Monday, 16 March 2009

New talent, old clips...

I've just spent a few minutes watching some clips from a comedy show we made in 2001. The fact I watched it is thanks to three things:-
  • New technology - Youtube, interweb, broadband streaming...
  • Old technology - a dusty old VHS copy being found and digistised in...
  • Not much to do - both for me to sit and watch it, and for the show's producer who did all the digitising heheh.
A bit of background - this show was made after we pitched a topical cartoon sketch show to our late-night bosses at C4. We made interstitials for them for 2 years and were coming to the end of a run, and pitched this as a new idea: a midnight(ish) topical show that could be repeated several times over the 4 nights the 4Later strand ran, and made for buttons.

They took a risk and said yes, gave us precisely six buttons and off we went. We spent five buttons on writers, getting in political journos like Simon Hoggart to give us insider info on politicians (interesting, but totally unusable as we'd have been thrown in jail if it had been broadcast) and big grand writers' meetings in an odd Docklands pub we called The Eighties (as it was full of chrome, red piping and alarmingly bad music).

Up'n'coming comedians and writers like David Quantick and, er, some other quite famous ones did some bits, we wrote some others, and the C4 lawyers screamed at us for daring to suggest nuclear waste could be dangerous. We then spent one button animating the whole half-hour show.

The only issue we ever had with C4 themselves was the title - they hated every one we came up with, so the working title, Pen Monkeys, was used. This was our pet name for the animators, and we did a very literal translation for titles and stings, with monkeys flying around on plane-sized pens. Oh how inventive.

The viewing experience was mixed - I'd totally forgotten the sequence about national monuments starting a world war when (then brand-new) President George W Bush accidentally pressed the wrong button. It was quite funny, and I can see why we thought it was just what a cartoon could and should do - a bunch of actors in silly hats couldn't - but God it went on a bit.

My producer friend says that when we did this we revelled in the animation being a bit shit, and as the telly didn't have any crap animation on, we were new and shiny and bold. Unlike today, when the internet is crammed full of low-quality 'toons. Hmmm. Not too sure about that myself, I'd have loved the animation to have been better, but we had no time, no money and (frankly) not that much ability to make nice proper cartoonery back then.

A sketch about killing Mrs Thatcher was less successful, but included to please our com.eds. if I remember correctly (ie I'm not making it up on purpose but my brain does have a tendency to do that to me). We shouldn't have been making 'topical' comedy about a PM who'd left office a decade before...

The show did what it needed to do - C4 liked it, commissioned a second one targeted more at their audience (ie less politics, more celebs), and made us stick to one animation style (Pen Monkeys used anything and everything, from 2D, 3D, hand-drawn, B&W, stills, cut outs...)

That second show was well-received, but it mattered not as the late-night original-content risky-business era was ending. The money went elsewhere and our show wasn't commissioned. Shortly afterwards 2DTV hit the air - twenty times our budget, primetime yet looking rather similar - and that was that, the market for 'topical animated comedy' was taken.

Oh well.

Anyhow, the reason for saying all this (eventually, he gets to the point) is that there doesn't seem to be any opportunity to do something as frankly barking mad as ask some blokes in a corridor with no comedy track record to make a topical satirical half-hour tv cartoon sketch show for the price of a Ford Mondeo. You can get lots of money to make comedy if you've got that track record. Or, it seems today, if you're the fat one off of Gavin & Stacey. Ahem.

But the opportunities we were offered don't exist any more. "Oh yes they do", you cry, "on the internets!". Well, yes, ish. With no money instead of tiny amounts of money, so only loners-in-bedrooms, rich people or big established comedians/companies "experimenting" can afford to do anything. Hence the distinct lack of any original comedic material on the web, and huge amount of digitised clips off of the telly.

We didn't quite succeed with either of our two sketch shows, either visually or comedically, but it was great that Big Important Channel 4 gave it a shot. I think with comedy you need to take risks - not necessarily expensive risks but creative ones. "No shit Sherlock", you shout annoyingly, but my view is that it's better to make ten comedy pilots of small amounts of dosh than one episode of, say, Horne & Corden. I'm picking that show out not because it's bad (TURNS TO CAMERA TWO LIKE HARRY HILL DOES OCCASIONALLY, RAISES EYEBROW SARCASTICALLY, TURNS BACK TO CAMERA ONE) but because it costs a lot of buttons.

Oh, and here's a link to the thing we did. Glacially slow, the worst mouth animation in the history of television, but at least there's weirdness and humour there. Somewhere.


1 comment:

Alan S said...

You ought to sue them for nicking your idea !!!