Posted: Mon Apr 13, 2009 6:07 pm Post subject: Graham Linehan
Let's ditch the boring sketch shows Graham Linehan, the creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, is annoyed by the lack of risk-taking in British TV comedy, he tells Mark Hughes Monday, 13 April 2009
Coming from the man who helped create The Fast Show, Harry Enfield and Chums and Little Britain it may sound strange, but Graham Linehan says it is time for repetitive sketch shows such as these to disappear from our television screens. Linehan, one of the UK's most celebrated comedy writers, who penned Father Ted and, most recently, The IT Crowd, says the lazy formula of using the same characters and jokes in slightly different situations and scenarios week after week has become tired.
"I directed the pilot of Little Britain to help Matt Lucas and David Walliams get a foot in the door. When it started I thought it was so inventive and changed the game but people saw its success as an excuse for repetition: getting a funny character and grinding it into the ground," he says.
"It's something that has been done and now I think people should definitely stop doing sketch shows that rely on repetition. Catherine Tate and everyone else should just stop doing it. Sketch shows should be about variety, but people feel that audiences, if they like something, need to be given more of that thing. That is untrue. Audiences do not know what they like. They only know when they see it and our job, as comedy writers, is to create new things and that involves taking risks and I think, at the moment, there is a lack of risk in British comedy."
It is one of many forthright views the comic has on the state of British television today. Last year he attacked BBC 3 for its content and he remains unapologetic. "I generally do not like the idea that young people are stupid and the only way you can appeal to them is by stupid television," he says. "I hate those freak show documentaries that are always on BBC 3 and the idea that seems to prevail that sex is incredibly funny. It is immature and I hate it. I do not think you have to chase a young audience by talking down to them and that's what BBC 3 seems to do. It is like watching your grandad break dancing. It is just embarrassing."
So how should new comedy shows attract the young audience that television executives so crave? "I think what you do is talk up to them," Linehan says. "And you let people catch up. If they do not get a reference let them look it up themselves. They will find themselves enriched by it." The criticism aside, Linehan does have one compliment for the channel, albeit a backhanded one. "I thought Pulling [a sitcom about three female flatmates struggling with dating and drinking, which was cancelled by BBC 3 last year] was great," He says. "One of the best things of the last 10 years, and it should have been given a third series."
A huge fan of Twitter, Linehan is aware of how the internet threatens to impinge on the money-making power that once belonged to television and DVDs. But he says that the answer is not to fight it, like the music industry has done. "I think we have to embrace the Internet," he says. "We shouldn't be scared of it because it is here and it is here to stay. Executives in the music and television industry that are scared of it are dinosaurs. I can understand their fear to a certain extent because CD and DVD sales are plummeting but you have to look at the positives."
He cites the example of a Monty Python clip on YouTube that has helped increase DVD sales by 900 per cent. "It allows you to reach new markets. The IT Crowd has a really good following in the States. People who would never have seen it in a million years are now able to watch it. Also, people equate the internet with being free. I don't necessarily agree. I think people like the internet because it's instant. I use itunes because it is at my fingertips, on my phone. I still pay for albums though."
Does Linehan fear for British television due to the influx of American shows such as The Wire, Lost, Heroes and Curb Your Enthusiasm? "I think it is a bit of a myth that American television is much better than British TV. I get constant emails from people in America telling me how bad their television is. And I tell them if they knew how contemptuous people are about television in Britain they would be amazed. We are a self-lacerating society but I don't think America has produced anything as good as The Office for a while. And we have produced other great comedies like Peep Show and Outnumbered.
"That said, I think Seinfeld is the greatest sitcom ever made and I think Larry David (the creator) is a genius. But even he isn't infallible. I think he has stretched himself too far with Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everyone seems to love it, but I think it is overrated. I hope he never reads this."
Graham Linehan Interview: The IT Crowd
The fourth series of The IT Crowd began yesterday on Channel 4. But before the return of Jen, Moss and Roy here's a Q&A with the show's writer Graham Linehan.
What do we have to look forward to in the new series?
There’ll be no hugging, no learning, no character arcs and no one gets any wiser: I’m keeping them in a state of nervous stasis I guess. I’ve tried to continue the idea that Roy, Moss and Jen are becoming better friends and are enjoying each other’s company a bit more. One thing that is really important to me in this new series is the use of ‘nerd’ storyines.
Father Ted ran for many series and The IT Crowd is well on its way – do sitcoms improve with age?
No. I think they get worse – they reach a point of perfection and then after that they fall away. Seinfeld around series 5 was just glorious and then it started getting crazier and sillier untill there was a sense that they were sticking anything in that felt crazy. I think it’s a good idea to get out before that stage.
Any chance of a Moss / Jen romance?
Well it did kind of happen at the end of series one and then I just dropped it and hoped that everybody forgot about it. I always thought to myself that what actually happened was that Jen threw up on Moss and that’s really why Moss was wearing her dressing gown.
Why has this sitcom worked so well?
I’ve got a great cast who are capable of hitting all those funny beats and I guess I’m always quite rigorous about the scripts. There’s an unspoken belief among too many people, including writers, that scripts are just dialogue when actually they are also about what happens visually. For example, the big set piece moments… they're usually visual. So I always try and keep the dynamic going of visual joke followed by dialogue passage, followed by one-liner, followed by musical joke, and so on, just to keep it interesting and have dynamics.
Where do you get the gags from?
Basically every single thing that strikes me as funny I write it down and tyry to crowbar it in to the show. There’s a kind of magpie stage where I look for incidents and stories – I’m always begging people to tell me funny anecdotes and stuff like that. You can use them if people just tell you them; but you can’t ask for them. That’s like cheating.
I also get a lot of ideas just surfing online – I saw this hilarious photograph online of a guy in a starbucks with his laptop open and a gaming rig and he was doing flight simulation with earphones on, pedals at his feet – he’d bought all of his stuff down to Starbucks! It was the funniest thing and I just thought. “I’ll have that”. I used it for Moss except I put him in a park which was even better. If it’s something that’s just kind of very normal everyday observation joke then I give it to Jen or Roy.
How do you use the live studio audience?
If a line doesn’t play well then we’ll re-do it. We get a lot of pleasure out of surprising the studio audience and we try and make that night a lot of fun for them. They can see all the behind the scenes interaction – things like us having a little discussion, coming up with a new line and it just makes for a more entertaining evening. After all, sitting in a studio audience for three or four hours is really tough but I think people enjoy seeing the process happen in front of their eyes.
The Saturday interview: Graham Linehan This week Graham Linehan found himself at the centre of a 'heated row' on Radio 4's Today programme. And he didn't like it. Not one little bit
11 June 2011
listen to the audio
When Graham Linehan was a boy growing up in Dublin, he was often bullied: for being a geek and for his size. But, at 6ft 2in, he was also not allowed to fight back. "I was told, 'Never fight. Never, never fight'. I guess my parents were afraid I'd spike someone and they'd fall over and I'd kill them by mistake or something. So they'd tell me: 'Just walk away, walk away'." One day, "a huge group of kids surrounded me and this other guy, and they created this ring, so that I couldn't leave, you know? And I didn't want to join in, so I just waited for my moment and walked out of the ring … "
Decades and much success later – Linehan co-wrote Father Ted and Black Books, writes and directs The IT Crowd for Channel 4, has won four Baftas, and an International Emmy and has contributed, either as writer or director, to many of the seminal comedy shows of the last couple of decades (The Alexei Sayle Show, I'm Alan Partridge, The Day Today, Brass Eye, The Fast Show) – and he's still doing the same thing.
Although now he walks away and it makes the national news. Earlier this week Linehan was asked onto the Today programme to discuss his new stage version of The Ladykillers, which opens at the Liverpool Playhouse (where it has already prompted their fastest first day of ticket sales ever) in early November, and transfers to the West End three weeks later. As he later wrote on his blog, he was told before arriving at the studio that he would be expected to discuss the "problems [of] adapting a classic film for the stage". Arriving in the green room, however, he encountered this paper's drama critic, Michael Billington, who informed him that, in fact, he would be required to defend the wisdom of tampering with such a well-loved classic at all.
Linehan attempted to stay with the detail – the limitations (and advantages) of keeping all the action indoors; the opportunity to explore characters a bit more; the fact that (unlike Some Like It Hot, say) The Ladykillers doesn't have a surfeit of really funny lines, and he wanted to have a go at providing some – but this was treated as him going somewhat off-piste. "Why turn," as Billington put it, "a perfect film into a play?" Linehan refused to be drawn. "You're as bad as a cabinet minister," complained Justin Webb, presenting. But that was exactly Linehan's point. "Michael's been brought on to present the view that there's no point in doing this at all, and I won't get drawn into that kind of a discussion."
But surely – as many promptly pointed out, on blogs and on Twitter – he's a writer; surely he understands the usefulness, the necessity, even, of dramatic conflict? "When you're a writer you learn very quickly that there are ways of writing conflict that are a bit more subtle," says Linehan. "If you're a good writer, you don't have everybody shouting in every scene. Conflict means a mother places something here," – he moves the salt shaker away from the pepper on the table in the sleek west London kitchen he shares with his wife, Helen Serafinowicz, and their two children – "and then when she leaves, the daughter moves it back. That's conflict. It doesn't have to be two people screaming at each other in a room. But the Today programme, and sometimes Newsnight, I have to say, and a lot of news shows, they have this default mode, which is: get people in, put them in the red corner and the blue corner, and make them fight." None of it, as he pointed out in his own blog (in a post now viewed over 12,000 times), "is any good for the national conversation".
Take an exchange he recently had with Labour MP Tom Watson, about whether or not, and how, Tony Blair should be questioned on the Iraq war. "And we went back and forth a while, and then he said, 'What would you prefer: the Conservatives?' And I realised, that's what everything comes down to, this binary choice. If you don't like Labour, you must like the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats skew it a little, but still – that's the way that political conversation is conducted in this country."
But surely the method actually plays an important role in the culture? Other countries, where such exchanges are far more respectful, might frankly envy the fact that cabinet ministers here are regularly, and forcefully, held to account. "Look, if you have a dog, and you rattle a tin to get the dog to come and have a treat, you're supposed to sometimes give the dog a treat, and sometimes you don't. What it does is, he always comes to you, because he doesn't know if he's going to get a treat or not. But if you never give the dog a treat, it will stop coming. So I don't think that the default mode of aggressive interviewing is useful, because politicians just build a defence against it. In fact, they thrive on Today because they know what's going to happen.
"On the other hand, if you vary your approach from subject to subject, and introduce a bit of dynamics, people will come on the show because they'll have heard something they like, because it sounds more like a conversation than a university debating room. I know a lot of people who won't go on it, and they're bright people. It's just this macho atmosphere; people don't want to live in the world of The Thick of It all the time."
Although there are many who, rightly, want to know what he expected, going on Today in the first place, there are many more for whom he struck a real blow. "Hurrah!!!!" wrote a reader on the Telegraph website. "Someone has said it at last. I don't listen to Today anymore. I realised one morning that a) I wasn't finding out about issues, only how good a politician was at coping with hostile questioning and b) it was making me grumpy." Many of Linehan's 106,000-odd followers on Twitter have expressed similar sentiments.
Linehan, who once said "Facebook was just John the Baptist. Twitter is the real deal," and after our interview sends me a link to a talk entitled: The internet is my religion has crowd-sourcing, social media form. When the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed, for instance, one of his first responses was to post a joke on Twitter: "Does anyone have confirmation that Osama was watching The IT Crowd in these home movies? Amazing if true. Don't know how to feel."
"I was on holiday and I was bored," he says now. "There's a famous joke that LA writers used to tell each other. Which is that you're walking through the Ecuadorian jungle, and you come across a clearing with a house in it. You knock on the door looking for a glass of water and the door opens and it's a recognisable, old, but still alive Hitler. And he recognises you, and says: 'I love your show!' And the moral conundrum is, do you turn him in? I just wanted to do a joke about Osama because I was so happy when they got him, I was just delighted. If you can't be happy about the death of someone who killed people for dancing, then who can you be happy about, you know? – and I just decided to pretend that my opinions of him had changed because he watched The IT Crowd." Trouble was, thousands believed him; it trended in the UK, and some sites began reporting it as fact. He couldn't resist adding to it, involving a friend in the US who said he had seen it on CNN …
Finally, after two days, he decided to knock it on the head with as big a joke as he could muster – both so followers could recognise it as such, and so they didn't feel too let down. He pretended to have got hold of a clip of Osama watching the video: "My heart is in my mouth" … and then "It is 'Big Bang Theory'!", a US show, also about computer nerds. "Why was it reported as 'It Crowd'? Fucking Osama. FUCKING ROT IN HELL, MOTHERFUCKER! #OBL #itcrowd #bigbangbollocks."
He doesn't just use Twitter for comedy: when, in 2009, MP Daniel Hannan used various appearances on US talk shows to denigrate the NHS, Linehan started a Twitter campaign (#welovetheNHS) which went viral.
As an evangelist, an entirely enthusiastic adopter who not only cast extras for the new series of The IT Crowd from Twitter, but found writers for it too, ("people were making me laugh regularly. And I just said – look – have you ever thought about writing comedy?") he has little patience for people such as the comedian Stewart Lee, who recently wrote a jeremiad against the internet's effect on work like his, and announced his fixed intention to write a show that resisted all that: "You can't tweet it, or trail it, or chop it up into content."
"I love Stewart," says Linehan. "I think he's a brilliant comedian. But the thing that annoys me slightly about comedians and commentators, complaining about Twitter is basically they're saying: 'Only I'm allowed to have an audience. That's how it's always been. I get a microphone, I put in the hours, I only get an audience. You're not allowed an audience.' But now everybody has a chance to be a creator, everybody has a chance to be amusing, everyone has a chance to share interesting stories, to be a journalist. You don't have to get an OK from John Humphrys to get word of something out. And this is why people like him hate it. Because you're just ordinary people – you just shut up – you know?"
Linehan could not have been more ordinary when he broke into television. Unlike the impression, easily formed, that an apprenticeship at Oxbridge, preferably in the Revue or the Footlights, is a requirement for comedy success in this country, Linehan and Arthur Mathews, colleagues at a small Dublin music magazine, and then hopeful writers in a shared flat in outer London, simply sent a couple of sketches to the BBC on spec, and were taken up by Alas Smith and Jones.
Linehan was in his mid-twenties, a middle-class Catholic who lost his religion at 14: when "I was a Holy Joe, as Ted would say. But I was going through the normal things that all 14-year-old boys go through, and I was very, very upset about it, very worried, and I thought I was going to go to hell, and then one day, we had these encyclopaedias. And the last encyclopaedia was called The Guide for Parents. And I thought, 'Oh, maybe there'll be something about this horrible thing that I have to do all the time in here.' So I opened it up, got to M, saw masturbation, turned to that page, and it read, 'Masturbation: nothing to worry about, completely normal.' And I immediately stopped believing in God."
A couple of years later he realised he could make people laugh. "I used to do these debates at my school, and I just found all that kind of … boring." He puts on a deep, portentous voice. "'Prove that religion is a force for good' – I just thought: 'I don't really have an opinion on that, so I'll just tell jokes. You know?'"
When he and Mathews met, the latter, 10 years older, was already using the Father Ted figure in his standup. The first series was not particularly well reviewed, but later, of course, the story changed dramatically: Linehan, who a couple of years ago received a standing ovation along with a gong at the British Comedy Awards, is very keen to point out that, "I always feel bad about that, because really they were standing for Father Ted," and thus for Mathews as well. There is real melancholy in his demeanour when he describes them drifting apart. They wrote separate shows: Black Books, in his case, with Dylan Moran, Hippies in Mathews' case, but when they came together again, the chemistry was gone. "We couldn't find the old people that we were. We couldn't do it – it had just disappeared. It was really sad. I would have written with Arthur forever. Writing with Arthur was like: we would come into work, sit down, laugh for the whole day. You know? And it's hard to get giddy off your own company. So I sit upstairs and procrastinate as much as I can, and then when a deadline is coming I panic and manage to write it."
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