Sunday, August 31, 2008

What's So Funny?

[Geoffrey Perkins, comedy writer and producer, died in a road accident on Friday]

The death of Geoffrey Perkins has left a huge gap in the world of British television. He was one of the greatest comedy producers of the last twenty years and his death on Friday in a road accident, at the age of just 55, is a blow that will be felt right across my industry. Geoffrey was the original producer of Father Ted, and later, as head of comedy for the BBC, was responsible for countless hits such as The Fast Show, Catherine Tate, My Family, Coupling and 2 Pints of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. Before that he worked in radio, where he produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s also credited with creating the hysterical ‘Mornington Crescent’ game in my favourite radio programme I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; sometimes, when it comes on the car radio, I can laugh so much I have to pull over for fear of crashing.

Geoffrey’s death happened in the same week that both the BBC and ITV announced they were looking for more situation comedy – that is, narrative shows filmed live in front of a studio audience. A few years ago people thought sitcom had lost its sell-by date, overshadowed by the new shaky, single-camera style of such masterpieces as The Office. Studio comedy is notoriously difficult to get right, partly because of the presence of the audience sitting, arms crossed, demanding a great gag every twenty seconds or so. A good sitcom also needs two or three classic moments every episode – that’s a lot to ask. Audiences also have to grow to love the characters; perhaps that’s why some of our greatest sitcoms, like One Foot In The Grave, have needed two or three series to really take off with viewers. The pool of good British comedy producers is pretty shallow, so imagine how great the loss of a really fine talent will be.

Unlike Geoffrey, who sat immersed in comedy throughout his career, I’ve been a butterfly in television, flitting between drama, music, entertainment, arts programmes and documentaries. After 30 years of trying, I have no doubt that of all television, comedy is the hardest to nail. I don’t know whether I find everything funny, or don’t find new work funny enough but, for whatever reason, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in the genre.

I’ve been given plenty of opportunities: I produced a series for the BBC called A Kick Up The Eighties. It was the show that brought Rik Mayall to television as the weird “reporter” Kevin Turvey, dressed in a cheap C&A anorak we bought together in Glasgow; it also discovered Tracey Ullman. I spotted her in a studio theatre play and she auditioned for me, finally getting the job over another newcomer I’d seen in the Cambridge Footlights that year, Emma Thompson. Later I worked with Lenny Henry, David Jason, and even the great Stanley Baxter. I’ve loved every second of these experiences, but somehow I always felt a bit of an imposter. I’m probably not strong enough to cope with the pressure and the precision. Comedy is a pretty serious business. The audience, both at home and in the studio, can be utterly unforgiving. The difference between funny and dull is often a single word, a split second in timing, or a wrong camera angle. As the producer, you have to worry about every line, every nuance, and at the end of the day, when the script has been printed and the actors rehearsed, all you can do is just wait for that reassuring chuckle or, if you’re very lucky, a belly laugh.

To me Perkins, and comedy creators like him, are the gurus of my industry. The ability to predict what other people will find funny is one of the secret magic arts, and one that I’ve never managed to properly crack. I wish I had half that man’s talent.

1 comment:

Hadriana's Treasures said...

I was very sorry to hear about the death of Geoffrey Perkins. So often the names behind the shows are the unseen and unsung heroes. You brought us "Kevin Turvey"..I wish we could see repeats of that. Funnily enough I was just telling my husband about good old Kev and he looked at me blankly. He did spend x numbers of years in the desert (i.e. Egypt) so he missed a masterpiece there. Any chance of some reruns?