Aspects of British TV for Aspiring Comedy Writers
Ensemble comedies are some of my personal favorites on television and in film. It is one thing for a star to carry the plot and the conflict all the way through, it's another when you have six other voices chiming in adding further complications. Shows like Are You Being Served?, and Fresh Meat showcase this well. These characters all have a purpose for being there and they each have a unique view on every situation. They can have multiple problems in an episode and the audience is there to follow it because these are all people you are invested in, whether you are rooting for them or not. Programs with multiple viewpoints weaving in and out of the scenes creates spontaneity, unpredictability, and dynamic characters-driven stories.
The expansion of main characters adds multiple opportunities for crossing story lines, overlapping conversations and fast-paced transitions. It is fun and intriguing to follow the stories of each person because they all demonstrate equal importance to making their world a more comfortable place. Comedy writers should be able to multitask between letting these characters shine while moving the plot along.
Are You Being Served? is about a group of salesmen working on the clothing floor of a department store. Some work in lingerie, some work in tailoring, and others work the floor. Their personalities are a reflection of their specialties in the store, which drives the comedy. It is also an insightful look at a clothing store's chain of command, and the difference between who comes up with the ideas and who makes the decisions. Each episode typically has one pressing matter regarding the store that needs to be solved as a group. They could either solve it together, or split up, expanding their insight on what the problem is and how to solve it. Both of these have huge potential for comedy, because they all want to solve the problem differently, but the outcome ultimately affects all of them. The ending always comes back to the group as a whole.
Fresh Meat is a comedy-drama about a group of students living off-campus at the fictional Manchester Medlock University. They all have the initial problems of college freshman, but because there are six of them, the problems can reach to wider issues like alcoholism, affairs with teachers, young relationships, run-ins with the law, final exams, and financial troubles. They all come from different backgrounds revealing where their priorities are when trying to solve problems, and illustrating how young adults typically have to learn from their mistakes. The comedy comes from their innocence, or lack thereof, in trying to discover and shape themselves into who they are and what they stand for.
Ensembles work well because evolves the story structure from a linear, progressive format to an overlapping, cause-and-effect format. You don't have to focus on the same character in every episode, which refreshes the mind when moving from problem to problem.
Are You Being Served? is available on Youtube
Fresh Meat is available on Hulu
Actors With Versatility
Some of what falls into this category also has to do with the ensembles that are involved, but the actors in these shows play multiple characters throughout the series, raising the bar for all forms of comedy. Actors that are successful enough at these transformations have the freedom to do almost anything on a television show. They are capable of showcasing every comedic thought they're ever had if they can seamlessly transition from one person to the other. This style is made famous by the performers of Monty Python Flying Circus.
Because these actors are constantly playing different people, their stories are characters driven, and chronicle the misadventures of a vast amount of people. For those interested in comedy writing, these shows can give insight into getting into the mind of another person, then hopping from thought to thought between a group of people to create a scene or a comedic moment.
A Bit of Fry and Laurie is the minimalistic show we all wish we could make. For the most part, it is just the two of them, playing off of each other in short scenes that have a clear throughline that is achieved, then quickly move on to the next. One thing they do that is unique to other is the principle of what they call the 'Vox Pop'. Vox Pops are small excerpts of interviews on the street featuring Fry and Laurie as different members of the public. These clips are so short that you never know the context of what their saying because the question was never revealed, allowing for a great amount of punchlines and comic misdirection. This show also succeeds because of their intelligent use of language. These two are incredibly smart, and find a way to use their knowledge of wording and sentence structure to make the most comedy out of the most unexpected things.
The Fast Show is a favorite of mine because in a thirty minute program, they manage to fit six shows in one, and every cast member have a memorable, quotable character. There are recurring characters and sketches throughout, but they are distributed through the show to allow breathing room for the others to flourish. Popular sketches include Unlucky Alf, featuring an old man who knows his luck is always terrible, so in an attempt to make things better, he takes precautions that end up making things worse. Another features a man listening to a conversation where he is out of his depth, committing a huge social faux pas, and ending by leaving the table saying "I'll get me coat." The cast features Paul Whitehouse, one of the most versatile actors you will ever see, and Mark Williams, who played Arthur Weasley from the Harry Potter films.
A Bit of Fry and Laurie is available on Netflix and Hulu
The Fast Show is available on Youtube
Comedy Panel shows, also known as Pub Quiz shows, are essential for people who want to see write comedy, especially stand-up comedy. They are weekly game shows featuring comedians making jokes about current events, poking fun at the other contestants, and participating in witty banter with the hosts. These are entertaining and helpful to watch to see how comedians analyze the events around them and turn it into a personal statement that relates to everyone, making a successful joke. This also applies to people who want to watch the beauty of comedians with strong improvisation skills. I watch these shows all the time. I watch Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI, The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, Would I Lie to You, Mock of the Week, and as a game show, Whose Line is it Anyway? would also apply. (The original British Whose Line, by the way)
This is the category where star power does matter. Never Mind the Buzzcocks is a quiz show about music, featuring celebrities from current television shows, up-and-coming recording artists, and successful comedians. It is just as insightful to hear about the lives of the musicians on the panel as it is to hear the jokes of the comedians and the host. This show has been guest hosted by people like David Tennant, Martin Freeman, Richard Ayoade, and Jeremy Clarkson. Like most comedy panel shows, there are teams, anchored by comedians that have permanent spots on the show, and have insight into the subject at hand, (or can at least make a good joke about it.)
These shows also can remind aspiring comedians that it is vital to keep up on current events. Unfortunately, we don't have many shows like this in America, (the closest we have is @Midnight with Chris Hardwick) but Britons are able to satirize and add humor to something that every country should informed about, which is politics. Mock of the Week features questions about weekly newspaper headlines, the state of financial affairs in the country, the war, and public opinion. It is similar to The Daily Show, but with panel shows like this you have more sources of input they can argue about and share their interpretation of what's going on in the country. Every comedian on the panel is caught up with the news and political state of the country, which I believe is a powerful asset. The more you know about the subject, the funnier it can become. It is important to stay informed.
Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock of the Week are available on Youtube.
Mock of the Week
Which show are you most interested in watching?
Each episode of Mock of the Week features, panel questions, improvisation games, and on-the-spot stand-up comedy topics.