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Comedy Commissioning Insight: If it's funny, people will watch

Jack Whitehall Mr Khan

 

Q: What takes years in development, is talent lead and makes a BBC commissioner laugh out loud?

A: A sitcom submission that goes straight to series, no pilot necessary.

That was the case at least for two brand new BBC sitcoms: In-house production Citizen Khan starring Adil Ray, and Tiger Aspect’s Bad Education lead by Jack Whitehall. Though not unique, it is unusual for a series to be commissioned based on the strength of a read through, which suggests there’s something special about these two. BBC Executive Editor for Comedy Commissioning, Chris Sussman, commented that contrary to expectations, the current climate means braver decisions and more chances being taken. In spite of this, comedy is inherently and unavoidably subjective; a new sitcom must earn the trust and affection of an audience.

Citizen Khan and Bad Education – in brief

Citizen Khan will air on BBC 1 in the autumn. Broadcast from the home of self-appointed community leader Mr Khan, it is based on Adil Ray’s character in the BBC Comedy Bellamy's People. Citizen Khan brings us more of the, almost too awkward to watch, interaction with the general public that made Adil’s alter-ego such a hit on Bellamy’s people. Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, the minds behind Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumar at No. 42 co-wrote the series with Adil. Citizen Khan hopes to offer that same universal attraction. As BBC Head of Comedy Mark Freeland said ‘we shouldn’t have had to wait so long for more great Asian comedy’.

Bad Education will also be on our screens in the autumn, on BBC 3. Written and performed by Jack Whitehall, it grew from the comedian’s stand up tour ‘Learning Difficulties’; Jack’s commentary on the education system he resisted as a child. Bad Education is set in a school and follows unconventional teacher Alfie (Whitehall), ‘more juvenile than the children he teaches’. Jack stars alongside good friend Matt Horne. Horne proved his comedy credentials in Gavin & Stacey, but this is a new onscreen partnering and Horne is going against type as the needy Head Teacher Frazer.

Nurturing Talent

Both Ray and Whitehall established a strong following on other platforms to prove their credentials. Ben Cavey (Head of Entertainment, Tiger Aspect) explained how Bad Education was developed over time by Whitehall during his stand-up tour, with the support and advice of experienced writers to ensure a smooth transition from stand-up to sitcom. Similarly, Ray worked to prove his credentials as a sitcom actor, being better known as a DJ and comedian. Mr Khan stood out as an ‘electric’ character in Bellamy's People (Freeland). However, Ray and the In-house team took two years to develop Citizen Khan, conscientiously building his reputation cross-platform through election broadcasts online and Radio 4 shows. The result, enthuses Freeland, is a relationship between character and characterisation that is ‘like lycra, there is no gap’. The beauty of a writer/performer is that they are able to realise exactly what they imagined on paper.

Make the commissioner laugh

A script that gets commissioned without a pilot has to be stand out funny. The need for a pilot is often down to one key uncertainty, according to Sussman: will the punch line be funny when it’s delivered? A commissioner needs to know that the script will translate to screen and the concept behind Bad Education was a ‘one line sell’ (Sussman) with characters that came alive on the page. It certainly helped that Jack performed the script at the read through, supported by self-confessed closet actor Cavey, to dispel concerns that humour would be lost in the delivery. Despite this there were conditions to the commission and direction given for a second read through. Throughout the process Sussman and Cheryl Taylor (Controller, Comedy Commissioning) offered guidance and support, comments Cavey.

Delivery is crucial, so it is much less of a risk if a commissioner does not have to imagine how a script will be performed. Citizen Khan was pitched at the Salford Sitcom Showcase, set in a house, in costume. The response was immediate as Mr Khan was met with a round of applause.

Know your audience

Citizen Khan delivers humour that is universal says Freeland and ‘insanely optimistic… hopefully it is a night out’. It is a break away from typically dry and downtrodden British humour. As a nation readily consuming the ‘short sharp burst of uncomplicated humour’ provided by Live at the Apollo, perhaps we favour light relief. Having said that, Bad Education is wonderfully filthy. It may have broad appeal because everybody can relate to the subject matter, but it will be broadcast on BBC 3 for a reason. Sussman and Freeland agree, comedy is not prescriptive and just as you think there is a trend for one type of humour, it turns on its head. Right now we like authenticity, but at the same time the theatrical Mrs Brown's Boys is reaching a whole new audience.

Freeland & Sussman –  Top tips for pitching a sitcom

  • Know your audience! Comedy is subjective, it is rarely universal.
  • Make it authentic. Citizen Khan knows its subject well and takes a clear angle.
  • Establish a following. There are multiple platforms and avenues to prove your comedy credentials.
  • Nurture talent on and off screen. A named writer/performer is a bonus.
  • Understand the climate and time your submission right.
  • Sitcoms aren’t cool. Reviewers and awards ceremonies don’t rate them, focus on your audience.
  • Persist. Behind every good comedy is an intriguing story about how it nearly wasn’t commissioned.
  • Finally… one handy hint from Cavey and Whitehall (you didn’t hear it from me). Lie. Tell the commissioner it’s a 30 minute read through, and read for 27.

 

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