When you think about the current state of TV comedy, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?
I’m never pessimistic because something always comes along. Every dry period gets shaken up by something like The Office. In fact, it could be said that dry periods create programmes like The Office, which often start as rejections of the current fashion. But they’re black swan events, so when everyone tries to copy them they just create a new, dreary status quo to rebel against. I can’t bear the mock-doc format now.
How do you personally decide if a joke goes too far or is too cruel?
I love the challenge of covering a taboo subject in a way that can’t offend anyone. My favourite comedies do this — the famous example is the Seinfeld masturbation episode — and I’m always on the lookout for things that, at first glance, seem impossible to transpose to a comedy setting. I did the episode about Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, on The IT Crowd because, horrible though the facts of the case were, I heard there was a previous guy who chickened out, so he and Armin went to see Oceans Eleven together instead. I found that hilarious and oddly sweet, so I thought I could do something with it.
Also, Twitter provides a means by which the people attacked in a particular joke can easily get in touch with you. These days, I think: “If the person I was making fun of contacted me, would I be able to defend it?” If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If the answer is no, I ask myself if I like the person. If the answer to that is no, I go ahead.
You said in Mustard magazine that you find it hard to write female comic characters. Do you think audiences still have trouble accepting that women can be funny?
Absolutely not. There may be writers out there who blame their own shortcomings on women but I hope I never become one of them. It’s just a little more effort for me to get inside a woman’s skin. One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism.
You were a journalist in Dublin. Were you good at it — and did you enjoy it?
Also here in London, for Select magazine. I enjoyed it very much but I was never a proper journalist. I would write humorous pieces and try and make my subject fit them, rather than the other way round. I was so young. I shudder when I read any of that stuff now. In fact, I shudder when I read things I wrote a month ago.
Are there any journalists you admire?
Plenty! Too many to list! I think the Guardian under Rusbridger has been amazing. I think the Guardian’s work over the last decade, especially with WikiLeaks and phone-hacking, has been extraordinary. Literally world-changing. I love the way people like Ben Goldacre give you not just the story but the tools to understand the story and the issues and processes behind it. As a bonus, the Guardian understands what engaging with readers really means and the paper is all the better for it.
How do you think journalism should be funded once print doesn’t pay any more — advertising, paywalls or something else?
Paywalls seem a typical old-worldy example of trying to remake the web in the image of something less efficient, less useful, less shareable. I don’t see it working long term. Until people stop resisting the fact that the world has changed utterly, this transition period is going to be longer than it should be and everyone will suffer. I don’t have any bright ideas on how to pay for journalism — if I had, I’d be writing this from my yacht — but I do know that people will always want it and if you give them a convenient way to pay for it, they will.
You often call out media organisations for their bad behaviour. Are you ever afraid it might damage your career?
I wasn’t until now.
How much has Twitter changed your day to day life?
It has totally transformed my life. It has given it an extra dimension and I would miss it terribly were it to disappear. I have daily conversations with people from all walks of life, whom I would otherwise never have known — human rights lawyers, Egyptian IT Crowd fans who protested in Tahrir Square, policemen, Tories (yes, even Tories!), journalists . . . If ever I see something I like, I immediately find out whether the writer is on Twitter and if so, I’m able to send a note of thanks. A lot of friendships with people I hugely admire have started that way. I get very frustrated when people don’t see what a miracle it is. The famous six degrees of separation has been reduced to zero and every day we’re feeling the repercussions of that.
Do you think that Twitter-led campaigns — such as #welovethenhs — are effective at swaying public opinion and at motivating people to action? Or is Twitter, as its critics suggest, just a cosy lefty echo chamber?
Ask the News of The World. Or Carter Ruck. Or Jan Moir. There wasn’t anything cosy about those campaigns. And they got results. I doubt Jan Moir will be tut-tutting the recently deceased any time soon and as for the News Of The World . . .
#welovethenhs wasn’t so much a campaign as an attempt to fight propaganda with propaganda. I wrote the first tweet in a Starbucks while waiting for a coffee and a few months later Gordon Brown had inserted the phrase into a speech. That was pretty dizzying but I think the fact that it was so easily co-opted by politicians probably ended up being a fault rather than a feature.
As for the left-wing echo chamber . . . Twitter is made of individuals, so it can’t be left or right any more than an individual is purely left or right. There is a problem, however, in that there are a lot of very clever people out there who have decided for whatever reason that they don’t want to have anything to do with the internet. Their absence is a problem. They’re being left out of the conversation and the conversation is the poorer for it.
You’ve talked about playing video games (your line about being a dick in Call of Juarez still makes me laugh). Do you think they would be an interesting medium to write for?
Yes. In fact, I did a little work for Little Big Planet 2. It’s difficult though, because games often serve the gameplay rather than the story and the stories suffer terribly as a result. Some games with a narrative are so poorly written that I just can’t play them. Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, even LA Noire . . . I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to another good actor delivering terrible lines.
How would you describe your politics?
My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully so I guess I’m left-wing. I do believe that the internet is giving us a chance to move on from these limiting definitions, though.
You were critical of the Today programme’s “dishonest, binary style of debate”. But is there a place for adversarial debate in politics/journalism — for example, Prime Minister’s Questions?
Prime Minister’s Questions . . . Is there a less edifying spectacle? Point-scoring. A football match. Not even a football match — the early computer game Pong would be a better example. PMQs might be many things, but I only tune in expecting to see the government fighting a rearguard action. You never expect to see anyone getting shit done.
As for the Today programme, there is absolutely a place for this kind of debate, but it shouldn’t be the default mode. That’s lazy. It’s almost a way of farming out the job of research to a third party. And in my case, it led to what I still think is a breach of ethics in that the only way they could get me on the program was by giving me a false brief. I was told in an email I’d be talking about “the challenges and excitements of adapting a film for the stage” and that was just a flat-out lie. Michael Billington had been briefed accurately because he was working from a few pages of notes, he had been allowed to prepare. My anger stemmed mainly from the fact that I hadn’t been afforded the same courtesy. They still haven’t apologised for it.
Do you vote?
Yes. It’s good for us to feel powerless once every four years.
Is there anything you’d like to forget?
I was very bad at being single. Lots of regrets there.
Was or is there a plan for your career?
No, I just float from project to project.
Are we all doomed?
How many more times can we read “It was the hottest summer on record” before the newspaper bursts into flames in our hands?
Follow Graham Linehan on Twitter: @Glinner
1968 Born in Dublin
1994 Begins writing for TV with The Day Today. Later writes for Brass Eye as well as Black Books, Big Train, Hippies and Jam
1995 His co-creation Father Ted premieres
2006 Launches his “old-fashioned sitcom” The IT Crowd, filmed with a live audience
2009 Launches Twitter campaign to support the National Health Service
2011 Perpetrates Twitter hoax that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of The IT Crowd