Monday, February 19, 2007

Funny Business

In the advance material for De Montfort’s Television Scriptwriting Workshop, the Comedy Keynote Speaker was still to be confirmed. On the day it turned out to be Laurence Marks.

Suffering from a cold, but only taking one time out to swig from a bottle of cough syrup, Mr Marks talked about how he got into the game, joining up with his writing partner Maurice Gran, and laid out the process of writing comedy. It wasn’t a laughing matter.

A number of years back I wrote a comedy piece that was performed live in front of an audience. I only did it because the person who regularly wrote the material took exception to me calling his last effort utter rubbish and suggested I do it, if I thought I could do better.

With better actors performing the parts it probably would have got a more positive reception from the audience. As it was, two of the performers went on stage having not properly rehearsed, a third didn’t want to be there and had been previously camped out at the bar, and the past year’s writer (who made up the quartet) kept adding his own jokes, which didn’t fit the situation. The audience didn’t get most of the references or appreciate the word play. After the smattering of applause dwindled, the person sitting beside me suggested it would have worked with more fart and poo jokes. Great.

Apart from working on the jokes – because, after all, comedy needs the funnies – most of the time had been spent working on the piece’s structure. There was not much I could do with the characters, which were already established and little more than caricatures. But the situation, as I saw it then, was the most important thing.

Years after the fact it was gratifying to hear Mr Marks explain that while character was vital, a good structure was even more vital for the characters to come out. In front of the Television Workshop audience he explained that structure was everything. Until you know about drama you can’t do comedy. (Back writing the performed piece, I tried to explain to the previous writer that just going for joke after joke after joke without story was basically stand-up, but it repeatedly fell on deaf ears).

Between the advice, Mr Marks talked about his entrance into writing comedy for television with Mr Gran, from working on Frankie Howerd’s radio show to the joy of being invited to the BBC for a cup of tea. He also covered their sojourn in Hollywood, writing television comedy at Paramount Studios where they worked in the collection of suites and offices that comprised the Writers Block. Then there was the tale of the Punch-Up Man.

Founding Alomo Productions in 1989, Marks and Gran took on a number of new writers. Some didn’t rise to the challenge or wasted the opportunity presented to them. Others were good with the jokes but didn’t have the talent to reach the stage of creating their own comedy series. The Punch-Up Man would never create his own show, but then he didn’t need to. Guaranteed to make any script 75% funnier, The Punch-Up Man would come in the day before each episode was filmed before a live studio audience, and come up with a stream of alternative lines and wisecracks. Once the script was 75% funnier, he’d take his massive great cheque and piss off home until the next week.

Although Marks and Gran had created the long-running hit sitcoms Birds Of A Feather and Goodnight Sweetheart for the Corporation, they hadn’t worked for the BBC in over six years. Maybe it was down to their McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1997 in which they demolished the case for the license fee, after which, according to the Workshop’s programme notes, “their BBC car park privileges were revoked”. Or it could have been down to the pair declining the post of Head of BBC Comedy.

The afternoon Sitcom Q&A panel comprised of Bert Tyler-Moore, co-creator of Channel 4’s Star Stories, Justin Sbresni, who with his partner Mark Bussell wrote, produced and directed The Worst Week of My Life, and Michael Jacob, currently Head of Mainstream Comedy for BBC Television. Mr Marks sat in and, after everyone had talked about their work and how they had got into the business, he asked Mr Jacob the process of getting a sitcom on the air.

When Yentob had offered Marks and Gran to be Head of BBC Comedy they asked if they would have the power to say yes. When he said no, they said no. Now, if Mr Jacob liked a project that passed across his desk he would start out by optioning the script. The next stage would be to buy the script and then pay for a second script (presumably to see if the quality and humour was consistent). After that he would present it to the heads of the departments. Then it would go to John Plowman, the BBC’s Head of Comedy, who would have to sell it to the Channel Controllers. Simple.

Getting some air during the afternoon coffee break, I asked Mr Jacob what current comedies he found amusing. Off the top of his head he couldn’t think of a single one.


At 9:42 am, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Earlier in the day, while out getting some fresh air, I'd got chatting to Mr. Jacobs and, not knowing who he was, the talk covered lots of things.

Including how the BBC's inertia was stopping anything useful coming out of it.


Hey, at least I didn't quite step up to the plate and trot out the freelancer's maxim that the BBC is "where the talentless go to die"...

At 7:47 pm, Blogger potdoll said...

tell us more. i'm enjoying this.

At 9:04 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Don't worry honeybun, there's more to come. Next up will be the drama talks, followed by all the bits and bobs I've forgotten to mention before.

At 10:16 pm, Blogger potdoll said...

sluuurp! Can't wait!

At 11:37 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I'm always happy to make a woman...

Okay, let's no go there.

At 12:21 pm, Blogger JD said...

Funny thing - I went to a talk given by Marks and Gran at RADA a couple of years back and their only prop was a white board bearing the legend "Character, Karaktor, Charakter" - Laurence said it was meant to be a crack at Tony Blair's "Educaton, education, education." They didn't talk too much about structure.

It did turn out that had both lived in Hatfield for a brief, unlamented period. Small world.


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