IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN MOFFAT (part 2)
We continue with the serialisation of our interview with the writer of Joking Apart. In part two, Steven discusses his method and reveals how the origins of Joking Apart were very close to home.
JOKING APART.CO.UK: Your scripts are so intricately structured – is there a secret technique to writing like that?
STEVEN MOFFAT: I don’t know really. I think, like most writers, I write the only way I can. I mean, I think I really have to know what I’m doing; I think I have to know what every line is going to do in the future; I have to justify everything to myself….It’s probably just some terrible off-shoot of cowardice! It’s something I’m good at, so you play to your own strengths. I do admit, I improvise a lot more than people assume I do. I make up quite a lot of it as I go along, I just try to disguise the fact. There are just basic rules how plotting should work and how you can make events seem both surprising and inevitable, which is the challenge of all writing.
JA: You say there are basics rules but not everyone can apply them the way you do.
SM: Well, yes, but I think everyone’s aspiring in the same direction….And there are other ways of doing it. I mean, there are brilliant writers out there who are fantastic with dialogue and character, and you love them anyway even though they can’t do endings. There are lots of writers that can’t do endings. Now I’m quite good at endings; I’m sometimes a bit weaker in characterisation and dialogue, but I can do endings – I know how to do a big finish. So you play to the strengths you possess, I suppose - the thing that you’ve learned to do.
JA: Your scripts are amazingly disciplined….Are you, in the way you write? Do you have a set routine?
SM: These days, more than I used to, now that I’ve got a wife and kids. I work from nine ‘til seven each day, but I wouldn’t say I was disciplined, no. I get stuck all the time so I end up pacing and going for a cappuccino….Or answering Press Gang quizzes or something….Anything to avoid the actual awfulness of having to write!
JA: So how long does it take you to write a typical half hour sitcom?
SM: I generally answer this question by saying a month. Sue assures me it’s more than a month – my wife and producer….So about that, about a month. I’m not the fastest writer in the world, it has to be said. I think I used to be faster….And comedy is slower than anything else….You know, I’m writing Dr Who at the moment and you can get through a scene and it’s basically a scene as long as it’s got credible, interesting, hopefully amusing dialogue and the right things happen. Well, your job’s done, you can go onto the next scene. If you’re doing a sitcom you’ve got to look at it and say, three laughs a page - where are they? Where am I going to get them on this? And it does sometimes result in slightly forced, and not very good, writing, but you do need it. You’ve got that bloody studio audience sitting there and you’ve got to keep throwing them things. You’ve got to keep making them laugh.
JA: Is it right, there was a period when you were writing scripts for Press Gang and Joking Apart at the same time?
SM: Not quite. For a brief period I sort of alternated between the two. I think I did Joking Apart as a pilot, wrote that, then, went on to do series three and four, back to back, of Press Gang; then, went back and did the first series of Joking Apart; then, went back and did the fifth series of Press Gang; then, went back and did the second series of Joking Apart…..So it felt as though they were interlocking, but I don’t think I ever skipped from script to script like that. I’m not very good at that - it takes me quite a while to shift gears. I mean, it’s been quite hard shifting out of Coupling onto Dr Who….You know, to get that different style, to try and find your tone of voice….
JA: You seem to adhere to that old adage that you should write what you know. Chalk & Press Gang stemmed from your days as a teacher, Coupling from your relationship with your wife, Sue….So how autobiographical was Joking Apart?
SM: Oh, hugely - that’s the story of my first marriage. I was married…oh, years ago and it broke up quite badly, so I turned it into a sitcom.
JA: Which explains why it’s quite dark in places.
SM: Yes. The first episode was written just months after the actual event, and the first series was still quite close….But on the second series I was getting a bit ill with having to go back into all that awfulness and write about it, because it is – at root – quite an unhappy show. It wasn’t always, latterly, that pleasant to write….It probably wasn’t that pleasant to watch. I mean, it had that problem.
JA: Well, I would have to disagree with the pleasure of watching it! So you didn’t find writing it cathartic in any way?
SM: Well, I don’t know how much of a catharsis writing ever is. I know it’s meant to be - and I frequently pay lip service to the idea that it is – but is it? I mean, towards the end, it felt like I was digging up something! Probably Coupling, more than Joking Apart, is cathartic in that Coupling is just whatever’s irritating me that week, done as a sitcom, so you, at least, get to say it….That you don’t like cushions or whatever nonsense you’re doing this week. At least in terms of writing Coupling, I’m writing about basically fairly happy people, so I don’t feel like I’m investigating all the dark horrors of my soul.
JA: It’s a great opportunity to have a rant, then?
SM: Yes, Coupling’s great for that. Well, the rant of a man who really has nothing wrong with him at all; the unreasonable anger of someone with a perfectly happy lifestyle, but, nonetheless, needs occasionally to blow off steam about something or other.
JA: There must have a been a real temptation to portray Becky in a bad light because of the way Joking Apart came about, but if anything, you made Mark more flawed.
SM: Yes, sadly, that’s the way it worked out. Well, I think I probably was to blame – that’s what you discover writing it. I’m not altogether sure that’s the healthiest discovery you could make: to think, oh shit, I was a superficial, attention-seeking, damaging arsehole! I didn’t realise I was that bad….until I wrote about it!
JA: Have you ever felt tempted to settle a score by parodying someone?
SM: No, you can’t. This is going to sound awfully wanky, but even in nonsense like Joking Apart or Coupling or whatever, and even in nonsense like Dr Who – and don’t cringe when I say this – you have to write truthfully; you have to be serious about it; you have to write it and mean it. You can’t write to get one over on someone and say, “Yah, look what I did to you!” Occasionally I’ll put a name into something if somebody’s pissed me off, but that’s about the limit of it.
JA: So you wouldn’t be like Mark who put Tracy in one of his scripts?
SM: Did he do that?
JA: I can’t remember the exact line from the first episode, but he did imply that she would appear in a sitcom.
SM: Oh, that’s right, he said something like, “You will be….”
JA: If the premise of Joking Apart stemmed from real life, were any particular situations Mark found himself in based on reality?
SM: Only in the vaguest sense. There were one or two lines I said that got in. I remembered my wife, as she left, had told me that her new lover was a big fan of Press Gang, and I said, “Well, did he have to fuck my wife? Most people just write in!” ….Which got into the series, obviously.
JA: Absolutely! We saw Mark in the first episode struggling to find the right line to finish a script. Presumably, that's a position you’ve been in too?
SM: I think there’s a bit of false writing there. If you’ve got as far as the end of a script, frankly, the last line isn’t that hard, but for the sake of the fiction and the neatness of the structure of that first episode, I think it works. I have to say that, if I was on the last page with only one line to go, I would consider myself finished.
JA: So maybe not the last line, then?
SM: Yes, I’ve been very stuck….Most of the time, really.
JA: It certainly doesn’t show.
SM: Well, I’m slow, as I keep saying.
JA: Mark was a master of the one-liner. Is that true of yourself? Were you the classroom joker at school?
SM: I think it used to be truer. I think I’ve become less inclined to behave that way, the way that Mark does. There certainly were times, and there certainly are times, when, if I’m feeling nervous or so out of sorts, I will start firing off gags….And I’m quite good at that, when I go off on one. I used to do it a lot more than I do now, because, socially, it’s a very, very irritating thing to do, to be the guy who’s constantly looking for the gag. People just get pissed off with it. You like people because they laugh at your jokes, not because they want you to laugh at theirs, is what I learned. So you should laugh more and make fewer jokes if you want to make friends.
JA: So you are saying that Becky was right?
SM: I think broadly speaking, yes. Mind you, there was a big piece about Sue and I in the New York Times when the wildly successful American version of Coupling was about to be launched….That was irony, obviously….And I was portrayed throughout this as just roaming around conversations looking for opportunities for punchlines. I thought, oh shit, it’s still there, I still do it….So I must have been feeling insecure or something because I don’t normally behave so badly.
JA: On the subject of the American version of Coupling, the British version had been a great success out there, yet the Americans come along, remake it and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
SM: I think we have to be completely fair. First of all, yes, the original is out there and, in so far as you can be a success on BBC America and PBS, it’s very successful, and remains so. In fact, I think the new series is going out on BBC America before it goes out on BBC2, which is a bit of a nonsense, but there you go. There’s an awful lot of interference in the American system. The guys making the American version had a level of interference I would never have anything close to. It’s not like they could show the British version on NBC; they had to make their version. We don’t show foreign shows on out primetime either – it’s a recipe for disaster, generally speaking. So they had to make their own version if they wanted it at all.
It was a reasonable thing to attempt because they were losing Friends, and bluntly, they went for ours because it’s got the same number of people in it as Friends, and worked on the assumption that it would work in exactly the same way! And in fact, when it comes down to the level of the humour and the jokes and the plotlines, it works in a very different sort of way. So the American version of Coupling is this strangely schizophrenic show – if that’s the right expression – which is sort of trying to do, Coupling style, whatever that is, the minutiae of relationships with a lot of hugging and warmth going on, which isn’t really our style at all….And also, suddenly have them all the best of friends, which they aren’t in the British version. It’s a very strange mish-mash, and it was an epic disaster….an epic disaster!
IN PART THREE: A major revelation about Mark's stand-up