'I despair for TV comedy'
Comedy guru John Lloyd has launched a broadside against timid, interfering and indecisive TV executives – and hinted that QI could become an online incubator for new ideas.
The creator of the Stephen Fry-fronted panel show has also produced Blackadder, Not The Nine O’Clock News and Have I Got News For You over an illustrious 40-year-career.
But he said he despaired about the current state of commissioning, which was top-heavy with office-bound administrators too scared to put their faith in creative talent.
‘I'm very cross about the current system,’ he told Chortle’s Comedy Conference on Friday. ‘I'm bleak about it. I despair about it actually and it's a crying shame for our culture that television's not what it was.
‘I don't want to boast, but I've been doing this for 40 years and I've been involved in some pretty good things across a huge variety of genres, but I've still got to sit and listen to someone who’s have never done five minutes of stand-up, who’s never written a funny line who's never produced a sitcom. You've got to listen to their opinions...
‘It's not about me, it's about finding people to know how to do it, and let it go. There is no point, or need, for half a a dozen people or hierarchies or committees of people to sit around bothering the producer or the director or the stand-up comedian – they know best; it’s their necks on the line.
‘I actively do get very cross about it, and I know from talking to comedy writers, actors, performers that everyone feels the same way. I don’t know what people are doing in those offices or those development departments...
‘There were no development departments in television companies in the Eighties. A producer had an office and a PA and you sat in your office and every so often you had an idea – about twice a year, usually – and you'd rush into your head of department and say: “I've had this brilliant idea, or I've got this script.”’
He then described how the TV version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was commissioned on the strength of one script from Douglas Adams, explaining that there was no pitching, nor trying to find shows that fitted into pre-defined slots in those days.
‘But the way commissioning works now is they ask, “We're looking for two pink ones and a green one, have you got any of those?”’
‘It used to be the creative people driving the bus and the administrative people enabling them, not the other way around. It's the only thing I get cross about. It's such a waste because the talent out there is fabulous.’
However he did say he was encouraged by how Netflix is commissioning shows – ‘getting good people and saying “you do it”’ with little interference – and said the first British broadcaster who finds a hit that way will have struck a winning formula.
Lloyd also said that broadcasters should have more confidence in comedians and producers to get their shows right – if they are given a chance to fix any problems without meddling.
‘All the things I've done were quite honestly ragged, if not flops, in the first series,’ Lloyd confessed. ‘The pilot of Not The Nine O’Clock News was described by Mel Smith as “the single worst half-hour of television I've ever watched”.
‘But that's creativity, you get it wrong because it's ambitious and strange, but you move it about a bit and eventually you get it right. But it's not helped by people going: “Oooh dear it's not working, we should cancel it. We should move it late night! Oh no, it's not working there! Oh no, it's dead! That's the end of it!” There used to be this confidence [within broadcasters] but that’s lacking now. Everyone thinks a show is going to work and when it doesn't they panic.’
He said comedy is ‘more lively and more exciting’ than ever, but this is not always reflected in what makes it to the screen. However, he advised the aspiring comedians at the conference to take a leaf out of Mrs Brown’s Boys, and work hard to make something that becomes ‘so huge that people are begging you to do it... that's the only way to get past the commissioning system relatively unscathed’.
However, Lloyd said that the internet hadn’t democratised the process and created as many comedy stars as some people would have hoped, because making the best comedy takes work, ‘and the only way to get that is for these publicly funded corporations [the BBC and Channel 4] to support those people.’
‘The internet isn’t producing a gigantic flood of brilliant new stuff. What we all do is get pissed and noodle around on YouTube all night trying to find something that's entertaining – and you end up watching old Two Ronnies sketches.’
Lloyd, who his making his solo Edinburgh Fringe debut this August, was once part of an online comedy venture called Comedy Box, which he said ‘failed from lack of money’ – but added that he hadn’t ruled out returning to the idea.
‘It was set up to encourage young stand-ups to come and make stuff online,’ he said, ‘and I still think that will happen. I think that's probably what QI is going to do next, we're going to mutate online and start doing stuff where we can develop at our own speed.’
Published: 24 Jun 2013