JADE CARTIER INTERVIEWS MICHEAL JACOB (Freelance Comedy Producer and Writers’ Dock Comedy Competition Mentor)
JC: Having produced comedy for a number of years, what would you say are some of the major changes you have witnessed that would have an impact on writers of comedy today?
MJ: In the creative sphere, there has been an increase in the number of executives who have a say in scripts and the finished product, so the role of the writer has moved more towards being a supplier of ‘content’, and away from being the prime creative voice. Unless a writer has power based on past success – and there aren’t many who fall into that category – they now have to deal with producers, heads of comedy and commissioners who all have things to say, often contradictory.
In the area of opportunity, a proliferation of digital channels and the recent entry of Sky into original comedy programming has rather expanded the market, and the internet is increasingly becoming a significant force.
JC: Which comedy standards would you recommend to aspiring comedy writers to glean inspiration from?
MJ: It depends on the sort of comedy people want to write: there are multi-camera audience comedies, broad single camera comedies, single camera comedies that lean towards comedy-drama . . . then there are different ways of organising stories. I’d say that, whatever sort of comedy someone aspires to, there’s a classic model to study. I obviously don’t mean slavishly copying an existing show, but more analysing the method and seeing how things are put together in terms of character and story.
JC: What are some of the integral ingredients that make a successful comedy writer, in your opinion?
MJ: Insecurity, paranoia, unshakeable belief that their own work is superior to that of anyone who is commissioned, a propensity for spending time in the pub talking about work rather than doing any . . . those are all common characteristics. On the positive side, I’d say it’s important to have a keen interest in people and what makes them tick, the ability to tell an interesting story, and an original view of the world. And, of course, an ability to write in a funny and entertaining way, even if they’re not hilarious in real life.
JC: If you had to place some radio or TV comedies in a time capsule for future generations, which programmes would you choose and for what reasons?
MJ: I Love Lucy because it was the first multi-camera proscenium sitcom with an audience; Hancock’s Half Hour because it created the model of British sitcom; The Goon Show because it brought surreal comedy into the mainstream; Round the Horne because it showed how comedy can subvert censorship; The Larry Sanders Show because it skewered the television industry.
JC: Is there much mentoring of inexperienced writers by successful comedy writers happening in this modern era of comedy writing, and do you see this as an important rite of passage for writers who are beginning their careers?
MJ: Established writers are almost invariably very generous to aspiring writers, although there isn’t a great deal of mentoring in a continuing sense.
JC: I have, over the years, witnessed your critiquing of writers’ work – what would you say are consistent ‘traps’ that comedy writers fall into?
MJ: Writing interchangeable jokes, rather than jokes that come from character; telling linear stories, which go from A to B, rather than going from A to C via B; creating one-dimensional characters, rather than three-dimensional characters; submitting scripts before they’re ready, rather than re-writing and then re-writing again.
JC: These days, who should the newer writer be aiming their comedy writing towards? Is there a specific demographic for television and radio? What type of media could they use to gain exposure? Is there a place for YouTube, etc.? Can you give us some of your thoughts regarding how you think television comedy will evolve in the future?
MJ: A proliferation of channels means that every demographic is catered for somewhere – the key is to study the market and see what kind of shows channels are buying, then do something in that spirit rather than slavishly copying an existing show. It always works best when a writer has a story they want to tell about people they care about, rather than knocking something out because they think it might sell.
Now that YouTube is investing in content, and internet-enabled television sets are already here, there should be more shows on the internet with recognisable talent and high production values, which will increase opportunities for writers.
There is a lot of user-generated content on the internet, but the problem is to get it noticed amongst all the other material clamouring for an audience, and there is no real recipe for that, except to think in a marketing way and hope that someone with
many ‘friends’ on Facebook or many followers on Twitter will find it and recommend it.
The advantages that television has had so far are that it has money, channels, a wide reach and means of promotion. Once money is available elsewhere, and particularly if creators have creative control of their work, rather than being subject to executive whim, then television will become less powerful. But it will certainly fight back.