Graham Linehan interview - Mustard comedy magazine
Graham Linehan caricature

Mustard interview

Graham Linehan

We talk to the BAFTA winning writer of The IT Crowd and co-writer of Father Ted, Black Books and Count Arthur Strong. Graham also wrote Ted and Ralph for The Fast Show, a stage version of The Ladykillers, and sketches for both Big Train and ground-breaking satire The Day Today

~ 10,100 words ~

Originally published in Mustard #01

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Part I:
The IT Crowd and Other Sitcoms

Thoughts on the writing process, directing, geeks, the internet, script doctoring, disgusting television, The IT Crowd, Father Ted, Big Train, and The Day Today.

(This section came from our first interview with Graham in 2007,
whilst he was editing series 2 of The IT Crowd.)
Richard Ayoade (Moss), Matt Berry (Douglas), Katherine Parkinson (Jen) and Chris O'Dowd (Roy) in The IT Crowd

Richard Ayoade (Moss), Matt Berry (Douglas), Katherine Parkinson (Jen)
and Chris O'Dowd (Roy) in The IT Crowd. © Talkback Productions / Channel 4
[find out why Roy is reading Mustard in this photo]

You've written several sitcoms now. What is it that draws you to the format?

After Father Ted and Black Books I felt “well, I know how to do sitcoms, I'm getting a bit bored so I should try and do something else”. So I wrote a few screenplays, a couple of adaptations and one original idea, but they just didn't work.

Quite simply, I hadn't yet developed the skills to carry a story that long. I still feel movie writing is a bit of a mystery to me. Although I am good at punching up scenes and structure if the 'heavy lifting' of a first draft has already been done. But the structure of a sitcom episode is quite simple: the characters start off in a certain situation, they get into trouble and then they get back to the beginning. So the structure is, if you like, A-B-A, whereas a film is A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K: characters begin a certain way and end up undergoing a major change. A film should concern itself with the most important thing that ever happened to the central character. And I find that a difficult format to master because my characters never learn and never change.

Also, film-making is a very long process. You could spend years just raising the money, and I don't have the patience for that.

So I thought, okay, one thing I can do is write sitcoms and I could have something on within a year. I'd been off the radar since Black Books, about four years ago, so I really had to get something else out there to show I can still do it.

And the other thing is, I do think there's a slight chance the world might be ending – you know, with global warming. So, a film is too much of a risk, but I might be able to do a sitcom that'll make people feel a bit happy during a pretty horrible time.

Did you script-doctor on any films we might have heard of?

You would know of them, but nearly every film I've script-doctored has been a heap of junk. I did it purely for the money. When you're doing it you have a little period where you think “I'm writing some pretty good stuff here, this might actually turn out to be good!” Then quite soon after you realise “what am I talking about?”. I can't really tell you what films they were because I don't want to insult the people who worked on them.

Do you worry about putting good jokes in films that no-one will see?

Actually, I'd be perfectly happy to write my best joke for a heap of junk. I'm very much a believer that if you think the well of inspiration is shallow, then it will be, but if you think it's very deep then it will be deep. So I've never worried about that. Every time I 'give away' a good joke, I know there's more jokes out there.

I'm very much a geek. I'm into computer games and alternative music, I was a huge sci-fi fan as a kid.
I tick all the boxes.

Your last three sitcoms share a certain dynamic: three or four characters, one's lovably naive (Dougal, Manny, Moss) – is that something that particularly works for you?

Yes, it seems to. To be honest, I would probably be more comfortable writing just two men. I do find it hard to write for woman, as do a lot of male writers. But I don't want to be lazy or exclusive, so I make a special effort to write comically interesting female characters. I never want women in my shows to just be commenting on how silly the men are being. They also have to have negative characteristics to make it funny.

I saw Seinfeld quite early on and that's been my model, it's got a lovely structure and that's kind of what The IT Crowd is; two male friends, a woman and a kind of crazy Kramer type figure, like Douglas, even though he's a very different character.

But yeah, I wouldn't mind repeating that dynamic for the rest of my life, 'cos it works for me. My only intention is to create a format that enables me to tell loads of jokes.

How important is casting?

Hugely. I don't think Father Ted would have hit the ground running as much as it did if we hadn't had Ardal O'Hanlon. After the first episode we got a few bad reviews, but by the end of the sixth – which is a hell of a short time when you think about it – people were already saying it was one of the best things ever. Most sitcoms don't get a start like that, and I think Ardal was our secret weapon: he pulled everyone in, and then they could enjoy the subtleties – if that's the right word – of Ted's character or Jack or Mrs Doyle.

Actually, when we were casting for Mrs Doyle, we were beginning to despair. No one was getting it; no one had the right mixture of obsequiousness and the slightly crazed side. Then, very late in the day, Pauline sent in a video of herself doing the script and she was perfect, such a great physical and comic actress. So, casting, yeah, very important.

The IT Crowd is also your third sitcom to feature an Irish character.

That's totally accidental. When Chris O'Dowd first came in to audition, he was great, but I was really against him because I didn't want Roy to be Irish. Then we saw him again and he was even better. So I thought “Fucking hell!” I have to use him, because if I'd thrown away a comic actor as skilled as he was, I'd regret it for the rest of my life.

Chris has a really strong Irish accent too, and I would hate it if people watched The IT Crowd and thought it was an ethnic show. That was our big worry on Ted, that people would think we were writing something for the Irish community. No, it's not that they're Irish, they're just people!

Do you consider yourself a geek?

Well, I like computer games, German board games, indie music, comics, computers and I hate sports. Oh, and I was a huge science fiction fan as a kid. Yes, I would say I tick all the boxes.

One of the things you've done in The IT Crowd is fill the set with all the geeky things you like.

And I haven't gone as far as I'd like, because sometimes we have trouble getting clearances for what I wanted, so there are posters for things I don't really have any interest in. The thing I'm happiest about is getting lots of Fantagraphics comics onto the set and also lots of Guided by Voices records – my favourite band since The Pixies.

So I'm hoping as the show gets bigger that people will contact me and say “can we be on the set?”. And if I'm a fan, then yeah. I'm always trying to get freebies. I really want Fantagraphics to send me a care package, because there's no good comic shops in Ireland and I'm starving for them.

There aren't many references to things like Facebook or 'Web 2.0' in The IT Crowd – in fact, there's very little about computers or technology. Why is that?

Ted and The IT Crowd are similar in that – and this is why Ted was a success over here – we were very careful to only use religion-specific or Ireland-specific ideas if they had 'penetration'. For example, when we did the Ted's Song for Europe episode, British people were aware that Ireland was always winning Eurovision and that there was a rumour we didn't want it, because we kept having to stage it. That had penetrated. So we would only use ideas about Ireland or the Catholic Church that England would understand.

Similarly, in The IT Crowd, I am interested in technology, and how it's changing our lives, but I've got to be careful because not everyone is as into... let's call it 'nerd culture'... as much as I am. That means that I can't do a storyline about Steve Jobs, but I can use Bill Gates. Similarly, I can use ideas like the German cannibal, which is a story about the internet but which everybody knows. I'd never do jokes about something getting a lot of hits on Digg because most people don't know what that is.

How important is a show's title?

The IT Crowd's title was actually a really big factor in deciding to write it. When I realised that it's kind of a joke on them being the 'in crowd' which they're definitely not, I thought it was quite clever. And it looks kind of interesting with the IT capitals at the start and that made me think, well, I have a good title so maybe I should keep going.

Most people think a show is made up
by the cast as they go along.

Do you feel any commercial pressure when you're writing, or have a target audience in mind?

No, not at all. I just do what I like and I trust that other people will also like it. Larry David said “if you do what you think is the right thing, you'll start making money”. I believe he's now a billionaire because of Seinfeld. And I find that to be true: when people start second guessing what the audience wants, you get bad shows. So I never really pay attention to that.

Although I wouldn't, for instance, write subjects that were so unpleasant that an audience just can't laugh. My brain doesn't really think that anyway Essentially, though, I just write things that I'd like to see.

As for a target audience, you would think that all the people who watched Father Ted would immediately watch The IT Crowd, but they don't. IT Crowd episode one only got about two million viewers.

People don't pay much attention to who writes a show. Sometimes when I tell people what I do, I might as well have said I was 'third bird strangler' on Father Ted. It's the first time they've realised that the show wasn't made up by the cast as they went along. There was one guy I was playing poker with, I told him I wrote Father Ted and he said “Yeah... but it was the characters that made it funny, wasn't it?”.

I realised around then that I've got to try and ignore all that ego stuff because it'll drive you nuts. There are taxi drivers in Dublin that think Dermot [Morgan, who played Ted] wrote it.

Your sitcoms are based in reality, but with farcical and surreal elements. How do you walk that tightrope without falling off?

I think we fell off a few times! Paris, our first sitcom, the very first thing we did – huge disaster! No-one watched it and thank Christ that Channel 4 gave us a second chance. It was set in Paris in the 1920s and not only was it a very crazy sitcom with insane plotlines and silly stuff happening but the backdrops were painted like the old Impressionists. You had unreality inside unreality and there was nothing for the audience to latch on to – we were breaking an eyelid from winking at them so much.

I realised that you have to create worlds that have a measure of consistency. You can be as crazy as you like, as long as you don't break certain rules. You can't have someone floating in the air for no reason – The Young Ones could, but Father Ted couldn't.

For instance, we can't have Dougal suddenly have magical powers. But we can have Ted and Dougal hunting Jack through the woods with a tranquilliser gun, because we've set it up that Jack is sort of like an animal. So when you see them hunting him, Ted and Dougal acting as beaters: it's surreal, but it's not crazy. In Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, Alan Alda plays a TV producer who says “if it bends it's funny, if it breaks it's not funny” – it's supposed to show how pretentious he is. But actually he's right. I live by that.

Ardal O'Hanlon (Dougal), Dermot Morgan (Ted), Pauline McLynn (Mrs Doyle) and Frank Kelly (Jack) in Father Ted

Ardal O'Hanlon (Dougal), Dermot Morgan (Ted), Pauline McLynn (Mrs Doyle)
and Frank Kelly (Jack) in Father Ted. © Talkback Productions / Channel 4

You're writing on your own on The IT Crowd but you've written a lot in partnerships. What are the pros & cons?

Writing with a friend is like paid socialising. Writing on your own is work. When I write on my own, I have to trick myself into thinking it's fun. I buy lots of stationery, draw ideas on cards, do research and download things, save bookmarks and so on. Luckily, because I'm writing about IT, it kind of suits me to sit at my computer and do a lot of research, and that's a relief, because if I was doing something on the British Library, I might have to hang out there and that would be hard work for me.

So why are you currently writing on your own?

Because finding a writing partner is more difficult than finding a life partner! You need someone you can spend a lot of time with and someone you think is funnier than you. I do know there are people out there who are funnier than me but I don't want to write with all of them. The ones so far are Dylan [Moran, on Black Books] and Arthur [Mathews, on Father Ted, Paris, etc]. And Chris Morris [The Day Today, Brass Eye].

With Arthur, so much water has passed under the bridge since we last wrote together that it's difficult to get back into that zone of bouncing ideas off each other. And I've become a bit too egotistical and arrogant because I've been allowed to get my own way all the time. When we started, Arthur was a very imposing figure to me. I used to be a bit scared of him. So if he wrote something I didn't like, I'd go “oh it's great, I'll just change one little thing” and I'd have to make it so funny that he couldn't object to the rewrite. And that really got my funny muscles working. But once I started getting a bit more confident, I would just be able to say I didn't like it. That broke the way we wrote together, and now it's hard to resurrect that relationship. We did a film together, but that really didn't work out. It wasn't the same. You can just tell sometimes. I'd love to find that person we were together when we wrote Ted. We might try again someday.

You also direct many of your own scripts

Only through necessity. I like it and I don't. I like getting into a personal role with the actors, because the script changes so much during that final week in the studio. Working with the cast is like having a giant genius comedy brain that I can bounce off and use, and that's joyous.

But directing is also very nerve-wracking and unpleasant, and there's never enough money or time. Sometimes there's a line in your head that you know would be funny if it was just said in a certain way but you can't communicate it to the actor: he tries like 10 takes, but you just have to move on. Then I have to choose the best of 10 takes, none of which I thought were right. And I'm like, “God I love that line” but you may have to take the choice to just lose it. It seems like that happens all the time.

Plus, when you're editing you have to watch an episode over and over again and it really sucks all the pleasure out of it. By the time the show goes out you really hate it.

But, the thing is, I don't trust anyone else to do it. Any really good director is probably not going to want to do my scripts, because comedy is meat and potatoes directing. When I was a kid I wanted to be Martin Scorsese, but now I realise that in comedy you should just keep the camera still and make sure you can hear everybody and that's it. Sometimes you play around with shots and movements, but only if it adds to the joke. Time and again I've let someone else direct and come back to see something that's just so wrong it blows my mind.

What's your working relationship with the actors?

On The IT Crowd it's very equal. They're very protective of their characters and they keep an eye on me in case I do something that they feel is out of character. I once went left them alone for a few hours and when I came back they'd written two gags for an opening scene and I was really nervous, but they were brilliant. I can't turn down a good gag just because I didn't write it.

But having said that, I do have the final vote. Roy is based on me, so I pretty much know what he should do. In the end, they have to trust that I'm not going to do anything that's going to break the reality of the character.

Occasionally you appear in your shows.

Yeah, when I think I can do something simple. In the final episode of IT Crowd series 2, I play a blind sorcerer. It's one of those things that I wrote the Friday before we started shooting, so I thought I can't cast this, people won't be available, so I'll just do it. I just had to squidge up my eyes and get a lot of make-up on and shout. That's my acting style.

How many series of The IT Crowd do you want to do?

I'm thinking long term for The IT Crowd because I feel that there is a need for a well constructed, funny show that people take to their hearts and that's quite sweet and kind and doesn't treat the audience like morons. I think there's a real hunger for that type of programme.

However, one thing I'd be careful about is not having a show go on too long. It's not 'jumping the shark' - when a show gets really bad and never recovers – it's something else that they should invent a phrase for. It happened to Friends; the jokes don't necessarily go down in quality, but it begins to feel like one episode that's lasting a million years. Plus, you look at a group who still live together in their 40s and you start to wonder whether they should be moving on... they tried to address those issues but it's really difficult when the show has moved so far from the initial set up.

Finding a writing partner is harder
than finding a wife!

When writing an episode, do you start out with a central plot idea?

There are no hard and fast rules to how a show is written. Sometimes you come up with an idea, write it quite simply, come to its logical conclusion and that's it. 'Flight of Terror' in Father Ted was like that. We wrote it in two days. We used the same things that happen in disaster movies, superimposed our silliness on top it, and there you have a show.

But you can also go a very circuitous route. The IT Crowd episode The Work Outing is about Moss and Roy going to a gay musical and ending up in a real farce situation – it's one of the best episodes in the show. I might even make it episode one. There's a scene where they go to the loo and there's one of those toilet guys who takes money and sprays stuff and they can't go because he's so imposing. So they leave to find another one and that kicks off the next part of the plot.

Now, originally, the whole episode was about that guy in the toilet. Moss went into the loo, saw him and realised he was bullied at school by him, so keeps going in the toilet to lord it over him and get more and more aftershave. It was going to be called 'The Blue Goldfish', because when Moss was being bullied, the older kids would ask him if he'd seen the blue goldfish in the toilets and he'd go and look and get his head flushed – it was a story that Mark Morris from The Bluetones told me. That was the whole reason for writing the script.

But I realised this revenge storyline made Moss very unsympathetic and also wasn't very funny. So I got rid of the whole strand, lost it. I was really worrying about where to go with it, and then the most perfect, perfect idea came along, with Moss ending up behind the bar, and I just sat back in my chair and laughed for a good many minutes before I was able to write it.

When you write a script like 'The Blue Goldfish' that doesn't work, you go through a very depressing couple of weeks thinking that you've lost the ability to write. You just completely forget how the process works until someone says: “lose that storyline and see what happens” and you do it and suddenly everything just comes to life.

Writing is a really infuriating but pretty marvellous process. It's why I was so interested in your interview with Alan Moore and his thoughts on where it all comes from. He's read that book The Art of Creation, I couldn't make it through. Doesn't Alan pray to a god of creativity? Doesn't he have a shrine?

He talks about trusting the process almost as if it's a being, letting it lead you where it needs to go.

To me it's just a grinding thing. Like knowing that something is under a load of already hardened cement and you have to dig it out with a spoon. Then you get to it and there's a moment of excitement. And then there's the process of getting the whole thing out, cleaning all the shit off it until it's ready, by which time you're sick of it.

Not quite as optimistic as Alan's view...

There are moments within that process that are great. The moment of discovery and writing a particularly fine scene. Everything after that, all the things that people see like awards ceremonies, viewing figures, good reviews – when I was a kid I thought that was the reward, and then I realised that the reward is the work. I do get pleasure out of it. If you're not getting pleasure out of it, then you're in real trouble. Nothing else is as good.

Hugh Laurie said the finished episodes of Fry & Laurie were completely secondary to the experience of writing and performing with his best friend.

The opposite can sometimes be true as well. You can have some bad experiences in the making of it, but the show is perfect. I believe it's what David Lynch called 'the donut and not the hole'. You can have a bad time, but you've got to look at the finished product and say we have to do this again, it's so good.

I have walked away from programmes where I haven't been having a good time. With Black Books I didn't really have a good time doing it so just thought “I don't want to do this again“. Writing it was a pleasure, making it was a huge pain in the arse. That was due to a change in someone's personality that I wasn't expecting. When I thought I would be forced to do a second series I looked for assurances that the behaviour would change, but didn't get them, so I escaped.

That wasn't true of Big Train, which I enjoyed but it was just so hard doing a sketch show with so many characters. All the sketches with Roundheads and offices – that's just because we didn't have money. We just thought “we have all these Roundhead extras... what other sketches can we write about Roundheads”?

When it went out, I was still at the stage where I thought “well everybody loved Ted, so everyone will love this”. It doesn't work like that. People just think “I wonder if this is any good?” or happen to tune in when it's on. The people who enjoyed it don't necessarily think “oh, it's by those Father Ted writers”. It got goodish reviews, but very small viewing figures, and I just didn't have the energy to do another series.

Also, it was an experiment to see if we could marry a naturalistic acting style with very silly ideas. So what would we be doing with a second series other than repeating ourselves?

Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon and Simon Pegg in Big Train

Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon and Simon Pegg in Big Train. © Talkback Productions / BBC

Shows like Father Ted and The IT Crowd seem to be popular with many different age groups, unlike, say, Peep Show, which I like, but my parents don't.

Yeah, I try to do that. I remember Mitchell and Webb said that shows that are aimed at families – children and their parents – probably don't work for either group as a result. I don't think that's true. I think you can have something as adult as The Simpsons and still pull in kids.

That's my aim at the moment, to make television where the dad doesn't have to get up and make a cup of tea out of embarrassment. I don't see why something can't be aimed at everybody and still work. Spielberg was able to do it – I'm not comparing myself, but that's the aim – something like Jaws has kids and adults glued to the screen.

I'm kind of rebelling against the way that everything is marketed exclusively towards people in their early 20s, as if people outside that bracket don't exist.

You've talked before about your disgust at a lot of current TV.

Yeah, I have a theory that people don't like this sort of crap TV, but these young commissioners think they do. Sure, people watch it, but if it wasn't on, no one would miss it. There is, I think, such a thing as cultural pollution, and these shows are a form of that. It makes Britain a negative and unpleasant place, or at least adds to the negativity and unpleasantness.

I find really offensive the attitude of 'what can we get away with?'. Back on The Word there was something called 'The Hopefuls', which was the equivalent of happening upon a really disgusting, disturbing photo on the internet, so horrible that you know it would be hard to get out of your head.

It was on late on Friday night for a drunk audience, and that's fine – they wanted it. But now that has trickled across the whole week. As early as 8:30 you might see something that makes you want to put your brain in the washing machine.

In comedy one of the easiest ways to get a laugh is by doing something disgusting or by using bad language. I don't find bad language offensive, but what I do find offensive is doing it just to get the laugh, rather than thinking of something funny or clever or witty or that we haven't seen before.

So when I see something like Touch Me, I'm Karen Taylor, where she's licking the sweat of an exercise machine because a guy she fancies is using it... what? No one does that, no one's ever done that, why is that even... what are you doing hawking that? It's a cheap nasty way of getting a laugh.

There are people who don't have any ideas and can't get laughs any other way, but I think some of the people doing it at the moment are good, clever, talented people. Karen Taylor might be. But because they're told they can do anything, they frequently do, and don't really test themselves. They're getting bad advice from producers and execs.

Larry David got some incredibly taboo subjects onto Seinfeld that wouldn't normally be allowed on mainstream television. They so wittily and artfully navigated the censorship problems that watching them was an absolute joy. Famously, the episode about a competition to see who could go the longest without masturbating never mentions the word. They use all these clever and hilarious euphemisms, like 'master of your domain'.

That's the kind of art that I'm looking for in sitcoms, but I'm not getting them from BBC Three's output.

Bill Bailey (Manny), Tamsin Greig (Fran) and Linehan's co-writer Dylan Moran (Bernard) in Black Books

Bill Bailey (Manny), Tamsin Greig (Fran) and Linehan's co-writer Dylan Moran
(Bernard) in Black Books. © Talkback Productions / Channel 4

So where do you think comedy is going?

I've said this to Chris Morris many, many times and [laughs] God, I hope this quote isn't taken out of context anywhere – but Chris Morris is kind of responsible for a lot of this stuff.

Because there are now a lot of what Chris calls 'quisling fucks' who want the outlaw status Chris has. Chris pushed the envelope so far, and they think their job is to push it further. I saw a sketch on Tittybangbang once, which involved children pole-dancing. That's someone who saw the Brass Eye paedophile episode, and that's the only thing they took away from it.

Actually, the paedophile episode is not my favourite. I felt the subject matter was so strong that he could have taken his foot off the accelerator a little bit, but he really put it to the floor and I personally thought he could have got away with being a lot sillier with it. But Chris is a provocateur and he likes to go for the jugular. But it was still a very skilfully put together show and took a lot of interesting risks and made a lot of interesting jokes.

Chris has a very, very keen moral sense and he doesn't do anything without a good reason. But the people who are swimming in his wake don't have an ounce of his wit or morality.

As early as 8:30 you might see something that makes you want to put your brain in the washing machine.

What current TV comedy do you like?

I love the Thick of It. It would seem to contradict what I just been saying because there's bad language all over it, but it's completely appropriate. I made the mistake once of staying up late and watching four episodes in a row and it really affected my dreams afterwards, because the atmosphere of unrelenting aggression was quite frightening.

I think it transcends the ignorant people it's about. It becomes a work of art because it's about how gentle people don't really have a chance to survive in what has become an unbelievably unpleasant, violent and aggressive atmosphere in Westminster because of Alistair Campbell and people like that. It's quite an achievement.

So there's that and also Harry Hill's TV Burp, definitely the funniest thing on television. It's a very good example of what I am talking about. Because he's got the restrictions of a Saturday evening time slot, he has to be very inventive. He has to be really, really funny.

It's kind of the opposite of what people might think: the less freedom we have the more inventive we are. For example, while I wouldn't like to go back to Ireland being ruled by the British, it was a very productive time for Irish literature. There's an argument that a little bit of restriction sometimes helps the imagination.

What are your thoughts on the influence of the internet on modern comedy?

On the one hand, it's brilliant because if it hadn't been for the internet, it would have taken me two or three more years to hear about people like Kasper Hauser, a very funny San Francisco sketch group.

But a lot of the stuff out there feels really like a waste of time. You know, some people find things like inflatable sheep funny and now they have access to video cameras.

But the great thing about the internet is how the good stuff – like Andy Samberg's Saturday Night Live sketches – is pushed to the top of every search. It's very democratic. So there's good and bad, like everything else.

So what's up next?

Nothing's certain, but there are various things I'm exploring. I want to do something with Steve Delaney, who does Count Arthur Strong.

I also want to try and write a film again. I feel like I've failed at it so many times but now I know why, so I'd like to try again. Writing a sitcom on my own has been a eye-opener in terms of how to structure things in an organic way that I didn't know I was capable of.

And a third season of The IT Crowd?

Yes, if Channel 4 let me. I like the situation and characters. It's a way of writing about myself without writing about myself. Even though it's supposedly a very specific world they work in, it's really just stuff about normal people and their adventures. I've got so many storylines, so many ideas, things that have happened to me and to my friends – writing The IT Crowd is a great way of doing all that.


Part II: Question Tag

As is Mustard tradition, we have a few questions from our other interviewees:

Matt Berry caricature Matt Berry: In light of all these dramatisations of the lives of TV comedians, are you looking forward to someone playing you in the inevitable 'Father Ted Story'?

Graham: Well, with those dramatisations they usually have to emphasise a personality problem; Peter Sellers beat up his kids, the bloke from Steptoe met strange men in parks, and so forth. Mine would be that I'm a biscuit alcoholic. The other day I caught myself hiding biscuits around the house, so that could be my dramatic scene.

But usually I hate those programmes. I find “the darkness behind the laughter” such a clich√©, because, y'know, in every life there's some sadness or secrets, it's kind of tasteless. The only one I liked was Morecombe and Wise. I thought that was beautifully done and just shows that they were very happy and normal and nothing too traumatic happened, apart from having a bad first show (laughs).

Rich Fulcher Rich Fulcher: Are there any studio-based sitcoms that would have benefitted from being single-camera sitcoms? And any single-camera sitcoms that should have been studio-based?

Graham: Yeah, Aaron Sorkin's sitcom Sports Night; that shouldn't have been in front of an audience. Sorkin's dialogue is all very fast paced, it doesn't leave any gaps, it doesn't have punchlines as such, it's just really witty. So when they added a live audience's laughter track it made it very weird.

Yeah, there have been a few examples of recent shows that I've liked – I won't name them because I don't want it to sound like a criticism. Shows that were really crazy and kind of out-there, that don't have as many jokes as they maybe should have, and an audience would have encouraged them to add a few more, possibly.

Stewart Lee Stewart Lee: I hate Twitter. It just seems to be loads of people updating the precise whereabouts of me and my son on a daily basis, on buses, in the park etc. Do you think you'd like it less if you had a more recognisable face?

Graham: It's the modern world, I'm afraid, and those updates are still happening even if Stewart isn't around to read them. I get them from time to time and they're usually good-natured enough. Whenever they aren't, I just use the 'block' button and that's the end of that. One guy wrote: “Just saw @Glinner stuffing his face in a restaurant”, which, y'know, wasn't very nice, even if I was stuffing my face (laughs) so I blocked him, I don't hear from him anymore.

I guess if I had a famous face, it might get annoying, but I find that most people are very kind on Twitter, and very careful not to offend, and often incredibly helpful. I always tell this story: one day I was on a real Field Music jag, I'd just spent the day tweeting their songs and videos while I was working. A few days later, Michael McKean, who played David St Hubbins in Spinal Tap, sent me a tweet saying “Thanks for the Field Music tip. Those guys are the berries!”. Incredible feeling... one of my heroes, and I had no idea that he was even following me! I certainly wouldn't give that up because of the occasional “Just saw @Glinner in Waterstones” message.

Caricatures: AW


Graham Linehan Part III:
Graham Linehan's Writing Tips

What tips would you give to budding sitcom writers?

1/ Spend a lot of time making sure you've got the right situation with the right combination of characters, because otherwise once you go into production, you're screwed. Make sure each character brings out comic characteristics from the other characters.

2/ Create two or three big set pieces – e.g. something like Father Ted's Hitler moustache scene. Two or three moments that you're either working towards or writing about the repercussions. Then just makes sure you've got lots of nice little gags connecting them up.

3/ Make sure it's not all dialogue. Too many TV shows are basically radio and don't make enough of the visual opportunities. I enjoyed Dinnerladies, but felt it could have worked just as well as a radio show, and that's not really what you want.

4/ Once you've written something, put it in a drawer for at least a month, preferably three, and then read it before you show it or send it to anyone else. When you read it back you should be able to see for yourself what works and what doesn't.


Graham Linehan Part IV:
Graham Linehan's Guide
to Making a Sitcom

Can you outline the sitcom process from script to screen?

1/ First Drafts
First of all, I hand in first drafts of the whole series. These are usually really awful. They're just sketches, really, to give everyone an idea of where I'm headed, in general, and to make sure that there are no major problems – with subject matter, for instance, that will lead me into trouble later.

At this stage I'm not too interested in getting specific notes. I just want people to say things like “There's something a bit naff about this storyline” or “are you sure you want Moss to be stuck in a box for the entire episode?”. I want people to tell me immediately whether or not I'm barking up the wrong tree so I can fix it quickly and see what the story really should be about.

2/ Redrafts
By the time I've written the sixth episode, enough time has passed for me to read the first one again and see for myself what's wrong with it. So now, using the general notes I've received from Caroline Leddy (C4 commissionner) and Ash Atalla (producer) and my own tastes and aims as my compass, I work through them again, from one to six. I keep doing this, the drafts getting better and better (hopefully), the notes from Caroline and Ash getting more detailed, until I receive a panicky phone call from Ash saying that we're going into production in a few weeks/months, and we really have to get the show into shape.

I'll start working on them again, starting with the worst. Then it's a matter of constantly working on the worst episode; as you fix each one, a different episode becomes 'the worst'. This process continues right up until the studio records.

3/ Casting and Locations
Around now, we'll start casting, and looking for locations, both of which will give me new ideas (the idea for 'near/far away' came to me while looking at cows on a location hunt for Ted). This time, my rewrites will concentrate on the location stuff, so I have to be pretty sure the structure of the show is pretty sound and the rewritten location bits will slot in nicely to the finished show.

4/ Location Shoot
We then do the location shoot. Some things work better than we thought they would; others don't work at all, so I do another rewrite based on that in preparation for the studio records.

5–6/ Rehearsals & Studio Recordings
The studio records are the most fun, but also the most demanding and terrifying part of the process. Everyone is scared, and tensions can run quite high if the scripts aren't right. So while we rehearse, I continue to rewrite, changing anything that doesn't get a laugh or the actors feel uncomfortable with. Sometimes I have to say “Look, trust me. I know this will work”, but mostly I change things because the actors are so tuned in to their characters it would be crazy for me to ignore them. I don't understand writers who get super-protective of every last line and aren't flexible enough to change things.

7–8/ Editing & Dubbing
And finally: several painstaking weeks in the editing suite.


Part V:
Ending The IT Crowd and new beginnings

We discussed the end of The IT Crowd, the foreign versions, The Fast Show, The Ladykillers, Count Arthur Strong, Doctor Who, Neon magazine and movies versus television

A catch-up interview with Graham in 2014,
after the final episode of The IT Crowd aired.
Graham Linehan

Graham Linehan. Photo © Shaun Webb Design

I loved the IT Crowd special, and it seems to have been very well received.

I'm really glad, because it was kind of put together with sticky tape! We had a window of just two weeks where we could get everybody in the same place. Then once we started working on it, I realised the script was a lot further away from being ready than I had thought.

So there was a lot of rewriting and snap decisions made in those two weeks. I was kind of glad it held together as well as it did, because there was a lot of cheating to get the two stories to connect with each other. At the end, Moss provides a completely ridiculous way of getting to a conclusion by drawing a Venn diagram of the two unconnected stories. It's a total cheat, but if it's funny you can get away with anything, you know?

Now that The IT Crowd is finished, how do you feel about it as part of your life and career?

What has taken me by surprise is the amount of warmth for it, leading up to the Special. I kind of wish I'd realised how much people loved it whilst I was doing it, because the initial reaction was, as usual, negative. So with each series, I felt that I was having to prove that it was a good show, and I was never really relaxed about it. I never took the time to absorb the positive reaction. But now that I've finished, I'm reading all these reactions and it's kind of wonderful, really.

Did the series last as long as you wanted?

I remember asking the cast at the end of Series 4 whether they'd do another one. It was the wrong time to ask, because everyone was exhausted, so the immediate answer was 'no'. But later on, Chris [O'Dowd] said he'd really like to finish things off with another series. I did try and write a fifth series, and I even brought in a few different people to write with, but it didn't really work.

I always think: get out before the bad series, you know? Several of the ideas we came up with had nothing to do with computers or the internet, the theme of the show. That's a good sign that the show has perhaps done its thing, and it's time to stop.

You put such a great cast together that they're getting Hollywood roles, that must make it harder to keep making the series.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that's a good sign that you've been successful: you can't get your cast any more! I like the idea of starting a show with a bunch of people, working with them for a few years, and then them getting too famous to do the show any more. Walking down the road and seeing Chris or Richard's face on the side of a bus – that made me really proud. That's the moment when I thought, “Oh yeah, that went well.”

Am I right in saying that you always wanted Matt Berry to play Reynholm, but when he wasn't available for Series 1, Chris Morris volunteered to step in?

Yeah, that's right. Chris saved our asses on series 1. I had written Denholm Reynholm with Matt in mind. But then, with two weeks to go, we realised: 'Oh my God, we're not gonna be able to get Matt' – he was doing a horror movie or something. So I rang Chris, who was a person who has the same kind of presence and authority, and asked if he would do it, and he very kindly said yes.

So when Matt was available for series 2, it actually added a bit of depth to the character and the relationship by making him Denholm's son. It gave us Denholm's funeral and Matt's big arrival, so it was actually a really nice way for the series to go.

I always think: get out before
the bad series, you know?

Did the viewership grow with every series?

God, I couldn't tell you. I don't really look at the figures. I think it did reasonably well. Viewing figures, in general, are not what they were. I remember being told that the last Father Ted got about seven million. IT Crowd did well enough that they kept bringing it back, but it was a slow burn. I think it's finally at the stage where there'd be a lot of excitement for a new series, but now we can't capitalise on it!

What did you think of the US pilot?

Well, no one told me it was happening. I found out by reading something online. I didn't even know Richard [Ayoade] was in it. So the whole thing was a rather nasty surprise.

I asked to talk with the show runners, but they would never pick up the phone to speak to me. It was the guys who eventually took over from Dan Harmon on Community, if that tells you anything. It was a really unpleasant situation.

What's frustrating is that, of all the sitcoms I've worked on, IT Crowd is the one that could easily have worked in the States, and I had a whole bunch of ideas of how to do it. The main thing I wanted to say was: don't try and just copy the show. Because it works for a reason over here and it won't work in the same way in the States. Also, I would have told them not to set it in the basement, because it isolated the characters and made it harder to get the stories going. But I never got my chance, I never got my pitch.

Then when the pilot episode came out it was an almost carbon copy of our first episode. Just the laziest way imaginable of approaching it. And I feel sorry for the actors in it, because I thought they were all really great, but they just were wasted.

And of course Joe McCale, playing Roy, ended up doing Community.

Yeah. Which proved that he's a brilliant comic actor.

Did you ever see the German version?

Oh my God, yes I did, I did! (laughs) I can't really comment on it because I didn't really understand it, but it was... strange.

You know, part of the reason that The IT Crowd is what it is, is all the work we do in the week leading up to the first studio recording. Those filmed scripts are the result of having had a pretty solid draft at the start of the week, and then working on them all week with the actors. It seems to me that the remakes have just taken our scripts without adjusting them for their actors or situation. An IT Crowd in Germany is a very different thing to an IT Crowd in the UK, and even more different to an IT Crowd in the States, but there doesn't seem to be any attempt to alter it to suit.

Last time I asked you about other TV comedy you enjoyed – any new favourites from the last few years?

Community, of course. I love Girls – that's great. Oh, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is incredible, it's the one show that successfully applied the Seinfeld model and did so much with it.

I loved those columns you used to write for Neon magazine, and they also had Father Ted doing Star Wars on one of their covers. How did that happen?

Oh yeah, Neon was started by all my music journalism buddies who I'd worked with on Select magazine. I had been kind of plugging away as a journalist for years and then suddenly Father Ted started happening. So they realised that they had a comedy writer that they could ask to do things, whilst I could keep my foot in the journalism world.

Graham Linehan's regular column in Neon movie magazine

Graham Linehan's regular column in Neon movie magazine.

Speaking of characters called Ted, you also wrote Ted and Ralph for The Fast Show. Was that a different challenge, writing for writer-performers?

I think the show was written by a few different people. Paul [Whitehouse] and Charlie [Higson] were doing the main body of it, but I think everyone had a hand in it, so it didn't feel weird.

Arthur [Mathews, co-writer of Father Ted] and I did a lot of that type of thing at that time. We would very happily pitch to people who we were big fans of, like Harry Enfield, The Fast Show and The Day Today. We even tried to get stuff on Vic and Bob.

So Ted and Ralph came from a pitch?

Yeah, we were in a pub and we read out the Tina Turner sketch, I think. My memory of it is Paul then standing up and doing Ted with an Irish accent, and I was saying, “No, no, no, he's not Irish.” And Paul was saying, “No, he should be Irish.” So that's how Ted ended up Irish, because Paul was kind of doing an impression of me.


Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong.
Photo © Andy Hollingworth

Last time, you said that finding a writing partner was harder than finding a wife. How was it writing with Steve Delaney on Count Arthur Strong?

Well, what you're looking for is someone whose humour you really admire, and I find what Steve does as Count Arthur absolutely impeccable.

When we write together, Steve has absolute veto, but he's incredibly open to experimenting with how we write. I'll come up with a new system for breaking stories every week, and he's happy to go with it. I'm learning a lot from him and he's learning a lot from me. We're really having a great time.

We've already started discussing stories for series 2. Right after this, I'm going to write up the ideas into a Google doc so we can start working on them.

Peter Capaldi starred in your stage version of The Ladykillers – what are the chances of you writing an episode of Doctor Who?

(laughs) Oh, this is a terrible thing to admit, but I've never been a big fan of Doctor Who. I don't dislike it, but I just never really got why everyone else loves it, so it's kind of passed me by a bit.

That's a shame, because you're a sci-fi geek, and of course Steven Moffat was a sitcom writer; there's your Venn diagram overlap.

Yeah! I was certainly very impressed, professionally, with how they reinvented the show. That was an incredible achievement. And certain episodes I've seen and loved, like the weeping angels one [Blink] – that was brilliant. But I've never really followed it, so I wouldn't be the best person to write an episode. They'd be giving me the thingy he uses, the stick, and I'd be asking, “What does this do?” “It opens doors.” “Oh, okay.”

Peter Capaldi in Graham Linehan's stage play adaptation of classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers

Peter Capaldi and co. in Graham Linehan's stage play adaptation of
classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Photo © Shaun Webb

As a big Twitter advocate, do you think things like the #welovetheNHS campaign you started have made a difference?

Well, it did achieve a positive result, because by trending so hard, it showed the US that some of their commentators were lying about the NHS and how much we valued it.

But then, #welovetheNHS was referenced by both Gordon Brown and David Cameron, which proves that things like that can be fairly meaningless. So eventually it became a devalued political coin, passed round between these people for whatever purposes suited them that week.

Recently I've found that there's just a lot of noise on Twitter. It's hard to talk about things that you think are important because you get a million snide responses. Most people are nice, but then you get just really unpleasant, horrible people. As Frankie Boyle said, “If my block button killed people, we'd be living in a fucking paradise.” (laughs).

Your 'Bin Laden watches the IT Crowd' hoax fooled me, I'm a little embarrassed to say. Why did you think so many people fell for it?

At the time I thought it was hilarious, but as someone put it: “The writer said it's true, so of course we thought it was real.” So I realised that, as a prank, it wasn't that much of an achievement.

I thought that me going from despising Bin Laden to thinking that he was okay because he liked The IT Crowd was such a funny idea that people would see that it was a joke. But when people were taking it seriously, I thought, “Ooh, maybe I'll go with this for a while.” So I started using all sorts of tricks to make it look like it had become a worldwide, verified phenomenon. But in the end I realised it was just a bit too easy. In the future I think I'll use Twitter for good rather than evil. (laughs)

Is all the time you spend on Twitter a distraction from writing, or does it help you find inspiration?

It's a distraction when you're looking at all the fascinating things that people post, it's an inspiration when I use it as a random idea generator, and sometimes, if you happen to get into the wrong situation, it can ruin your whole week.

I'm beginning to think that there are a couple of things wrong with Twitter. The 140 character limit, while in many ways a brilliant idea that's changed the world, can also lead to conversations that are just a little bit too curt, you know? And that curtness can breed sarcasm and snideness.

Even when you have a complicated, nuanced discussion between two people with quite similar opinions, if you look at their tweets you'd think they're having a vicious argument.

Also, people see one particular stance, stated in one tweet, as your whole feeling about a subject, which, of course, is impossible. The level of stupidity in Twitter arguments is becoming a bit of a drag. For anyone who has over, say, 2,000 followers, you'll see bad-tempered discussions all the time, and it's a shame.

I wish Twitter would look at changing things a bit. For instance, wouldn't it be great if you were getting into a nuanced conversation and you could take it to a separate area to talk at a longer length, and then link to it?

You've cameoed on your own shows, and other people's, and you've appeared on panel shows. Do you like being in front of the camera?

Actually, I've been asked to do Have I Got News For You again, and I may say no, just because I'm beginning to wonder, “Why am I doing this again?” I mean, you do meet interesting people, I love Ian Hislop, he's a sweet man, and Paul Merton is lovely too. But, I don't know, I kind of wish they'd asked me twenty years ago, when I was starting in comedy. Then it would feel like more of a thing, but now it just feels like a bit of an indulgence. I don't want to become one of those guys who appear on panel shows and people don't really know why.

Also, one of the good things about what I do is that it doesn't really result in people asking to take their pictures with you. That doesn't happen often, but when it does, depending on the situation it can be excruciatingly embarrassing. Someone asked me to do it on a tube once – that's crazy! When you're on the tube, you're on television, with everybody else there as the viewer.

Then people might hate you, because they think that you're being snobbish. So I think I might take the foot off the pedal every so often, and try and keep my fame at a manageable level.

Film used to be the big game.
These days, TV is the place to be.

So is this definitely it for The IT Crowd, or is there a chance of a reunion special in ten years?

Oh God, no, I've never been a fan of revisiting old stuff. For me, when it's done it's done. And I'll be lucky if I'm still writing comedy in ten years anyway, because it's a young man's game. I can't think of anything worse than trying to figure out what the characters would be doing in middle age, I think that would just be awful.

What about a movie?

I don't want to do an IT Crowd film, but I would be interested in getting the same cast, and roughly the same characters, and putting them in a completely new situation. Like, I don't know, spies or aliens, something completely different but with the same power relationship. It would only be worth doing if I came up with a really good idea.

Have you done any more movie writing since we last spoke?

I've just done a little bit of script doctoring. Y'know, I think when we last talked I was perhaps wrapping it in a mystique that it didn't really deserve. I think stories are quite simple, but what's difficult is trying to make one last over half an hour. Because sitcom characters don't change, but if you go over half an hour you really need characters to change in some way. So I think I was learning the wrong lessons.

But no, I haven't tried to write more films, but only because I only write now if I'm paid to (laughs). I can't really write for free because it's taking up time that I could be paid to write something. So I'm happy to keep plugging away in sitcoms.

The other thing is, I used to think that you wrote TV partly in a way to get into the 'big game' of film. But TV is the big game now, with shows like Breaking Bad and stuff like that. So now it's much more exciting to come up with an idea that works in the TV format. These days, television is the place to be.

Graham Linehan

Graham Linehan interviewed by Alex Musson
in 2007 and 2014


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