Sky’s latest laugh with its comedy commitment
Sky’s first ever head of comedy, Lucy Lumsden, talks about the serious business of funny
What makes us laugh? It’s Lucy Lumsden’s job to answer this question. As Sky’s first ever head of comedy she’s answered it pretty well so far, with shows such as Moone Boy, Stella, This is Jinsy, Hunderby and A Touch of Cloth. “But it’s a strange job,” she says. “It’s like being a midwife to loads of other mothers.”
Last weekend Lumsden was at the Sky-sponsored Cat Laughs festival for the launch of two new babies: series two of Moone Boy, Chris O’Dowd’s sweetly-absurdist semi-autobiographical sitcom, and two new episodes of A Touch of Cloth, Charlie Brooker’s hilarious spoof-detective-drama. Sky is pretty committed to comedy now, but it wasn’t always so.
“Comedy has always been the genre that vulnerable broadcasters have shied away from,” says Lumsden. “It’s very expensive. It’s totally unpredictable. It’s instinctive and anti all the things that make a viable commercial channel work. That’s why Sky has traditionally . . . bought successful comedies off-the-rail, like the Simpsons. But Jeremy Darroch [chief executive of BSkyB] made a commitment to spend £600 million by 2014 on content. That was a major statement.”
Lumsden started her own career at the Comic Strip with the likes of Peter Richardson, Jennifer Saunders and Rik Mayall, where she spent her time “breathing in their cigarette smoke, getting coffee, typing up scripts and scrubbing the carpet . . . But I was extremely lucky. I got into a really interesting bit of comedy. It wasn’t BBC in-house, it was an independent company, one of the first proper independent ones.”
Eventually she found herself at the BBC and slowly climbed to the sixth floor to become controller of comedy commissioning. There she spent her time having serious discussions about funny things and learned that hits were very hard to predict.
The Office, she recalls, sat on someone’s desk “gathering dust because there was a programme called Office Gossip with Pauline Quirke in it, and people weren’t sure we should do another office thing”.
She was also there for the development of Mrs Brown’s Boys. “It was brought in by Steve McCrum who was a producer behind Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and these very broad sitcoms, and he’s very defensive of that form. He’s very good at listening to the audience . . . They didn’t even produce a pilot, the majority of the taster tape was the camera on everyone coming out of the show – the look on their eyes and the absolute adoration they had.”
The BBC was a difficult place for comedy in some regards. “You have a lot of boxes to tick,” she says. Sky seems a bit freer. She moved there in 2009, and in the short time since,the station has developed a reputation as a place where established comedy talent gets complete creative freedom.
Ruth Jones from Gavin and Stacey had a hit with Stella. Steve Coogan moved his Alan Partridge franchise there. Psychobitches features Jessica Hynes, Catherine Tate, Katy Brand, Sharon Horgan and Rebecca Front. Julia Davis created the wonderful period comedy Hunderby.
Meanwhile, Chris O’Dowd developed Moone Boy on the back of a one-off short he made for Sky’s Little Cracker series. “We handed Chris an enormous amount of creative freedom,” she says. “We said ‘We trust you. We might be insane but we trust you. Go off and do it your way.’ So you get a unique perspective . . . It’s more like a commission to an artist.”
O’Dowd is a well-established comedy star, but Lumsden insists that Sky don’t ignore new talent.
“This is Jinsy [a series set on a weird little island] arrived in a sticky, strange little portfolio of artists’ drawings,” she says. “There was no agent attached, no navigation points to know if it was genius or madness . . . They were just two creative guys from Guernsey. ”
She believes in spending money on comedy. “Traditionally it’s thought comedy is the poorer relation to drama and that it doesn’t really deserve a lot spent on it. There’s a sort of snobbery around it. Bridging that gap is key to what we’re trying to do. So Hunderby has a shipwreck, carriages and a huge stately house. We’re not short-changing the audience just because we’re making them laugh.”
Expecting mass appeal can lead to disappointment. “Comedy is such a fascinating but unpredictable barometer of us as people. There’s no such thing as a sure-fire hit. Whenever you say that you have a sure-fire hit. it’s not going to be. If you’d launched Mrs Brown’s Boys eight years ago, at the time of The Office, it mightn’t have worked.”
Still, she’s willing to make some predictions. The future is “big and silly . . . The Office was immensely influential and led to things like The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve , but as a result I think everyone forgot to laugh at the big silly joke. I think that’s back. We have permission again to laugh at the guy slipping on the banana skin.”