government started off weak and then slowly curled up and died.
Certainly, when a government is patently in crisis, then topical humour becomes easier, although sometimes it is like shooting fish in a barrel. Or in Gordon Brown’s case, dead fish in a barrel. Very large dead fish. In a tiny barrel.
I do remember doing jokes about Tony Blair in those early days, when his stock was high, and people did laugh, but perhaps not quite with the same doomy edge.
Has everyone got so cynical about politics to the extent that it’s no longer healthy? If so, should topical comedians take some of that blame?
There is an atmosphere of cynicism, but I think the politicians managed to create that without our help. The other people I would point the finger at would be all those individuals in business, commerce, advertising etc who raised everybody’s expectations to the point where we all assumed that we would just keep getting richer and richer. I also blame Piers Morgan. But that is just a default position that I have always found useful.
I understand there’s another series of Outnumbered on the way. How’s that going?
We’ve made it and handed it in to BBC One and it will be going out at 9pm on Saturdays from mid-November.
There’s a lot of talk about comedy writers being shy of writing for BBC One – a fear of the mainstream and preference for a cult success. Do you feel happy to write for a large audience, or does that inevitably involve compromise?
If the audience is large, that is great, but to be honest when I’m writing I don’t really think about the size of the audience or its composition. I just try to write something that I find funny and interesting and hope the audience feels the same.
The research shows that the audience on Outnumbered ranges from 12-year-olds to 85-year-olds, which is very gratifying, if a little bewildering for the marketing department.
I understand a US version of Outnumbered is in the pipeline, too. Are you involved in that?
I believe I have a title which is something like ‘Non-input consultant producer unit’, soon to be Vice-President. They made a pilot, which was quite good, but now they’re doing more scripts and we are awaiting a decision from the network.
Was the scheduling of the first series over consecutive nights your idea or the BBC’s? And did it help or hinder how it was received, do you think?
The scheduling of Outnumbered series one was inspired by the scheduling of a series I wrote called Bedtime, which also went out in two trios of consecutive nights, and did well. I can’t remember whether we suggested it or whether the BBC thought of it.
[Co-writer] Guy Jenkin and I were quite happy for it to premiere like that in the 10.35 slot, as it kept us out of the ratings bunfight of prime time. We won our slot and got very good ‘share’, so that was OK, but the audience which grew very committed to the programme very quickly obviously felt they wanted it earlier, and spread over a longer period. Which is what is now happening.
Talking of scheduling, have you forgiven the BBC for the way they scheduled Trevor’s World Of Sport yet?
The people who took those decisions are no longer at the BBC. They have either moved on or I have killed them.
The current regime at the BBC have been very supportive and my psychological scars have healed to the point that I no longer foam at the mouth if someone mentions the word Trevor. In fact, I have had a lot of fun writing several radio series of Trevor’s World of Sport for Radio 4 – with all of the same cast - and plan to do some more again soon.
What advice would you give to young writers today? Do you think it’s easier or harder than it once was to break into comedy writing?
No advice. They’re after my job, the bastards.
Here’s a politician’s answer: it is easier for a new writer to get their stuff in the public domain because of all the new outlets like YouTube, but it is harder to get paid a decent wage, so we’ll have to wait and see.
One site that welcomes and encourages new writers is John O’Farrell’s Newsbiscuit; there is a new Radio 4 series called Recorded For Training Purposes; and I think BBC 7 is starting to make programmes with new writers. These are all good places to start, but as ever you will need a lot of perseverance and a fair amount of luck. Sleeping with someone important might also be a good idea.
How did you get into writing?
I was doing a show in Edinburgh, and a brilliant young BBC producer called Geoffrey Perkins, who died recently, came backstage and urged me to submit material to BBC radio. So with Geoffrey’s encouragement, that’s what I did.
What other shows and comedians do you admire today?
All the usual suspects. My current favourite is Flight of the Conchords, which screened on BBC Four and which I sincerely hope is coming back soon.
Finally, I should mention I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which is apparently coming back. Who would be your ideal candidate to step into Humph’s shoes?
Humph is of course irreplaceable. There is talk of John Prescott or possibly Jade Goody, although she was a bit of a disaster on Just A Minute. But my ideal candidate would be the Reverend Ian Paisley.
Published: 18 Sep 2008