Andy Hamilton is a legendary, BAFTA-winning comedy writer and performer who has written for a string of iconic TV shows including Not the Nine O'Clock News, Drop the Dead Donkey (which he also created), Power Monkeys and hit BBC series Outnumbered. Currently on tour with his show An Evening with Andy Hamilton, here Andy tells Mandy News about the production, the challenges of writing comedy for TV and radio and what aspiring comedy writers can do to succeed.
Please tell us a little bit about how you got involved in comedy and how that took you into the world of TV?
I began writing comedy in the ‘70s for Radio 4 and gradually moved across to TV. Since then, with my writing partner Guy Jenkin, I’ve written for things like Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered, a movie called What We Did on our Holiday, and on Radio 4 I do things like The News Quiz and a sitcom called Old Harry’s Game where I play Satan. On TV I do the odd panel show.
At the moment you’re touring An Evening With Andy Hamilton. Is this the first time people have been able to interact and actually chat to you during a show, is that right?
I’ve always done the second half of my shows like that – built around whatever questions the audience may ask me – but this time I chose to do the whole show like that. Fundamentally, the audience shape the show by asking the questions. They can ask questions that are serious or silly, or about politics or TV or whatever. It’s a very relaxed format. It’s going really well.
What was the original idea of taking a tour like this on the road?
Well I’ve been touring off and on for a few years now, and it’s just given me the chance to do some performing, as a counterpoint to the writing. You get to meet the audience who watch Outnumbered and that’s actually quite nice. Very enjoyable and occasionally useful. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s to please myself really.
How do you prepare for a show that’s built by the audience?
Well you kinda don’t, in a way. You have the opening two minutes where you say hello to them and try and get them relaxed and make them laugh but, after that, you sort of go wherever it takes you.
I’ve got opinions about most things, even things I know nothing about, and I’ve got quite a big fund of stories and anecdotes and jokes that pop into my head when subjects come up. What’s nice is that you get into genuine conversations. I got into one in Milton Keynes about whether you can ever do jokes about mental health, for instance, and we had a section of the show that was, still funny, but also very interesting.
Is there such a thing as a bad audience? If an audience isn’t very forthcoming, what are the things you do to make them feel at ease?
Well I’ve got various fallback techniques for drawing them out, but mostly that’s not been a problem over the years. People, once they are relaxed, tend to be happy to ask questions. Touch wood. Now you’ve mentioned it, you’ve got me nervous, but so far that’s not been a problem.
How did you go about creating a show like Old Harry’s Game? What’s the concept behind it? How did being Satan come about?
It came about because a project went down suddenly and there was a gap – I thought it would be nice to do some performing again, so thought “I’ll write for myself.” And I’d had the idea for a sitcom set in hell for a while. That’s how that came about – through a bit of luck. What was bad luck, initially, turned out to be good luck.
You talked about working with a co-writer on Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered – modern classics. How did Outnumbered come about? There was ad-libbing on that show too, right?
That came from me and Guy Jenkins, who I co-wrote that with. We started it off talking about families. We’ve both got three children and were talking about how comedies about families live never capture the chaos of life with small children. There were quite good reasons for why that hasn’t worked on TV so we started thinking of all the reasons why it was difficult and then started devising a system that took out as many of the things that kids don’t like as possible.
So we didn’t make the kids in Outnumbered learn lines and we tried to make it as enjoyable as possible. We didn’t have big men in jackets shouting “action” and we didn’t have makeup artists or people fussing around them. We didn’t keep them on set for very long and worked out a way of creating an atmosphere where they could be as natural as possible.
It was scripted but there were gaps, if you like, or scenes where we knew we had jumping off points where we could add an element of improvisation. We never showed them the actual script, we always just described the scene and the sequence of the dialogue to them, so what we got back was something from them that was uncannily like what we’d written, but often expressed in their own idiosyncratic ways.
For What We Did on Our Holiday, how did that come about and how did you go about working on your first feature film, in that sense?
We used that method with the kids. There’s less improvisation in the movie because the movie has a very dynamic plot that keeps moving forward, but we did use that technique. The family has quite big problems, and there’s a big emotional, as well as physical, landscape.
It came about because I think we were approached about doing an Outnumbered movie but we thought that it wouldn’t transfer well so instead we came up with a bigger story, a story with a bit more scope in it.
There’s a quote attributed to you on IMDB, about Donald Trump, and it says “He’s a liar and a racist and he’s friends with Piers Morgan.” You are very politically-minded with your comedy. What is it that makes you want to turn these subjects into something we can laugh at?
I suppose that is reality. You’re trying to write about real things that are affecting real people so you tend to keep your eyes and ears open and observe what’s going on. To me, that’s always been a very natural thing to write about.
I don’t remember saying that quote, but I probably did. It will probably be during a news quiz and I’ve just said it in the moment, and it’s just a statement of fact. I’ve always written about what’s in the news and people in power. It’s just what interests me.
When you are talking about things like that on a political scale, is there ever the worry that you might offend certain audiences?
I never set out to offend, but I know that I will just because everyone draws their lines in a different place and if you want to do comedy about serious subjects, you are inevitably going to offend sometimes. I’m 64 now so my attitude is I don’t deliberately set out to provoke or offend anyone, but I’m going to say what I think. If people are offended then fine, because the alternative is that you don’t really have any public conversation at all.
Over the years, I’ve not triggered huge tsunamis of offence. There has been the occasional moment, but I’ve not found myself at the heart of any big controversies. Not yet, anyway.
Do you feel the existence of news shows is a really important part of our entertainment?
Yeah, I think they do play a role. There have been surveys that suggest that some people actually get quite a lot of their news from shows like that, so I think the shows are an important voice of sanity.
Recently you’ve been working on shows like Ballot Monkeys and Power Monkeys. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? Well they were very fast turnaround shows that were actually filmed on the day of transmission, the first one during the General Election and the second one during the run-up to the referendum on the EU. That was our attempt to capture the day-to-day madness of the political debate on those topics. They are probably the most macho shows we’ve done in the sense that we were literally filming it on the afternoon before it was going out. Sometimes we only delivered it a few seconds before it went out.
What were the challenges of working on a show that had to be broadcast so immediately after filming?
You had to have a really good system. You had to be really efficient. You had to know exactly what you were doing. It was a big crew as we were filming on four different locations – on four buses in the case of Ballot Monkeys – and we had to really refine the system so it worked perfectly on the day, and then just hope that the computers didn’t let you down.
The nearest we came to disaster was when we were doing the editing and the computer crashed twice. Suddenly we were up against the clock big time. All last minute things that look spontaneous need a lot of planning.
Your tour goes on to the end of November. What have you got planned for after the tour? Is there anything that you are allowed to tell us about that you are working on in the future?
Got loads of things out there. Trying to find gullible people who will give us money to make them. The only things I know I’m doing is a radio series next year, a second season of Andy Hamilton Sort of Remembers, and I’m doing a novel which will be published in handwriting, but I don’t know when that will be because it will take me a while to do it.
What advice do you have for people looking to get involved in comedy writing and performance?
My main advice would be don’t take rejection personally because, even the most successful of writers, 90% of your stuff will be, for whatever reason, rejected. And it doesn’t mean it was rubbish, it may’ve been very good. It doesn’t mean that they hate you, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily a bad writer, it just means that the dice didn’t fall your way.
The important thing is not to get downhearted. If you hand something in, don’t wait by the phone for an answer. Get on with something else.
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To see dates for Andy Hamilton on tour visit andyhamiltonontour.co.uk.
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