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Writers Room: Making good comedy is no laughing ma

Writers Room: Making good comedy is no laughing matter

Flyer to the May Writer’s Room in Auckland and the summary of the April Writer’s Room

May Writers Room - From the Mouths of Actors

The May Writer’s Room invites a panel of local performers to discuss dialogue writing from an Actors perspective.

On the panel will be well known New Zeland acting talents Anthony Starr (Outrageous Fortune, The World’s Fastest Indian), Madeline Sami (Sione’s Wedding, Perfect Strangers) and Jodie Rimmer (In my Father’s Den, Apron Strings).

The discussion will be led by guest MC Tim Balme (The Tatooist, Deceit) who is currently working as a storyline and episode writer on Outrageous Fortune.

Tuesday 27 May

Drinks from 7pm, Starts 7.30pm

Venue: The Classic
321 Queen Street, Auckland City

$5 donation at the door

Making good comedy is no laughing matter

Making comedy can be serious business. The April Writer’s Room invited TV3’s Head of Comedy and Drama Caterina De Nave, interactive comedy producer Carthew Neal, comedian and documentary maker Te Radar and actor/presenter Jon Bridges to join guest MC comedian Tarun Mohanbhai for a revealing look at the process of getting comedy made in New Zealand.

Kiwi Comedy
The panel began by sharing their thoughts on the current state of NZ comedy. Jon felt comedy in Aotearoa is healthier now because people are more open to it than they have been in the past. When he started out in the early 90’s, Jon said there were few avenues for comedians to get on television whereas today’s NZ comedy scene is much larger, comedians have more notoriety and respect and the overseas success of Flight of the Concords could potentially change things for NZ comedy as a whole.

Caterina spoke from a ‘networks’ point of view. “My feeling is that since the mid nineties, since Melody Rules, people seem to have lost their bottle.” Comedians no longer have hundreds of hours of live performance under their belts and performers have dissipated. She also said, “…much of the work currently being done at TV3 has a comedic feel to it” with shows like Bro’Town and Outrageous Fortune. Caterina felt these programmes were ‘softening up’ the public to comedy so that more “pure comedy” can be introduced. Aotearoa HA screened on TV3 at the beginning of the year with great success, offering a platform for up and coming Maori and Pacific Island comedians. The Billy T awards are in production with TV3 as well as comedy shows 1000 Apologies and The Jackie Brown Show with the latter being a narrative comedy with Jackie acting for the first time. Caterina confirmed that, “…we are always on the look out for any kind of comedy” but the most popular and ‘audience friendly’ tend to be narrative comedies. TV3 looks for broad shows that can make money. Ratings are still a very important factor.

Caterina said TV3 hopes to launch an interactive internet channel called 3Comedy later this year. Budget and schedules are still to be decided but the new channel will include promotions, comedy news, and content and material from New Zealand comedians. “I’m hopeful it will become something that will excite people about comedy,” said Caterina.

Finding a niche
Tarun recalled an earlier comedy workshop where Paul Horan said sketch comedy was dead. Caterina disagreed and said Paul’s statement was Aussie specific. Radar said sketch comedy hasn’t died - it has moved to the internet. “It’s alive and well, but the medium has changed,” he said, adding, “…good ads are often great examples of sketch comedy and there is more demand for those kinds of ads than ever.” In fact there has never been more potential for people to see a comedian’s work. All that’s needed is a video camera and an internet connection … and some funding!

So why doesn’t New Zealand make more niche comedies? Caterina believed it isn’t profitable to do so. The Flight of the Concords is a niche show in America and British viewers enjoy The Office and the Katherine Tait Show but substantial niche audiences in these countries make the shows profitable. Radar’s comedy documentary Christmas in Bethlehem was rejected by TV3 as it was ‘too niche’ so it played on TV2 last year in a very late time slot.

Tarun asked Carthew for his insight into the relatively new medium of internet ‘Webisodes’ and he replied, “…I’ve made two hit internet comedies that you’ll have never heard of.”

Carthew’s first hit was 5 Minute Call which won a number of awards at the Fringe NZ Festival in 2003. The second was London Calling. Both shows invited audience interaction, asking people to vote for the ending they most wanted to see in a pick-a-path style. ‘Webisodes’ are growing in popularity but Carthew makes no money from them. The goal is creative collaboration so he works with other comedy-minded friends to create them. The newspapers seem to be leading the way when it comes to internet comedy and are interested in funding local production. MyspaceNZ is also considering funding exclusive local video content. “It’s a great place to start things out.”

Internet comedy can be sold, but not for a lot. The panel agreed that the internet can be a great place to get discovered, explore ideas and then break into television. The web offers total freedom and no censorship or restrictive time slots.

The current NZ market
The panel agreed that stand-up leads the way in the current NZ comedy market but it does not transfer well to television. Stand-up must be live for full effect. Radar suggested that comedy writers could become known by asking stand-up comedians to perform their work at The Classic. Carthew agreed and suggested comedy could be latched onto a high profile event or community such as the 2008 elections.
Jon Bridges’ new comedic show Choice Cuts airs 8pm Sundays on the Sky Digital Network. Presented by The Edge radio hosts Fletch and Vaughn, the show features weird and wacky clips from the internet. Choice Cuts offers prime examples of how the internet has enabled individuals to put their work up on the web for free, raise their profiles and gather a niche following of fans. Jon recalled one comedy clip he saw on You Tube called Retarded Policeman. There are now several episodes on You Tube and these have been viewed over a million times. Choice Cuts contacted the Downs syndrome actor who said he loves his new found stardom and cannot wait to make the next episode. He hasn’t made a living out of it but the opportunity has raised his profile and increased his job potential.

New Zealand is a comparatively small country. Contacting people in the industry is easier and Caterina felt this was a huge advantage. She added for a show to be considered successful in New Zealand it would have to attract an audience of 20,000 at the most. “If I got that I’d be over the moon!”

Question time

Has Caterina considered a main stream comedy show? What are producers looking for?
Caterina said she is always looking but has yet to hear a pitch for a show that could be a hit in an 8pm time slot. Such a show would almost certainly have to be a narrative comedy. “PGR can be quite limiting.” There is also the 9.30-10pm slot to fill, “where you can be a bit more daring, more cutting edge.”

Are the networks frightened of a main stream comedy show?
Caterina said audiences are desperate to see something new but admitted the networks are scared because there is never the same sense of agreement with comedy. “All TV3 can do is keep trying new things. One day something will be a new hit.” Jon thought the networks’ fears are justified. “You have to convince the networks. New media can be a great way to show that support for your idea.”

Networks always seem to take risks with drama so why not comedy?
The reaction to comedy is very individual and Caterina felt this could be a contributing factor. There is no real history of New Zealand comedy. A firm commitment to developing new ideas is needed and the networks are very nervous about that.

How many submissions are received per year?
Caterina said she receives around 1,000. About a third of those are comedy and very few pitches could actually fill an 8pm time slot. “There’s a feeling that working in PGR timeslots isn’t cool.” Caterina said there will be room for amateur material on the 3Comedy website.

Radar concluded the discussion with some wise words of advice: “I know I say this every time, but just keep writing!”


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