'If you don't film a sitcom in front of an audience, it's probably because you don't think it's funny enough' | Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran on the state of the art © Em Fitzgerald

'If you don't film a sitcom in front of an audience, it's probably because you don't think it's funny enough'

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran on the state of the art

Filming TV comedies without a studio audience is a cop-out that allows writers to get away with less funny scripts.

That’s according to Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who have created such enduring shows such as Birds Of A Feather, The New Statesman and Goodnight Sweetheart.

The duo also claimed that TV executives place too much emphasis on sitcoms built around existing performers rather than those devised by writers – leading to programmes with limited scope.

Their words were certainly well-received by their audience, as they came at an event staged by the Writers’ Guild Of Great Britain in London’s Museum Of Comedy last night.

Speaking in defence of traditional studio-audience sitcoms, Gran said: ‘I do get the feeling that people say, "Oh, well, it's not in front of an audience so it can just be wry. Let's have it wry. Let's have it a bit sad, and a bit wry and a bit cruel." 

‘And I would say to the people who commissioned that, "Are you in the right department?" There are few enough comedy slots not to waste them on being a little bit wry, a bit sad and a bit cruel.' 

‘I was a big fan of The Office and a massive fan of Extras, but I think the idea that comedy should be excruciating, and should always be viewed from between laced fingers or from behind the sofa is a bit of a cul-de-sac. 

‘I can think of several comedies that have been on in the last year or so which actually have been not at all funny but have had one idiot to make jokes to make it a comedy.’

Marks agreed, saying: ‘If you're going to write comedy, get immediate feedback. Play it in front of an audience.  I often think that usually a comedy doesn't have an audience because a writer's frightened that it's not funny. 

‘What has happened with comedy on TV is that you are seen to be respectable if you can make it like a movie; and you're seen to be perverse if you want to make it like theatre. And yet I think that television comedy is a theatrical experience, not a filmic experience.’

Gran said there was a misplaced ‘snobbery’ behind studio sitcoms falling out of fashion, saying they were ‘disparaged by all those people who don't remember Yes, Minister was made in front of a studio audience because they were laughing too, so they convinced themselves there was no studio audience.

‘A very fine fellow writer said, "if it's good enough for Fraiser it should be good enough for us". So you have to overcome the snobbery of studio-based comedy and find ways to make it work. I realise it's quite a big ask, but the first step is to believe it's worth doing, and we do.’

However, Gran suggested it was not as clear-cut as using a studio audience or not. ‘It's about the amount of respect you've got for your audience and what you owe them is a good laugh,’ he said. ‘No one ever said Modern Family - until it jumped the shark last season - was not an incredibly funny show for being single camera. They still worked and worked and worked to make it the funniest show they could.’

Julia Mckenzie, the head of radio comedy at programme-makers BBC Studios, also insisted there was still demand for traditional sitcom – even though last night’s event was titled: Situation Critical – Who Will Save The Sitcom?

‘There still does seem to be an appetite still for people to come across irresistible comic characters,’ she said. ‘I still think it's still flourishing. People do slag off sitcom and say "very old fashioned" but if you find the right sitcom and the right characters there's no other artform that elicits love and affection in the same way a sitcom does.’

The discussion also turned to the trend for executives to commission sitcoms from writer-performers, whether based on existing live characters such as Mrs Brown or Count Arthur Strong, or the stand-up personas of comedians.

Host James Cary, who also presents the Sitcom Geeks podcast, pointed out that in a 2001 best sitcom poll only two of the top 20 shows – Ab Fab and Fawlty Towers – were written by writer-performers

And he said that plucking comedies from the Edinburgh Fringe meant TV was ‘starting to put the barriers very high’ – both in terms of selecting only writers who have a talent for performing, and in terms of selecting only from those people who can afford to stage a festival show.

‘We could be missing out on the John Sullivans of the world,’ he said, referring to the writer of Only Fools And Horses. ‘If he had to do an Edinburgh show, I don't know how that would have gone…’

Mckenzie admitted: ‘Edinburgh is a big place where we get a lot of relationships and we spot a lot of writer-performers, that's true,’ but added that BBC radio comedy have ‘plenty of sitcoms that are written by writers not performers’ too.

Gran said there were pitfalls in hanging a show on one strong personality.

‘With writer-performers there's an over-dependence on that person's worldview and that person's knowledge of the world,’ he said. ‘So I don't know that you're ever going to get a range of different things from a writer-performers that you are going to get with writers interacting with actors and directors, because they are basically ploughing a furrow.’

And he suggested that one reason modern sitcoms often only run for two seasons ‘is because that's them: I've done my marriage, I've done my childhood. Now what?’

He also recognised the influence of Fawlty Towers in creating ‘the curse of the two series’. ‘Everyone afterwards - Ricky Gervais and so on – said we only want to do two series because Fawlty Towers only did two series,’ he said.

‘Well, the reason Fawlty Towers only did two series was because the writers were getting divorced. So I don't think that the collapse of John Cleese's marriage is a good enough reason to do only 12 episodes of anything…’

The pair also spoke in praise of the writer-actor dynamic.

Marks said: ‘When TV started sitcom was comedians it was the Dicky Henderson Show or the Bob Hope Show and then, largely through the influence of Galton & Simpson – Hancock and then Steptoe – people said, "well, let's make this with the best actors we can get". I think that the writer-actor arrangement is under-appreciated.

‘We essentially work with actors. There's no greater satisfaction if you're going to write something that's really good to have it performed by the best actors. That way you get Shine On Harvey Moon, you get Only Fools and Horses.’

‘What would be the point of us playing Alan B'stard? Rik Mayall – who WAS a performer and a writer – he left it to the writers. Although he always complained that there weren't enough laughs on any given page because he didn't understand narrative form… We would say "There's a story to be told, Rik" and he didn't understand that.’

Gran concurred: ‘A good performer will trust the writers, and trust is a really big part of this entire process all the way along the line.’

The question of trust was also at the heart of good commissioning they argued. Marks said of executives: ‘You either trust your writer, producer, director or you don't. And if you don't, the writer, producer, director should ask: "Why don't you trust me?" But no one does.

‘The best shows come when you give a writer his head... [all the great shows] have come because someone had an idea and others were prepared to let them execute that idea as they saw fit. Take Fawlty Towers: Cleese and Connie Booth knew what they were doing. You didn't need someone from the fourth floor coming down and saying, "That could be better."’

Speaking from the audience, comedy veteran Barry Cryer suggested that instead of commissioning by committee, or considering demographic,  ‘you need these benevolent dictators to say: "Go with it, I think it's funny."’

Cary said: ‘That's what going trough Netflix and Amazon Prime feels like, it feels like they will let you go off and do what you want and that's why it's a very attractive place to go.’

Gran lamented the way the commissioning process had changed over the years. ‘You used to pitch to someone who could buy,’ he said. ‘Now you pitch to someone who can recommend to someone else who can recommend to someone else that they might want to ask someone else if they want to buy it.

‘We were very lucky - we could get turned down by the top person!’

To illustrate how the landscape has changed, the pair described how they  pitched their time-travelling sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, ‘which was difficult to explain’. ‘I said it's the love story of a man and an 80-year-old woman who is probably dead,’ Gran said.

Marks said: ‘We went to Martin Fisher, who was then acting head of comedy at the BBC, and he said, "I don't really understand this." And we said, "It’s going to be a good show." "Is it going to be funny?," he said. To which we said, "Oh yeah, it's going to be very funny." And he said, "Could you give me six by September?"

‘He trusted the writers enough to do that. How is it now? The problem is: who are you pitching too?  Do you respect them and do you trust them to know how to make a good script much, much better?’

Published: 23 May 2017

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