Another chat with Graham Linehan

Martin had 3 chats with IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan last year...here's the last, which took place during filming of series 3 of The IT Crowd...

Graham Linehan

“I’ve always been a contrary person. Roy’s based on me to that extent, with that whole ‘music snob’ thing – that if more than ten people like something, it isn’t any good anymore.” says IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan.

Graham enjoys resistance: the ‘Ted and Ralph’ sketches that he wrote with long-time collaborator Arthur Matthews were the slowest entries in The Fast Show – and the most popular; Father Ted turned the deadest concept in British sit-com – the ‘clerical’ – into the most revered comedy show since Fawlty Towers; and Victoria Wood’s 2005 declaration that the studio-based sitcom had been effectively killed by The Royle Family and The Office only served to fire Linehan’s efforts on the first series of IT Crowd, which went on to garner praise, ratings and awards.

“It’s a good business practice that if everyone is going in one direction, you should go in the other.” he says. “I believe that audiences get bored with things before they know they’re bored with them.”

No-one’s bored with IT Crowd yet. As we talk, only a couple of days remain before the beginning of exterior shoots for the third series, and many fans fear that in his creative thrift Linehan will afterwards abandon the neglected and neurotic denizens of Reynholm Industries for pastures new; predecessors Father Ted and Black Books both bowed out at series three, though it’s not a decision Linehan has yet made for IT Crowd.

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“If you look at something like Friends, series nine or ten, I think people are saying to themselves ‘I’ve had too much of this delicious food and I’m really getting sick of it’.” he adds.

Even the increasing number of exterior shoots for the series hallmark Graham’s determination to follow his own path. “I kind of know when something does or doesn’t work myself, and I tend to go my own way. For instance, a lot of people were saying really early on that I shouldn’t take the characters out of the office; and then I did ‘The Work Outing’ – and that’s been the most popular episode. So you can’t really pay attention to what people say, because they might be wrong. Really I’ve just got to follow my own instincts, and in the end I just go with what’s funny.”

Graham gets to hear more of other people’s opinions than most writers who reach his level of success, as he maintains a very popular blog where fans of his work can interact with him when he opens a comments thread every Friday. It was at this venue that the self-professed computer nerd appealed for authentically ‘geek’ items to adorn the basement set of the third series.

“I’m hoping it will look just a little bit more super-charged this year.” he reveals. “I always wanted the kind of people the show was written about to look at the set and go ‘Oh my God, they’ve got a Sinclair Spectrum!’ or ‘There’s an old Amiga in the background’. I wanted them to constantly find things.” Though praising the production design team on IT Crowd, Linehan admits that only authentic nerds could possibly have the right knowledge to dress the set. “Up until this point I had to be the one suggesting items. This year I thought that even I don’t know everything about nerd culture, so it’d be better to turn it over to the public, and that’s worked out great.”

Like the reclusive techies in IT Crowd, geeks are very protective of their territory, and the show has had to walk a careful tightrope between accessibility and geek credibility. “I don’t want my comedy to be enjoyed by just the people that it’s about.” says Graham, laughing. “I want to reach as wide an audience as I can without losing any intelligence. Some people complained that there weren’t enough ‘geek’ jokes in the show, but that’s never what I wanted the show to be. I didn’t want it to have loads of jokes about Linux. I wanted the show to feature these characters but not be aimed at them, but rather at everybody. I don’t like TV shows that polarise audiences and atomise society even further. I want to try and create TV that a large group of people can sit and watch in a room and laugh at.”

The IT department at Reynholm industries are the typically idle or insane residents of a Linehan show. Graham often posits that grumpy central figure Roy (Chris O’Dowd) is his own alter-ego, whereas social-reject savant Moss (Richard Ayoade) is him at age twelve, and that their frustrated and computer-illiterate boss Jen (Katherine Parkinson) was inspired by the effect that meeting his wife had on his own life.

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“No, Jen’s not based on my wife’s character.” Graham laughs, as I suggest it. “She’s just based on the effect of a woman in a male environment. Jen is much more into the idea of being a businesswoman than my wife is. Also, my wife knows a lot more about computers than Jen does.”

Part of the hope fans retain for a fourth series is that Linehan won’t feel he has quite perfected the show in series three. He retains that the first series was overly confrontational, and despite my suggestion that Jen is one of the few genuinely funny female sitcom characters output by a male writer in recent years, that there’s work to be done there as well:

“I think that it’s only now that I’ve even started doing an okay job with Katherine’s character.” Graham confesses. “I’m very embarrassed about the first series and the episode to do with shoes…what a bloody tier one idea that was for writing about women! The reason a lot of male writers aren’t very good at writing about women is because they’re nervous: a funny character is a character that has negative characteristics, and a lot of men are worried about writing a female character with negative characteristics – that they’ll be accused of being sexist.”

A total absence of respect –  though not of affection – for his entire cast of characters in IT Crowd helps Linehan sideswipe the comedy-killing influence of political correctness without becoming overly mean. “Often you’ll find that if there’s a so-called ‘minority’ character in a TV show, they’re not allowed to be funny, because you can’t say anything negative about them. It’s why men write so many male characters – they can just slag them off till the cows come home. But if it came to a woman or a guy in a wheelchair – not to say that the two are remotely similar – they pull back a little bit, scared of being attacked.”

Graham decided some time ago to disregard these considerations. “I said to myself that if I had a disabled character or any kind of a minority character, I’m going to make them as negative as any of the other characters. I don’t really have any admirable people in my show – they’re all foolish, and they’ve all got their problems in one way or another. So you just have to bite the bullet and not worry about people being insulted.”

On the surface, it seems that Graham now has to make such judgement calls by himself. Since Linehan and Arthur Matthews went their own ways after the first series of the surreal sketch show Big Train in 2001, the writer has experimented with new collaborations, but writes all of IT Crowd solo. Does he now prowl parties looking for the funniest person there with whom to forge a new writing partnership…?

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“That makes me sound like some kind of comedy rapist!” Graham laughs. “It’s a very precious, magical thing, and it doesn’t really happen if you deliberately try and make it happen. Comedy partnerships are born and not made. What happens more is that you’re sitting in a pub and someone starts speaking and everything they say is funny…well, that’s someone you should possibly think about getting to collaborate with you. But if you have a funny writer and you say ‘Hey, do you want to do something?’…I think that’s probably a recipe for disaster.”

These days Graham gets creative feedback from Robert Popper, once Commissioning Editor for Entertainment and Comedy at Channel 4, but perhaps best-known for co-creating the Tomorrow’s World take-off Look Around You.  In his new capacity in his own sub-company within Talkback productions, Graham is himself looking forward to the chance to nurture and encourage new talent. “At the moment I’m trying to do some work with Steve Delaney, who does Count Arthur Strong. I would be so proud and happy if I helped him make a sitcom out of that.”

Since there seem to be more funny people in pubs than there are first-rate comedy shows on TV, I ask Graham to explain the difference between being funny and writing funny.

“This is something I’ve only found out through doing it,” he explains. “but writing is something that’s often misunderstood. You can be as funny as you like, but sitting down and creating characters from scratch is difficult, and putting them into storylines is difficult. It’s much harder than it seems to be. I worked with someone who thought like that. While we were collaborating, I asked him how he structured his shows. He went whaa–?

“Like a lot of people, he thought that the way you write a show is to sit down and write ‘interior…blah blah blah’, and you start writing the dialogue. He didn’t realise that you have to have a plan. You have to think about it and make sure you’re on the right track and that all the characters will bounce off each other. You write scenes to test that out, you experiment a bit and then finally you come up with what you think might be the best plot to show the characters off, and you structure it.

“Then, at the end there’s this long process of looking at tiny scraps of paper and notes you’ve written on your computer…all sorts of different things. And at the end of that process you start to write ‘ INT. PAROCHIAL HOUSE. DAY’. Or whatever.”

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According to Graham – dismissive of his well-publicised 2007 ranking among the world’s top 100 living geniuses – the most common mistake the tyro comedy writer makes is to go straight from concept to script. “One big mistake that people will make is that a funny person will sit down with a  couple of vague ideas and they’ll start writing dialogue. You can only get to about two pages with that type of planning before you start thinking ‘Oh – I don’t really know how to get this character into the room’.”

Despite his strong association with the ‘golden age’ of Brit comedy in the nineties, Graham remains enthusiastic for the quality of current and recent comedy output such as Peep Show and The Thick Of It, though less enamoured of current sketch shows: “I really hate the way the definition of ‘sketch show’ seems to have been changed recently so that a sketch-show is now about four characters who are repeated every week until you want to smash their heads against a wall. It used to be that a sketch-show was about variety, and different sketches and different ideas.”

If Linehan were to return to the format he last dabbled with in Big Train, he’d choose a more classical approach. “It certainly wouldn’t be a character sketch-show – it would be one where every single sketch is different. More along the lines of something like The Two Ronnies or even Smith & Jones.”

Coming from him, you believe it would work. With only the relative failure of 1994’s Alexei Sayle comedy Paris to de-emphasise in an otherwise glittering CV, one wonders if Graham Linehan could have an idea too risky or off-beat to get commissioned these days.

“No,” he refutes. “the opposite happens; people commission me to do things and I find that it’s actually beyond my talents. I tried to write a film based on Radio 1 disc-jockeys in the seventies, and everyone was very enthusiastic about it. We did a good pitch. Then I sat down and found that I didn’t really know how to write it.”

Graham believes that despite appearing to be a creative powerhouse, he often comes up against the brick wall of his own inexperience. “Writing’s a very mysterious thing. Now, when I pitch, I tend to say to people ‘This might not work, but we can give it a shot’, rather than ‘This is going to be the best thing you’ve ever seen in your life’.

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“But I guess the only advantage of being in my position is that I can say that and people will still employ me!”

For the outsider, the route into television writing remains as mysterious as it ever was. Despite new initiatives and schemes from Channel 4, the BBC and other broadcasters, the decentralisation of production leaves potential talent not necessarily knowing where to begin. Whilst waiting for the annual contests to roll round and scrounging contact details and meeting-time with the ‘right’ producers, many end up hoping that a ‘high-concept’ comedy pitch might be more fruitful than a conventional one.

“Here’s the thing,” Graham contends. “The ‘high-concept’ script has a better chance in treatment form, but the low-concept one will have a better chance in script-form. I would always suggest to people that they don’t do treatments. Treatments are just cheating. Anyone can say ‘The Heroic Five is a brilliant new comedy show’…well, it’s not – it’s nothing yet, just a title. But if you actually sit down and write the script and it’s flowing out and there’s jokes and situations and the characters are alive…

“Look at Seinfeld, which is the lowest concept you can imagine. Even Friends called itself Friends, whereas Seinfeld was basically the same concept – a bunch of friends hanging out, but they didn’t even go for that angle. Write the funny script and let someone else worry about how saleable it is.”

“Being funny is a surprise in itself, so innovation really isn’t that important – I think Metrosexuality, if you remember that show, would prove that. You shouldn’t write the script until you’re absolutely sure of what you’re doing. That should come at the end of the process, not at the beginning, which is a time for collecting all your ideas and notes and writing things on little pieces of card.

“If you hold off on writing till you can’t bear it anymore, you’ll write much faster.”

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As someone who confesses to nudging a deadline in order to reach maximum creativity, Graham has particular disdain for the power that a poor first draft has to discourage writers “Your worth as a writer is not measured by your first draft, which is just some notes that will help you write your final masterpiece. A first draft is something that should be changed unless, as sometimes happens, you accidentally write something perfect, which does happen every so often “

This is the third time this year that I have spoken to Graham about series three of IT Crowd, and I feel I know by now the painful desk-banging involved for him in getting each script ready and working out problems during the rehearsal process. Might it not be less stressful to go the Ben Elton route and turn his comedy talents to novels?

“I used to write a lot of prose,” he recalls. “As I used to be a journalist. But my prose muscles are a bit weak at the moment because I haven’t been writing enough of it. I think maybe that’s something for the future. I think also that it’s a good thing to be older when you write novels. I don’t know why, but I just think there’s less chance that you’ll make an absolute arse of yourself.”

As we pause our chat for a production person to ask Graham about the casting of a walk-on part in The IT Crowd, I realise that I should let him get back to Reynholm Industries. The rehearsal week is over and it’s time for Roy, Moss and Jen to take their neuroses on the road again before studio recording in the early Autumn. This year Noel Fielding has too many commitments to reprise his role as gentle goth vampire Richmond, but Matt Berry will be taking up the slack as the morally-challenged company head Douglas Reynholm, following a hugely popular insertion into series two.

The rewrites will continue until the last moment, even potentially impinging upon the studio recording with the audience. “Suddenly you notice that even if a scene always read well, there’s too much dialogue before the first plot-point gets introduced or there’s three scenes where there should be two. Things like that, for some reason, don’t really present themselves until you’re actually rehearsing. There’s a lot of jiggery-pokery involved.

“The actors help – sometimes they’ll say to me ‘We don’t need to actually do this in dialogue – I can just look over  him and it’ll convey that information’. In the final week, it’s like working with a writing partner made up of the four other actors, and it’s just pleasure, really.”

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Though tight-lipped about storylines in IT Crowd 3.0, Graham admits that even if the characters and situations at Reynholm Industries play themselves out a little, the show might have renewability as a comedy reflection of the rapidly changing pace of technology – which was his original vision for the series. “It became it’s own thing for a while, but I think it’s becoming what I always wanted it to be again.”