August 20, 2008
Software vs. ComedyI've been cooking up an idea for a workshop whose theme runs along the lines of developing software v.s developing comedy.
While working with BBC Worldwide, this idea popped into my head: the BBC are without doubt the finest producers of broadcast comedy anywhere in the world.
From the golden age of radio comedy (The Goons, Round The Horne, Hancock's Half Hour, and latterly shows like The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and On The Hour), to a pantheon of instantly recognisable TV comedy classics like Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, The Young Ones, The Day Today, I'm Alan Partridge, Blackadder, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Shooting Stars, Q, Dead Ringers, The League of Gentlemen, Bottom, Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, The Chuckle Brothers (okay, maybe not that last one) - the list is endless.
They must surely be doing something right to create so many world class shows with quite meager resources.
If I found a software development organisation with that kind of track record, I would naturally be keen to find out how they do it. What is it about them that produces so many successes?
And is comedy really so different from software that we can't learn anything useful from the way Aunty Beeb develops and nurtures it?
I think creating a comedy show and creating a software product have many things in common. Like the value of talent, for example. One of the key reasons, I suspect, that the BBC produces such great comedy is because it attracts great comedians - performers and writers like Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Arthur Lowe, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton (back when he was funny), Rik Mayall, Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer, Simon Amstell, Paul Merton, Nev Fountain, the Pythons, and many more.
I imagine up-and-coming comedians are queuing round the block to get a foot in the door at the BBC purely because of it's historical pedigree. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: great comedians want to work at the BBC because they have so many great comedians. There's a statistical gravity at work here, I suspect.
Likewise, ThoughtWorks have lots of really good software developers, which is why really good software developers want to work there.
Not everyone can be geniunely funny. Well, not funny enough to hold an audience's attention for 30 minutes every week, at any rate. I've been to enough comedy clubs to know that great comedians are as rare as great software developers. When an organisation like the BBC looks for talent, they are panning for gold.
Would that we were any where near as discerning in our industry....
Maybe that's one thing we can learn from developing comedy - put more time and effort into discovering and nurturing talent, and be more brutal about curtailing the careers of those who don't quite come up to scratch.
We're so reluctant to fire incompetent developers (and testers and architects and analysts and managers, let's not forget) that it almost seems like a kind of socialism in comparison.
Which leads me to an obvious difference between software development and comedy: someone who isn't a comedian can easily tell if a comedian isn't funny.
Non-technical folk often have no clue whether the code that they're paying for is any good or not. Which makes it tougher to be objective when deciding what projects and teams to invest in.
Having said that, I've heard comedians complain about TV executives who "just don't get it" when faced with new or innovative comedy. I suppose in those cases, it's as much guesswork and hearsay as it is in our line of work.
Posted 2 weeks, 3 days ago on August 20, 2008