An Interview with Sam Bain
Sam Bain is a BAFTA award-winning writer and co-creator of Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and Babylon. He has also co-written acclaimed films such as Four Lions. I spoke with Sam about landing his first writing job, his writing partnership with Jesse Armstrong, the collaborative writing process, and his best piece of advice for writing comedy.
How did you land your first writing job?
I think the first time I got paid for writing would have been for a script that Jesse Armstrong and I co-wrote. I’m going to say about 1997 or 1998. That was after we’d written a couple of episodes of a sitcom on spec. We managed to get an agent called Linda Siefert on the back of that, and she sent the script out to some people including this lovely producer, Gareth Edwards, who was then working for LWT. He paid us some money to try and get it made and that was a big deal for us.
You both studied together in Manchester…
Yeah we met at Manchester University on a creative writing course, which is very appropriate, and we shared a flat for a year. We became good friends before we ever started writing together.
Did studying in Manchester feed into the inspiration behind Fresh Meat?
Yes, very much so. We created Fresh Meat originally in about 1999, a good few years before the show came out. These things often take a while anyway. It was definitely us thinking about Manchester, having only been out for a few years. We really wanted to write about what we felt. One of the themes of that show was the cross section between class and background in all the different people we knew at Manchester. I come from London and I went to public school, St Paul’s. and Jesse comes from Shropshire and went to a comprehensive. We love the fact that Manchester has that mix which you don’t always get at every University and we wanted to write about that primarily.
So were the people you knew at University the sources of inspiration behind the main characters?
I mean not directly. Not any of the characters in the show are directly based on anyone, but certainly types. A lot of posho’s like JP and people who were trying to be a new person like Oregon. All sorts of different stories, or anecdotes went into those characters. It was definitely drawn from our shared experience.
Both Fresh Meat and Peep Show are set across a span of years. Are the storylines mapped out from the beginning, or is it part of the writing process to discover as you are writing?
Peep Show we started writing in 2001, Fresh Meat we finished writing about 2015. That’s fourteen years of development as writers. It’s not one answer to that question. Our writing process evolved. On Peep Show we were literally commissioned to write a fifteen minute pilot and channel 4 liked that enough to commission a second half. We didn’t have a second half planned even from the first episode, which became episode two of the first season. We literally made up the second half after it was commissioned which is not really the way you’re supposed to do it, so that’s one extreme.
Then of course fast forward ten years or so to Fresh Meat and we would start every season sat in a room with a great writing team: Jon Brown, Tony Roche, Penelope Skinner, Tom Basden and other great writers on that show. We would sit there for a couple of weeks just sort of mapping out how the whole series would work, which is obviously a whole different form of architecture than making it up as you go along.
One moment in Fresh Meat I found particularly amusing is when we see Dan, (Robert Webb’s character) devouring some naan bread, which reminded me of Jeremy in Peep Show. Do you intentionally have little in-jokes and references such as this?
That wasn’t intentional. I don’t have any memory of that as an in joke, just so you know!
Is there anyone in the industry who has inspired your work as a writer?
When Jesse and I first started talking about comedy in particular, we both had a real passion for Woody Allen and his oeuvre, particularly the first twenty or thirty years. It was something we always looked to.
Seinfeld was coming out when we both started co-writing in the mid-90s and that show was a big influence. Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s a big hero of mine. Those two guys are the obvious ones. We’re always very passionate about the whole genre of sitcom and there’s a lot of British and American shows I could list that inspired us.
In terms of contemporary writers, I got to know Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews which is a privilege because I’m a huge fan of theirs. There are so many talented writers, but I guess those are the ones that jump to mind.
I think those influences show in Peep Show, especially with characters speaking their inner thoughts directly to the audience.
I think the piece of literary or cinematic work we owe the greatest debt to is probably Withnail and I. In some ways you could sort of see Peep Show as an attempt to make a TV version of Withnail and I. These two flatmates who are at each other’s throats and the dodgy dealer character - Super Hans and Danny have a DNA connection. I don’t think Peep Show would be what it is without that film. Obviously that’s Bruce Robinson.
How has writing comedy changed since you started out as a writer?
It has changed a lot. I think there is so much more freedom now to explore different tones. When we started writing sitcoms in the mid-90s it was a very specific genre where most of it was studio audience. That’s how we wrote our first scripts, with that in mind because that was the predominant form. That really was a big revolution. A lot of British shows I can mention like The Office, The Royle Family, Spaced, which kind of changed the game and dropped all of that and had a kind of visually more inventive approach. Again, Peep Show would not be the show it is without those shows, particularly Spaced and Royle Family which made us think about how you might visualise a sitcom completely differently than previously. I think that has only carried on. Especially in tone, people use words like dramedy, or sad-com, but I think what they are reaching for is the idea that a half hour show you can have all sorts of different tones, which you didn’t necessarily have the freedom to have in previous eras and I think that’s only a good thing.
You wrote the upcoming film The Stand-In. Could you tell me more about this, and the contrast between writing in Hollywood and writing sitcoms in the UK?
It’s been a bigger contrast than I’d sort of expected. It’s funny because writing is writing, in a sense. It’s all the same muscle. You’re trying to create stories. I’ve been branching out in recent years. I did a theatre stage play three years ago and I’ve done a couple of movies in the last couple of years here in America and in some ways it is the same, but in some ways it’s totally different. Certainly with films there is a whole business side of how you get a film made which is kind of a whole other conversation, but creatively it is demanding because you have to obviously tell a finished story, which is not the case with a sitcom. With a sitcom you’re really rewriting the same episode for fifteen years or whatever. You’re not trying to move the characters forward. In fact, sitcoms work best when the characters are sort of stuck where they started somehow. Whereas a film the challenge is to see a character change and grow, or more than one character change and grow, while also being funny. It can be quite a challenge. In my own personal opinion, the hit rate for successful comedy films is a lot lower than TV comedy and I think that it is because the creative challenges are just higher. It’s more difficult.
I think that’s what makes Peep Show’s final episode so great. Do you think you’ll ever revisit the series?
I think it will happen at some point, but it may not be for a very long time. It may not be for years, but at some point we’ll probably revisit it, for the simple reason that Dave and Robert want to keep doing it forever. It’s not that common with actors. A lot of them get bored and want to do different things. I think to their credit David and Robert felt that the show was good and let’s just keep making it. It was Jesse and I who felt we’d run out of steam a bit and wanted to pull the plug. We’ve never wavered in our love for the show. I think it’s just a matter of time and the stars aligning, but I have no clue when that will be.
How does the writing collaboration work? Do you just bounce ideas off of each other?
That’s definitely the way it starts when we’re co-writing. Just sitting around for hours bouncing ideas, as you put it, is a good way to describe it. At a certain point, typically with a series of Peep Show we’d have what we call a big doc, a big document of all our ideas. Tiny ones for little jokes and big ones for like structural series arcs and everything in-between. Just throwing it all into a big cooking pot really, then at a certain point you start to feel like you might have a spine and then a structure and then you start to map it out a bit more.
The next step would be, what we rather sweetly refer to as a Peep Show plot party, where we go out for a pub lunch with David and Robert and they are the first people we talk with about what we might do and what they feel about it. They are usually very positive, but it’s important to have that conversation. For example, in the final series we wanted Jeremy to go gay, so that was important to talk to Robert about, which of course he was fine with. Then we start to get into more details with episodes. We’d do the storylines together, even go so far as a full scene by scene breakdown for each episode which we sort of co-write. Then once that’s done we go off and write dialogue separately. We might do half an episode each, me first half, second half him and swap, or maybe I’ll write the first draft of episode one and he’ll write the first draft of episode two and then swap. Then we sort of keep cross editing until we’re done.
Are you ever involved on set at all?
We’ve been on set every day since the beginning.
What’s your best piece of advice for writing comedy?
I’m not sure I would have had the career writing comedy I’ve had if I didn’t have a partner because it does make things so much easier. That can be a great way to kick things off. Find someone to bounce off and to learn about how to do it with because there is a big learning curve. Aside from that, I would say just trust your instincts and go after what you think is amusing, even though it might be weird because that’s generally the way to make what you do stand out and feel unique and if you find it funny then there is a chance someone else will. If you don't, there isn’t, so just be true to what you genuinely get excited about.