Why do so many comics only find their voice on the radio?

As Jason Byrne swaps radio for TV with his new BBC1 sitcom Father Figure, Radio Times asks why so many comedies start off on the radio waves...

At one point during my interview with Jason Byrne about his new BBC1 sitcom, it sounds as if the comedian is about to die. We’re talking on the phone because he’s in his car heading across Ireland. His friend Eric is at the wheel and when Eric started up the engine he said… “Wait, this car only has two pedals.” “It’s an automatic,” Byrne explained. “Don’t you remember from the last time you drove it? Wait, look out!” and the line goes dead. For a second it’s alarming… then he bleeps back with a cheerful expletive. “You see? This is why my life is perfect for a sitcom.”

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The BBC wholeheartedly agrees. Father Figure is the result. It’s a resolutely family-centric sitcom – no swearing, no dark, single-camera weirdness, just straight-up slapstick clowning about Tom Whyte, a haplessstay-at-home dad, and his attempts to navigate the days – all of which end in utter chaos. Strangely, Byrne says this is almost a documentary.

“All the characters are based on my friends and family, and many of the things that happen are drawn from my own experiences,” explains the 41-year-old Irish stand-up and father-of-two. Tom Whyte is at home looking after the kids, for instance, because that’s what happened to Byrne’s brother-in-law. “Come the recession a lot of couples in Ireland and Britain found child care too expensive so one of them had to stay home to save money. It’s still hard for a man to sit at home and take care of the baby and my brother-in-law was devastated. He loved the kids but he found it really hard…”

Which all sounds pretty straightforward – comic sees a story in his home life and crafts it into primetime comedy. But in fact Byrne has been pitching himself hard at TV commissioners for years, since he first broke through back in 1996.

The problem was, his freewheeling style of physical stand-up blew audiences away – he rushes around a stage littered with objects that he seems to pick up at random, almost surprised to find them there, before launching into riffs on how kids are like Vikings or why Fifty Shades of Grey is wrong for Ireland – but struggles to translate to the screen. Panel shows and stand-up routines on Live at the Apollo came and went but it took radio to make him a TV star.

“Julia McKenzie, a BBC radio comedy producer, came to see my stand-up in Edinburgh,” he explains, “then we got talking and she said, ‘Your life is chaos, you wouldn’t even be writing a sitcom, you could just describe your life.’” The result, Father Figure, ran for a full series on Radio 2 before BBC1 came calling.

Which begs the question: why do so many comics only find their voice on radio? Why does it produce such great TV? The list of transfer shows is staggering, including Hancock’s Half-Hour, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Goodness Gracious Me, Miranda, Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen and Alan Partridge. Radio 4’s News Quiz became Have I Got News for You; Flight of the Conchords went from Radio 2 to Hollywood.

Caroline Raphael, commissioning editor of comedy and fiction for Radio 4, says it’s not because she’s able to spot talent sooner than anyone else – although her furious rummaging through Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows, the comedy circuit and hundreds of podcasts prove she works harder than most. It’s because she can bring comedians to air earlier in their careers.

“We partly love it and partly hate it, but we don’t have the full beam of attention that TV has,” she explains. “We also don’t live or die by the overnight ratings. I get figures every three months that tell me roughly how a slot has performed, rather than a full account of a show’s audience. That means we can start slowly and develop people over time.”

Stephen Merchant agrees. His new sitcom Hello Ladies – coming to Sky this autumn – features a hopelessly single would-be lothario. This began life on music station XFM where he co-presented with Ricky Gervais. “We would go round an art gallery and he would be the sort of guy who exposes the pretention, and I was the guy who’s embarrassed by that, but actually I don’t understand it, either,” he explains. “I wanted to be the sophisticated ladies’ man, the would-be Orson Welles auteur. That’s where this began.

“The biggest thing about radio is the looseness of it – being able to keep that freeform quality, that improvised quality. TV is so structured – there’s always a man shouting at me to be somewhere else. It doesn’t let you develop a character the way radio can.”

That’s a sentiment that Jason Byrne agrees with. “Radio was my college,” he admits. “I trained on radio, basically. A lot of comics are very bad listeners; they don’t like advice or to hear ‘That’s not funny’. At Radio 2 they have a floor full of writers – I would sit down with them and they’d advise me. I was showing them scripts and – to my face – they would say, ‘That bit’s good, that bit’s terrible…’ Then I’d go and do my homework, like school, and come back to them. The main thing I’d say was, ‘Ah don’t worry about the story as long as it’s funny.’ They said, ‘No, it has to have a story.’”

That need for a narrative is echoed by John Lloyd, QI creator and producer of radio to TV transfers from Hitchhikers Guide to The News Quiz. “You have to learn about story, structure and character on radio because there’s nowhere to hide. On TV you can fill gaps with visual pyrotechnics – I love The X Factor, but strip away the TV glitz and it’s a bunch of cover versions.” He adds that radio is less about ego than TV. “Radio still has respect for the producer, whereas on TV everyone has their own production company, so no one tells them if something’s not funny. Once you start appearing on telly it takes about three weeks before you start to worry about what you look like – and then you’re lost.”

Caroline raphael doesn’t mind radio’s reputation as a training ground. “We know people have their eyes on TV,” she explains. “We do ask them for a second series, but sometimes that’s tricky. We also tell them we’ll always be here. Count Arthur Strong has just moved to TV but he’s still got a home on Radio 4 for specials.”

Indeed, there are plenty of stars now finding their way back to radio – David Mitchell hosts The Unbelievable Truth, Charlie Higson co-wrote Down the Line and now stars in Jack Docherty’s new comedy Stop/Start. Earlier in the year the Absolutely sketch team reformed for a one-off show for Sketchorama and David Baddiel has signed to host a new panel show.

“I still like the idea of doing radio,” says Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh. “There’s this idea that you do radio, then you do television, but we want to do radio again. Radio shows are great.”

As for Byrne, he’s not looking too far ahead. “Basically I hope we get a second series because now I’ve seen the script on telly I know how it works,” he says enthusiastically as Eric swears in the background. “The second series would be so much easier…”

Father Figure starts tonight at 10:35pm on BBC1


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