In which I discover ‘The I.T. Crowd’ properly and also discover Graham Linehan’s awesome approach to writing sitcoms.
I clearly have been living under a rock for some time (not an unusual feeling for me I have to say).
I recently picked up the box set of The I.T. Crowd, the British sitcom series about three misfits who man the I.T. department of a large business, owned by a hideously wealthy and deliciously hideous CEO who has absolutely no idea what that they do.
Weirdly, the show has very little to do with computers at all, and is actually more about how the three main characters (Jen played by Katherine Parkinson, Roy played by Chris O’Dowd and Moss played by Richard Ayoade) stumble their way through life, a process they unfortunately find terribly difficult.
I’d seen the odd episode of the show, but it wasn’t till I sat down to binge through it all that I feel I can appreciate it for the little bit of wonderful that it is. It’s not only consistently funny, it’s also quite sweet and believable. I couldn’t help but relate to Jen’s complete and utter lack of interest in technology, and I know more than a few Roys and Mosses — completely loveable losers you do find yourself sometimes concerned for, wondering how on Earth they’ve managed to stay alive for so long.
The reason I feel like I’ve been living under a rock is not that it’s taken me so long to get to The I.T. Crowd, but rather that it’s taken me so long to connect the dots between its creator and the other stellar work he’s been involved in. Graham Linehan wrote and directed the entire series (yes, he wrote and directed every single episode), but he also co-wrote Father Ted (with Arthur Mathews) and the first series of Black Books (with Dylan Moran). So basically he’s a comedy genius.
In a wonderful surprise, Series 4 (or Version 4.0 as it reads on the cover) of The I.T. Crowd features an entire series commentary by Linehan in which he outlines his approach to writing sitcoms. And it’s great!
Inspired by the many questions he receives from fans and emerging writers through Twitter (Linehan is an avid ‘twitterer’), it’s an unexpected insight into the process of putting together a show and a peek at what it must be like seeing the whole process through from very start to very finish.
Here’s a small sample of what he talks about:
– He wants every aspiring writer to get into the habit of keeping a notebook of ideas, no matter how good or bad. Every vague idea you have may well come in handy later down the track as you write.
– He researches a lot — that is, he spends a lot of time on the internet to find funny, interesting ideas that may have currency at a later stage in the writing process.
– He makes the point that having something to work with is crucial. Yes, your first draft is always crap, but it is so important to actually get it written so you have something to make better.
– He’s a big believer in setting limits on yourself as a way of generating ideas. That is, what is your series about and what kind of world is it set in? He uses the example of Father Ted where he and co-writer Mathews decided early on that they weren’t ever going to show the priests giving sermons. It would make the show immediately different from every other show about priests and force them to find new and innovative ways to see priests interacting with each other and their parishioners. He feels these kinds of limitations are most useful at the start of the process as a way to figure out what to write about, what questions you can ask yourself and how to frame each character’s perspective.
– Everyone gets writer’s block — the thing that writers recognise, he says, is that they have to get past that feeling to get the job done. That is, it’s just a part of the process to work through, they don’t actually let it stop them writing.
– Keep your initial driver/inspiration on hand to fall back on. Knowing your initial intent for the series is both an opportunity and a limitation — you can’t write about things outside this particular world. You need to know what it’s about and what it’s definitely not about. That will help you focus as you progress or if you get stuck.
What I liked most about the commentary was the fact that Linehan was very upfront about how difficult the process can be, and that scripts often don’t quite come together till very late in the process. He spoke highly of his Script Editor, someone he only brought into the process late in the series’ life, and how much of an impact having a second pair of eyes looking over his stories and picking holes in his logic actually made on the overall structure and quality of the writing. It’s refreshingly honest, and I’m glad to hear someone demystifying the process so openly in many respects like this. Even for someone with his experience, it’s clear it’s still a difficult process of writing and rewriting to get things to work.
One of the most practical things he discussed was how he approaches writing episode story lines. Using a notecard system (he uses software but I can see how this would be equally effective using the real thing), he writes all his various ideas about each character on individual notecards and over time amasses a collection of about a 100 or so. They’ll say things like ‘Jen has to organise a hen’s night’ or ‘Roy photoshops girlfriend out of pics’. He then sifts through them and starts to see what may work together as story lines within the same episode.
Once he’s sifted through all his cards, he ends up with the vague form of an episode taking shape, giving each character a basic goal or circumstance that complements the goals/circumstances of the other characters. He talked about how two ideas often have a ‘baby’, a new idea that really is born only when you see two other ideas alongside one another and your brain starts making lots of connections it wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to. He feels it’s often a way to glue the two parent ideas together in a way that makes the pairing stronger.
Linehan makes a great fuss about fooling yourself into thinking you’re having fun. Just sitting down to write can be daunting, so prepare by playing — do your research, do your cards, have your ideas and start throwing lots of things together and enjoying it. Good advice considering the often torturous experience of getting a draft on paper!
While I would have loved to hear Linehan talk about how he devised his I.T. Crowd characters, he does talk about how he wanted to create a comedy that related to technology in contemporary society, and how that initial narrative driver was something he could come back to when he was rewriting or was stuck in some way. Remembering his initial intent helped him focus and refine his character’s perspectives and how the plot could be tweaked during the re-writing stages. Even though, as he admits himself, most of the series has very little to do with technology in any detailed sense.
I’ll certainly be going back and listening to the commentary again. There were a couple of places that got a little repetitive, but I can forgive that easily considering the rest of what Linehan discusses is really very useful. And I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking to either write their own comedy or is just interested in learning more about the process writers go through putting together a series.
You can visit Channel 4’s (UK) official website for The I.T. Crowd here.
Graham Linehan’s twitter handle is @Glinner
I bought The I.T. Crowd Overclocked box set (Series 1-4 plus TV Special ‘The Internet is Coming’) a couple of weeks ago from good old JB Hi-Fi for $54.95 (I think).