Peep Show and Fresh Meat creator Sam Bain on how to break into comedy

The comedy writer talks working with Danny Boyle, how to deal with failure and why the nation's celebrity obsession should end in therapy

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Peep Show and Fresh Meat creator Sam Bain on how to break into comedy
Written By
Susanna Lazarus

If you haven't heard of Sam Bain, you'll almost certainly be familiar with his many successful TV series. Peep Show - Channel 4's most successful comedy, created with writing partner Jesse Armstrong and starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb - has collected an enviable stash of silverware during its ten-year stint. Along with Armstrong, Bain is also the brains behind university sitcom Fresh Meat which is still going strong after three series and has made stars of a young cast that includes Jack Whitehall, Zawe Ashton and Joe Thomas. 

Earning his stripes on The Queen's Nose, My Parents are Aliens and C4 sketch show Smack the Pony, Bain has also penned two films - Magicians and 2010's terrorism satire Four Lions - and a book, Yours Truly, Pierre Stone, first published in 2002 and newly released on eBook. 

Nowadays he's hard at work on a new play, plus a TV series - Babylon - with Danny Boyle, starring James Nesbitt. Suffice to say, he's a very busy man - but we found a brief respite in his schedule to sit down for a chat about why his wife thinks he's Howard's doppelgänger, the nation's unhealthy obsession with I'm A Celebrity and his early plans for the final series of Peep Show... 

So, Sam - after a 20-year career in comedy, what advice would you give a youngster just starting out? 

You need incredible amounts of determination because it's quite a long haul. Jesse and I had a pretty easy ride – we took a good six or seven years paying our dues before Peep Show which is pretty bloody quick. That’s the minimum you should expect to be beavering away so you need a bit of determination and a bit of stubbornness. Just keep going and write loads. You can’t just write one thing and then give up if it doesn’t work. Jesse and I have a hard drive full of unproduced, unfilmed scripts. That’s one of the key things: the more you write, the more you learn and failure is not your enemy because everyone gets it wrong. The key thing is a) to learn from that and b) to carry on and do it better next time and that’s what we managed to do. If you find things don’t work, that’s good because at least you’re trying. And having a writing partner is particularly good for sharing the ups and downs, especially downs, because you can talk it over, you can laugh about it and, hopefully, move on. 

What do you like most about writing with Jesse in particular? 

We’ve been writing together so long it’s what I would call a functional relationship. There aren’t many of them around but we have a long history of working well together and we know each other and trust each other. You know that there will always be a better idea if one idea doesn’t work. I trust him and I think he trusts me to come up with something else that is better - it makes you feel supported whatever problem comes up.

Arguably your most famous co-creation is Peep Show - have you begun work on the ninth and final series?

We’re talking about it. We haven’t begun work on it because we’re trying to figure out when we’re going to do it. We’re doing this series Babylon with Danny Boyle and we’re waiting to hear about Fresh Meat – whether that comes back next year – but we are going to do [Peep Show]. We had lunch with David [Mitchell], Rob [Webb] and Phil Clarke from Channel 4 recently and we’re all excited about doing it. 

Do you have any ideas of how you’d like it to play out?

We’ve ruled out suicide pacts – we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to do any explosions or any tanks destroying buildings but I think we’re probably going to go for a low key ending. I haven’t got any firm ideas - we’re trying to figure out our schedules at the moment. 

Your comedies are famous for their toe-curling moments - how much do you write from your own experiences?

There’s a bit in there. Jesse and I went to Manchester University so obviously writing about students who share a house in Manchester in Fresh Meat is not a million miles away from our experience. Having said that, not every character in Fresh Meat is based on anyone we know. I suppose Kingsley, JP, to some extent Oregon are but the other characters are all made up – based on fun ideas for people, not anyone we’ve ever met. My wife describes Howard (above) as my doppelgänger which I’m not entirely happy about. Not Greg – Howard. She’s specific about that. I don’t think that’s a compliment. I’m hoping she was joking but you never know. There are probably more examples in Peep Show, not so much of characters but real life situations that have happened to either me or Jesse or people we’ve known that have gone in the show. There’s an episode of Peep Show where Mark sits on a burglar – I did that.

Nowadays you're busy at work on your new police comedy series, Babylon... 

We’ve done the feature-length pilot which is in editing now and that’s going to be on TV in January and we’re writing the series at the moment.

You've collaborated with Mr Olympics Opening Ceremony, Danny Boyle - how was that experience?

 As you might hope, he’s very passionate and enthusiastic and smart. A film crew is a bit like an army - you’re having to fight time and pressures and money but he’s an amazing general and everyone looks up to him on set. Cast and crew just have a real sense of security working with someone like that so it’s a really nice feeling being around him. 

And you've managed to entice James Nesbitt to star... 

He’s great. He’s the most charming man and a great actor. I can’t really fault him. He’s very up for telling you great anecdotes that are unrepeatable about famous people which is always fun.

Another of your pilots, Bad Sugar, starring Olivia Colman, Sharon Horgan and Julia Davis got commissioned for a full series by Channel 4 but it looks like it's no longer going ahead?

Yes, that’s a bit sad. It got canned because it was hard to make it all happen and schedule-wise, when you get people like all those amazing actresses - Olivia, Julia and Sharon - and we’re quite busy as well, it’s quite hard. 

Do you have hopes to revisit it at some point in the future when you're all a little less busy?

The boring answer is I don't know. I would love to but whether we will or not, I don't know. 

In the meantime, your book - Yours Truly, Pierre Stone - written back in 1992 is now being published as an ebook. What can you tell us about that? 

It’s inspired by fan letters my mum used to get when she was acting in Terry and June back in the early 80s – she was in that sitcom for many years – and she used to get these really quite odd letters from a guy who was a fan but they went into detail about his everyday life. So they inspired the novel which is in the form of letters from an obsessed fan to a fictional game show hostess. It was the tone of voice of the character and the idea which is so obvious now that you could have a fictional relationship in your own mind with someone on television even though you’d never met them.

It sounds like something that's even more relevant today, now we have Twitter...

I guess with Twitter and everything these days, people do it but the fan letters used to be the only way you could express that. When I wrote the book, Hello! Magazine had just come out and at that time it was just so new - this very respectful almost deification of TV presenters and sportsmen and women. It just felt like a very strange thing which has obviously grown to the point where everybody talks about celebrity culture now. I’m A Celebrity is probably the best example of literally paying to torture famous people – you’re tuning in to watch Jordan be humiliated every night for a week. I think we should all go and see a therapist and try and figure out what we’re doing as a nation because that to me is not a functional relationship with anything.


Sam's novel, Yours Truly, Pierre Stone, is published by Bedford Square Books and is available as a Kindle eBook on amazon.co.uk, priced £4.99


 


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