Drew Pearce interview
The British Comedy Guide talks to Drew Pearce, the creator of ITV2's new sitcom No Heroics...
Hi Drew. Thanks very much for talking to us. Although you've been working in the comedy industry for a while, No Heroics is your first sitcom. It is also ITV2's first sitcom. How did the project come about?
It's the classic route. I'd been writing for five years or so, and had some scripted pilots and nearly-projects, but hadn't got anything to screen until I directed and co-wrote last year's The Musical Storytellers Ginger And Black (YouTube clip). I came up with the idea for No Heroics about four years ago, pitched it three years ago, wrote a script, put on a room-read, got a pilot last May, ITV loved it so we got a series and finally - finally - it's now on air.
Are you nervous or excited about Thursday's debut?
I am terribly nervous and also a little excited that it'll finally be out there. To be honest, comics god Warren Ellis just posted a blog saying he loves the show, so that may very well be the pinnacle of the No Heroics experience for me. It may never get better than that! Is that a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full attitude? I can't decide...
But to be a grown-up about it for a minute, we're the first narrative comedy on ITV2, so it's even more unpredictable as to whether anybody watches. On the upside, we're in a great slot, and it's not like the channel have been banging out crappy sitcoms that we might suffer by association with. We're the first, and hopefully we're setting an edgy, quality tone (I hope we are). On the downside, people don't know to come to the channel for narrative comedy yet, so we might have to break viewers in to that idea. If that's the case, I hope we get the chance to build an audience, rather than just get a kicking for a quiet start or first series.
By the way, that is the most grown-up, sensible answer I have ever given to anything!
And an impressive answer it was too! So why did you decide to set the show around the topic of superheroes?
Well I'm a lifelong comics reader, so it's a world I feel very comfortable with. It's a brilliant place to make mundane comedy, because people expect you to go camp, and I loved the idea of a very British take on the job - the funny is in the mundanity for me. I'm disturbed, too, by the rise of 'anything-to-be-famous' culture, and it struck me as a bit more original way into exploring that stuff. Plus I also wanted to make a warm-hearted comedy about a group of friends in the pub and their relationships. So those reasons, and probably more too. I mean, I get to make up a superhero world and everything in it. That's a pretty fucking great job.
Fair play. What would you say was your favourite comic then?
Tough question. There are a billion favourites - Moore's Watchmen, Ellis's The Authority, BKV's Runaways, Bendis' Alias, and hundreds more. But probably the one that's most relevant to No Heroics is Zenith, a five part series that ran in 2000ad from the late 80s. It was written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Steve Yeowell, and it was the most extraordinary take on the concept of the British superhero. It was satire but also incredibly satisfying on an excitement level. And it had good jokes. It's was truly inspiring, in fact, and I have stolen from it aplenty in No Heroics. The fact that it's now out of print due to rights discrepancies is a travesty.
Why do you think superheroes wear capes, crowns and things like that? Surely such fancy decorations get in the way of saving people?
Well, most superheroes are show-offs. Otherwise, they'd just sneak around doing good incognito, rather than designing expensive costumes and spending hours coming up with names like 'The Hotness' and 'Excelsor'.
They are, in essence, a self-agrandising bunch - much like writers, musicians, actors and all the other professions I've hung out in. And that's probably why, in No Heroics, superheroes prefer the company of other superheroes, in a capes-only pub, to being out there in the real world.
Ah, that all makes sense now. We understand you've manage to place lots of subtle references to famous comic strips in the No Heroics sets. Which is your favourite homage that viewers should look out for?
I really like Logan's Rum, one of the booze bottles behind the bar, because it's a pun that genuinely works in both directions (Logan being a reference to Wolverine, and Logan's Run being an ace ace, if slightly camp, sci-fi classic). These things tend to become apocalyptically important at the time, however moronic they might sound now.
Nice. The bottles of 'Shazamstell' we spotted at the bar made us laugh. You've got a fabulous cast and a great list of guest stars too. Did you write the characters with the actors in mind, or were the parts cast afterwards?
The great thing about the very long process of getting a scripted comedy to screen is that, post pilot, as long as you love your central cast, you can really write to their voices. Whether the No Heroics cast themselves believe it, they each really inspired the voice of their character, with who they are and what they brought to the pilot. The five central actors really are ridiculously good at what they do, so it's a dream working with them. And hell, if that makes me a suck up, so be it.
And you're right – the supporting cast is awesome, and I just feel truly lucky about that. The amazing Jim Howick, Mark Heap, Tom Basden, Ollie Maltman, Raquel Cassidy, Bruce McKinnon, Dan Clark, Nick Mohammed, Susan Earle, Tim Plester - and they're just the first names off the top of my head. There's not one role I'd have cast differently among them...
Wow, that is quite a list! All well known names in the world of comedy. Back to the topic of superheroes now if that's ok (as we've just thought of some more questions along that theme)... starting with, if you could have any superpower, what power would you choose?
The power to finally find a witty answer to that question. Which, as you can see, I do not possess.
Ha ha. OK, well if you only had a choice of the main powers seen in No Heroics, namely: controlling heat; being able to see 60 seconds in the future; super-strength; being able to speak to machines; or summoning a horde of monkeys... which would you select?
Definitely the monkeys. They're all pretty rubbish as powers when you think about them (and believe me, I have had to). But the monkey-based power would ALWAYS seem hilarious once you got a bit pissed. Expensive power to show onscreen though. Monkeys cost a cocking fortune.
Comedy writers often base their scripts on things that they've seen in real life... we guess that wasn't possible with No Heroics?
Well, the interesting thing about the show is that it IS based on things in my real life - even the really awful stuff. The relationship fights, the sex scenes - they've mostly happened in some form or other to me or someone I know. They just end up going through another layer of jokes when you throw in the fact that they're happening to superheroes.
The alternative answer to that question is: how do you know I'm NOT a superhero? But it'd be a shit answer cos, you know, I'm not and they don't exist.
Er... is that a double-bluff? We're confused now. OK, moving quickly on before you zap us for discovering your secret: How long did it take to film No Heroics?
We shot a pilot last year (May 2007) which makes up about half of Episode 1, and took a week. Then we shot for five and a half weeks in March this year, which makes up the rest of the show. And we're working to a very, very tight budget, so we shoot up to 9 pages of script a day. Which is BRUTAL. Having said that, to me there's nothing more exciting than sitting around with a bunch of funny people telling stories about a bunch of characters I made up. I mean, come on. It's very tiring, but it's a fun way to spend your day...
We've taken up loads of your time Drew, but just two more questions if that's ok... ITV are talking about turning ITV2 into a test bed to help find the main channel a much-needed hit comedy... do you think No Heroics could be an ITV1 comedy, or is the concept more suited to ITV2 where one doesn't have to dumb down for the masses?
Who knows? I love the fact that ITV2 let me set and maintain a tone and world that's pretty edgy, both in content and language. And though I can't see it myself, people do say it's a pretty dark show (to me, it just sounds like a bunch of mates, but that's just me). So if ITV1 was happy to air the show as is, and then people actually watched it, then sure, I'd be more than happy for it to cross over. As long as I don't have to mess with the show, I want the most people possible to be able to watch it.
But I don't feel any burning need to be on ITV1 for the sake of it. Truthfully, let's see if anyone watches the ITV2 transmissions and then work out whether it's wise for the show to co-exist on a more mainstream channel too. Ah, if only the inevitable bittorrent figures counted as well...
That's a good point... if internet downloads were included in the ratings, the monthly Top 10s would look very different! Finally then, a question we try and ask everyone we interview which isn't nearly as easy to answer as it looks: what are your favourite comedies?
It's one of those conversations you have over and over again. But if I don't have to pick one, this is off the top of my head, and these are just the things that make me laugh most: I'm Alan Partridge (travel lodge series); Freaks and Geeks; Larry Sanders; Flight Of The Conchords; Rushmore; Entourage; The Day Today and Brasseye; Ghostbusters; The Office (series three of the American version is amazing); Ever Decreasing Circles; Woody Allen, particularly Hannah And Her Sisters; Dear John; John Hughes, particularly Ferris Bueller; 30 Rock; Anchorman; Peep Show and The Inbetweeners and How Not To Live Your Life and the rest of the shows my friends make; I've got to mention Adam and Joe and Shaun Of The Dead too, which all paved the way for British comedy now; Withnail And I; any rom-com you put in front of me, including When Harry Met Sally; early Cameron Crowe films, and loads more that I'm forgetting!
Woah... you can stop now Drew!
Yes, I would have been quicker just typing 'comedy' into IMDB. I blame you for such an open-ended essay question. Still, thanks for asking me some questions.
Ha ha, good point. Well, thanks again for talking to us Drew. It's been a real pleasure. Best of luck with the show!