Writing Miranda: BAFTA Comedy Masterclass
Whilst watching Miranda Hart ‘in conversation’ with Grace Dent last night at BAFTA, I was thinking (asides from ‘I’m so glad I got tickets, this is aces’) about Tina Fey’s essay collection Bossypants. Having recently eeked out and savoured Fey’s coming of age stories and backstage tales of working in US TV comedy I was left wanting more about life behind the scenes of SNL and 30 Rock. So the TV production wonk in me was interested to hear the construction and production process behind Miranda, one of my favourite British sitcoms. Whilst there was inevitably a certain amount of repetition from the raft of interviews and often highly problematic ‘Miranda? Why?’ articles (one such ill-informed piece is interestingly taken apart by writer/script editor Andrew Ellard here), I encountered some interesting detail that I thought i’d write up here. (Please note, this isn’t exhaustive, its just some bits and pieces I found interesting!).
In many places Hart has noted her debt to Victoria Wood and Morcambe & Wise, particularly the latter in her fourth-wall-breaking address to camera, which whilst feeling nicely reflexive to a contemporary audience, has a long comedic legacy. At one point in the evening Hart described Miranda as a sitcom combined with elements of light entertainment, which she linked to the use of dancing and ‘you have been watching’ (which I remember from Hi-De-Hi back in the day), which definitely links to M&W and their more sketch-based form. And it’s perhaps this – along with the celebrated physical comedy and her
decision to make a multi-camera studio sitcom – that makes critics call the programme ‘old-fashioned’ or claim it as a ‘guilty pleasure’. Hart noted that she never expected the industry or critics to like it, it was ‘traditional’, it was multi-camera when single-camera was in vogue, it was ‘mainstream’ (shudder). Yet its tendency to skip around in time, with flashbacks used as punctuation or a gag – the quick-cuts to illustrations of Miranda making her own fun living alone are one of my favourite elements, from making fruit friends, to drumming along with Eastenders‘s duff-duffs – feels very contemporary ‘single camera’ (a la Spaced or 30 Rock). In this combination I feel like Miranda shares kinship with How I Met Your Mother perhaps more than the 70s sitcoms critics bring up.
I enjoyed Hart kindly telling-off people who mentioned ‘laugh-track’ or ‘canned laughter’ as this is always a bug bear of mine when people discuss studio sitcom (which Ellard addresses in his blog post). Noting – as Fey does in Bossypants with regards to developing 30 Rock – that the industry and the BBC were focused on single-camera sitcoms (at one point she was asked to rewrite the pilot as single-camera), Hart spoke of her desire from the beginning for it to be a studio sitcom. Interestingly she explained that as a performer she works best in front of a live audience and arguably part of the charm of her character is the relationship constructed with the audience through the address to camera. Through this address she invites the audience in to experience her own responses to events – particularly the awkward social situations she gets herself into – the exasperated wide eyed head shake at herself encourages us to laugh with not at her.
For me this is part of Miranda‘s welcome distancing from the ever-present sad female singleton longing for love. She is still partly this, with the programme partly constructed around her longing for dreamy Gary (one of the perks of writing your own sitcom – casting dishy love interests). But the focus is more on others – particularly her mother’s – dismay at her single status and her lack of conventionality, whilst she embraces living alone and the silly games played with your girlfriends. Whilst an audience
question tried to draw her into the issue of ‘middle-class’ comedy at the BBC, Hart noted that whilst she thought little about class whilst writing, she did feel conscious of being a woman, and worked on making the comedy universal. (The complicated issue of women in comedy and particularly 30 Rock is something that has engaged the feminist blogosphere of late). Noting that she felt uncomfortable with the farce sequence in ‘Let’s Do It’, which went outside her need to make her situations relatable, she highlighted how she added an address to camera noting its ‘French farce’ element to make herself more comfortable with the situation.
I’m getting distracted with my own thoughts here – but this is why I enjoy Miranda, it brings up these things whilst simultaneously making me laugh out loud – so i’ll attempt stick to production detail from now on. Hart honed the character that became Miranda through many years of taking her act to the Edinburgh Festival and eventually to London pubs and clubs – though not pure stand-up which she felt her act was not suited to. After nearly 10 years finally breaking through in the mid-00’s with roles in Hyperdrive and Not Going Out, which allowed her to stop temping and start working on her own pilot. Ultimately she took 18 months working around other jobs to develop and hone the project and character into a pilot – the one piece of explicit advice she gave was to take your time and not be rushed when writing comedy. Knowing that her pilot had been commissioned by the BBC whilst filming her second season on Not Going Out she observed how the director and technical departments worked, learning the construction and choices made, which informed her own writing and refined what she wanted her sitcom to be. Hart is notable in that the discourse surrounding Miranda highlights her authorship, and she seems to have been allowed the status as that rare female comedy ‘auteur’ (particularly when, for example, Jessica Stevenson’s authorship is so often written out of Spaced‘s history in favour of the Pegg/Wright writer/director dual-auteur).
Hart writes primarily alone – with help from outside writers at the storyline and structure stage and with a final gagging up . The technical construction involved in comedy was made plain by her explanation of how her office holds 3 separate walls of ideas – jokes, set-pieces and story – and how she literally graphs the structure and beats of an episode out. She spoke of how freeing she felt to write the season 2 episode ‘Just Act Normal’ as it freed her from the constraints of sitcom construction. The episode broke with the established format for the series and focused entirely on an enforced session of ‘couples’ therapy for Miranda and her mother, a fruitful subject for the series’ comedy. Hart notes her progression as a
writer between the two series, with the second series relying less on her address to camera and more on the ensemble as she became comfortable with the characters and refined her physical comedy. She seemed to want to play down the critics focus on the address to camera and pratfalls, feeling they were a small part of the series’ comedy. Though she interestingly highlighted how she practiced them – listing the range of ways to fall off a stool – and viewed their refinement as akin as delivering a line.
I could go on more – the issues of constructing emotional/serious moments in a studio sitcom, her character and happiness – but I have meandered too long and still not really unpicked my thoughts about the programme’s pleasures. All in all I found it an entertaining, interesting evening and i’m eagerly awaiting season 3!