A comedy producer’s career

 7 March 2012

Charlie Hanson is an award-winning comedy producer whose work includes Birds of a Feather, Desmonds, The Harry Hill Show and Extras. He spoke about following a career in production.

Some of Charlie's works include award-winning sketch group 'Lady Garden'.
Some of Charlie's works include award-winning sketch group 'Lady Garden'.

The job of a comedy producer

"My job is basically bringing projects to the screen. This means developing projects with writing talent and acting talent.

"The comedy world moves quite quickly and you have to always be aware of what is out there."

"This involves finding a good script and then making it into something that broadcasters want.

"I will then negotiate the sale to the broadcaster, before bringing on the production team, such as the director and crew, in order to make that project into a TV programme.

"There is no typical day in this job. I attend various meetings with talent I’m working with or want to be working with. I may be in a script edit in the morning, a casting in the afternoon, followed by a screening in the early evening, all for different projects I’m working on at that time. 

"You must always make time to find new talent and projects. By reading scripts and treatments and attending live events, such as Comedy Crunch, where I found Isy Suttie for the sitcom 'Whites'.

"The comedy world moves quite quickly and you have to always be aware of what is out there. You have to see comedy acts live in order to get a real sense of how people react to them, and how they have honed their comedy skills.

"The chances are if you see someone break through the live circuit, they will one day be ready to do TV."

Getting into a career in production

"I wanted to direct, so I studied Drama at Manchester. It gave me facilities I didn’t have to pay for, and time to try things out and get them wrong.

"It’s hard to make money. When I started as a director I was making less than I had as a stage electrician."

"People need to learn through failing (and succeeding, of course) and university gives you the space to do this. But it is by no means the only way.

"Comedy was something I fell into. I was working as a theatre director. I had done shows at the ICA and most London theatres that were producing new plays by new writers.

"Humphrey Barclay, then-head of comedy at London Weekend Television, spotted me and wanted to produce a show with me.

"I had been working with the Black Theatre Co-operative, now known as Nitro. LWT was keen to get some black talent on TV and I was seen as someone who could find black talent.

"With people from the Black Theatre Co-operative I developed No Problem!, which was Channel 4's first sitcom.

"I devised the show with the writers, but because I hadn’t directed television, it was logical for me to come on as a producer and that is how I got into production. No Problem! ran for 3 years.

"After that ended I went back to theatre for two years before Humphrey came back with the idea of Desmonds."

Surviving in a performing arts career

"A cross between signing-on and backstage jobs when I could get them. I started off as a stagehand, and eventually got trained as an electrician for the stage. I did this before during and after university.

"It’s hard to make money. When I started working as a director I was making less than I had been as a stage electrician.

"When you are putting a play on it’s a case of anything to get the show on, you’re definitely not doing it for the financial reward.

"After three years of working between the two, I felt I had to focus on TV because of the pay implications."

Career success and failure

"When Desmonds got five million viewers for one episode, it was unheard-of for a black sitcom to get that kind of success, and so felt like a huge achievement.

"You won't get anywhere in this industry unless someone sticks their neck out for you, recognises that you have a talent."

"Winning my first BAFTA was a great moment.

"And obviously the success we have had with Extras, that has brought me international acclaim, which is a new type of achievement.

"Because I’ve always been freelance, there’s an element of insecurity – you could have a lean winter and get worried. But I thrive on that type of environment.

"When you work hard on a project, on something you believe in and it doesn’t come off, that can be very frustrating."

The benefits of mentoring

"When Humphrey Barclay asked me to work with him he was taking a gamble. There was no reason to believe that just because I could direct theatre I could produce TV, but he saw something in me.

"You won't get anywhere in this industry unless someone sticks their neck out for you, recognises that you have a talent. Everyone needs a champion at some point early in his or her career."

Advice for aspiring comedy producers

"Comedy has massive global potential like we have never seen before." 

Three qualities which are important:

  • Patience
    The ability to stay calm and a good sense of humour.
  • Perseverance
    See as much comedy as you can. Find the comics you like and try to work with the kind of talent you like.
  • Passion
    In comedy you have to really believe in your material.

You can always learn about new technology – editing techniques, new cameras – which is developing so quickly at the moment, 

The development of the internet means that distribution is changing. So it’s essential that you know what means are out there that are appropriate for your project.

Writing and acting is still instinctive, you just have to trust your belief in a particular talent. Spotting new talent isn’t a skill you can teach or learn.

Issues affecting the industry

Comedy is much bigger now then when I started. There has been a stand-up explosion, which is good because there is more opportunity, but at the same time it means there are many, many more people trying to get into it, because it’s so visible.

If you look at Edinburgh, it started as a fringe festival, then became fringe and comedy and now arguably the comedy is dominating.

Right now the biggest concern is over the uncertainty in funding. Channel 4 doesn’t do enough to sustain an industry, ITV aren’t doing much at all and so BBC is seen as the only hope.

This is unhealthy for any industry. You need more competition and more opportunities.

More comedy is being developed specifically for the internet as advertisers and revenue are steered in that direction. It is a challenge for all of us to work out how we can translate it into a viable industry, but it has massive global potential like we have never seen before.

We shouldn’t be deterred. There will always be comedy just from a different source.

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