How does comedy writer extraordinaire Graham Linehan do it? An IFTA ‘In Conversation With…’ interview gave Ross Whitaker the low-down…
It’s probably fair to say that despite the mightiness of our craic and the seemingly bottomless pit of successful Irish comedians pulling faces on channels at home and abroad, we probably couldn’t really consider ourselves to be masters of television comedy.
This nagging feeling isn’t helped by the close proximity to us of a country that has produced some of the finest panel, sketch and situation comedy in the history of television. In recent times, what have we produced to rival the likes of Fawlty Towers, The Fast Show, Have I Got News For You, Only Fools and Horses or The Office? We haven’t even come close.
There have been good moments, no doubt. Back in the day, Don’t Feed the Gondolas had its moments and I, for one, was highly impressed by the recent rté sketch show Your Bad Self and was sorry to hear that it won’t be returning. Still, the success stories have been few and far between.
There’s one shining light, of course: a superb sit-com about priests, created by Irish writers and starring Irish actors that proved to be massively successful. Father Ted was no less than a phenomenon. And despite our poor tv comedy record, pretty much the only thing not Irish about Ted was that it was commissioned and broadcast by Channel 4.
By now, everyone in Ireland knows that the brilliant duo of Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan somehow fused their substantial talents to create a work of true genius. Father Ted is up there with the best of them, a complete classic that will no doubt be repeated on the small screen time and time again for many years to come without ever getting tired.
Since then, Linehan has gone on to create the outstanding comedy series Black Books with Dylan Moran and, more recently, The it Crowd. It would be fair to say, he’s cracked it, so it was with great interest that I attended the recent ifta event, In Conversation with Graham Linehan.
Linehan was in Ireland for the making of a definitive Father Ted documentary to be directed by Adrian McCarthy of Wildfire Films, one he hopes will dispel a lot of myths that have grown up about Ted.
The biggest, he says, is that Father Ted was first offered to and refused by rté. Linehan and Mathews had already been working in London and developing relationships with broadcasters for a while when they came up with the idea of Ted, so pitching it in the uk seemed like the sensible thing to do.
‘We didn’t do it with RTÉ because we were in England and we had a career there, so it would have been strange to go back to Ireland and start from the bottom in RTÉ, a company that never really made a successful studio sitcom. Because there was no infrastructure in Ireland for those kind of studio sitcoms, it would have been crazy to give it to them. RTÉ did many great things but studio sitcoms was not one of them.’
Linehan had started out as a music journalist and film critic in London and seized his chance to move into comedy writing when Mathews decided to also move to the UK. They ended up living together for four years and developing a close writing relationship.
‘Me and Arthur had this thing – because Arthur has an incredible sense of humour – and we were able to translate our conversations onto the page and it was just a good mix.’
‘We took turns. Arthur would write two pages and then I’d sit down and read it and I’d laugh and I’d have an idea for fixing something, so I’d edit it and then I’d write on a few pages. We used to have Magic Eye pictures and basically one of us would be writing and the other would be staring at a picture trying to see a rabbit.’
This ability and desire to edit their own work seems to be central to their success as writers. Linehan explains that he and Mathews were always happy to redraft their work if they felt it would make it better and suggests it’s something more writers might embrace.
‘We were very happy to throw out a scene or a plotline if it didn’t work. Writers can sometimes be defensive about notes but we would be happy to take it away and create a new plotline and ten pages that were totally different. I love that.’
‘To me, the first draft is always a horrible, unpleasant grind but the second draft and the third draft I love because you can see the story, the jokes are getting better and bad plotlines are being squeezed out by the good stuff and then you get to a stage where the script is in such good shape that you’re literally just talking about full-stops and commas and that’s a nice place to be and that’s when the really funny one-liners come in.’
‘I do find that a lot of writers still don’t understand how important rewriting is and how your first draft is just notes for the main draft. I see it as a bunch of notes, potentially funny ideas, jokes and situations that might work or might not. The first draft is just there so I have something to work from for the second draft where it really starts coming to life.’
Subsequent to Father Ted, Linehan and Mathews created Big Train, a sometimes surreal sketch show featuring Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate amongst others. While it was different from Ted, Linehan prefers not to use the word experimental. The aim is not to experiment but to make people laugh.
‘My thing is that telling a funny story or joke is already difficult enough, so I’m not really interested in pushing the boat out. I just want to be funny and it’s hard. When you hear an experimental piece of music, I think that’s easy to do; the difficult thing to do is create a song that’s around forever.’
While Linehan has also written for sketch shows like Alas Smith and Jones, The Fast Show and Harry Enfield and Chums in the past, his niche really seems to be the family-friendly sitcom that can be enjoyed by all.
‘I think with media now, everything is becoming atomized. Everyone in the family is in a different room on a different kind of media. I think what I’d like to do is try to bring everybody back into the room.’
‘It’s the stuff I always watched with my dad when I was a kid. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the excitement again of dad finally saying, ‘Ok, you can watch Fawlty Towers.’ I’m not too interested in mission statements but I do want to avoid comedy that drives people out of the room. If you’re watching a comedy show and somebody says something about menstruation and your father goes, “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea…” I want to do stuff that keeps you in the room.
Linehan shows a clip from The it Crowd that perfectly represents what he’s aiming for. An escalating scene where one gag leads to the next, each laugh greater than the last.
‘That’s what I’m always trying to do… You come up with a situation that has to be very believable because if it’s not believable nobody will laugh. But it also needs to be the kind of situation that gives birth to lots of other situations. If the situation is good then you’re almost just transcribing what would actually happen next.’
What’s clear listening to Linehan is just how much hard work he puts into making his shows look easy. The amount of thought and effort that goes into creating high quality comedy is mind-boggling and Linehan is certainly a man that all aspiring writers could learn from.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 134 in 2010.