01 May 2014
basac's picture
Last week, on his consistently wise @sitcomgeek blog James Cary wrote two very thorough pieces about the rise of the writer-performer in comedy, and how this has had an effect on sitcom. (links at the end of this article)
James makes many good points. Of course he does, he always does, he's James Cary. The first, and what prompted him to write about it, was the current obsession in the comedy industry with ‘talent’, meaning the faces in front of the camera as opposed to ‘talent’, the massive team effort required to turn a good show into a great one.
He also says that broadcasters should take a long view when creating new shows. Sure, there is a place for the writer-performer led sitcom, but the shows that still enjoy large and new audiences are the likes of 'Porridge', 'Only Fools And Horses' and 'Yes Minister.' (Let's not talk about 'Dad's Army - the movie' just now).
James referred to the top ten sitcoms show that the BBC ran about ten years ago, and pointed out that with the exception of Fawlty Towers, and the first series of Blackadder, all the other sitcoms were writer-driven. It's a fair point - and it wasn't just Britain where this was the case, it was the same during the last golden era of the American sitcom, in the 1990s. At that time four shows led the ratings for the major networks - 'Seinfeld', 'Frasier', 'Friends' and 'The Simpsons', and if you accept that Larry David was at that stage a full-time writer, then in the States three and a half out of four massive shows were writer-led.
I thoroughly support James's impassioned plea for more writers to be restored to the sitcom-writing jobs. For those of you starting out in comedy writing, and with absolutely no intention to attempt stand-up or sketch performing, you need all the support you can get.                                                                                                                                                                
However, I fear he is asking for a return to an age that has vanished. What might be called the golden era of British sitcom, what the writer Julian Dutton refers to as 'a national theatre of comedy', was a time when writer-performers were a novelty. The few performer-led sitcoms I can remember from around that era (‘Fawlty Towers’, Peter Tilbury and his adman sitcom 'It Takes A Worried Man', and ‘The Young Ones’) were the exceptions that proved the rule.                                                                                         
Since the 1980s, whether we like it or not, the writer-performer has become a major fixture in mainstream comedy. Having spent 30 years variously as a writer, performer and writer-performer, I'm less troubled than James by the phenomenon, but I can see how it has affected the process of creating sitcom, and not always in a good way.                                                                     
If it was just the rise of the writer-performer that was killing off the good old-fashioned popular audience sitcom I would agree with him, but it’s more than that. It's also down to the decline of subsidised theatre, which was the main recruiting ground for actors across all forms of TV. One of the reasons audience sitcom has gone out of fashion is because there are no longer so many jobbing actors, with years of experience of playing different parts and different types of theatre in front of audiences.                                                                                                                                             
The reason those great sitcoms of the 80s and earlier were writer led, was because during that period British culture was essentially theatre-led. And theatre was where writers and performers learned their trade. Every city had a theatre, and many had more than one stage. The people who performed there were usually a repertory cast who developed a huge number of skills. In any three week period, you could find yourself playing a big Shakespeare part in the main theatre, alternating with a Noel Coward show in the smaller space. Then you might find yourself in a new drama by Colin Welland or Ronald Harwood, then it would be panto time.                                                                                                                                  
Similarly with regard to the writing, if you watch any classic episode from 'Steptoe', 'The Likely Lads', or ‘Yes Minister’, you'll see that these are not so much gag-driven comedies (although there are always plenty of great jokes) as mini comic dramas.                                                                                                                                                                                     
In the 1980s, commercialism took over. The attitude that still persists, which is that arts and culture are bottom of the priority list when it comes to public funds, brought an end to subsidised theatre, and over the last 30 years the repertory theatre system has almost completely died out. Anyone wishing to write or perform comedy has had to find other ways of doing it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
Alternative comedy may have been inspired by left-wing theatre and the rebellious comedy of Samuel Beckett and Bertold Brecht, but it was at heart a classic Thatcherite success story - cheap entertainment that paid for itself and helped shift alcohol units in the process.                                                                                                                                                             
So we no longer have immensely versatile working actors who can play anyone, any time, instead we have stand-up comedians who have spent 10, 15 or more years performing up and down the country. They've done thousands of shows in front of audiences of timid first year students, drunken stag nights, pensioners, hipsters, businessmen, ex-pat engineers in Dubai, Marxist seminar attendees, hippy festival goers. They've performed on stages, in rooms above pubs, in fields, on buses. So they can't be lots of different people but they can play any audience, and they can play any version of themselves. No wonder the TV companies go to them first.                                                                                                 
What does this mean for new writers? It's true that you are starting out with more of a disadvantage than would have been the case thirty or forty years ago. Comedy producers starting out now, like you, are spending far more time hanging out at comedy clubs than they are reading scripts.                                                                                                                         
But the clever stand-ups have learned that if they want a long and varied career in comedy they're going to need more than their on-stage charm and cherished collection of one-liners. In recent years we've seen sitcoms from Jack Dee (working with Pete Sinclair), Dylan Moran (with Graham Linehan) and Lee Mack, with Danny Peak. It's true we're possibly getting less of a range of characters, but instead we're getting original performers guided into the sitcom format by top writers.                                                                                                                                                                        
So even if you have no intention of appearing on stage yourself, it's worth spending some time getting to know the younger rising stars of live comedy. They may think they don't need you, at all, but they're wrong, and if you like a comic and feel you could write for them, it's your job to persuade them that you can do that job.                                                     
Also, the situation isn’t quite as bad as James makes out. Writers do still have some clout in the comedy creation process – Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, for instance, continue to create their own shows, while Graham Linehan can choose what he wants to write, and when.                                                                                                                                               
To pick, sort of at random, BBC3's great new hits of the last couple of years, only 'Bad Education' features the star in a writing role (Jack Whitehall), and he's collaborating with his long-term writing partner Freddy Syborn. 'Uncle' features stand-up star Nick Helm but is written and directed by Oliver Refson, while the most popular BBC3 comedy of the last twelve months is completely writer-created and driven. So my final piece of evidence for the argument that things aren’t as bad for comedy writers as they could be is 'Bluestone 42' - written by James Cary and Richard Hurst.