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Not the Comedy Messiah – just a very naughty boy

Shane Allen

Controller Comedy Commissioning

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Let’s get one thing straight, neither ‘white’ nor ‘Oxbridge’ comedy is dead. It has not ceased to be, it has not expired, it is not ex-comedy.

On Tuesday I announced the upcoming raft of new shows for BBC Comedy. Shows championing the very best emerging British comedy talent alongside beloved returning shows; comedy pieces of all tones and styles and voices to cater for the vast spectrum of tastes of the BBC audience.

As part of this I wanted to emphasise that BBC Comedy is striving to represent the contemporary world with more diversity and new voices than ever. However it seems that point has been mistranslated as; ‘no more funny white Oxbridge blokes, the new Monty Python wouldn’t get a look in’, as if I’m actively sacrificing funny being the priority to merely tick some boxes. I fart in that general direction.

Great comedy lives eternal as new audiences get to discover the classics; it’s the one genre that stays evergreen. It’s a vital part of our national culture and identity with characters and catchphrases that live on forever. The roll call of Oxbridge male comedy greats is staggeringly impressive and cherished, many of whom are of course from all sorts of backgrounds themselves. What I was actually saying was I believe in the sketch show as a way to nurture the writers and stars of tomorrow – many of the people who wrote on sketch shows of the Seventies and Eighties became the key sitcom writers of the decades that followed as people need places to grow their craft and develop their character worlds. Sketch shows seem to have fallen out of favour with only the BBC persisting with them as an art form. The discussion was around our vibrant and contemporary sketch show Famalam (which garnered a BAFTA nomination for rising star Samson Kayo) as an illustration of how if you’re going to assemble a sketch show team in 2018 you probably wouldn’t just want it to be six blokes from Oxbridge – and yes, being a comedy pedant myself I’m well aware Gilliam didn’t go to Oxbridge. I was expounding upon our work in broadening out the comedy gene pool and saying we want to see a more diverse range of people, men and women, who reflect the modern world and have got something to say that’s different and we haven’t seen before. But with funny bones above all else.

By no means is this a BBC ban on anything from people who are Oxbridge alumni. Or are white. Or are male. In fact, as part of the same event we announced a new series from writer, performer, white, male and Oxbridge graduate Liam Williams – the brilliant BAFTA-nominated Pls Like. His satirical take down of the vlogger world is magnificent. So there’s not a blanket ban on anyone from any background. As ever, we’re looking for comedy that feels original, new, unique, no matter where it comes from. So relax white well-educated men; I looked in the mirror recently and I’m one of you. I really didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Undeniably, the TV industry as a whole needs to redress the balance of who is portrayed on-screen as well as the creative talent off-screen making comedy; but, this should be seen as a good thing. I want the next generation of comedy giants to watch our content and think that not only is BBC comedy for them, but it’s a potential career avenue. Not to discount comedy as something not for them because they don’t feel represented or connected to it. Of course whatever’s the funniest content will still be the over-riding priority and it will unify audiences of all backgrounds and education opportunities. Truly great comedy surpasses any labels. Our job is to find those brilliant new talents and nurture the stars of tomorrow through the hit shows of today.

Where we’ve seen great success in the past few years is in the shows that have taken a risk on new talent and let them tell their stories set in their world. And each one has a unique and diverse element at their core – multi award winners like This Country, Fleabag, The Young Offenders and People Just Do Nothing.

We get excited by the stories that haven’t been told and the voices we haven’t yet heard which is why you’ll see more and more diversity of all kinds in the output of the next few years as we break new ground in 2018, just like Python broke the mould in 1969. So let’s face it, all I said was that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah. So please, no more rocks.

Shane Allen is Controller of BBC Comedy Commissioning

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