02 Aug 2018

Can You Make A Drama Out Of A Comedy?

dave's picture

A few weeks ago BBC Writersroom held their annual TV Drama Festival – which for the first time became the TV Drama and Comedy Festival. It felt like a significant moment for us, an acknowledgment that the embarrassing uncle they don’t normally talk about who farts in the corner should be allowed a seat at the big table.
The keynote guest was Steven Moffat, a writer who has enjoyed considerable success across both genres, a writer whose sitcoms were always full of dramatic action, and who can’t help but bring wit and humour to even the darkest episodes of his TV drama.
It was inevitable at some point the panel discussions would explore the world of comedy drama. There was a whole session devoted to it. The message coming from all TV channels is that they want more comedy drama. Shane Allen, BBC Controller of Comedy said “there’s a blur between comedy and drama, we’re diversifying all the time.” Channel 4 have a new five-year plan, in which they’re talking about “putting comedy at the heart of everything we do.”
This was all very exciting, but a problem soon became clear: not one of us in the room had a clue what was meant by the phrase ‘comedy drama’.
Comedy-drama is the catchphrase of the moment. I detect the influence of Netflix. The four series I’ve seen of Orange Is The New Black are dark, funny and gripping. I haven’t seen GLOW but feedback has been positive. I’ve been mesmerised by the dark, weird, misanthropic Amazon Prime-made Transparent which is not huge on laughs but they are there. The fact that all three can be described as ‘feminist’, shows less that commissioners are narrowing their remits, than that feminism has become an improbably broad definition of “funny dramas about women.”
Meanwhile at the TV Writers’ festival, the commissioners were pressed to be more specific. We’re writers, trying to sell them stuff, and surely it’s not unreasonable for us to at least have an idea of what they’re looking for. Asked for a definition Jon Mountague, head of comedy at Sky said “It’s whatever you think it is. I’m not sure it matters.” Which to be fair to him is Commissioner-speak for “If it’s funny and original I don’t really care.”
Chris Sussman, who is currently the BBC Executive most depended on to develop the genre, says “It’s subjective.” He at least had a clearer idea of what it means to him when he’s working with writers, ensuring that the originality of our work is protected as we seek to develop those parts that can make the comedy more dramatic - or drama more comedic I guess.
As far as Steven Moffat was concerned, “comedy and drama are not different things.” And he had a good piece of practical advice, which is to put a gag in the drama early to conceal a recurring plot point.
I’m glad he refused to make the distinction, it might help us grope our way towards a definition that we can use to define our work.
Comedy drama was the form I grew up loving most, without realising it. The great sitcoms of my childhood, Steptoe And Son, Porridge, Dad’s Army and others, grew out of the British theatre tradition and all had strong self-contained stories every episode.
My favourite writers in my teenage years were Alan Plater, Colin Welland, Willy Russell and others who wrote laugh out loud plays in the 1970s, and became very successful TV writers across comedy and drama. Jack Rosenthal flitted from sitcom to drama and back again without anyone taking him to task about the distinction. I loved his sitcoms The Dustbinmen and The Lovers as much as his classic one-off dramas like Barmitzvah Boy and P’Tang Yang Kipperbang.
At least we can partly answer the question ‘what is comedy-drama?’ with – ‘it’s whatever Steven Moffat writes.’ Simon Nye is another who enjoyed success writing sitcoms, but is now in charge of ITV’s comedy drama The Durrells. Sally Wainwright has never, to my knowledge, written a sitcom but all her dramas are packed with humour. Last Tango In Halifax is one of the funniest shows of the last few years, while even her gritty Happy Valley has moments of dark humour. Other writers who seem to have mastered the form include Debbie Horsfield, Kay Mellor and Jack Thorne.
The problem here is that those writers are all working with budgets from Drama, with a capital D. You and I are battling for the much smaller Comedy pot, competing with stand-ups and panel shows - and on top of all that we’re being asked to bung a narrative arc across a story that’s principally about a character who never learns anything, which is the antithesis of what happens at the end of a drama.
It doesn’t help when people use that hideous shorthand word to describe what they’re looking for, with no hint of irony, as ‘dramedy’.
No one knows the exact origin of this hybrid monstrosity, citation needed as Professor Wiki tells me.  First time I heard it was from Michael McKean in one of those semi-improvised movies, the way he said it made it sound like a word he had invented to deliberately describe something that would be neither dramatic or comedic. That seems to have become the accepted definition. It does have a horrible sound, although at least is a marginally better word than the one made up of the left-over parts, as pointed out by writer Nev Fountain, which is coma.
We should never try second-guessing commissioners, and I’m sure you will have read many times elsewhere to write what you want to write, not what you think you should be writing. It would be mad though not to look at what’s being commissioned, and to listen to the tone of voice of commissioners when you hear what makes them excited.
Everybody seems to be agreed that Fleabag was a turning point for the narrative sitcom. Shows like Inside Number 9 and The Trip are frequently mentioned, and festooned with awards, but notice how these shows are most often performer-led.
This is why it’s helpful for you now to know that there’s nine months to go before the Writersroom comedy script submission. Next week we’ll be looking specifically at story and character but for now, while you’re still working out what it is you think to write, add this question to the ones I gave you on Tuesday regarding what it’s about and what it’s really about:
Can I move the story forward without growing the main characters?
Regular readers of this blog will have seen the phrase many times that “sitcom characters learn nothing,” I’ve already said it here but I can’t say it often enough. Sitcom characters learn nothing. (Maybe that’s too much for one article).
Watch an episode of Cold Feet though and you’ll see that quite often by the end of the episode, one or two of the characters will have changed almost imperceptibly. They’ll come back next week and make the same mistakes, but this time they may do so being fully aware of the trouble it will get them into.
Keep prodding your characters, put them into awkward situations. You may find the answer to the above question is no. Sometimes you won’t find out until you try it, as the Frasier writers discovered when they could no longer stretch the believability of the show by keeping Daphne and Niles apart. But it means when you come to the writing of your show, you will have tested the character further, and probably come up with a few more interesting story ideas along the way.
The writer-performer has for a while been the most important person in the commissioning process, which is understandable in these risk-averse cash-strapped times. They come with a ready-made persona, and usually at least one gripping narrative to tell the world. That’s probably as specific a definition of comedy-drama as TV commissioners can ask for at the moment.
Stand-up comedy has been the dominant live form for many years, and it was also the place to hear new, interesting and challenging voices. But fringe theatre, marginalised for years due to the prohibitive cost of putting on a show, seems to be making a comeback. With TV strapped for cash and writer-performers dominating the schedules, actual writers have returned to the stage as the only place available for them to communicate.
Could it be possible that my teenage years are being re-enacted, is fringe theatre once again becoming the place to find new comedy ideas? I hope so.

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