Tag Archives: Griff Rhys Jones

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.

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Alas Smith: on set with the late Mel Smith

21 Jul

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Sorry to hear of the death of Mel Smith, from a heart attack aged 60. His head-to-head dialogues with Griff Rhys Jones on the BBC’s Alas Smith And Jones (above) were must-see viewing when I was young, and the company they co-founded – Talkback – changed the face of TV comedy with series including I’m Alan Partridge, Da Ali G Show and Smack The Pony.

As a film director Mel Smith had mixed success. I went on set of The Tall Guy, his 1989 directorial debut, which was also Richard Curtis’s first produced screenplay, though in Mel’s hands it did not achieve quite the success that Four Weddings later would (“uninhibited by finesse”, was Time Out’s verdict of The Tall Guy). He seemed somewhat at sea.

Jeff Goldblum, uncontrollable and fizzing with nervous energy, gave a wildly different performance and line reading with every take, regardless of whether it was being redone for dramatic or purely technical reasons. And I could be wrong, but I thought I detected a hint of superciliousness towards Mel on the part of the crew, crowded into the sitting room of a north London house. When Mel asked for a shot to be set up just so, the cameraman said words to the effect of “Interesting idea. To have the mike visible in frame.” Instead of confessing to an error, Mel blustered that yes, he thought he would just try a take like that…

He went on to make several more comedy features, equally uninhibited by finesse but with some great moments: Radioland Murders, Bean, High Heels And Low Lifes, and Blackball. One of them at least was a huge box-office success.

Mel Smith was clearly much loved by his peers. As Griff Rhys Jones said yesterday, ““He was a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit. We are all in a state of shock. We have lost a very, very dear friend.”