10 May 2011
James Cary - Comedy Writer
James Cary is a comedy writer for BBC TV and radio. He has written three series of BBC Radio 4's sitcom Hut 33. Before that, he wrote four series of Think the Unthinkable, which won a Silver Sony with its first episode. He also was the lead writer on Radio 4 sketch show, Concrete Cow. His most recent work on TV was with Miranda Hart on BBC2's hit sitcom and he is developing various new shows which are in the pilot script stage. He has currently written his fourth series of Another Case of Milton Jones with Milton Jones for BBC Radio 4.
How did you get involved with writing for Miranda?
I've known Miranda for quite a few years - paths crossing at the Edinburgh Fringe and places like that. But I'd never actually worked with her until I was asked to help out with the radio series of Miranda Hart's Joke Shop on Radio 2. It had already been commissioned for TV, but the idea was to try it out on the radio and make our mistakes there before anyone switched on the lights of a TV studio.
Miranda already had a very clear vision of what the show would be like and how it would sound - but was inexperienced at half-hour situation comedy. That's probably what I'm best at, so I lent a hand, throwing in some jokes, suggesting edits and cuts for scenes and pulling things around. The audience seemed to like it, and process continued into the TV series, with the additions of Richard Hurst and then Paul Kerensa who took a swing at the scripts once they were roughly in the right shape.
What is it you love most about comedy writing?
The freedom - both creatively and professionally. A blank sheet of paper terrifies most people, but I tend to find it exciting, writing characters, scenes and stories into some form of existence. Also, being one's own boss is generally very suited to my temperament. It means I'm able to dictate my own hours and follow my own interests without having to ask permission. If I feel like going to the Test Match, or taking my daughter swimming, I can do that. Equally, if I feel like writing a film script, I don't have to ask anyone's permission to start a new project. That said, the money is therefore uncertain and I cannot afford to be too indulgent.
How does your Christian faith influence your comedy writing?
Everyone's faith influences everything they do. It's one of the great 21st century myths that one can keep one's beliefs private. We are our beliefs, and they affect every single choice we make. As a writer, I'm just trying to create comedy that is original, well-written, authentic and funny. However, Christians often think that there's no way that as a Christian I should write jokes about sex or have bad language in my work. I tend not to gravitate to those areas, but equally, I must write characters as they should really be. My work is filled with characters that do and say foolish things that I disagree with. This is how the Bible is written.
There are plenty of heroes in God's Word that have done dreadful things (Abraham, Moses, David etc) that they should have been ashamed of. And the writers of the Bible do not shy away from portraying these characters and their deeds. This does not give one licence to lazily use foul language or innuendo to shock or offend an audience into laughter - but the canvas on which Christian writers can paint is sometimes much broader than many within the Church would imagine.
The other way that my faith influences my writing is the way in which I do it. I want to work in a way that reflects well on Christianity, the Church and ultimately, the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, I need to operate in the secular media world with grace and integrity, like anyone in any job. That's the real challenge, and it's a daily struggle.
Do you see comedy playing a role in transforming society?
It can, it should, and it already does. It is interesting that the greatest social reformer in Britain, William Wilberforce, was not just a Christian man, but a witty man too. He was known for his oratory and his sense of humour as well as his Christian conversion and virtue. I'm not sure that all those who stand up in society on behalf of the Christian faith show themselves to be gracious and fun to be with. But does satire really change anything? 'Yes, Prime Minister' was a wonderfully clever and satirical show, but it didn't change a thing.
What is your all-time favourite TV comedy?
I'm not sure I could pick one, but the key comedies for me have been Blackadder, obviously, and Yes, Prime Minister is pretty much perfect. I also have every episode of Seinfeld, which I adore. Arrested Development was a wonderful show - and currently my favourites are Modern Family and 30 Rock.
Was Jesus a comedian, you think?
Yes. He was. I know you'd expect me to say Jesus was a comedian, since I'm a comedy writer, but my worry is that we perceive Jesus as being permanently serious and severe - when he was, and is, the most wonderful man who ever lived, drawing huge crowds and often delighting them. He was viciously satirical of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, sometimes using sarcasm and impersonations as well as telling strange and subversive stories. It is a sadness to me that most of us find it easier to picture Jesus cleansing the temple with a whip, than we can imagine him and the disciples rolling around on the floor just laughing and laughing and laughing.