Many thanks to the enigmatic JB who had this to say in the comments thread of my last 10 on TV Drama post about Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach:
“It has got me thinking about the benefits of the US system of writing teams, especially for comedy, where many minds are likely to be better than one in ramping up the laughter count…What do you think?”
I am undecided about the benefit of team writing, though other bloggers have written about their own experiences of it (thanks James Henry) and others have been vocal in their support or dislike of them. The usual arguments for and against apply: The US does it and does it well. But it means less creative control for the individual writer. It doesn’t make sense to have such a fragmented system, sending commissions out to various writers on their own. The writer is always the underdog, it’s nice for part of the production to depend on them, without having producers etc LITERALLY breathing down their neck. Two heads are better than one… Stop me if you’ve heard these. Oh you have? Right, let’s move on.
So this is not a post about whether team writing is good or bad, full stop: this is a post about comedy and team writing, as in:
Is a comedy bound to be funnier if produced by a team?
I don’t read a lot of comedy, but I do read a lot of romantic comedies. I think it’s just the way it’s worked out more than comedy being a “dying art” – I have reading colleagues who report they read nothing but comedy. However we all seem to have a similar problem: there’s not much that’s funny about. Sure, some people might write funny situations, others write funny jokes and/or dialogue. Others have one particular character that’s really funny. Occasionally I even laugh when I’m reading and I always thank the writer for that in my reports, since it’s a rare occurrence.
But rarely do I read a script where it is simply FUNNY in the same way I might read a thriller that is simply THRILLING or a horror that is simply HORRIFYING. Comedy is such a hard genre to pull off, it seems easier for writers to go off at tangents – sad ones usually, inspired no doubt by Four weddings, though sometimes comedies get exceptionally gross and/or offensive. Other times they seem to forget what they’re about and change story or even characters completely. It’s like Comedy is the top of the genre mountain and lots of scribes fall short of that final peak. I know I do.
Of course it helps to define what a team actually is. I think of a team as people who have been brought together by an outsider – in other words, writers are hired and put in a room together by a producer and write the producer’s concept. I do not count the two/three people who have come up with their own idea on spec, worked on it together, then sold it to a network and had it developed further for example. That’s just gthe same as being a specmonkey like the rest of us, except there’s two of you.
No, for me team writing is almost a contrivance: a job like any other, bringing people together who may or may not have met before and telling them to write something in particular which is not their own idea. I’m not arguing that team writing is a *bad* idea by the way (some of my fave shows are team-written), but since I think of it as a contrivance, then I don’t think I can say comedy *has* to be funnier, even if two heads ARE better than one. Why? Well comedy for me is about heart: truth (and its many interpretations) is funny. Therefore, I don’t believe a person being TOLD to write comedy can be as funny as the person who NEEDS to write comedy as their “default” setting, who will write it regardless of whether anyone will make it.
However, the flipside of this argument is the notion that if you don’t care about the characters so much because they are not your babies, then you are more likely to put them through hell – which can be the essence of good comedy. Often my Bangwriters love their characters too much to object them to the really funny (horrible) stuff or cut them when they need cutting. Sometimes too they will want to keep flawed scenes simply because of one funny line. In short, they let their heart rule their head, when the opposite would presumably be the case in the team: if it’s just a job, then stuff can get chucked out and rewritten at will, there should be no agonising.
What do you think?
While you decide, here’s some clips from two of my fave UK comedy shows, one team-written, the other not. Can you tell? Which is best? Is this another “commerce vs. creativity” argument? Whatever you think, let us know.