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Nazeem Hussain: stand up vs sketch comedy

Comedian Nazeem Hussain talks about the writers’ room of his new Channel 7 sketch series Orange is the New Brown and all the challenges that came with it.

Nazeem Hussain in Orange is the New Brown

Comedian Nazeem Hussain was in the midst of an intense month of performing stand up at Edinburgh Film Festival when he got the call about new sketch series Orange is the New Brown.

Channel 7 had seen the sizzle reel, executive producer Johnny Lowry told him. They were interested. And they wanted 12 sketches.

Through a mix of email, text messages and phone calls, Hussain and his fellow “comedy nerds” – Lowry, Joel Slack-Smith and Richard Thorp – managed to work through the time difference, brainstorm ideas and pen the 12 sketches.

“Someone would have a go at writing the first pass and then send it round, and someone else would joke it up or have a different angle and we’d just share around the three or four of us,” Hussain says.

“We've worked with each other for a long time now so there's a shorthand and we can be real honest and brutal with each other.

“I think the most enjoyable part of making a sketch is in those early stages when it's just blue sky and the whole point is just to come up with funny ideas or just try and make each other laugh on the phone or eventually in the writers' room.”

Based on those scripts, Channel 7 committed to a series. Fast forward, and Orange is the New Brown is now on air on Thursday nights at 8.30pm. A Screentime series, it’s directed by Hayden Guppy and features Hussain alongside Australian comics including Matt Okine, Becky Lucas, Urzila Carlson, and Aunty Donna’s Broden Kelly, as well as special guest stars such as Claudia Karvan, Kat Stewart and Sigrid Thornton.

“I felt like I wanted to be across everything from the writing to the casting, to wardrobe, to location, to the way they dress the set, the way it was edited and the music,” Hussain says. “But I'm not an expert in all those areas so it was challenging.”

It’s not the first sketch series Hussain has been a part of. He created SBS series Legally Brown with EP Johnny Lowry in 2013.

Here he talks about the differences between those two projects, writing for stand-up, and how the writing team (led by head writer Joel Slack-Smith) tried to craft a sketch series with wide appeal.

What’s challenging about comedy for the screen compared to stand up?

You never really know if something's funny. It's not like stand up where you can perform it and you can figure out on stage whether it's funny or not by the audience's reaction. To make a joke on stage work, you really just need to say it well, have a good enough punch line, and to perform well. Whereas for a comedy to work on screen, it needs to be written well, it needs to be directed well, cast well, performed well, edited well, the music needs to be good, it needs to look good, it needs to be lit properly, and then it needs to be at the right time of the night on television so the right audience sees it and it reflects their sense of humour. If the joke works I feel like the payoff is bigger. But also if it doesn't, there's so much effort that goes into making a joke that doesn't really land. So there's a lot of moving parts in screen comedy obviously and you have to get all those parts right. Sometimes we’d watch it [in the edit] and there might just [need to] be a slight tweak or a music thing. There's just little tricks and once you make those small changes, suddenly it's funny. It's tricky. It's a lot trickier than stand up.

How can you tell something is still funny when by the time cameras are rolling, it’s been months since you first wrote it, or you’ve read it dozens of times?

Legally Brown had a studio audience, so we pre-recorded everything. You’d play the clips and you could see the audience laughing or not laughing, so you’d know which sketches are funny and which ones aren't. And you then have an idea before you go to air. Whereas this, we decided to cut the studio component out… and just go on instinct as to what we thought was funny. There’s so many different stages where you're still trying to figure out if the idea is funny and you have to keep asking that question along the way. [Firstly] in the writers’ room when we've just come up with the concept. If that passes that stage then we'll develop it into a script, look at it and go, ‘is that funny? Yeah that's funny, let's keep developing that.’ And then we start casting people, and we write around the cast. Then you film it and on the day [you judge if it] is funny, and when it's edited you have to look at it again and go ‘is this funny?’. And they do fall over at every stage. So this season we have 75 sketches approximately, but there were hundreds more that we came up with and… a lot of them got turned into scripts and just didn't get any further than that. And still, [when] I watched the first episode and I looked around the room just to see how my family and friends were reacting to figure out whether it's actually funny. And then you go on Twitter, which you're not supposed to but I do, and you check out the hashtag and you're nervously scrolling going ok people thought that was funny. So it's hard to figure it out.

"So this season we have 75 sketches approximately, but there were hundreds more that we came up with"

Did you have to make the comedy broader for a Channel 7 audience?

My stand up [has] historically been fairly political and you're often speaking to people who already agree with what you have to say, so you don't need to do much setting up – you just sort of get straight to it. But I think there is a real skill and talent in being able to make complex ideas feel really broad and accessible to a large audience. And that's something that I'm still learning to do and the writers that I work with – Richard and Joel, Penny Greenhalgh, Sophie Braham and Heidi Regan – they're really good and their strength is in kind of translating and making sure that a broader audience can get the joke. It's really easy to make a joke for people who already get your sense of humour. It's actually much more difficult to make a sketch broadly consumable. That's the difference between doing a sketch on SBS or even the ABC and then commercial television. You're dealing with your average Aussie people who might not necessarily be comedy nerds like the way we are. You've got to be much better at comedy to be able to do that.

Orange is the New Brown

Can it help by having writers with a lot of different perspectives?

It’s good to have a core group of writers so the show has an identity and it feels like there's authorship and a clear perspective. But at the same time we often brought comedians into the room for a workshop and we'd riff ideas with them. They would often be the cast, so everyone from Matt Okine to Becky Lucas, Urzila Carlson, Broden Kelly and then the big names that we got in, like Sigrid Thornton would be on the phone with us, Tim Minchin was giving us feedback, Kat Stewart, Firass Dirani, Rhys Nicholson. Everyone really got involved and they all riffed with us in the room and I think that really helped shape some of the ideas that we'd already had. I think good sketch shows they don't just have a bunch of scripts and go ‘alright cast members turn up on the day, here's your script’. It's very much written to that person's strengths and they get to be involved in writing the jokes and tweaking their dialogue. And from that we might get a line that we'd use or a way to set it up differently. I think comedians in Australia are world class and you'd be an idiot not to tap into that wealth of knowledge and experience when you're making a sketch show. Sketch is so scary to do in Australia because the bar is really high. So we really wanted to make sure we were canvassing as much opinion as we could from experts.

"I think comedians in Australia are world class and you'd be an idiot not to tap into that wealth of knowledge and experience… "

How long are the sketches and how long all up does it take to craft one?

In Legally Brown sometimes they were upwards of three minutes whereas on Orange is the New Brown they tend to be under two minutes. We'd be coming up with the idea in a room and that could take maybe an hour or two for an individual idea to come about. Then writing it tends to take several hours cause there's several passes, so maybe four or five hours. Then filming it takes half a day and editing a sketch might take a day. So it's a few days I'd say, to come up with one minute, 30 second sketch. And then there's all the different departments working in their own way on each of these things. If you add all that up it's a lot of work.

Do you have to be wary of writing too many similar types of sketches? What process do you have to stop that from happening?

When we're coming up with ideas we don't tend to classify the sketches or categorise them but once we're trying to figure out what we're filming… we write ideas down on cue cards and we stick them up on the wall and then I think Joel had a system, with different colours for different types of sketches. We wanted to make sure that each episode we at least had a broad mix of ideas on the board. So some would be parodies, some were political or race based, and some were silly character bits, and so on.

Do you have to keep that in mind when structuring a sketch show? To make sure there’s a balance between the different kinds of sketches?

Those were ongoing discussions and I think Johnny Lowry the executive producer is very good at that and he's a comedy nerd. He'd have the episodes there with the cue cards... and we'd go through and say 'you think that should go after that? Isn't that a bit similar to this? Or the audience might like that first and then they'd like something a little lighter and then oh we've just seen Kat Stewart there do we put her in the next sketch or maybe two sketches after’. So we'd be shuffling. There were as many different opinions as there are people who work on the show. So at the end of the day we all have our different strengths and I think Johnny was really good at ordering the show and he obviously also has great ideas as to what kind of a mix would work for that network and he understands the audience really well. At the same we still argue about the order even now.

Watch Orange is the New Brown on Thursday at 8.30pm on Channel 7.

This interview has been edited and condensed.