PWA long reads - Interview with BBC Executive Comedy Producer Simon Nicholls
What’s the key to great comedy? How can you engage the audience while still making them laugh? What should a new writer look out for? Actress, writer and producer Katherine Press met up with BBC Studios Executive Producer for Comedy Simon Nicholls to clear up all these questions and more in an exclusive interview for Professional Writing Academy.
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Katherine Press – Hi Simon! Our students generally come from a drama writing background. What are the differences between writing for drama and writing for comedy?
Simon Nicholls – Well, it’s basically the same rules as drama writing, but be funny as well! To my mind, it’s a thousand times harder than drama, because not only are you trying to come up with a story that’s juicy with characters that you’re interested and invested in week in and week out, but you’re also trying to make people laugh – and everyone’s sense of humour is completely different.
So, to make something that is both universally funny and gripping is tougher, I would argue, than writing a police procedural, or something like that.
KP – Where do you start when crafting a winning comedy?
SN – For me, the biggest thing with comedy writing is character. With drama it might be a situation or a world… With comedy I think it starts with having an interesting, funny character at the heart of it who can keep the thing alive. So, when I work with writers, that’s the thing we talk about for ages – who’s your main character, what are their flaws, what do they think they are versus what they really are?
Delusion is often a good flaw – thinking that you’re better than you really are. Often drawing on the writer or performer’s own experience of the people that they know can be a starting point. One writer I’m working with is developing a character based on his brother-in-law – not that his brother-in-law knows this! He loves his brother-in-law but finds him absolutely hilarious for various reasons.
I think you’re often drawing on characters that you’ve met who might have odd kinds of social tics. When you’re starting to write comedy that’s not a bad way to go. Writers have said that a key to comedy writing is simply listening to people, because people naturally say really stupid things, so it’s plundering that for your character.
Something I like to use is not just ‘what does the character want?’, but ‘what do they really want?’
KP – Particularly for comedy, as opposed to drama?
SN – I think so. For drama, you can write something set in the year 2453, but in comedy, often the strongest stuff is that which has real passion, and heart and warmth to it – it’s not funny when something’s been written cynically.
So, Fools & Horses: John Sullivan was from the East End of London and he hung around all the markets when he was growing up – he knew all those characters and you can tell, because they’re three-dimensional, funny characters. Even though Del Boy is a moron, we care about him because he’s having to bring up his brother.
The original Porridge: Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement went and visited prisons – there was real research that went into it – and you’ve got the vulnerability of Fletcher as he worries about his family on the outside.
In decent comedy, you still have to care – unless it’s sketch comedy and it’s just crazy stuff – but in a good sitcom there’s drama in there that pulls at our heartstrings. Take This Country (BBC), written by Daisy and Charlie Cooper. It’s their love letter to Cirencester – that’s where they’re from and they know all those people. It sounds like a cliché, but writing about people you know simply works.
KP – Any other top tips for writing that hilarious character?
SN – Something I like to use is not just ‘what does the character want?’, but ‘what do they really want?’ It’s the difference between someone saying ‘I want to be a successful whatever’ and then them getting drunk and confessing that all they really want is to meet the right person and be happy together. Often when people are drunk, what’s buried in there comes out… What they generally say they want is a shield.
Be ruthless about the dynamic between your characters – if your lead character thinks that he’s really attractive and he’s not, what character can you put with him to draw that out?
KP – Note to self: get my character drunk and see what happens!
SN – Exactly! There aren’t hard and fast rules – there are a thousand ways you can do it – but your character being a bit of a loser in some shape or form is often a good one. Because who cares about someone who’s rich and good-looking and successful?! Ugly and tragic is funnier!
KP – So you’ve got your lead character. What next?
SN – Once you’ve got your central character, you can then build the supporting characters, using them to get the best (or worst) out of your central character. Basil Fawlty is deluded – he wants to be running the Ritz, but actually he’s running a naff B&B.
So who do you put with him? You give him a wife who’s absolutely terrifying, who takes no excuses from him, but is funny in her own right – that’s a good foil. You give him Manuel who is a moron, who he can bully – but also so you create that Blackadder dynamic where Basil or Blackadder are caught in the middle.
They’ve got this character above them who bullies and terrifies them – Sybil Fawlty or Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I, who might chop Blackadder’s head off at any moment – but beneath them you’ve got a servant/moron who they can bully in their turn. Both Basil and Blackadder aspire to be in charge but are actually caught in the middle.
Be quite ruthless about the dynamic between your characters. It’s potentially a bit mathematical and boring, but it needs to be done. So, if my lead character thinks that he’s really attractive and he’s not, what character can I put with him to draw that out? Frasier and Nile are interesting because they’re almost the same character, but Nile is Frasier cranked up to ten. How do they bring out the funny in each other?
A mistake that writers often make (particularly male writers, I’m afraid) is that their character will be married, and their wife will be a one-dimensional, boring character who just eye-rolls.
KP – Do you prefer single character vehicles, then, with that Basil or Blackadder role, as opposed to ensemble shows?
SN – It’s not always as clear cut as that, because often a single character thing is in some ways an ensemble piece and vice versa. You could say Frasier is a single character piece, but it’s also an ensemble because you’ve got the double act with Nile, and you’ve got his dad and Roz, and all the other characters.
Or Cheers – is it the Ted Danson show? Well, not really, because you’ve got eight really interesting characters in there. In the American Office, which I love, Steve Carrell is the ‘star’, but every other one of the characters is as strong as him.
KP – So you need those supporting characters to be just as strong as your central one?
SN – A mistake that writers often make (particularly male writers, I’m afraid) is that their character will be married, and their wife will be a one-dimensional, boring character who just eye-rolls, or – I like to compare them to the Tom and Jerry cartoons, where you’ve got the pair of legs who runs around after them with the broom – you get writers who create their female characters with about as much dimension!
But, you should be able to take any character – within the American Office, let’s say – and build a sitcom around them because they’re funny in their own right. Another acid test is to take an everyday situation – a car journey from A to B with this character, or being stuck in a lift, or on a date – and see if they’re funny. And why are they funny – is it because they’re annoying, because they won’t shut up, because they clam up and won’t speak…?
My job as a producer is to make any script I’m working on with a writer as bulletproof as possible, making it impossible for a decision maker to say no.
KP – How do you go about finding material to develop?
SN – Agents will send me scripts, and I also watch a lot of stand-up. I go to Edinburgh. If there’s a performer I really like, I’ll go for a cup of tea with that person and simply ask them ‘what would you love to do?’
To begin with, I’ll just speak with them and find out what they’re into – you’re sussing each other out and figuring out if you click in a comedic way. Do you have the same interests? Do you have the same aspirations about the kind of show you want to make? During that process, I’ll say ‘these are the things that really make me laugh’ and the writer/performer will do the same, so you’re kind of building up a relationship, a comic relationship, with each other.
KP – And once you’ve decided to work with a writer, what kind of advice and support will you be giving them?
SN – You need to remember that most stuff doesn’t get made, and those important-sounding decision makers (commissioners, broadcasters) don’t have a great time of it, because they’re being sent script after script that they’re unlikely to be able to get on screen.
My job as a producer is to make any script I’m working on with a writer as bulletproof as possible, making it impossible for a decision maker to say no. You’re trouble-shooting and second-guessing ahead of time. It’s my responsibility to the writer to ask those difficult questions before it gets to that stage.
What is this show or this character saying about the world now? Why would it resonate with the audience?
KP – Any questions in particular?
SN – Something that does come up is the question ‘why now?’ It’s not a very exciting question, but it’s worth considering if you’re intending to pitch your script. What is this show or this character saying about the world now? Why would it resonate?
It’s a weird one, as arguably a lot of successful shows would have done well at any time – for example, This Country would have been a very similar show had it been made in 1985, 2000 or whenever… Actually, a good example would something like Keeping Up Appearances, because Hyacinth Bucket is very much a character of her time. As a writer or producer it’s something that you’ll often get asked, so it’s worth having an answer ready.
KP – Any common pitfalls you’ve noticed amongst new comedy writers?
SN – You have to be brutal with your own writing. It’s amazing how often, with new writers, nothing happens for the first ten pages. Or there are no jokes. If you imagine the commissioner’s default setting is ‘no’, if you’re not making them laugh from page one… You have to grab people from the off (think if they were watching on TV – you don’t want them switching over to another channel or checking their phone).
If you’re a bit savvy about it and develop your idea on the basis that ‘this is a BBC1 show’ or ‘this is a BBC3 show’, you’re doing yourself a huge favour.
KP – So a writer has to be a bit of a salesperson too?
SN – Yes, I’d say so. A mistake that newer writers can make is to write something that’s taken them a year of their life, which might be hilarious, but I look and think ‘who could I sell this to?’ It’s just not marketable to anyone.
For example, my advice would be to take a look at the videos on the BBC commissioning website. If you’re a bit savvy about it and then develop your idea on the basis that ‘this is a BBC1 show’ or ‘this is a BBC3 show’, you’re doing yourself a huge favour.
Give yourself every possible chance of winning. The same way as if you were entering a competition – how can you fulfil that criteria that they’re after? Be smart, write smart.
KP – You don’t think there’s a danger that you could end up pandering to what you think a commissioner might want?
SN – Make sure the idea still has passion and heart behind it, of course, but go, ‘I have this idea and it’s the kind of thing Channel 4 would like because…’ Do both. And I think a producer would be impressed by that, if you approached them on the basis that ‘I researched what was wanted and I think this is it’. Agents will also be impressed by a writer who is hungry and focused and savvy.
Balancing humour and emotional engagement can sometimes mean losing a great joke you’re really fond of, because it’s just not logical in that moment.
KP – Is there anything else that can put potential commissioners off a script?
SN – It can be tough knowing how far to push something until it becomes too ridiculous. American comedy tends to be a bit bolder in that sense – going to those nutty extremes – whereas over here we tend to rein it in, play it a bit straighter and keep it more ‘plausible’. So that’s a bit about knowing the market or the broadcasters you’re pitching to.
Whatever you’re doing, though, if you’re playing it honestly and truthfully you can get away with a hell of a lot. How can you make it clear that this funny situation really matters, whilst also making it funny, but not letting the humour undermine the fact that it matters? That can sometimes mean losing a great joke you’re really fond of, because it’s just not logical in that moment. It’s a fine balance, and it’s not easy!
If you’re stuck on a scene that needs to be there but is a bit on the serious side, work out how you can undermine it!
KP – What about if you’re really struggling with a particular scene that you just can’t seem to bring to life?
SN – An interesting thing I learnt when working with Armando Iannucci (on The Thick of It) is that sometimes, if you’ve got to get a piece of exposition in and it’s just feeling quite dry, a good way of getting around that is by undermining the gravity of the scene with something a bit off the wall. So, in In the Loop (the film spinoff of The Thick of It), there’s an exposition-y bit and one character’s gums start bleeding in dramatic style.
It’s weird and it’s completely random, but it means that instead of boring the audience with the information that needs to be delivered, they’re distracted by this woman with blood gushing from her mouth as she scrabbles to stuff her face with tissues. So, if you’re stuck on a scene that needs to be there but is a bit on the serious side, work out how you can undermine it!
Be warned, though – that’s the kind of thing commissioners might pounce on, because it’s bizarre or just plain implausible. You’ve got to know when to use it, and to be able to argue your case – sometimes they might just need reminding that weird stuff happens in real life all the time!
It can be difficult though, because when the decision-makers are reading something cold – no actors, no pacing, no timing – it takes a leap of imagination for them to see how something could work, or could be funny. A lot of that comes down to personal taste – everyone has a different sense of what’s funny and what’s not. A lot of my job is about persuading those important people that what I’ve brought them is funny!
As a producer I’m not didactic in terms of what I’m looking for – except what intrigues me, and what makes me laugh.
KP – Are there certain things you’re looking for at the moment?
SN – Not exactly, but I’m conscious of my current slate. I try to have balance between newer and more experienced writers. A newer writer will take up more of my time and they’ll need more help along the way – they may need 12 drafts to nail it, which could take a year before we pitch, whereas a more established writer can be left to come up with the goods and there may only need to be two drafts, which would only take a couple of months.
I’m not didactic in terms of what I’m looking for – except what intrigues me, and what makes me laugh. I’m always looking for an interesting character, though, or for a world I don’t know much about.
KP – Any thoughts about the move towards more online content?
SN – Online’s interesting because a writer isn’t limited to a particular duration. It doesn’t have to fit into a 30-minute slot on BBC1 so the episode can be as long as the story is – whether that’s 21 minutes or 44 – and different episodes within a series can vary in length. I think that can be pretty freeing.
Even if you’ve got great equipment or whatever, there’s still something to be said for working with other people with experience and expertise.
KP – What about making your own work?
SN – Doing your own thing, filming your own things, can be great – but you’ve got to bear quality control in mind. Even if you’ve got that great equipment or whatever, there’s still something to be said for working with other people with experience and expertise, who can help make your project the best it can be. Working with people like me still helps, because no one knows everything!
KP – Good point – and I’ve certainly learnt a lot from our chat today! Thanks so much for speaking with me, and good luck finding that next winning character!