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Joz Norris


Tape 144: Ghosts, Collectives & High Concepts

  • Tape 144: Ghosts, Collectives & High Concepts

My girlfriend and I recently attended the BBC Comedy Festival in Glasgow, where the BBC organises various panels with legends and experts talking about the current TV comedy landscape, helping to demystify elements of it for other creatives finding their way through the industry. By and large, the legends (Armando Iannucci, Jennifer Saunders etc) would say that when they started it was just really easy to have a career in comedy and they don’t really know how it works any more. “I just walked into the BBC thinking it was a big WH Smith’s because I wanted to buy a bottle of water, and the commissioner saw me and gave me a twelve-part sitcom because he liked the cut of my jib,” they’d say. “That’s just how it worked in those days. If I had one tip for writers breaking into the industry, it would be to work on the cut of your jib, because that really is a currency as far as I can remember.” By contrast, the current experts gave variations on “We don’t really know what’s going on at the moment, to be honest. I think the problem is that comedians these days don’t like writing funny things? It must be that.” That might sound like a frustrating experience, but it was actually all very funny and Kafkaesque.

I wanted to reflect a bit on one thing that emerges consistently from all these panels and industry briefings, because there’s something within it that keeps jumping out at me. Invariably, commissioners at the moment are saying “We want broad, popular, mainstream ensemble sitcoms. No more identity-driven comedy dramas, no more surreal high-concept ideas. People just want to see broad, laugh-out-loud characters reflecting real life back at them in funny, relatable ways.” It’s a perfectly reasonable and understandable brief, and led to a really interesting panel discussion where Tom Basden, Robert Popper, Nerys Evans and Josh Cole tried to pin down exactly what was meant by the word “broad” in these sorts of announcements. The one show that keeps coming up as an example when people talk about this? Ghosts.

I understand why industry figures now think that Ghosts is a broad, popular, mainstream ensemble sitcom. It was a huge hit that people really took into their hearts because of how warm and funny and kind-hearted it was, and the engine of the show was a dysfunctional family unit of squabbling personalities, each of them with a very clear, distinctive POV. The team behind it were able to fashion it into, essentially, a mega-hit family sitcom. But that’s what they made it into. It’s not actually what the idea is on paper. On paper, the idea behind Ghosts is extremely high-concept. A young couple move into a haunted house, one of them is nearly murdered by one of the ghosts and can end up seeing them while her husband can’t. Each of the characters’ POVs is precisely informed by the time period they came from, so that we’re not just watching “a family sitcom,” but a sitcom in which different historical attitudes and tropes are placed alongside each other and essentially made to battle it out. Nothing about that screams “broad, relatable, mainstream.” It sounds like the sort of idea which, according to the things commissioners are suggesting in their briefings now, would be turned down at an initial pitch for being too out-there, too risky, too genre-y.

One thing that Basden, Popper, Evans and Cole mentioned in their panel was that no writer sets out to write something broad, popular and mainstream. Those things come about as a result of setting out to write something really good. Sometimes a weird, high-concept idea might develop into something incredibly familiar and comforting, or a broad, mainstream idea might conceal something incredibly subversive and inventive and strange. I think the sort of broad strokes contained in a lot of these briefs – “no more dramatic arcs, no more unusual ideas” – are so didactic as to misunderstand how a lot of good ideas emerge and take shape.

Of course, I’ve absolutely no idea how the team behind Ghosts pitched it to the BBC. I’m sure that by the time they made their initial approach, they’d already fine-tuned all those sharply defined character POVs and shaved off the weirder edges of its concept so that what they led with was simply “Family sitcom, but they’re all ghosts.” That’s a much broader, more obviously popular pitch, but there’s another key ingredient that would actually have made whoever read it go “Oh well we’ve got to make that.” It’s the pitch “Family sitcom, but they’re all ghosts, from the team who did Horrible Histories and Yonderland.”

There is a very simple reason why Ghosts is so good – it’s because the team who made it had been making comedy together for a decade, and had been given the opportunity to make inventive, silly, heartfelt work on other shows that trusted in them as a collective. Nobody went “This is a great idea, now let’s attach loads of big name talent to it to make sure it becomes broad and popular.” They just went “This is a great idea, and obviously you guys are the team who should write and star in it, because we trust you.”

By the time they made Ghosts, they knew one another’s strengths as performers and writers so well that that ensemble, the key ingredient of any family sitcom, was a well-oiled machine. They all cared about each other and felt totally comfortable performing with one another, so could effortlessly engineer scenarios that enabled their characters to bounce off one another in funny ways, and their chemistry would always be able to sell it. In the last decade or so, the only other sitcom I can think of that was made in the same way – trusting in a pre-existing collective of friends and collaborators who knew how to be funny together – is Stath Lets Flats. So many other shows tend to be squashed and reshaped a bit in development, so that big name actors can be attached to them so they’re more sellable. As a result, the comedy scene at the moment feels to me more like lots of solo acts intersecting and crossing over with one another, and less like a big Venn diagram of intersecting collectives and groups.

Ten years ago, it felt like collectives and scenes were a bigger deal in comedy. Most of what would later become the cast of Stath were making People TimeThe ACMS gang were making their Blaps alongside their live shows. Us lot at Weirdos were putting on immersive live residencies and anarchic pantos. I’d love to hear that these sorts of collectives are still populating the live scene, and that I’m just now at a place where I’ve got less of a finger-on-the-pulse on what’s going on at the moment! (Pinata is a good example, but looking around they seem to be the exception rather than the norm these days, and it’s also largely an anarchic showcase for solo acts, so it’s not quite the same thing I’m getting at). I wonder if the rise of social media has encouraged a more individualistic approach to creativity in the comedy scene which results in people largely working on their own stuff alongside one another, rather than coming together to create something communal.

What I certainly don’t see when I look around is many examples of the TV industry taking many risks on those sorts of collectives any more, and giving them the opportunity to make low-risk work that develops their skills and moves them further along the path towards making something world-class like Ghosts or Stath. I understand why – there’s not much money around at the moment, so TV is looking for bankable, surefire hits. What this attitude misunderstands is that you can’t engineer bankable, surefire hits. You stumble upon them by accident as a result of taking risks on things you believe in.

Maybe that sort of risk-taking, nurturing approach will return to TV comedy commissioning when its current, largely financially-driven crisis mindset has eased a little and the industry feels like it’s on its way back to a healthier position. Ultimately, Stath and Ghosts only started six and five years ago respectively, so it’s not like this way of making shows from groups of people who have been nurtured and trusted to build their skills together is a thing of the past. But I worry when I look around that not enough of these scenes and collectives and communities are being given the opportunities today that will turn into the big, popular shows of the future. I hope that might change.

Anyway, if it’s not too gauche to pivot into a plug for my own shtick, Miranda and I are curating a night of short films and live script reads called Eggbox at the Pleasance in October, and part of the thinking behind it is that we specifically want to shine more of a light on the interesting things that the scripted comedy community is doing under their own steam and off their own back, because I think the scene is incredibly vibrant and thriving and exciting at the moment, and could do with more collective, communal action to showcase its output. Do I think that one of the films we screen or scripts we read will contain the nucleus of the next Ghosts? I don’t know, we haven’t finished programming it yet, but that’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Book your ticket if you want to see what a bunch of brilliant writers and filmmakers have been creating! Should be a fun night.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – To leaven all my moaning of “Those squares in TV aren’t taking risks on cool comedy communities any more!” it’s worth my qualifying that there are great new comedy things emerging from the world of TV, but many of them these days are just focused on solo writer-performers rather than groups. A great example is Amy Gledhill’s new Channel 4 Blap Toadswhich is really funny, characterful and brilliant. It has a great nested-flashback premise which makes me really hope that Channel 4 will do the obvious thing and commission a series so we can see more of the stories this pilot promises. Big congrats to all involved.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I curated a mixed bill night called Joz Norris & Friends in Camden last week and the entire front row had me in hysterics throughout. They elevated being inadvertently bad audience members to an art form, sitting on their phones throughout and constantly walking in and out of the gig, but always being incredibly polite and friendly whenever we tried to address them, so it was hard to do anything about it. When Bec Hill went on, they suddenly transformed into the best audience you could possibly imagine, shouting “Yes! Preach!” after everything she said, and I found their sudden transformation absolutely hilarious. It was a genuinely lovely gig and I actually adored them.

Book Of The Week – I’m reading 1000 Joys And Sorrows: A Memoir by Ai Weiwei. I love Ai Weiwei’s art and don’t know an awful lot about his life, so this book is a really fascinating background to where he came from. I also know precious little about Chinese history, really, although I studied it a bit at school and reading his account of the country during the 20th century is stirring up long-neglected memories.

Album Of The Week – The Art Of The Lie by John Grant. I love everything John Grant has done, but I found his last album, 2021’s Boy From Michigan, lacked some of the fun and humour I normally associate with his work. It was a bit miserable. It wallowed a bit. This new album brings the fun back in spades, while still holding onto all the rage and the nihilism that makes his work so brilliant. It funks so hard. Nobody funks like John Grant, and I’m so pleased he’s doing it again after wallowing for a bit (wallowing excellently, mind you, nobody wallows like John Grant).

Film Of The Week – Inside Out 2. I went into this expecting a perfectly acceptable film that ultimately left me thinking “Didn’t need a sequel.” I was so pleasantly surprised – this film is brilliant. It expands the core psychology of the first film in a really interesting way, looking at how we build our identity out of our beliefs, and the exploration of anxiety will be a really valuable frame of reference for teenagers, I reckon (not to mention adults). I loved it.

That’s all for this week! As ever, please let me know what you thought, and if you enjoy the newsletter enough to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, then I’d hugely appreciate it. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS I have no plans to actually charge for this newsletter or put it behind a paywall, but I do write it for free and the comedy and media industries are in a perilous state right now, especially for freelancers. If you value the Therapy Tapes and enjoy what they give to you, and want to support my work and enable me to keep writing and creating, you can make a one-off donation to my Ko-Fi account, and it’s very gratefully appreciated.

PPS Somehow, despite having lived in London for 13 years, I’ve never been on a boat on the Thames before. Nice to tick that off:

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