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Who’s laughing now?

Comedy about personal trauma and childhood experiences has been all the rage in the UK, but the genre is ready to take a new direction, according to leading industry figures. Shannon Power reports.

Derry Girls is hailed for encouraging a shared viewing experience

The era of comedy shows like Fleabag could be coming to an end, as UK television starts looking for the next big comedy trend. At least, that’s according to a panel of TV comedy experts who wondered how much longer content makers can mine their personal traumas for art.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival, industry leaders pointed out shows portraying a protagonist’s pain and telling authentic stories are all the rage now. The panel, headed by broadcaster Sue Perkins, included Quibi content executive Kate Presutti, Roughcut TV MD Ash Atalla, Channel 4 head of comedy Fiona McDermott and Merman co-founder Clelia Mountford.

Ash Atalla

They had come together to discuss why TV comedy “must risk taking offence,” but the conversation quickly turned to what kinds of topics comedians seem to be covering today.

“Comedy is about trends and patterns of play and moments. Right now, it’s confessional, it’s pain, it’s authenticity,” said Atalla, best known as producer of comedies including The Office and The IT Crowd.

He went on to describe how he had seen five comedy shows the night before at the Edinburgh Fringe, four of which covered personal experiences of rape, paedophilia and cancer. The fifth show was about comedy shows where pain was the central theme.

Atalla says he doesn’t know what other content could be produced from people’s trauma once they had already told their stories. “They’re also the shows that are working on TV now, but I’m interested in next year, because you can’t talk about your childhood incident again, that’s happened,” he says. “There’s this outpouring of authenticity and people have stories to tell and haven’t felt empowered to do so before now. I sense it’s a moment.”

Atalla wondered how people on a similar panel in 15 years’ time would reflect on these current trends.

Channel 4 receives many comedy pitches similar to Fleabag

McDermott admits she receives a lot of pitches in the vein of Fleabag and the hit Channel 4 shows Gameface and This Way Up. But Channel 4’s comedy team is not looking for those kinds of shows anymore and wants more evergreen content that unites people to watch it together.

“The stuff we really want is much broader and it would be nice to have more share viewing TV programmes,” McDermott says.

She referred to the Northern Ireland-set comedy Derry Girls as an example of a show that was evergreen and encouraged a shared viewing experience. “One of the things that’s lovely about Derry Girl is a massive shift in viewing experience,” McDermott adds. “Everyone’s been to school, everyone’s been in a family, but it also has the nostalgia.”

McDermott describes comedy as uniquely being able to bring people together, more so than other TV genres, and that seems to be what viewers want.

Fiona McDermott

“To have stuff that you can share with other people is a really exquisite thing that comedy can give you in a way other genres can’t, and we shouldn’t forget that trying to find shows like that is really important,” she says.

But for Presutti at Quibi, authentic and personal content will be critical for engaging the projected audience of millennials aged between 25 and 35. She travelled to the Edinburgh TV Festival to find content that could work for the much-hyped nascent shortform platform, which is set to launch next year. Presutti described how movies and limited series would likely be doled out in chapters of about 10 minutes on Quibi, but it’s still trying to figure out what format would best suit comedy on the platform.

“We’re strictly looking through that millennial lens, focusing on that niche comedy and giving that voice and authentic stories to the people that are hopefully potentially going to be our users,” she says. “We’re looking for someone and those points of view that really jump out and tell their story.”

Presutti described some of the content she had already commissioned which included a gameshow by comics focusing on identity politics around gay trivia. “It’s a really fun gameshow. It’s essentially a panel show in which people and comedians will come in and compete, but it has a really strong point of view.”

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