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WRITING: FEATURES
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THROUGH THE KEYHOLE

If thoughts could speak... ponder on that. Writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong did and concocted Channel 4 comedy series Peep Show. Reading their minds: Mark Love.

A suited and booted man with an eerily, strange stare. Trying to look normal.Peep Show is the latest work from Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, two of the writers on the double Emmy Award winning sketch show Smack the Pony. The show is filmed from the point of view (or POV) of its characters - akin to thought bubbles used in comics - enabling the writers to explore their subjects' thoughts and fears.

Sam and Jesse have contributed to a number of adult comedy and kids' shows, and are currently working on a sketch show for Radio 4. Peep Show is currently airing on Channel 4 on Fridays.

Does being backroom boys mean that you've avoided the 'tortured comic genius destined to overdose on BabyCham' syndrome often suffered by performers?

The 'tortured' syndrome

Jesse: Yes: as a writer you miss out on the potential high of performance, but also the potential attendant insecurities. I have noticed for example that the stars of Peep Show David Mitchell & Robert Webb often need to 'wind down' with a drink after performances, regardless of the damage these 'pints' must be doing them. Ironically though, writing with Sam has led me to a high degree of dependence on crack cocaine. So it's all swings and roundabouts I suppose.

Sam: As a teetotaller Babycham holds no fear for me.

Most writers I know tend to think of their ability as either a gift or an affliction. Which camp, if any, are you in? Does writing for TV ruin your enjoyment of the medium as a viewer?

S: It's definitely a gift if it enables you to do something you enjoy for a living. At least 50% of my motivation to pursue writing as a career was to avoid doing a 'proper' job. I wouldn't say writing for TV ruins my enjoyment, but it does lead me to watching a lot more sitcoms, which in recent years hasn't been much fun for anyone.

J: I think we've a way to go before it's clear whether we're a talent or an affliction. Regarding writing and viewing: occasionally I have found myself wincing at how good the Office or Alan Partridge is, instead of laughing.

Thinking out loud

Peep Show makes use of an innovative new approach to narrative wherein the characters deepest and often more banal thoughts are expressed out loud. Who came up with the idea and how has this aided the comedy?

J: Andrew O'Connor the Executive Producer, who thinks about TV formats like I think about lunch, i.e. constantly and very lovingly, had an idea for a show where two guys would be watching TV and talking over it. Channel 4 liked it but thought it needed another element to sustain it.

J: Sam and I came up with the POV idea from something we'd wanted to do which was just a very low key show of a guy walking around thinking he is winning in life because he's remembered to buy some lime marmalade. The TV thing featured quite strongly in the pilot and is still in there but other POV stuff has kind of taken over.

S: The POV style brings a totally new dimension to writing the scripts. Having access to the characters' inner monologue means you always have another way of writing the scene: what they say and what they're thinking are often completely at odds. In fact, now we've turned back to writing more conventional scripts, it sometimes feels like you have one arm tied behind your back.

Lazy with big ideas

In Peep Show, was the character Jeremy "a lazy man with big ideas about himself and his future music career" based on anyone in particular?

S: Not really, there just seem to be a lot of people in their twenties who've left university, don't want a boring career and have some vague idea about being "creative", but end up sitting around, smoking dope and talking a lot about it instead.

J: It's based on Sam but he's so lazy he's never read any of the later drafts of scripts and hasn't realised yet. The shit is really going to hit the fan when he does.

Premier division

The team for Peep Show has some heavyweight credentials: Peep Show is produced by Phil Clarke (Big Train, Brass Eye), directed by Jeremy Wooding (Derren Brown - Mind Control) and of course is written by Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain (Smack the Pony). Had you worked together before? Who brought what to the party?

S: We'd worked with Andrew O'Connor before on a couple of scripts for C4 that never got past development, and we'd co-written a couple of scripts with the two leads, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, for the BBC. More than anything the show developed out of knowing David and Robert well enough to be able to write characters specifically for them. Jeremy has worked a lot with Andrew before, and he helped create the unique visual style of the show. We'd never worked with Phil before but David and Robert had, on Armstrong and Miller and Big Train, and his experience and guidance have been invaluable.

J: Jeremy made the pilot with us but Phil was very much enforced from above against our will. Joking aside, when Phil made it in, if you could catch him after his 'man' had made his morning 'delivery', but before the lunch-time drinking kicked in, he often offered some very valuable insights. Mainly, it has to be said, on military history, but also occasionally on malt whiskies.

Close to home

For all it's innovation, Peep Show seems firmly grounded in the fertile comedic mulch of boy/girl and best mates relationships. Do you find yourselves raiding your own experiences and those of friends and family for inspiration? Do they ever object?

S: We mostly keep our raiding to our own experiences. Writing characters' thoughts means you have uncensor yourself and be brave enough to admit what kind of dark weird thoughts pop up in your own mind. Thankfully, we both seem to think largely along the same lines: mainly about sex and Nazis.

J: I think all our best work has been about two men who spend too much time together and the simmering resentments between them that are glossed by the oh-so-thin veneer of normal social interaction. I just don't know where we get that shit from.

Never work with children

As well as writing for such classics as Smack the Pony and Big Breakfast, and contributing to a variety of other adult schedule favourites, you have also written for children in 'The Queen's Nose' and 'My Parents Are Aliens'. How different is it to write for a younger audience? Which audience do you prefer writing for if any?

J: Definitely adult audiences, but kids shows are one of the few places you can work on established shows in the UK. I really would advise anyone who's early in their career or not getting the work they want to give it a go. It's not easy but you can get your stuff on and I think it's really helped our plotting ability, which is one of the hardest parts of comedy writing. I think there are lots and lots of very funny writers around in British television, but probably only Steven Moffat, John Sullivan and David Renwick who are masters of plot.

S: You have to think a lot more about visual gags when writing for a younger audience, which is definitely good training for adult scripts too. Also it's important to leave out any references to adult/sophisticated subjects which kids wouldn't get. For The Queen's Nose, I had a whole B-plot about Friedrich Engels and the myth of scientific socialism which we had to junk.

Misery

Comedy writers - some of the most miserable people you'll ever meet in your life. Discuss.

S: I'm not miserable at all. I have a wonderful job and a wonderful girlfriend, I get on brilliantly with my family and friends and I have a range of stimulating and diverting interests. There's nothing inside killing me.

J: Robert McKee the script writing guru once wrote that everyone in Hollywood thinks when they're having a dinner party, let's invite some comedy writers - that'll be fun. And it is, 'till the paramedics turn up'. (But then this is the guy who showed a hilarious, racist rape scene in his comedy master class in London recently). But I think there is something a bit weird about comedy writers on the whole. I mean I think comedy has lots of similarities with sex - laughing, good irresistible laughing is sublime like an orgasm (just as analysis often turns into wank, anyway).

J: Now if you follow this analogy, the comedy writer is trying to pleasure their audience through the body of another. So I think they can end up feeling a bit used and unappreciated, (I mean it's fun trying to pleasure someone through Jennifer Aniston, but what about Mackenzie Crook) because mostly, the audience doesn't want to know about the writer. They just want their relationship with Del Boy or Chandler or whoever it is.

J: This is obviously the central relationship in comedy - the audience with the performer. No one remembers Marshall Brickman who co-wrote Annie Hall, it's Woody we're loving. This year the comedy awards gave Peter Kay the award for best comedy writer for the excellent Phoenix Nights - but he co-wrote that show with two other writers.

Together... forever

How did you meet? And what was the first sign that you might be able to write together?

S: We met on a creative writing course as part of our degrees at Manchester University. Jesse had an idea for a sitcom when we shared a flat in our last year there, but we never got around to writing it (it was a mother-daughter generation-swap kind of idea, and Ab Fab came out at the same time and put paid to it). Then when we were both living and working in London we thought we'd have another crack at it. I guess we thought it would work because we both have a passion for TV and comedy, and we laugh at the same things.

J: When we met I thought Sam was a ridiculous fop and he considered me an unsophisticated oaf. Maybe one day we will have cause to reconsider.

Can you describe how you approach writing a sketch or other comedy script? At what part does it become a team thing?

S: We work up the initial idea sitting in the same room together, and we usually plan out the storyline and scene-by-scene breakdown together too. Then we go away and write, say, half the script each - I might write the first half and Jesse the second for example - then we swap and edit each other's work. We spend most of our time rewriting so by the end of it you've often forgotten whose lines are whose.

J: Sam is excellent on the punctuation. Really top notch.

Which writers/performers do you most admire? Do you find yourself measuring your own ability against those that you admire?

J: Woody Allen, Larry David, Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dylan Moran, Matt Groening. Also David Mitchell and Robert Webb in Peep Show are some of the funniest men you could ever hope to meet. The byzantine deceptions and betrayals we had to engage in to prevent them from writing all their own material for the show are too complex and demeaning to recount here.

Old for new

I worked briefly on Smack the Pony's first and second series and frequently found that the ideas that had the writers wetting themselves under the table very rarely made it onto the screen. The end result justified the production decisions, but how does the professional writer learn to cope with a less than 100% hit rate? Do you recycle old ideas that you still believe in?

S: You have to have lots and lots of ideas on the go at any one time to avoid the disappointment when 90% of them don't make it on screen (or anywhere near it). We generally recycle quite a lot, although we sometimes take another look at a script we wrote five years ago and it's not up to the standard we'd write now.

J: I think that a less than 100% success rate is unacceptable. Sam keeps me assured that everything we do gets on. Also he says that soon our agent will have sent through enough money and I'll be able to afford a telly.

Whose line is it anyway?

The internet abounds with stories of writers who feel that their ideas were 'borrowed' by unscrupulous production companies. How does a writer protect him/herself from plagiarism?

S: I've never personally encountered any plagiarism. I think if I production company receive a funny idea, they're going to want to hire the person who created it to write it.

J: Just really try not to worry about it. You've got to get your stuff out there. Plus, people have the same idea all the time. Every single episode of the last run of Partridge had some joke or reference which meant we had to cut, alter or bite the bullet and look like we were copying on Peep Show.

Going it alone

For Sam: You're now also an author, your debut 'Yours Truly, Pierre Stone' (IMP Fiction) receiving some very good reviews. Does this now mean that your parents take your chosen line of work more seriously, and that you can think about dumping that sad hanger-on Armstrong?

S: I'm already working for the family business (see above), so it didn't change things on that front. Considering that I made about as much money for my novel (which took me nine years to write and get published) as I can earn working with Jesse for a week, I'm considering sending him a whole smoked salmon once a week to make sure he doesn't chuck me.

For Jesse: Now that Sam has taken to wearing a smoking jacket full time and agonising over how much bigger everyone else's literary advance was than his, does this mean that you can stop returning his calls, and write something for the cinema? (A big screen version of the 1989 Brit Awards disaster perhaps?)

J: I hope we can carry on writing together and he doesn't abandon me for 'The Novel'. As with all abusive relationships, with Sam and I there are good times as well as bad. I just hope the highs are high enough to keep him around. Plus I sometimes do things to his hard drive when he's out of the room. It's not much, but I'm hoping it might slow his progress.



S: I've finally got time to work on the Friedrich Engels screenplay. I'm initially writing it as a mini-series but I might change it to movie trilogy if the funding comes through. I'm hoping to get Freddie Prinze Jr. to play Engels.

J: My dream was always of creating something good and true that really connects with people and makes them think about themselves in relation to their society, and their planet. And to that end, hopefully this will be our fourth year working on Techno Games the show that cannot for legal reasons be referred to as the 'Robot Olympics'.

To the max

If you had one piece of advice to give aspiring TV comedy writers, what would it be?

S: Diversify. Try your hand at as many different formats as possible: sketches, kids' shows, sitcom, comedy-drama, light entertainment. That way you maximise your chances to get work, experience and contacts.

J: If they bring back the Big Breakfast and you feel you're working overly late on it, don't try to exact some kind of revenge on the company by over-ordering Indian food from the complimentary take-away menus. You will feel bloated and unhappy later in the evening.

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