Sky is looking for a stand-up to front its next big sitcom, in the hope of replicating the success of hit comedies such as Seinfeld.
The broadcaster’s head of comedy, Lucy Lumsden, says she is now looking for a ‘second phase’ of programmes that could be more satirical or anarchic than the family-orientated comedy-dramas that have so far provided the bulk of her output.
‘I want to do an audience sitcom next,’ she told an audience at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank lat night. ‘Now is the time to do something that might have some banana skins in it, now we’ve got a strong basis to build on.
‘I’m looking at Seinfeld, Miranda, Not Going Out, looking at the stand-ups who go out and fearlessly feed off the audience every night.’
She said traditionally commissioners had put more emphasis on the writer than the performer, but vowed: ‘I’m going to do it in a different way, which should be quite exciting.’
Building sitcoms around stand-ups’ personas is common practice in the States, spawning such hugely successful shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Roseanne and Home Improvement.
Lumsden left the BBC for Sky three years ago, as the company moved into commissioning home-grown comedy shows. She admits that her slate so far – which includes Spy, Stellar, Trollied and The Café – erred towards a conservative tone.
‘We needed to land quite strong, with shows that appealed to broad audiences,’ she said,
‘But now we’re really craving something with a different flavour, something more anarchic – Chickens [the Second World War comedy starring Simon Bird and others] might be one of those. We were lucky that Channel 4 passed on that pilot.’
She added: ‘In Phase 2 we will also do lots more with new talent. We have Comedy Republic coming on Sky Atlantic, which is ten, ten-minute shows for the next generation of character comedians. They may be catchphrase-led, but not necessarily.’
The strand may prove a similar gateway to Little Crackers, the Christmas series in which established comedy names made autobiographical shorts based on their childhood. It was the first thing Lumsden commissioned for Sky that made it to air – in December 2010 – and was followed with a second series last year and a third to come.
‘I’m obsessed by autobiography, and pre-fame stories interested me a lot,’ she said. ‘Little Crackers was a bit of a calling card to let people know we were in the market. Some comedians directed their own, too, which gave them a bit of extra creative freedom.’
She said she was now more proactive in seeking out the comedians and writers she wanted to commission than she was at the BBC. ‘We’d been a bit passive at my old job, waiting for stuff to land on my desk,’ she admitted. ‘At Sky I’ve been more pushy about identifying what talent I want to work with, and with 20 years in the business I had a pretty good idea. It’s like fly fishing, as opposed to being on a trawler.
‘When I left the BBC, they said, “We’ll never see you again; you won’t be at the awards ceremonies because it’s Sky”. But Sky told me “don’t fear failure” – and said there was money to play with. And at the BBC you look back at this immense legacy. It was refreshing not to have that at Sky, to start from scratch.’
She said she had a clear idea of the sort of shows she wanted to make. ‘I like people who have the courage to write something about their normal life,’ she said. ‘And it was important to us that the commissions reflected modern Britain, so customers didn’t just turn to Sky 1 for a window on American culture.
‘We had these massive precincts – like the supermarket or families – so people would get a strong sense of place. Love is pretty much at the heart of all our shows too. I’m not obsessed with it, and there will be room for other styles but I felt we needed that in comedy. We want people to watch Sky 1 and feel better about themselves.
‘A return to family values felt very important. I also want to try to ensure people watch TV as a family, not in their individual bedrooms, but sharing a laugh.’
She said she was also keen to add more regional voices to the Sky output, with shows such as Stella set in South Wales or Mount Pleasant set in Manchester.
‘I’m not anti-Cambridge Footlights, but there’s a feeling sometimes that in British comedy that we’re stuck with the same voice,’ she said. ‘People come through Cambridge, then Radio 4, then BBC Two….
And she added: ‘If I’m cynical, the regional settings are a shortcut to having characters with a strong identity.’
She also defended Sky’s tendency to use established names. ‘What I’ve learned is that the pool of talent is not huge,’ she said. ‘I’ll take calculated risks and will really back talent – Ruth Jones got ten hour-long episodes without a pilot – but I won’t do that with everyone.’
But she said that with writers, past experience in the business was less important.
‘For writers, new talent is different,’ she said. ‘If you’ve got a great voce and something to say, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before. It’s all about the voice.
Citing Spy’s writer Simeon Goulden, who had only written a few Armstrong & Miller sketches and two episodes of Secret Diary Of A Call Girl before his script was picked up, she said ‘Almost all of our shows are written by the new crowd. We all want to hear something that changes the record a bit.’
Lumsden also said that after big rafts of commissions for Sky1 and Sky Atlantic, the female-skewed Sky Living would be her focus for the next year. The Joanna Page sitcom Gates – about parents at the school gates – is the among the new comedies coming to that channel.
And she said she hopes to expand on the Comedy Playhouse pilots which aired on Sky Arts, possibly with a series of Nixon’s The One, which Simpsons star Harry Shearer wrote from genuine transcripts of secret tape recordings made by the former US president.