How we got a Channel 4 Comedy Lab show made

James Shakeshaft and David L E Davis managed to get their show, Hung Out, made by Channel 4's Comedy Lab. Here's how they did it...

We’re James Shakeshaft and David L E Davis, we co-created, wrote and appeared in the Channel 4 Comedy Lab: Hung Out, and this is how it gone happened…

The six of us who made Hung Out were – and still are – a genuine group of actual living friends who’ve known each other for between five years and since primary school. Us two had been writing and making comedy films for years and along with the other four we had ambitions to do stuff on TV and in film – acting, writing and directing, and we were all in a similar position on the ladder; looking at it thinking “that’s quite big and I’m not too sure where the first rung is even located, can it support me (see: continuing the metaphor), will I catch my fingers in its joints…”.

So when it was suggested we all get together as a six and work on a ‘something’, we came up with an idea for a comedy something that seemed natural, realistic, honest and funny. And given that it’s easier to show TV people something than to describe it to them, we decided we should just make it ourselves.

Fortunately, we already had the most expensive thing involved in making something yourself and it’s something free: the ability to do it . (Because, luckily, we also had the experience and the equipment to make a show.)

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Also, we hired a soundman.

So, before we filmed it we came up with a really simple plot idea, a slightly more frivolous sub-plot idea and we beat out scene beats. And we started to say “beats” more than we ever did before.

The way we did it was that those in a scene would improvise and/or write it, then, when we all met up, they’d present it to the rest of the group with everyone pitching in with notes, lines and any other suggestions.

The filming culminated with a big scene at a comedy club with our friends as the audience which led easily into the wrap party. Unfortunately, while this was happening, on the other side of London our director and producer, Sam and Maya’s flat was being burglarised.

We’re not bad people, but all of our first reactions were “Are the rushes safe?”

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Thankfully, they were. Classic burglars, thinking too short-term. They’ll take a laptop but not a hard drive…

When we had edited a half hour episode we were all happy with (particularly Dave and Sam, the editors, because it was exactly thirty minutes, no seconds and no frames, which is entirely pointless, and at least four minutes too long), we showed it to a friendly face who worked in the telly world.

The best piece of feedback we got was to make a ten minute redaction of our half hour episode. People in TV don’t have the time to watch half hours of stuff from people who aren’t people in TV.

And so the ten minute teaser was made, (precisely ten minutes), and this is what we sent out reasonably cold to various production companies that we’d, between us, had some dealings with over the years.

We sent that out with a six page set of documents that detailed the character breakdowns and broad arcs for up to four series. We figured that we needed to show we thought the idea had longevity and we wanted to minimise the risk in the production companies’ minds, so they’d take a gamble on us, a group of unknowns.

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Plus, we wanted them to know we meant business, so all the documents were meticulously visually consistent and flawlessly presented. And they were PDFs. You don’t mess with PDFs.

Out of the production companies we sent the teaser to, Channel X were our men (that’s not sexist. They were all male.) and they submitted “Documates” (as it was called then) to Channel 4 as a Comedy Lab.

Then we waited for some months and, as a break from all this narrative comedy six-way hoo-hah, us two made a spoof science phone-in series, The Dr Answers Show, which you can check out here

Then, on the Friday before Christmas, we got the call from Channel 4…

From January till May we embarked on the long and often Sisyphean journey of doing something creative while having to prove and justify what you are doing to other grown ups. Unlike before, when we felt brave and reckless, this time we felt meek and cautious. Gone were improvisation and risk taking and in came deconstruction and page counting.

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That would probably be our most important advice for people starting out in the comedy world: be brave and go with your instincts. If you find something funny, then it’s funny. Which is good. But, it’s also genuine. Which is better still.

Nevertheless, plotlines were thrown out and replaced, characters were rewritten, snowmen came in and out of existence and almost every combination of six people and six chairs were attempted during many, many hours of six-way Yugma screen-sharing.

After this first period – which was both painful, yet important, like a first period – we emerged with a rigid shooting script and, after casting a couple of roles, we had rehearsals, and that was when the whole process became an actual thing.

Men and women gathered and got paid to make the events we’d written on our computers, and with pencils on printouts from those computers, happen in real life. Other men and women filmed these events. Then the same men and women filmed the reverse shots. Other men and women still made rooms in an empty house look like rooms we lived in, and a nice lady put powder on our faces when it got hot.

By this point, our show had no title anymore. We couldn’t call it “Documates”, as that no longer fit the concept. Oh yeah, we forgot to mention, the entire format got changed during the Spring of the Eighteen-Hour Days… Gulp.

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With a title bequeathed to us and after a week of editing, we sent the finished programme off to Channel 4. Not sure how.  Someone did it for us. It was probably on a big A4 dongle.

Then we waited. And waited some more. We waited so hard people began to think we’d lied and it was never going to be on the television. But, proving us to be honest, decent people the show was finally screened on April 23rd 2010, having been put back from an original transmission date of August 2009.

So, having found the first rung of the ladder, we’re now both gripping the sides hard and pretending it’s a lot higher than it probably is as we confidently climb upwards shouting the word “beats”.

Find out how to get involved with Channel 4’s Comedy Lab right here.