Tag Archives: comedy

Charlie Brooker on why he hates writing, warp factors, Twitter and Transformers

11 Nov
Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters' Festival, by Chris Floyd)

Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters’ Festival, by Chris Floyd)

My sixth despatch from the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival is the fearlessly acerbic critic-turned-creative Charlie Brooker. You don’t need any commentary from me – just sit back and enjoy the rant.

On why he “f***ing hates” writing: If I appear to write a lot, that’s interesting. I have a terrible fear I’m not doing enough. I f***ing hate writing. I love the ideas side, and I love having written, but I hate the process of writing. There’s occasionally a eureka moment, but my life is a constant struggle to enter that and avoid the myriad distractions, like an acorn rolling by. I love my job, but it’s also like a fucking curse. The biggest high of it is “thank God I’ve finished that”. It’s just like the feeling of having done a massive poo.

On Touch of Cloth: I was going to say it’s like Airplane for cop shows, but I realise that’s Police Squad! So it’s The Naked Gun, but for Britain. It’s a collaboration – we run a writers’ room for it. We bought a script by the man who made Messiah, which was very bleak, and then used that as a basis for drawing knobs on, basically, because we were aping those dark Sunday night dramas that everyone seems to love but that I think are pornographic and weird, and dull.

We also got a compilation made of scenes from crime dramas, like morgue scenes, and when you watch nothing but these similar scenes, you spot the same tropes and clichés and become inherently funny. It was vital that in our world, none of the characters could acknowledge that what was going on was at all weird. Like in Naked Gun, where Leslie Nielsen takes it all seriously. The director would shout before every scene, “Don’t forget, you’re doing a serious drama – this is a real body, it’s the body of a child.”

On Black Mirror: The kind of sci-fi I like is allegorical, like The Twilight Zone. Not people with croissant-shaped foreheads talking about warp factors. Rod Serling did The Twilight Zone because he wanted to do plays about racism and McCarthyism, and couldn’t get them on air. That was my focus for the show.

Technology is never the villain in Black Mirror. It’s always, here’s a powerful tool – I don’t mean the character! – here’s a powerful technological tool, and we let the character pick it up and hit themselves repeatedly on the head with it.

We’ve just been shooting a Christmas special, with three episodes, like a Twilight Zone anthology. Jon Hamm’s starring in that because he’s a big fan of the show. It’s about what if you could block someone in real life like you do on Twitter, so they just become an anonymous blob – they can’t hear you or talk to you; and you play out the consequences of that. What I like is TV shows where you get to the end and you feel f***ing devastated. Now they’re all about easily entertaining people. How dare they!

On Nathan Barley: Oh god, writing with Chris Morris was terrifying. I was terrified he’d show up like his Day Today persona, and tell me to f***ing shut up, but he was jolly and friendly and very collaborative. But he’ll interrogate every aspect. He takes ages. We had a meeting before 9/11 and it actually went on air in 2005. We had meeting after meeting to discuss how to do it.

On Twitter: There’s this babble of voices, everyone feeling they have to chip in their two pence worth on how awful it is that Ed Milliband’s just done a poo on the High Street. And I do the same – why? Then everyone feels they have to outdo each other and exaggerate, and it all piles on top of each other, and before you know it everyone is performing, badly, and you’re struck by the existential pointlessness of it… So I wrote a column about it, going “here’s what I think about this! Look at this!”

On why it can be more creative to work on a low budget: The last 20 minutes of every big-budget movie is like you’re staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together.

Down the Tube with Eddie Izzard, would-be Mayor of London

31 Jul

IEddie Izzard Time Out covert’s not often you bump into movie stars on the Tube, dressed to kill in lipstick, earrings, black trouser-suit and high heels. Especially not the male ones.

But there, click-clacking just ahead of me in a tunnel underneath Oxford Circus, his broad shoulders the only clue to his real gender, is the inimitable Eddie Izzard. “Eddie,” I stop him. “Fabulous to bump into you again.” I’d met Britain’s greatest stand-up comic a few times when I was editing Time Out in the ‘90s. “I wouldn’t expect to find you down here.”

Eddie raises a quizzical eyebrow above his shades and smiles: “Well, you’ve got to be using public transport if you’re going to be running for Mayor.”

I shepherded Eddie through his first self-penned magazine piece on his transvestism, and later put him on the cover dressed in a bowler hat and single false eyelash like Alex from Clockwork Orange. But when he told me at a party that he was off to crack America, I was dismissive: they might not “get” his surreal, free-wheeling humour. Ha! He not only became a huge stand-up hit, but a Hollywood and US TV star. This year alone he’s been in several episodes of Hannibal, taken the lead in a Gilles McKinnon movie about the pioneer of Radar, acted alongside Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates in next year’s Boychoir, and joined in with his beloved Pythons on Terry Jones’s new film Absolutely Anything.

And let’s not forget that, in 2009, he completed 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief. So when he assures me now, of his political ambitions, “I’m a fighter, and we need fighters,” it’s clear that you have to look beyond the red nail polish.

“People often want a simple yes or no answer in politics,” he talks as we walk, “when the answers aren’t simple. The extremists are popular because they give simple answers, like ‘Everything will be fine if we just get out of Europe.’ But things weren’t fine before that, so why should that suddenly solve everything?”

And if Boris bows out as expected in 2016 [Update: Boris has just announced he will run for MP in 2015, standing down as Mayor in 2016], might Izzard run for Mayor then? “I couldn’t. I’ve always said it would be in 2020. I’ve spent time building this career, and anyway, politics is a fiendishly complex business and I need to learn.”

After a slight wobble on the escalator – those killer heels can be murder – we stand talking for a while above ground at Oxford Circus. “I might fuck up, at first. But the way I see it, everyone fucks up. Boris does all the time and it doesn’t hurt him; even Obama does. It’s the way you deal with your fuck-ups, your approach to fucked-up-edness, that counts.”

It’s endearingly Izzard, to coin a word like “fucked-up-edness”. It’s not a concept many politicians would admit to, let alone a term they might use. He takes off his shades, and it appears they are neither a style statement nor a disguise: he has a touch of red-eye. “I expect I’ll get raked over by the press, though, about the dress thing,” he says thoughtfully.

Really? It’s not exactly a secret. And besides, it’s a great look. In the early days Eddie resembled a trucker in drag; now he’s more Hillary Clinton than Anne Widdecombe.

“No, but apart from me, and then [the artist] Grayson Perry, there aren’t exactly many transvestite role models. That said, I did some campaigning recently in bright red lipstick, and no one turned a hair, no one mentioned it. It had to be bright red, for Labour! That was the only joke I was allowed to put in the speech,” he adds, a little ruefully.

Boris has his trademark floppy hair. Would lipstick and heels really be such a stretch for voters?

I shake Eddie’s immaculately manicured, surprisingly delicate hand, and wish him well. “Enjoy the sunshine,” he says cheerily, and strides confidently into the churning crowds of London’s busiest intersection, thin black heels clacking.

Eddie Izzard for Mayor? I was wrong about his chances once. I won’t be betting against him again.

LSF #7: Graham Linehan on the Meaning of Laugh

4 Nov

Graham Linehan is an insanely talented comedy writer. He not only created Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd (and now Count Arthur Strong, which I haven’t yet seen), but co-created the Ted and Ralph characters on The Fast Show and wrote for Chris Morris. I met him once, in the early ‘90s, in a Soho media watering hole. He struck me as very serious. Funny, in a dry way, but essentially very serious about what he does. Which so many very good comedians are – always picking apart the Meaning of Laugh and the Theory of Fun.

Which is lucky for aspiring comedy writers, if he is giving a panel at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Here were some of the highlights:

On his new production company: “I’m setting up a production company. Whoops, I shouldn’t say that in a room full of writers – try to space it out, don’t all send me stuff at once. Write a pitch; if we like it, then you write a draft. I want to get excited about a project so I can go in with the writers and help them sell it.”

On now directing his comedies as well as writing: “When you’re on set, you watch what the director does. One thing I realised quite quickly is that you don’t really need any skills! And when I’m writing, I see it like on a television screen in my head anyway. So if you want to direct, try to get in on a set and observe the director.”

On script gurus: “I think I screwed myself by going to a Robert McKee lecture too early. He does a terribly dangerous thing, which is to teach you to write a classic, not to write a first draft. You have to give yourself the freedom to be terrible on the first draft.”

On creating characters: “I’m not a fan of the character profiling thing – what their eye colour is, or where they went to school. I find lines of dialogue that suggest an attitude. There’s a great piece on this by Dan Harmon on his blog: his suggestion is to go through your phone contacts and stop on someone who provokes a strong reaction in you, then start writing down things that you associate with them or that describes them.

“I always make a distinction between above the line and below the line. ‘Above the line’ character traits are how that person sees themselves, and ‘below the line’ is how they really are. It’s brilliant when those are opposites.”

On the three moments: “Geoffrey Perkins said a great thing to me: you really need three great moments in an episode; the rest is filling it with gags. Three things that the next day people will say, ‘Did you see that?’ So any episode I ask myself, are there those three moments?”

On the trap: “Griff Rhys Jones said all sitcoms need a trap, a reason why the characters don’t just up and leave.”

On how, even if you’ve created something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll consult the writer (yikes): “If I had to do The IT Crowd again I wouldn’t put it in a basement. It was a hook, an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of thing, but it made it hard to get people down into the basement plausibly. I found out about the American version of The IT Crowd online, and by the time I did it was shot, nearly, and it was an absolute carbon copy, including all our mistakes – like setting it in the basement. [The US series was commissioned in 2007, was written, and was to have starred Richard Adeoye again, but was cancelled before production by a new incoming head honcho.]

“Why did no one tell me about it? It was when Talkback were getting really big, and the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. Also they just thought of it as a property that could be sold, like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; but no, it’s not just changing ‘arse’ to ‘ass’, there’s a whole lot of tweaks you need.”

For the first of my London Screenwriters’ Festival blogs with Joe Eszterhas, click here. Tomorrow: Steve Pemberton of Psychoville and League of Gentlemen.

Video

Bad Grandpa: Borat meets the school of hard Knoxville

1 Aug

I’m pretty sure I’ve just seen the runaway comedy film of the autumn. Or rather, the trailer for it, which was released just a few hours ago. Bad Grandpa features Johnny Knoxville as 86-year-old Irving Zisman, on a far from heart-warming road trip across America to reunite his eight-year-old grandson with his father. Suddenly scheduled for release on Oct 25, it was filmed in great secrecy over the summer, in order to keep the reaction of the public, Borat-style, authentic.

As you’d expect from the makers of Jackass, the comedy is broader than the Amazon river. Knoxville/Zisman collapses into a tower of champagne glasses at a wedding; knocks over the open casket at a funeral; and, in a glorious homage to Little Miss Sunshine, his grandson dons a dress and blonde wig to enter a child pageant, and ends his routine dancing round a stripper’s pole as his granddad peels off dollar bills. This at least shows that the humour will occasionally strike a valid satirical target, rather than just disturbing innocent bystanders whose shock, anger and bewilderment are recorded by multiple hidden cameras.

As a commercial idea, it’s genius: like all the most popular YouTube clips of people falling over and fighting and freaking out put together. As comedy it looks, expel me now from the Critics’ Circle (um, not that I ever joined), hilarious. As art… hmm. We’ll see.

I have teenaged sons; the watching of Jackass was mandatory for a while. The best sequences were not the crazy hurtful stunts, I always felt, but the ones where they would bewilder members of the public. The Bad Grandpa sketches, such as the one where he sits outside with his grandson (older than in the film), passing back and forth a cigarette and bottle of hooch and picking a fight with the local hard-nut, were hilarious.

I smell a hit. If this doesn’t take $100 million I will, like Werner Herzog, eat my shoe.