King of Comedy

19 Feb|Tom Hodgkinson

Photo by Chris Floyd

Tom Hodgkinson meets the man behind Father Ted, Black Books and The It Crowd

Graham Linehan is the comic genius behind a bewildering number of brilliant TV comedies. He started out with Father Ted, written with Arthur Matthews, and went on to co-write Black Books, The IT Crowd, Big Train, Count Arthur Strong, The Walshes and Motherland. I have been a huge fan for decades. Linehan’s comedies are gentle and warm but there is rage at the modern world lurking close to the surface.

Linehan is also active on Twitter which he embraced in its early days but has recently grown to find a little worrying.

I went to take morning coffee with the ambling Irishman to discuss the creative process, the “two good ideas” rule, and his relationship with Twitter. Graham also revealed that he has just been commissioned by NBC to write a new version of the IT Crowd for America.

I started the interview by talking about myself, as is my wont.

Tom Hodgkinson: We ran a bookshop for five years in Notting Hill and I re-watched Black Books in the middle of it. I found it very comforting and truthful. I think all of your comedies make people feel better about their lives. We watched Motherland last night and it’s an exaggerated but accurate portrait of a sad and stressful reality. How do these shows come about?
Graham Linehan: Black Books came from two things. First was Dylan Moran. He had the whole idea. He put it on as an entry to a competition where they showed someone’s sitcom up on stage. I saw it and it just had that great thing that you’re always looking for, which is that it was perfect – except for one thing. The one thing was that it was too mad. So I had just met him and I was bouncing up and down because it was just there.
TH: You’d already done Father Ted.
GL: Yep, by that stage Ted was done. So I had Dylan and Bill [Bailey] to play with. Sometimes it just happens that there are one or two people who I really love and try to build the show around. That’s what The IT Crowd was. I knew I wanted Richard Ayoade – I imagined him in the middle of the room – and the rest of it was what we put around Richard.
TH: So it’s not like you have the idea and then audition for it?
GL: In that case, no. With ideas, you need at least two really good ones, and the two really good ideas for IT Crowd were: do something about how tech is changing the world, and put Richard in it. Those two ideas were good enough for me to get going. Luckily I had a third one. The more you have the better. The third was: I had just got married, so I was having the experience of a woman coming into my very male environment.
TH: And your wife was bemused by your behaviour?

“I went to Foyles and the guy behind the counter was really rude… I thought: that’s a good idea”

GL: Yes, as any person would be if they enter a new environment. You’ve seen
Wife Swap, which is an extreme example of what everybody finds – which is that other people are odd. Helen once went into my cupboards in my at, took down some spices that I had, and said: “What do you have these for?” I looked at them and said: “Oh no, those are from the previous owner.” I hadn’t cleaned it out! So, two good ideas. With Black Books, the two good ideas were firstly Dylan, and the second one came from going into Foyles. The guy behind the counter was really rude and I thought that was an interesting thing. If your job is to face the public and you’re rude, then that’s a good idea.
TH: There’s also the Fawlty Towers thing. What I really took from Black Books and Fawlty Towers, when we were running our shop, is the sense that the proprietor feels he is too good for the job. People would complain to me about the coffee being too cold and I would slowly explain to them that it’s because we’re doing “pour over” coffee. Then they’d complain online that “the manager”, ie me, was a pretentious lunatic. In my head, I wanted to say to rude customers: “Do you know who I am? My books have been published all over the world; I’m published in China!”
GL: And it’s even funnier when that’s not true and you haven’t been published – but you think you could be. Of all of the shows that I’ve done, I always thought IT Crowd could travel – and it’s still relevant. I’m now developing an American version of The IT Crowd with NBC.

A longer version of this interview appears in Idler 59, March/April 2018. Buy a copy here.