Friday, 6 July 2012

Sky comedy: who's laughing now?

Friday, 6 July 2012

I have my issues with BSkyB and how they function as a company (forever trying to monopolise the marketplace with unassailable sports and movie rights), but appointing Lucy Lumsden as their Head of Comedy was something of a masterstroke that's benefiting British comedy fans. The ex-BBC employee has been in charge for a few years now, and in that time Sky's comical output has quadrupled. We're living in an era where The Simpsons isn't what people immediately think of when you mention Sky in the same breath as comedy. (Admittedly, Homer and family played their part by being so unfunny since 1997.) And it's definitely a good thing that more homegrown hilarity is being made, even if much of it remains stuck behind a pay-wall the majority of people are unwilling to climb over.

Sky Atlantic's THIS IS JINSY
Sky have debuted more brand new sitcoms in the past year than the BBC and Channel 4 have managed in two. Or so it seems, perhaps as a result of canny marketing. Over the past year alone we've seen Spy, Stella, Trollied, The Café, Mount Pleasant, and This Is Jinsy make their debuts on Sky channels. Okay, so none are exactly classics of the genre the whole world's raving about (although quirky Jinsy has a vocal fan-base), but I appreciate the effort as a viewer.

Lumsden's an astute woman to have in Sky's corner; blessed with hands-on experience stretching back to the early-'90s. Chortle published an excellent interview with Lumsden this week, where she outlines her strategy for Sky and her perceived failings of the BBC's comedy commissioning model. She's clearly decided to take inspiration from US TV when it comes to Sky's new strategy, too; most notably in her aspiration to build a studio sitcom around a British stand-up comedian. This happens frequently in the US (from crappy Kevin James shows, to crappier Charlie Sheen shows), but in the UK executives tend to care more about the writers. Maybe it's because we're a nation that gave the world Shakespeare, forever ensuring our culture puts onus on the written word.

And it's not that anyone's right or wrong. Good shows need performers and writers working in harmony to succeed, but it's interesting that Lumsden's aiming to find big personalities and make a show for them—rather than vice versa. The BBC have already proven it can work in this country, because Miranda and Not Going Out are sitcoms where comedians Miranda Hart and Lee Mack essentially play themselves—or, to be fair, a version of themselves presented as very close to the truth. Interestingly, Sky kind of got there first in more recent times, when they put Al Muray's award-winning Pub Landlord character into early-'00s sitcom Time Gentlemen Please. Ditto David Baddiel in Sky's awful Seinfeld knockoff Baddiel's Syndrome.

Sky1's BAFTA-winning SPY
Lumsden also mentions trying to find more regional voices for the comedy Sky produces, which is already a notable feature of her commissions in Cheshire's Trollied and Manchester's Mount Pleasant, to Weston-super-Mare's The Café and south Wales' Stella. I'm all for that national diversity, too.

But one of the best thing Lumsden mentions in the Chortle interview is how the majority of British comedy comes from university graduates, and how many shows come through via BBC Radio 4 and BBC2. Over the decades, this has led to a dominance of a certain breed of TV star; John Cleese and Michael Palin, Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, right up to contemporary funny-men like David Mitchell and Robert Webb. I'm not saying those people aren't funny because they're university-educated, but I agree most British TV comedy is oddly reliant on middle-class white men who went to uni. There are many exceptions, naturally, but I'm all for Lumsden trying to find comic voices from different ethnic and social backgrounds.

Lucy Lumsden: Sky's Head of Comedy
The only thing Lumsden fails to adequately defend is Sky's practise of poaching established names with irresistible offers of work. When you look at Sky's major comedy/drama offerings over the past few years, they're almost entirely built around familiar BBC faces: Steve Coogan, Jane Horrocks, Ralph Little, Ruth Jones, Darren Boyd, Kathy Burke, Charlie Brooker, et al. Sky rarely find and nurture in-house talent, maybe because they lack the BBC's infrastructure, preferring to lure people from other channels once they've become popular. Or else buy a neglected, passed-over, or axed show. Sky's upcoming WWII sitcom Chickens started life as a Channel 4 pilot; as did This Is Jinsy on BBC Three, and they're even resurrecting BBC2 spoof chat show The Kumars At No 42 for later this year.

Lumsden offers Spy's creator Simeon Goulden as an example of an unknown person Sky gave a big break to, because until then he was only writing the occasional Armstrong & Miller sketch, but that lone example doesn't cut it with me. I can't think of a single British entertainer who's considered to be a "face of Sky", or one who owes their career to Sky taking a chance with them.

So, whatever Lumsden says, I think it's true Sky's recent success are partly down to having the money and creative freedom to give well-known talent an alluring new sandpit to play in. As a comedy connoisseur, I still look to the BBC and Channel 4 when it comes to breaking new talent and ideas (Fonejacker, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais, The Inbetweeners, etc).

I wish the BBC were in a stronger financial position to rival Sky with more competing comedies, but at least they still have one trump card: an incomparable legacy and history most British comedians and writers want to be part of, the ability to reach a truly nationwide audience, and the chance to become a worldwide hit. And if you want to be experimental and have some creative freedom, yet still have access to that terrestrial-sized audience, Channel 4 still feels like the place to be.

However, thanks to Lucy Lumsden's sterling efforts, Sky's quickly become genuine competition you can't look down your nose at. She has interesting ideas about how to invigorate the UK TV comedy landscape, and as a lifelong fan of British comedy it's hard to find too much of a negative when all this means fresh and expensive projects for the likes of Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge), Julia Davis (Hunderby), Chris O'Dowd (Moone Boy), Joanna Page (Gates), Sally Phillips (Parents), John Bishop (Only Joking), and Charlie Brooker (A Touch of Cloth)—people who might otherwise spend much of their TV careers waiting for the occasional scrap to be thrown their way from the increasingly thrifty BBC.

Just, you know, try and find some brand new talent of your own every once in a while—okay, Sky?