Think of a comedy you've loved in the past 10 years, and there's a very good chance Simon Blackwell had a hand in it. A long-time collaborator of Armando Iannucci, he wrote on Peep Show and The Thick of It, and then translated the latter into American for Veep. He's now written Back, also starring Mitchell and Webb. He's a man who knows how to make people laugh; here's how.
Think 'little picture'
"When writing Veep, we'd meet with Republicans and Democrats. We were really interested in the minutiae. What time do people get in in the morning? Do they socialise outside of politics? In what departments do they swear? We found out that in the State Department they don't, but at the Pentagon they eff and blind all over the shop."
Funny doesn't have to be real
"I like comedy to be emotionally real but I love Toast of London and House of Fools, they make me weep laughing. I've been doing this for 20 years, and with a lot of comedy you can see where the joke is going, but with Vic and Bob I've no idea, and that's the joy of it."
Write more than you need
"On The Thick of It, there would be very long scripts that we'd cut down and then make longer, then cut and make longer again. It was relentless jokes. You could never watch an episode and tweet about it at the same time, as you'd miss something."
Juice the pain
"[Peep Show creators] Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's skill is what Sam calls 'juicing your pain'. If something terrible happens, there's always part of you that thinks, 'I can use this.' Amid the misery you can see how it might be funny. And Sam and Jesse will juice it until it really hurts."
Find a partner or a team
"In In the Loop, Chris Addison's character said something wasn't easy peasy lemon squeezy, 'It's difficult difficult lemon difficult'. I was in the garden when I thought of that, and I wasn't sure, but I threw it in. With team writing you'll throw something in and if someone thinks it's shit, they'll say. And because we've worked together so much, no one's precious about their lines. You have to get rid of so much and not just shoot your darlings, but bomb and stab and generally execute a vast number of darlings. But if you're up for it then it's very freeing."
Watch the swearing
"For The Thick of It, if a draft had got too sweary, Armando would send it to the writer and ask them to 'de-fuck' it. 'Fuck-heavy' is the technical term. We would de-fuck as often as we re-fucked."
Never be satisfied
"I think you should always be disappointed in what you've written because there's always an element of, 'This could have been funnier.'"
Back is on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4
Interview by Charlie Teasdale. This article first appeared in Esquire Magazine, October 2017.