Friday, 9 March 2012

Enthusiasm Uncurbed

When I first performed stand-up comedy, I did so because I wanted to write a sitcom. Why? Well, I was young and naive. I was a student in my early twenties, obsessed with Fawlty Towers and anything by Steve Coogan, as well as other sitcoms. It seemed that everyone who did sitcoms started out doing stand-up, therefore I did stand-up. It was that simple. I'm cringing with embarrassment just thinking of my belief back then that there was some sort of apprenticeship system or graduate training scheme on the comedy circuit, just like in normal everyday jobs, whereby someone would start performing stand-up on stage in the smoky function room of a pub and then, somehow, get spotted by a Beeb or Channel 4 producer and be taken on to write comedy for radio, with the ultimate goal, if the radio show did well, being a prime-time TV slot.

It didn't take long before I was disabused of this notion. Fortunately, seeing the light coincided with a speedily developing love for the adrenaline rush and buzz that everyone who has ever done stand-up will know, and a new view of the art as an end in itself. I felt that I was destined to be a stand-up comedian.

The only problem was that, in the early days, I had no idea how to structure a joke. Growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, stand-up, to me, was Ben Elton, Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott and Victoria Wood.* None of these seemed to tell jokes, as such; jokes, to my mind, were something that "blue" comics, such as Chubby Brown, told. They were associated with a bygone era of racism and sexism, exemplified by Bernard Manning. Jokes were the kind of thing that kids told in playgrounds and embarrassing uncles told at parties. They were passe, and everyone wanted to be like Peter Kay now, didn't they? Family-friendly Peter Kay, who told stories about life in the North - we could all relate to that, couldn't we?

I couldn't. Nor did I want to. I didn't know where to go. If I didn't like observational comedy and I didn't like gags, what place was there for me on the comedy circuit?

Fortunately, I saw Stewart Francis performing comedy in late 2002 and found him absolutely brilliant. He was telling jokes but they weren't jokes: they were one-liners. And I loved them. I could not get enough. This led to my searching for Emo Philips, Rodney Dangerfield and Milton Jones. Oh, and Tim Vine. I now understood what I should do, but still no idea how to go about it. A conversation with another comedian one night yielded the advice: "Writing one liners? Start with a set-up and end with punchline. That's it." So I had a go at writing one-liners in the logical way: start with a set-up ("I was doing X"/"Have you noticed that X"/"I wouldn't say my X was stupid, but") and end with a punchline ("..."). Hmm. No matter what set-up I had written, the punchline hung in the air and then floated off like a kite in a gale-force wind.

And then, just like the frisbee in Stewart Francis's excellent gag, it hit me: reverse the process! Write the punchline first and then construct a set-up to suit! The punchline could be anything from a phrase on a billboard to a conversational gem from a colleague. Once you had that, write a way of arriving at that statement. Done! If only I had known that process earlier! Not to worry; I take comfort from the fact that I learned a lot whilst trying to figure it out.

It took several more years - many years after I had ceased to perform on stage - before I discovered how to write a sitcom. There was so much material out there for me to look at. Fawlty Towers was the best of all, of course: John Cleese and Connie Booth had created a masterpiece and, if we're talking class-based comedy, Roy Clarke's Keeping Up Appearances gets an honourable mention. Steve Coogan managed to secure a second series of I'm Alan Partridge around the time I was performing stand-up; very funny but nowhere near as cringe-inducing as the first series from 1997, which will surely go down in the annals of comedy as one of the greatest. The Office, by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, had come out around the time I first ventured on stage (its second series appearing when I had just about worked out how to write a one-liner) and I loved its low-key, naturalistic style and documentary feel. A wealth of material was available but I didn't understand what to do, even from structure master John Cleese.

The dearth of ideas on writing a sitcom continued until two years ago, when I was introduced, by a close friend, to a programme that not only provided the key to open my mind's cupboard of rotten, half-baked ideas and replace them with fresh, robust plotlines with beginnings, middles and ends, but also changed my perception of what a sitcom should be. That show was Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Within the first few minutes of the first episode, "The Pants Tent", I was hooked and within a few weeks, I had watched the entire seven series of Curb. The everyday exploits of this awkward, middle-aged, bald guy were fascinating. I loved the fact that I was constantly torn between having sympathy for him (e.g. when his teeth are knocked out by a child who is playing pinata) and feeling that he was the architect of his own downfall (e.g. the many occasions on which he apologises to someone for having upset them, then proceeds to negate the apology by suggesting they were at fault). Usually, I have sympathy for Larry because he often tries to do the right thing but events conspire to make him fail, much like Victor Meldrew in David Renwick's brilliant One Foot In The Grave (the similarities between Larry and Victor were pointed out to me by a friend over a couple of pints and I immediately agreed with his assessment).

The beauty of Curb is not just in its naturalistic style (The Office was similar in this respect: no gags, no exaggerated, caricature-like protagonists) but also its incredible structure. Larry David's Curb has knocked Fawlty Towers off the Number One spot in my Top Ten sitcoms and I don't care if that's heresy. Twenty-five years after Basil fawned over Lord Melbury, Larry rumpled an erection-resembling fold of fabric in his baggy corduroy slacks and a new Sitcom Of All Sitcoms took the crown. There are some sublime episodes of Fawlty, such as "Communication Problems", but there are others in the two-series, twelve-episode collection that I rarely bother to watch because they do not seem to propel themselves along (e.g. "The Anniversary"). However, I have yet to see a weak episode of Curb (of which there are eighty). Every episode starts out with a blink-and-you'd-miss-it plot point, then another (and then perhaps another) and everything comes together in a precisely crafted denouement - of just the right duration - in which Larry experiences devastating embarrassment. In some episodes, it is as if you are watching two episodes in one (for example, in "Beloved Aunt" [S1, E8], early on, he advises his sister-in-law's boyfriend to dump her and, shortly after this, he dictates his wife's aunt's obituary to his manager; halfway through the episode, a typo is discovered in the obituary, causing immense upset, for which Larry gets the blame, and in the tear-drenched aftermath of this, his wife's distraught sister confronts him about his earlier advice to her [now ex-] boyfriend).

As a result of watching Curb, I started carrying a notebook with me and jotting down everyday experiences. I then started to think, "what would happen if...?" and write how scenes might unfold. Through Curb, I had found out that I needed a framework within which the characters could operate. Within a few weeks, I had enough material for four episodes. A year or more passed, during which I was creatively blocked. In October last year, I wrote more material, sufficient for a further episode. Just one more and I'll have enough for the Magic Six, as with the best British comedies. Or perhaps I should write enough material for ten, since Curb has ten in each series.

Over a year after I first saw Larry attempt to explain away the first of many excruciatingly embarrassing misunderstandings, I saw the eighth series, which was as wonderful as ever. After that, my partner and I built up our collection of old Curb episodes. Save for series 2, 7 and 8, we have the lot on DVD. The most recent purchase was Series One, which features the original pilot episode from 1999. On Wednesday night, we settled down with a cup of tea to watch the first ever Curb episode, which was an hour's worth of pure joy. I'm living life backwards. Next stop: Seinfeld.

*At the time of writing, it is International Women's Day, so I am reflecting more than usual on the subject of Equality. Victoria Wood is the only female comedian I remember from childhood. (OK, I remember French & Saunders, too - but I never found them funny.) I was too late for Joyce Grenfell and too early for Gina Yashere, both of whom I happened upon in my teenage years.

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