Paul Hineman Writes About – TV Comedy

I have always wanted to work in comedy. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, two decades which saw a proliferation of well-written and well-produced sitcoms. We also had variety in the form of ‘Benny Hill’ and the ‘Two Ronnies’, as well as justifiably frequent, welcome repeats of ‘Flying Circus’ and ‘Morecambe and Wise’.

The Comedy Store players were being established in London and had a conduit to TV via Channel 4, with opportunities like ‘Comic Strip Presents’.

‘Alternative’ was the new alternative and people still knew how to put the sit and com into sitcom.

I’m glad to say that as a nation, we are just as hungry for a laugh these days as we’ve always been and we’re well catered for. If there’s a comedy constant though, it is that material dates quickly.

And without new blood, we’d very soon have a vacuum. Not very funny. Hence, these days, we have many more nursery slopes for emerging talent, like BBC2, BBC3 and initiatives such as Channel 4’s comedy lab.

In terms of Scottish comedy talent and output, I’ve recently had two commissioning editors ask me directly if our company is developing comedy formats. Obviously, my answer was yes, because we most certainly are. I’m led to believe that the dominant genre up here is factual and when you stop to think about it, it’s glaringly obvious.

Beyond ‘Naked Video’, ‘Absolutely’ and the work of messers Kiernan and Hemphill, there’s been a dearth of comedy and entertainment projects from Scotland. I wonder why this is the case.

Think about your own viewing habits and think about how many times you laugh during the average day (global credit crunch permitting). We are a funny nation. We have a funny national dress (men in skirts), funny national dish (offal), funny national instrument (did you know pipers have to season their bags regularly? See, that is funny) and funny weather. But in terms of reaching the outside world with our comedic talent, we’re about as effective as the….. Welsh.

Of course, I know many great and good Scots’ comedy brains have upped and left the country to ensure fruitful careers elsewhere. I’m talking about the likes of Stanley Baxter, who I had the pleasure of working with last year, and Armando Ianucci, who has been behind some truly edgy comedy on TV and radio.

If we have the talent, on and off screen, which I firmly believe we do, and if the material is there, why don’t we see more home-grown comedy commissions hitting the network? What’s gone wrong or, more appropriately, what is it that has never quite gone right in the first place?

We’ve got to address one obvious matter before we can develop and it is that the parochial, insular and most national comedic elements that help form our society have rarely travelled well and they’re probably never going to. ‘Rab C.’ was an exceptional exception to this rule. Perhaps that is because it was inherently honest. It was certainly outrageously funny and very well produced.

So what to do? There can never be a pay-off without the requisite set up. But what is it that needs to be set up? A comedy school? A nursery slope in the Cairngorms? We certainly need to think out of the shortbread tin and veer towards the left field.

If we are to grow the percentage of network programmes made in Scotland, then a percentage of those must be comedies. If not, we’ll just have to keep this as an exclusively national joke.

Only, who’ll be laughing?

Paul Hineman was born in Glasgow in 1972 in a hospital ward which eventually became home to BBC drama, ‘Cardiac arrest’. Prophetic or what?!