August 4, 2008
Inside the Box
By Sophie Morris
TELEVISION COMEDY Ahead of the Edinburgh Festival, which opens on Friday, Sophie Morris talks to today's television comedians about how they made the step up from stand-up
Justin Lee Collins has presented five series of The Friday Night Project with Alan Carr. The show has just finished its first run as The Sunday Night Project and will return at Christmas. After a stint on MTV in 1997, his big break was presenting the Strictly Come Dancing spin-off on BBC 3.
"My initial break was as a stand-up comedian. I got through to the final of the BBC Comedy Awards and a week after the show was televised I got a call from an MTV booker. I didn't even have an agent at the time and was doing stand-up in Bristol and two part- time jobs, selling double glazing and working in a video shop. I thought the call was a wind up.
I did a show called MTV Hot every Friday night for about eight months. I remember being told during the second week that my show had the highest ratings of the entire channel, which meant something like 30,000 people had watched it! Apparently I had beaten Beavis and Butthead. Things seemed to be going well and I did a show called Pirate TV for a while, over the summer of 1998. Then I didn't present another TV show until 2003.
I always hated stand-up. The only thing I ever got out of it was sleepless nights, but I couldn't see any other way in. Every time I got a bit of TV I hoped I could stop doing it. I was about to get a job in another video shop but I worked out I could earn as much doing 10 minutes of stand-up as I would for a whole day there. My agent was pushing me to do as many gigs as possible, and I got back on the phones and called anybody who had ever paid me anything to perform before. It was the first time I really committed myself to doing stand-up.
I threw myself into it and I started to get noticed a bit more. In 2002 I started to do some work for Bravo and in 2003 I met Alan when we did a few things together for Channel 4. When I was offered The Friday Night Project I only had one question - who would my co- host be. When they said it was Alan I asked where to sign."
David Mitchell and Robert Webb are best known by their alter egos, Mark and Jeremy of Peep Show. A sixth series of the show was commissioned earlier this year.
"There's no doubt that our big break - or at least the biggest of the medium-sized breaks, came with Peep Show. The first series was quite low key and I always thought it deserved a future, but it was very much hand-to-mouth. No one ever came to us and said: 'Right, let's have another three series'.
For the first year after I left university I was telling myself I was going to be a comedian without really knowing how it was done. We were doing a show at Edinburgh at 11am and there was one day when only two people were in the audience, one of whom was a reviewer. That's when you think: 'Are we making fools of ourselves here?'
Our agent soon started to set up meetings and our breaks really came from getting to know the people who worked in the business, even though we weren't known by the public. Two years down the line we were making a living from writing comedy for shows like The 11 O'Clock Show, The Jack Docherty Show and Armstrong and Miller, while trying to pitch our own things.
The hardest step is breaking in, but there are always people in television going around trying to find new talent. They are frightened of missing talent that another network might pick up. Rob and I got our material in front of them by doing our Edinburgh shows every year. I would have faced rejection for a lot longer than I did before giving up. Had I still not got where I am now, 10 years on, I'm not entirely sure I would have given up yet."
"David and I were first on television together on a BBC show called Comedy Nation. We played a couple of advertising executives coming up with a new car ad, which was highly derivative from Fry and Laurie. It was produced by Phil Clarke, who later produced the first series of Peep Show on Channel 4.
We learnt a lot as comedy writers before Peep Show came along. The first series went out very quietly, and we were amazed and delighted to get a second series. In 2006 our BBC2 sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look and Peep Show went out in the same year. We also did the Apple ad, Magicians and a national tour. Possibly with the Apple stuff there was a wee bit of overexposure, but it is very difficult to turn any of those things down.
There are some fairly traditional routes into television. Unlike David who isn't as hellbent as I am, I went to Cambridge just to be in the Footlights. Then we did Edinburgh and got an agent. The most important thing is to practise. You have to keep doing it and find ways to get people to see you. Then you'll end up on a list of people who commissioners call up when they are looking for new performers. There are so few people who can do it really, really well that the commissioners just follow the talent. They don't know what the zeitgeist is, they just follow the creative people and brilliantly say: 'We're looking for the next Office', when The Office was kicked around for years."
Jason Manford is a team captain on Channel 4's topical quiz comedy show 8 Out of 10 Cats and host of Tonightly, a platform for new comic performers which started last Friday. It is running for 16 consecutive nights and promises "satirical news, comment and all round silliness".
"The first television I did was on the first series of Johnny Vegas's Ideal three years ago, and I think he was using every comedian in Manchester at the time.
I started doing stand-up when I was 17 and then I trained to be an actor at Salford University, the same course Peter Kay did. As soon as I left uni I was doing stand-up full time, but my first big success was in 2005 when I was nominated for the Perrier Award at my first year at Edinburgh. I had worked hard on the show for a couple of years and all the TV people are on the Perrier judging panel so that was probably the catalyst for getting television work. Making 400 people a night laugh doing stand-up is a good living and I wouldn't do just anything to be on television. I only want to do stuff I would watch myself, and I've been offered things which I decided weren't for me, like Big Brother's Big Mouth when Russell Brand left. I was a guest on 8 Out of 10 Cats first and had a bit of a to do with Piers Morgan.
When Dave Spikey decided he wanted to leave they asked me to take over as captain. For every telly producer who thinks you're brilliant, you'll find an audience who tells you you're not. My dad will tell me when my jokes aren't funny, and that helps me keep my feet on the ground. For the new show, Tonightly, it has been really refreshing to meet people who haven't been doing stand-up for that long and like me are still excited by the cameras - there are a lot of bitter people knocking about."
Laura Patch and Dolly Jones met three years ago on the celebrity impression show Star Stories. They started writing together and have just made a one-off for Funny Cuts, an E4 initiative for new comedy talent.
"Star Stories was definitely my big break. That's where Dolly and I met. We started writing together and went to the production company Baby Cow and they nurtured us. The first series came out in September 2006. It's a mixed bag of actors doing loose impressions of the stars. You might do Paris Hilton as Marilyn Monroe. The formula is that whoever the episode is about is naive and innocent. For example, Kate Moss might just fall on a line of cocaine. Before Star Stories I was doing stand-up comedy and earning a living from acting in adverts. The casting director saw a fringe play I was in and invited me along to the audition. I'd done loads of low budget feature films and pilots and was quite used to them not getting commissioned. I assumed the same would happen with Star Stories."
"After drama school I was doing bits of theatre and television like Midsomer Murders. I was writing in Spain with a friend when I got the recall for Star Stories and wasn't sure I wanted to spend 300 on a flight not to get it. But I was told I was down to the last three and decided to go back and got it. It's a huge cast and you play all sorts of parts. This series I'm playing Princess Diana, Heather Mills, Madonna and Elton John's mother.
Laura and I hit it off immediately and started writing together last summer, mainly because we laughed a lot together and enjoyed making each other laugh. We have done three stand-up gigs together and Shane Allen [Channel 4's comedy commissioner] came to the first one and then commissioned us to do Funny Cuts on E4, which goes out this Thursday as part of a series of 12 15-minute shows for new talent.
Comedy was what I should have done all along. If you want a steady life, it's definitely not the thing to go for, but that's part of the excitement. I'm glad I went to drama school because my confidence grew there and it gives you time to focus, but I know a lot of very good actors and comedians who haven't been."
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