Kevin Bishop Talks Sketch-Writing

A few weeks back, I visited Channel 4 to interview Kevin Bishop for heat magazine. The occasion? The second series of his ticklesome sketch-fest The Kevin Bishop Show, which will soon hit our televisual screens. Perhaps contrary to the impression you might have formed of the man, thanks to the often vicious nature of his show, or his riotously boozy behaviour at last year's British Comedy Awards, he came across as a perfectly likeable guy. Loud, confident and a right old laugh. Furthermore, the clips I saw of the new run - with new characters including a hilarious 'Hugh Laurie' as Doctor House, constantly slipping out of his American accent into 'What-ho!' English - were very funny indeed.

The heat interview is in the latest issue of the magazine, out right now. What follows, though, are some exclusive excerpts from our chat, which touched upon the business and the mechanics of comedy, and sketch-writing in particular. Enjoy.

Your show’s even faster than The Fast Show, isn’t it?
“We actually delivered more sketches this year, and had a fantastic writing period before filming. We write the whole show in around six or seven weeks. It’s mental. Literally no sleep!”

Are your sketches literally not allowed to last for more than one minute?
“It’s not the rule – I think we might have one or two which are two minutes long. But we have to be brutally honest with each other – when performers have too much control over their own vehicles, they can be a little bit self-indulgent and drag their performacnes out. If you watch a sketch show, you might think, ‘Wow, that’s a really good performance from that actor and it’s really funny… but it goes on for three minutes’. Then they tell that same joke six times in a series. It goes from something which was brilliant, to slightly irritating and a bit boring. So we didn’t want to get into that. If it was left to me, like most actors I’d probably go, ‘Fucking hell! This is gold! I’m really good in this! Let’s make it four minutes long’. That’s why you need a good producer to sit there and go, ‘It’s finished. Move on’. That’s why I had very little to do with the edit, because we’d probably argue.”

Is comedy a riskier business to try your luck at, than drama?
“Much riskier, in this country - because people actually get offended if you don’t make them laugh! You can get killed for that. I was talking to Eddie Izzard the other day, who asked me why I don’t do stand-up. And it’s because I couldn’t bear someone telling me to fuck off while I was onstage. I’ll do theatre, where people will applaud while turning to their partner and murmuring, ‘That was shit’, but they won’t shout, ‘Fuck off – you’re shit!’. That’ll never happen to you in theatre… hopefully! Stand-ups are so tough. They’re robust. I’m quite envious of a lot of stand-ups and their bravery. But to be a good stand-up, you need to go out there and bare your soul. As an actor, I’m not comfortable with that. The minute you tell people who you are, the parameters of what you can achieve become narrowed. If they know who you are, the game’s up.”

What makes a perfect sketch? Are there any absolutes?
“Well, the good thing about sketch stuff, is that it can be anything. I remember having this argument with a TV executive. We’d written some sketches that we thought were great, and he said, ‘It doesn’t fit the rest of the show’. And my argument was: how can a sketch not fit in a sketch show? It doesn’t matter what it is: a sketch can be anything. That’s why we did The Kevin Bishop Show. I did a sketch show, years ago, called Spoons, which was a Channel 4 show about relationships. You do a series and suddenly go, ‘Where are we gonna take the next one? All the sketches have got to be about relationships’. So with our show, we chose television – and there are areas of television that we haven’t even touched. National Geographic, Babestation, MTV… we could go into some areas. The ideal sketch can be anything that’s funny… but quick. I do think that. If you watch old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketches, or the Dead Parrot sketch in Monty Python… the parrot sketch is an epic. It goes for, like, 10 minutes. It’s still funny and they pull it off – but nowadays, I think it has to be ‘Idea, joke, it’s funny, okay, now move on’. That’s it.”

Does a sketch have to be about one thing?

“Yeah. With sketch shows, you need to keep people’s short attention span. Increasingly, especially younger audiences, are becoming less focused. The Fast Show had long sketches involving Ted and Ralph, which would go on and on, but there was something so great about it. Those characters were so complex that they drew you in. It was like watching a film, which is fine. But in our show, we’ve got to shoot 10 sketches in a day. You have to get in there, hit the note and get out.”

Is ending a sketch the hardest part?
“Yeah, you’ve got to have a good ‘out’, or there’s absolutely no point in doing a sketch. Every now and again, one of those little sketches will pop up, and you go, ‘Where’s the out on this fucking sketch? It’s rubbish’. You’ve got to have some sort of pay-off at the end, otherwise it’s irritating when this thing you’ve just watched for two minutes just… ends, and that’s it. The characer stuff isn’t so bad, because it’s the character that’s funny throughout. Whereas if you’re telling a joke throughout and you don’t have a punchline, it’s totally pointless.”

Your show is an interesting mix of the topical and the random. A deliberate policy?
“Topicality’s not my department, see - that’s all down to Lee [Hupfield, producer and co-writer]. I’ll happily come up with characters all the time. I’ll sit in a room with writers and do some impressions of people I know, and we’ll come up with a character. Whereas Lee will want to do a sketch on Christian Bale, after the incident in the hotel with his mum and his sister. Like, if we were filming this now [a week after Michael Jackson’s death], we’d be doing a Michael Jackson sketch today. That’s the way that Lee works – it has to be of the minute, right now. It’s a good and bad thing – there isn’t any comedy quite like this, but the bad thing is that you might watch in three years’ time and go, ‘Jesus!’. It dates very, very quickly, which we’re aware of.”

Perhaps unusually for a sketch-show performer, you enjoy treading theatrical boards. How’d you enjoy being in Fat Pig, before Christmas?

“It was absolutely brilliant, like a gift. I’d just finished my show and Star Stories, then got married and been on my honeymoon. It was great to be offered the play, and I took Kris Marshall’s role. Such a funny play. [Playwright] Neil LaBute has become a good friend now. I love doing theatre. That’s where I started years ago, then you get swept away doing stuff. In England, people are very keen to pigeon-hole you, so that they can say ‘He does that’. But I’ve always enjoyed playing a whole range of different characters...”

Is there such a thing as going too far with humour?
“I think you can go too far, when something ceases to be funny. All the time it’s funny, right or wrong, it’s still serving a purpose. We’re not out to offend, but… when you go and see a stand-up comic, there’s nothing less funny than knowing what they’re going to say. Laughter tends to happen when an audience are slightly nervous, in anticipation of what you’re gonna say. But there have been a couple of things we’ve done this year, where we’ve looked at each other and asked if it was too much. Then we just decide to let Channel 4 decide!”

Have Channel 4 vetoed much, then?

“I can only speak about last year, because they actually won’t me about this year, in case I kick off! So I might be watching this series, going, ‘Whatever happened to that sketch?’ and someone will tell me, ‘Yeah, we binned it’. And often, those are my favourite sketches! Last series, Fred West Side Story was one of my favourite sketches I’ve ever done, and yet it received hundreds of complaints...”

The Kevin Bishop Show returns to Channel 4 on Friday, July 31.


Mark Pulmann said...

In fairness if it's advice on sketch writing and what makes something funny I don't think Bishop should be anyone's go to guy. He's the most unfunny man in comedy. Plus he's one of those who recycles that ridiculous self serving nonsense about short attention spans. Methinks Kevin is more led by the marketing men and their adherence to demographics than he is by his "creative" instincts. Dear Kevin, you're rubbish, please stop.

Jason Arnopp said...

Saucer of milk to the Pulmann table!

Humour's like that, though. One man's mirth-messiah is another one's "most unfunny man in comedy".

Sally A said...

I loved the show last night. My only measure is - does it make me laugh? And it did. Lots.