We get the low-down on all things funny from the APA's 2017 Comedy Producer of the Year
Hey Matt, thanks for spending some time with us. You've been a Producer at BBC Comedy for just over 3 years now, but had quite a few jobs before this, including sound-editor for the IT Crowd and writing for Dick and Dom! What can you tell us about your creative journey?
My origin story! I had two passions when I was growing up – music and comedy. In 2003, I managed to get a job as a tea boy in an audio post-production facility where they just happened to mix a lot of comedy. I was desperate for a job in this area because, being the nerd I am, I loved hanging around in sound studios amongst all the equipment. The fact that the studio predominately mixed comedy shows was a huge bonus – both my interests were being satiated.
It was really hard work, and I basically had to wave goodbye to a social life in my 20s, but it meant I got to work with people like Ricky Gervais on Extras, Graham Linehan on the IT Crowd, Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz on Look Around You. It also meant I was regularly working with directors and producers at the BBC and building relationships with other comedy production companies, building relationships.
After a few years of this, I decided I wanted to have a hand in creating the comedy rather than just sound mixing it. So I went freelance, which meant I had more free time to pursue creating comedy and, using contacts I’d made previously in my career, I was able to pitch ideas to the BBC. An exec decided to give me some money to develop one of them, and we made a taster tape and then a pilot for BBC Three called For The Win.
"I taught myself via the internet – watching YouTube videos and downloading camera manuals."
Unfortunately For The Win didn’t get picked up for a series, so I then started trying to develop other bits and pieces. I would also make 'Behind The Scenes' videos for production companies, which allowed me to keep my hand in with the people that worked there. I think because of my technical background in sound, people just assumed that I could shoot and edit, but in reality I had no idea. I taught myself via the internet – watching YouTube videos and downloading camera manuals.
Off the back of For The Win I was asked to Assistant Produce on the first series of Bluestone 42, which was an amazing experience as I got to see how a fairly big budget (well, compared to FTW) programme was made. During this time I also made a short for BBC Comedy Online with a pre-Catastrophe Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan. This came together by me hustling basically – knowing that Rob was in town, knowing he liked Sharon, knowing that the BBC Comedy Online department would probably want to pay for it as he has such a large Twitter following.
"This came together by me hustling basically"
I was totally freelance at this point – still doing sound to pay the bills and occasionally being able to get these mini-producing jobs. Basically I’d try and do anything to get my foot in that producer-door. After about four years of this, I saw that BBC Radio Comedy were advertising for a producer, so I applied and got it. I’ve been making radio comedy since 2014, and I’m now dipping my toe back into TV.
I recently produced a pilot for BBC Three called The Celebrity Voicemail Show, which you can watch here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05n4l43. I've also been directing a few bits and bobs, including Sarah Campbell’s BBC Three Top Ten as well as various launch films for radio series including Newsjack.
"Basically I’d try and do anything to get my foot in that producer-door"
It sounds like you've got comedy in your veins - what makes you passionate about finding the funny?
Everyone working in comedy is passionate about ‘finding the funny’ – you have to be really. It’s hard work and the money isn’t great, so you have to love it to keep doing it! I love the feeling when you watch/ listen/ read amazing comedy - that proper punch-the-air excitement when something really tickles you.
I’ve been extremely lucky to work with incredibly talented people, basically! I remember a producer once told me that the secret to a successful career is to find the most talented person in the room and stand as close to them as possible. Seems to be working!
Do you think it's best to stick to a winning formula, or constantly evolve what you're working on, and who you're working with?
I think it’s a bit of both and maybe part of being a producer is knowing when it’s appropriate to stick to what works and when it’s better to move things on? As a producer, and definitely as a radio comedy producer, you work on many different types of shows with lots of different types of people. I make topical comedy with Nish Kumar, sketch with Daphne, and then work with people like Nicholas Parsons, Paul Merton and Stephen Fry on Just A Minute – so a wide variety of shows.
This allows you to take lessons you’ve learnt from one show and apply it to another, which can help mix things up. For example, we had a live band for the first series of Daphne Sounds Expensive and saw what a brilliant energy it brought to the show. So when I was producing Just A Minute Does Panto! it felt right to bring a live band on stage for that too, knowing it would bring a sense of occasion and would perhaps enhance the energy on stage, as well as it being appropriate for a pantomime. You do have to be careful though. When you have a formula that works, you want to treat it very delicately – don’t fix it if it ain’t broke!
"I’ve been extremely lucky to work with incredibly talented people"
Some people reading this will have submitted to Newsjack but perhaps been disappointed to receive the 'Recorded but cut' e-mail. Given how competitive the show do you think this is something to be celebrated rather than mourned? Just how competitive is it?
Getting a ‘recorded but cut’ email is definitely something to be celebrated. There are a number of reasons why a sketch might not make the final edit, and by that stage it’s usually because it’s been cut for time. When I was producing it (the Kumar years, from 2014-2016), I really wished we had the resources to give feedback on those sketches that didn’t quite make it, unfortunately there’s just not enough time or manpower to do it. If you’ve made it that far and got one of those emails then you’re definitely onto something good.
Newsjack is very competitive – I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but there are several hundred sketch submissions in the first couple of weeks. The amount of submissions really does trail off though as people lose interest as the series goes on.
My advice is to stick at it – not only does the competition thin out as the series goes on, when I was reading the submissions each week, you’d start to recognise names and because they were practicing each week the sketches got better and better. I do recognise it’s hard to stick at it though – for a writer it does feel like you’re chucking sketches into a black hole, especially as most people only get an automatic email reply as a reward for giving up their Sunday to write. Tenacity genuinely does pay off though!
"Getting a ‘recorded but cut’ email is definitely something to be celebrated"
There's a growing community creating their own content through social media and platforms such as Acast and Podbean. What are your thoughts on how the Comedy landscape may look in the next few years?
I’m not sure I can offer much more than the obvious. I love that loads of great comedy podcasts are being made, but it’ll be interesting to see if any narrative comedies start to emerge, as most of them seem to be improvised or based around interviews. There’s loads of great content being made by people on a shoestring, but I reckon there’ll still be a role for bigger companies like the BBC to make the type of show that needs a bit of a budget.
"Networking is useful to establish a relationship with a writer, but they’ve still got to come up with that killer script"
Building networks with other creatives is key, but some writers can still feel 'cut-off' from Producers. Is the reality that they need to invest as much time on networking as they do on their script, or will a killer script always shine through the noise?
I think the answer is a bit of both. In comedy, and the media industry in general, networking is a big part of it – it’s always nice to meet people and get to know them – but I wouldn’t develop a script with someone just because I’ve met them or just because I like them. The script or idea has to resonate with me somehow. Networking is useful to establish a relationship with a writer, but they’ve still got to come up with that killer script.
Equally though, I think a killer script would shine through the noise – it would happen all the time with sketches on Newsjack. That said, I’ve yet to have an unsolicited script for a sitcom sent to me that has grabbed me straight away.
What advice might you give to a wannabe comedy producer?
I’d say you’re going to need to be tenacious and have a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit – it’s not just about finding the funniest script, it’s knowing where the opportunities are for it and how you can best sell it. I’d say that you absolutely have to have that passion for comedy too, as it’s all-consuming. It becomes your life.
"You’re going to need to be tenacious and have a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit"
Do you still find the time to write comedy? If so, what are the top 3 things you've learned from being a Producer that you apply when you're writing?
I don’t write at all any more – I think my skills lie more in script editing and working on scripts in that capacity scratches that creative itch for me. So my top 3 things that I’ve learnt from being a Producer that I find myself applying to scripts when I’m editing are:
- What are you trying to say? If it’s a sketch then you usually want to say something with it, even if it’s not topical. The jokes will come easier, and the audience will get on board with it quicker if the point of the sketch is clear.
- Is it funny enough? It sounds obvious, but are there enough gags on the page and, if it’s to be read out in front of an audience, can you imagine an audience laughing at it? Sometimes you have to really ask yourself if it’s a proper joke or does it just look like one.
- Are the characters in your script compelling enough? Having an original setting is fun, but is there a comic engine, a tension, between your characters that means they’ll keep generating jokes and storylines etc.