What makes a TV show funny? The actors, obviously, both their individual skill and their chemistry. But for a show to be truly successful, there’s another team that needs just the right kind of chemistry, smarts and skill – the writers. No matter how good the actors are, if the material they’re working with isn’t sharp enough, clever enough or fresh enough, then a television series will always be limited. All of those jokes, those cracking witticisms that work on several levels, they (for the most part) come from a script and those scripts come from a team of writers who sit around eating pizza and quipping at each other from across the table (or at least they do in 30 Rock).
Writing for television is an art form of its own. Successful episodic writing requires hitting beats within certain timeframes in order to constantly and consistently develop a greater arc (or several of them) over a long period of time. Whilst in film (an equally as difficult genre) writers have one time frame within which to introduce a problem, provide a solution and achieve a successful evolution for their characters, TV writers are effectively doing that – albeit on a smaller scale – every episode.
Writing comedy for television is an art form within an art form. It was Ricky Gervais and his baby, probably my favourite series of all time, The Office, who first really got me really thinking about the subtlety involved in writing comedy for television. For comedy to work, for me, it needs to achieve two things; it needs to make a comment on the world from which it’s coming and it needs to acknowledge, in some way, comedy’s old pal, tragedy. There has to be an element of pathos and by the end of The Office, pathos had become David Brent’s middle name. Gervais and his writing buddy Stephen Merchant created a character that was enormously unlikeable but so unaware, so desperate to be liked, he was a figure of both comedy and tragedy, simultaneously. It was painful to watch and incredibly funny; an uncomfortable pleasure.
James Corden and Ruth Jones did something similar with Gavin and Stacey, also one of my top three favourite programs of all time. As writers – and actors – they layered oddity over offence in a way that was always quick and clever, with dialogue that had a ripple effect. As in, you thought about the lines long after they’d been said, and always found something new within them. Back in the genre pioneered by Gervais and Merchant, the mockumentary, Chris Lilley delivered a stunning comment on Australian education, adolescence and racial issues with Summer Heights High, which was unrelentingly funny and uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because it was, for so many, just like The Office, looking into a mirror and being forced to see terrific comedy at the same time as depressing truths, the former almost always resting in the latter.
In a different vein altogether, come two of my favourite US programs, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel’s Cougar Town. American comedy does neurotic very well (hello Seinfeld) often with a good helping of oddball. Tina Fey, who honed both her writing and acting skills on Saturday Night Live and wrote the screenplay for the excellent Mean Girls, has nailed quick, quirky dialogue in 30 Rock which moves at a pace fitting for a show revolving around a television studio in New York City. Cougar Town, created by the duo behind Scrubs, continues the tradition of American neurotic-quirk largely through its truly strange characters set against a backdrop of normal, suburban America. The structure of the episodes, after the first few of season 1, almost all but did away with the American need to resolve everything over a cup of coffee on someone’s front steps with emotional music playing in the background, and the tightness of the show’s comedy, benefited greatly.
Comedy is the hardest genre to do well, because it isn’t enough to just be funny. Comedy requires intellect behind its dialogue, thought behind its themes and a deftness in execution that makes the viewer think without even realising they’re doing it. Good comedy cannot exist entirely without tragedy, because they interact and often exist within each other. And good comedy cannot get away without saying something – it always does, even if you don’t realise it at the time.