EXCLUSIVE: Head of Comedy, BBC Studios, Chris Sussman on talent-spotting and commissioning shows
Chris Sussman is the talented Head of Comedy at BBC Studios, the executive producer of John Cleese’s latest series, Hold the Sunset and was instrumental in bringing shows like Not Going Out, Rev, People Just Do Nothing and Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe to TV. Here Chris talks to Mandy News about how he made it to the top in comedy, what he looks for in new shows and his favourite UK and US series.
What was your journey to becoming Head of Comedy, BBC Studios?
It’s funny, there’s no one way into comedy. I always loved comedy. When I was growing up my dad used to be a big comedy fan. We used to sit at home and watch TV for hours. Blackadder and Dead Zone and all those kinds of classic British TV shows.
I always thought I wanted to be involved with them. I used to look at the credits at the end and go, "I want my name on the credits." Straight after university, I got into television. It took me about 10 years. I started working in entertainment. I worked on Strictly Come Dancing, which was the British version of Dancing With the Stars and worked on a lot of entertainment shows then eventually got lucky enough to get into comedy and kind of worked my way up. It’s the best job in the world!
You sort of found it before it found you?
Yeah, I think it’s such a hard job to get into. You have to be passionate about it, you really have to want it. You have to kind of survive to get a job in it.
What do you and your team look for in new comedy talent?
I think the truth is that you can’t look too hard for something because the good projects find you. You never know what the next thing you are going to love is going to be. The same thing if you are a reviewer sitting at home. You don’t think, "Oh I’m going to go and find myself a great comedy, starring an old man sat in a shop" or whatever. You don’t think like that. You watch something and, if you love the characters, that’s what appeals to you.
The best comedy surprises you because you’re told jokes that you really haven’t seen before. So it’s the same when we’re looking for new scripts and talent. We can’t be prescriptive. You have to wait and see what surprises you and the thing that you fall in love with is thing that you just weren’t expecting.
And the same thing with the talent themselves?
Yeah, to a degree, although with talent you can go, "that’s someone that I really love and find really funny and I want to work with," so we spend a lot of time watching stand-up comedy in Britain. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is on at the moment, just kind of the home of comedy in the UK, and everyone goes and tries to find interesting new voices. We read a lot of new scripts and you can watch a new show and go, "I really like that person that is playing that small role over there. I bet they could do something bigger."
So, yes. I’ve always got my eye out for talent.
What is the final thing that convinces you that a comedy show is worth commissioning?
Know that when you make a comedy, the journey is hard. You’re going to have to fight over the budget and fight over talent deals and it’s a long from script to screen so I think the thing that convinces you is, do I love it. Do I have the appetite to go on this journey with that project?
Any shows are you looking for at the moment?
Yeah, lots. We make – at any given time – 30 shows; all ranging from big BBC1 mainstream stuff to small and niche, cult BBC3 things. That’s what I love about my job, the variety. You get to do a bit of everything.
Now this isn’t all streaming?
We have two terrestrial channels and then we have two digital channels which stream.
What are your favourite comedies in the US, UK, past and present?
There are so many. Fawlty Towers is one of my all-time favourites. Monty Python. I love a lot of US comedies. I love Friends. I grew up watching Friends. I love Frasier, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and I just started watching Barry. I saw it on the plane over here (US). I love it so, fun. I love the US The Office and the British The Office, Parks and Rec, Eastbound and Down, Last Man on Earth, Silicon Valley.
America makes some great shows.
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