My Comedy Career: Paul Schlesinger

Paul Schlesinger

Paul Schlesinger has been making great comedy since the 1990s. His latest project is Still Up, which launches on Apple TV+ today. He talks about the TV comedy industry in this Q&A.

Tell us what you do in your job.

Everything I do begins and ends with talented writers - finding them and helping them develop their idea. Casting is the other bit of the job I love - I used to direct when I worked in radio.

Choosing the best team to work on a series - it makes a producer's life so much easier.

Main misconception: that I'm in charge of the money, tell everyone what to do and smoke cigars.

How did you first get involved in the comedy industry?

In a way, by accident - I was a script reader in the BBC Radio Drama Script Unit where my job was to read and do reports on unsolicited plays sent in - mostly by members of the public. It was a great way to get my radar tuned into what worked and also what didn't! The incentive was if you found a play you liked you could pitch it and, if the commissioner liked it, you could then direct it.

I was drawn to plays that were funny - I think the first play I directed was a parody of a TV crew doing a documentary about an organic farm - Bill Nighy played the lead and I sent it to Radio Comedy and was offered a year's contract as a producer.

What key skills do you need to be able to do your job well?

Too many to mention and I don't have all of them, but to mention a few...

Passion - it's not really a skill but without it you can't be a creative producer.

Patience - it can take years from the start of an idea to seeing it on screen.

Calmness - as there are so many obstacles/curve balls to negotiate on the way.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

To still be working in this industry after 30 years! But also helping young talented programme makers along the way.

Giving writers and directors and actors their first break. Most recently I saw John Addis' captivating short film Lucky Break and although he'd never directed television before I offered him the director job on the pilot of Still Up - luckily both Phil Clarke and Apple agreed!

Still Up. Image shows left to right: Danny (Craig Roberts), Amy (Lois Chimimba)
Still Up. Image shows left to right: Danny (Craig Roberts), Amy (Lois Chimimba)

What I've learned is always trust your own instincts.

And what has been the biggest challenge/disappointment?

Running the BBC Radio comedy department - I arrived full of plans of how to make things better and left after only 2 years. I didn't have a clue how to manage people or negotiate the politics of the BBC. Frankly I wasn't ready for the job back then but I've learned a lot since! I moved back to what I love best which is making programmes.

Talk us through a typical day.

No two days are the same - lots of walking if things get too much!

Tell us a trick/secret/resource that you use to make your job quicker/easier.

I swear by my notes app on my phone during production when there are so many things to tackle/things to solve. I list everything. It gives me the illusion of order and makes things easier to tick off.

If you could change one thing about the comedy industry, what would it be?

Stop being so obsessed by the need to skew young - it's patronising. Great comedy should be universal. I know people will say "you would say that wouldn't you?" but it's true!

What tips would you give for anyone looking to work in your area of the industry?

Go and see lots of plays, watch TV, see stand-up comedy, read lots of scripts and work out what you like and why. And then when you are passionate about a project fight for it - by persuading others to see what you see.


Still Up is on Apple TV+. tv.apple.com

Published: Friday 22nd September 2023
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