Dark days are over

TV wants big, 'laugh-out-loud' comedies

Dark and underplayed comedy has fallen out of favour with TV executives, who now demand bolder, brasher shows, a panel of industry experts has agreed.

Producers and commissioners say broadcasters – and audiences – now want bold ‘laugh-out-loud’ comedies in the vein of Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys rather than more subtle work such as The Royle Family.

BBC comedy commissioner Kristian Smith told the Cofilmic event in Manchester: ‘Comedy is cyclical, and darker, crueller comedy isn’t currently finding its place. Shows that have reflected that, people haven’t come to.’

And producer Henry Normal said he didn’t think Julia Davis’s jet-back comedy Nighty Night, which his production company Baby Cow made, would be commissioned today.

He said: ‘There was a style that started with People Like Us and The Royle Family that was a sort of post-punk movement, trying to get away from “ooh, the vicar’s come round and my trousers have fallen down” approach and tried to do something a little too different.

‘Sometimes you’d take jokes out and say “that’s too ‘comedy’”. But it led to too many people trying to do conversations in rooms, and it became quite drab. So people are going to baulk against that and do something more flamboyant. At the moment it’s the audience sitcom that’s “in”. And I think BBC have four up their sleeves.’

Smith said that lower-key sitcoms were still being made, citing Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House as an example, but asserted: ‘There does seem to be an appetite at this time for proper laugh-out-loud comedy.’

Charlie Hanson, who produces Life’s Too Short, added that although the number of channels was increasing, that was not reflected in the diversity in the sort of comedy commissioned.

He said: ‘We have more channels now;, but there are more gatekeepers who decide what they want, and laugh-out-loud is what they want. Sky is ordering more comedy, but led by big names.

‘I worked on Desmond’s, which had unknown people, and it became a hit. And we know that if you put a star in a show, if the writing’s not good, it will fail. It comes down to the script – and hopefully discovering new talent.

‘Some gatekeepers are champions of new talent by some play it safe and want another hit by the same people. TV commissioning has become more conservative over the past 20 years. Even established people are having to do shows on BBC Three. Even Sharon Horgan is on BBC Three.’

Smith denied the BBC played it safe, saying: ‘I don’t think we’re risk averse. Channel controllers and Cheryl Taylor, the head of comedy commissioning, are prepared to take risks.

‘Mrs Brown’s Boys was big risk for BBC One – it’s been long time since such language was used in primetime and yet it’s brought huge audiences.’

And Normal said that any commission was a risk, because comedy is such an inherently unpredictable genre.

‘Every comedy is a risk, so every channel is taking a risk,’ he said. ‘We look on something like Miranda as being very mainstream, but the first series was a risk . If you take a risk and it works, it really pays off.’

Smith said he was hampered by a limited number of slots being available for comedy shows across the BBC, forcing successful shows to be cancelled to make way for new ones, and agreed that it was hard to know what the corporation would end up ordering until presented with it.

‘The very things we end up commissioning are probably the things we don’t ask for,’ he said. ‘We respond to passion. The real successes know what they are, Miranda, Mrs Brown, Gavin & Stacey, they know what they are selling. Just because the nuanced thing doesn’t currently find a home in the BBC, it will at some point, because comedy’s cyclical.

‘We see a lot of people who can write brilliant gags without having a strong character or strong idea. But it’s those things with real heart that push through.

Normal agreed success was all about a unique voice, saying: ‘When I started there was a lot of Oxbridge on TV and I wondered what could a working-class lad from the North do to compete… and the answer was write about being a working-class lad from the North.

‘You may as well use the thing you know most, rather than guessing all the time.’

Published: 2 Nov 2011

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