Kenton Allen on how a left-field idea arising out of BBC comedy north is now being made into a US pilot directed by Hollywood's Farrelly brothers.
About two years ago, Jon Mountague, a rather talented and dashing comedy producer who leads the small team at BBC comedy north, invited a 21-year-old writer with cerebral palsy called Peter Keeley and Seymour Mace, a stand-up comic who had spent time living rough on the streets of Newcastle, into BBC Manchester for a development workshop. I think at the time I commended him on his unusual networking skills and made a mental note to invite him down to London and explain how the words "show" and "business" are related to each other.
Last week, the Farrelly brothers, creators of movies including There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, agreed to produce and direct a pilot for the NBC network, written by the lead writer from the quite popular sitcom Friends, based on a British comedy show called I'm with Stupid.
Two events which, at first glance, should never be connected. However, the genius of Jon Montague's thinking has travelled far. The show that emerged from his low-cost workshop directly led to the BBC3 show I'm with Stupid. Jon compiled the various anecdotes and musings of Peter Keeley and together they fashioned them into a 30-page script. We liked it. It was funny, if a bit all over the shop. So we invited Danny Peak, a young veteran of the sitcom world, to take Jon and Peter's original script and make it his own. We made a pilot, during which we had a moment of "clarity" and decided to cast all the disabled characters with disabled actors, who joined the likes of Mark Benton and Ruth Jones. It won an award and then we made a series that has just finished a run on BBC3 on Sunday nights. It was up against Entourage on ITV2, which it beat every week. I was pretty pleased and quite surprised, as we didn't have their enormous marketing campaign or lots of Californian girls in bikinis. And, believe me, I tried very hard to get both of these elements included in Stupid.
So, Montague's small, cheap and, let's face it, on the surface highly unpromising workshop has led to one of the hottest shows in the next US pilot season. It has tempted one of the most sought-after teams in movie comedy to work in television and persuaded Wil Calhoun, whose extensive credits include Monica and Chandler's wedding episodes in Friends, off his well-paid bottom and charging around the US meeting disabled actors who might play a part in his version of I'm with Stupid.
What have I learnt from this? The thing I knew all along but always need to remind myself about: if you have got great people on your team, make sure they are in the right job and then trust them to do it. Don't be too prescriptive and they will always surprise you. Oh, and they may just do something that you, yes you, never ever thought of.
Kenton Allen is the BBC's creative head of comedy north and talent
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