Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong talk about the Give Me Direction conference taking place in Dublin this weekend
As creators of Peep Show, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong know a thing or two about screenwriting. Paul Byrne catches the comic duo as they prepare for this weekend’s Give Me Direction conference in Dublin.
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, I’m not sure that writing about writing sitcoms makes much sense.
Then again, the two people I’m talking to about writing sitcoms are Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the creators of one of the finest and funniest half-hours of recent years, Peep Show, in which two loveable losers, would-be snob Mark (David Mitchell) and definite slob Jeremy (Robert Webb), share a London flat and a tendency to rub each other up the wrong way.
Bain and Armstrong first met whilst doing a creative writing course as part of their degrees at Manchester University, reuniting in London a few years later, where, in-between rejected sitcom ideas, they found work on the likes of the all-girl sketch show Smack The Pony and kidcoms such My Parents Are Aliens and The Queen’s Nose. It was the arrival of Peep Show in September 2003 that proved the duo’s breakthrough though, and they have since gone on to work on the likes of The Thick Of It, In The Loop (for which Armstrong received an Oscar nomination) and the recent Four Lions.
Coming to Dublin as part of the Give Me Direction screenwriting conference being held on June 17th and 18th, Bain and Armstrong will be hosting their Taboo-Busting Semi-Incomprehensible Pep-Talk at the Morrison Hotel on Friday, at 3.15pm. Others attending the two-day event include Bobby Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber), Nicole Holofcener (Friends With Money) and Pat McCabe.
PAUL BYRNE: So, what’s your plan for Dublin – huge, Robert McKee-sized pearls of wisdom, or just a few shots in the dark about this strange black art called screenwriting?
SAM BAIN: Yeah, definitely the latter. We don’t have any snake oils to be selling, unlike Robert McKee.
JESSE ARMSTRONG: Definitely not a shot in the dark. I haven’t got the Robert McKee thing of having a very set idea of how people should write their scripts. I’ve met enough talented writers by now to know that there isn’t one single way to do it. I think we can just tell people how we work, and encourage people to write what they think is funny.
The fact that you’ve been so successful over the years, have you gotten to a point where you feel completely confident in your work, or is each new script a step into the great unknown?
SB: One of the joys of doing Peep Show – we’re doing the seventh series now – is feeling, well, we’ve done six series, we should know what we’re doing now. Which is a lovely prospect, because, usually, with new projects, especially films, or a new series, you haven’t a clue. You’re just hoping. Having that track record is really reassuring though.
JA: To be honest, it’s a little easier, I guess, but it’s still somewhat scary. It feels a bit like magic, and you wonder if you’re going to be able to come up with a really strong episode ever again. You get a little more confident, but the insecurity and fear that’s there is good, because it pushes you, makes you challenge yourself.
There’s always that worry about a much-loved series outstaying its welcome – as happened with Roseanne and Only Fools & Horses, both, coincidentally, going down the swanny after Lotto wins by their working class zeroes…
SB: You mentioned those two shows, and I think the main lesson to be learnt there is never let your characters win the lottery. It’s the most important thing you could possibly do. It’s a good example of why those shows ended early, or badly; it’s because they changed the basic situation of the characters, and if you do that, you’re in real trouble. The trick is to keep what works, and finds new stories within that.
I think we have a huge, healthy fear of going too far, of becoming a parody, of breaking the mechanism, and we’re very aware of that. Of course, it has to end sometime, and we’d like to end with a bang rather than a whimper.
When writing for Tony Hancock, the godfather of British sitcoms, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson spoke of how easy it was, because the line between performer and character became increasingly blurred. Same for you with Peep Show?
SB: Yeah, there is a bit of that. And also, it’s fantastic having such talented actors as David and Robert, because we know them really well as people, as performers, and we know what they’re going to be funny doing. We can imagine their voices, and how they’re going to do certain scenes, and that makes it very easy to write for them, because you’re confident you can write something that they’re going to be good at.
Hancock made it clear from the start that he wasn’t going to interfere with Galton and Simpson’s scripts. Given that David Mitchell and Robert Webb are successful comedy writers themselves, does that make such a remove a little more difficult?
JA: Well, it’s interesting that you say that – I didn’t know that about Hancock – but Dave and Robert, although they are brilliant writers in their own right, they have a similar attitude. When we write for them, we pitch them episode ideas early on, and usually they let us alone. They don’t seek to be involved, and they’re almost always incredibly complimentary when they get the scripts. If they do have a note, it’s usually a really bright character note, and they tend not to improvise. They tend to do the scripts as written, and it’s maybe because they’re writers, they have a deep respect for other people’s work as well.
You’ve had an enormous amount of success with other projects, but Peep Show is the jewel in the crown. Does it ever feel like your Freebird, like the one that overshadows everything else you’ve done?
JA: No, no, it’s good. We love Dave and Robert, we know them well, and it’s lovely to write for them. We know their voices well. It’s the sort of thing where we so often have plot ideas or joke ideas or character ideas which just fit perfectly in that show. So, it’s by no means a burden. It’s great to have a show where you can pour a lot of what you find funny into those characters.
Most people would rather be Elvis than Lieber & Stoller – an easy decision, to become the writer of jokes rather than the teller?
JA: Yeah, it was easy for me. I’ve never had any performing thing. Doing something like Give Me Direction is the closest I come to that, and I quite like doing a panel occasionally, or an interview, but that’s quite enough exposure for me.
SM: I think it’s just a question of knowing what you’re good at it. There are an awful lot of talented actors around, so, I’ve got no desire to compete with them.
Sam, your mum, Rosemary Frankau, was an actress – was that the spark?
SB: I don’t think I can say that she inspired it, or anything like that. I do come from a family of comedians. My grandmother was in Fawlty Towers – she was one of the old ladies. And my granddad was a stand-up comedian, radio and music hall comic, so, there was a bit of genetics probably involved.
They would have told you that this is a tough business – did you have any doubts?
SB: Not really, because I felt I was going into the family business. I didn’t get any direct help, with contacts or whatever, from them, but I suppose, looking back, the important thing that they gave me was growing up in a household where my dad was a director and my mum was an actress, and I would draw my childhood drawings on the back of scripts and camera plans, and I just had the knowledge that you could very realistically make a living out of this. And having that knowledge probably helped me more than I realised.
David and Robert came into Ireland to help promote Magicians, your 2007 big-screen debut, but that movie didn’t really connect. Have you ever figured out why?
JA: I think we’ve been lucky in that we’ve been involved in lots of successful TV shows, but we’ve also been involved in less successful ones. With a film, you don’t get to pilot it – you just get one shot at it, and there it is. I don’t know why it didn’t totally gel, and it’s almost impossible to work out why some things work and other things don’t.
SB: Seeing how well Four Lions did, I think we should have made the magicians terrorists. Probably would have pushed through a bit harder.
Do you look upon movies as the holy grail, or are they just another part of the job?
SB: Well, films are very exciting, so, yeah, I suppose there’s no getting away from it; people do take them more seriously, and there’s a more glamourous side to it. I’m so proud of Four Lions, and I’m particularly proud of Chris [Morris] for pulling it off. He directed it, and he conceived it, and it was an incredibly hard film to get right. Unlike a series, you don’t get a second chance. It’s either a hole-in-one or strike-out, so, it’s much harder. So, to see that film connecting with people, that’s such a joy to see, very satisfying.
The great British sitcom pretty much always has a loser or two at its centre – from Hancock and Steptoe & Son to Rigsby, Fawlty, Perrin and on to Partridge, Brent and Peep Show. Why is that?
SB: I don’t know, it’s tricky. There are always exceptions. My and Jesse’s favourite sitcom character is probably George from Seinfeld, which is the definition of the balding fat loser. So, it’s not all beautiful people over there and ugly losers over here; there are lots of different shades. The English love of losers though might be down to some self-hating thing, I don’t know. There’s definitely a trend though…
JA: I suppose my inclination is to always think of the exceptions. Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sander Show – I guess they are aspirational figures. I’ll fall back on something trite about them being more comfortable with success rather than that classic English thing of being a little bit suspicious with anyone who seems to be getting above themselves.
Over here, with comfortable with failure. The Americans seem to have the upper hand right now with new sitcoms – 30 Rock, Eastbound & Down, Modern Family, Glee. Is there anything over here floating your boats?
SB: Yeah. I’m always a fan of Graham Linehan’s stuff, and he’s got another IT Crowd coming soon, which should be exciting to see. Without wanting to sound too ridiculously Irish-biased, I’m also a fan of Sharon Horgan; Pulling is a great show. I miss that show. Yeah, I like those shows a lot. Trying to think of a few others. Oh, I’m a big fan of anything Paul Kaye does. Phil Bowker’s PhoneShop is really funny, and I really love The Inbetweeners actually, on Channel 4.
JA: Yeah, Outnumbered is well regarded, isn’t it, and it seems to be getting a big audience, as Gavin & Stacey has done with that warm family thing going on. And Miranda, with Miranda Hart, that’s another one that seems to be finding an audience. The shows I’ve been getting into lately are Hung, and Eastbound & Down. There’s a very good hit-rate from HBO at the moment with their half-hour comedy dramas. The ones I really get excited about are the dramas though, like Mad Men, more than sitcoms at the moment.
You piloted Ladies And Gentlemen last year, as part of Channel 4’s Comedy Showcase. Tell me it’s being picked up...
SB: It is being breathed life into again. We’re doing hopefully another pilot, or a series, for the BBC…
JA: You never know what’s going to happen, but it is in the development stage. We’re hopeful…
Finally, Jesse, have you framed your letter announcing your Oscar nomination for In The Loop and placed it on Sam’s desk yet? Would be a good motivator…
JA: [Laughs] No, I haven’t tortured him with that, but we have occasionally toyed with the idea of having two people fight in a sitcom with their awards. You can get some quite spiky glass ones…
May I recommend an Emmy – they look lethal…
SB: Yeah, I bags the Emmy. That would beat an Oscar in a fight any day…
Words – Paul Byrne
The Give Me Direction screenwriting conference takes place this coming weekend in Dublin. Full details on jdiff.com