My Life in TV is a weekly feature interview with a member of the television industry. This week, Alex Casey talked to 7 Days producer Jon Bridges about bringing the competitive laughs each week. //
Jon Bridges is the current producer of TV3’s flagship comedy panel show, 7 Days. Going into its sixth year now, and raking in its fifth ‘Best Comedy’ award for TV Guide’s Best on the Box, I was curious to chat with him about his job wrangling the funnies week to week, and the key to making good comedy TV sustainable.
As I discovered, it’s no easy task. Jon excitedly hurried me into the dark editing suite, where 7 Days editor Sacha was hard at work mashing together laughs and cutting out bombed jokes. Jon sat next to her intently, grasping his own run sheet from the live record. He scrawls down every joke, and then, using a complicated star system, gives them a hilarity success rating.
When it actually got to interview time, he was a frenetic ball of joke-fueled energy. It was Friday – air day. We got started, and I couldn’t help but be slightly distracted by the small basketball he was throwing around across the desk. It really felt like he always needed to be doing more than one thing at a time, which I’m sure is a highly desirable trait in a television producer.
What does your current job entail?
I’m the producer of 7 Days. I liken it to the running of an editorial magazine. You’re the person who decides who goes in, what jokes go in, and ultimately decides what’s in and out. Also the tone and the angle of it. Basically I’m in charge of the content. Everything.
I guess you have a pretty good grasp on what makes funny TV?
Half of it is just a sense for what’s going to fit, or what’s going to allow the comedians to be funny. From there you just have to work out which ones you like the best. But you don’t have to rely only on yourself to know what’s funny – a lot of it is just being able to listen to other people. Listening to the audience in the studio for when they laugh and when they don’t laugh – that’s pretty good indication straight away. Sometimes you have to overrule the audience a little bit, and put jokes in that you like that they didn’t seem to get.
Were you involved in 7 Days from the very start?
Yeah, me and the Down Low guys [downlowconcept] sort of developed it together. They produced a radio show called Off the Wire, which was also a news panel show, and that’s pretty much what 7 Days was based on. I was one of the comedians on that, along with Jeremy Corbett and Te Radar and guys like that. So, yeah it had its genesis from a successful radio show on Radio New Zealand.
Prior to the birth of 7 Days, how did your comedy career kick off?
I started at the University doing comedy at Capping Revues, where you just write comedy and make shows every year. It’s just a university tradition that happens. Jeremy Corbett was in those with me at Massey. Right back in ‘86.
I got a job in TV straight away afterwards, in a skit show for TV3. It was the very very beginning of TV3 – the channel was only two years old and it was called Away Laughing. I played a couple of characters and was a writer for that.
After that I did Ice TV. We did it for six years, it was sort of a youth TV show on in the early evening, and we did a lot of comedy in that show as well. It was quite different, we used our own cameras and shot the stuff ourselves. That was very unusual in those days.
Was it quite a new format and style at the time?
Yeah, it was. I think we were probably some of the first people in the country to put stuff on air that hadn’t been shot professionally. We would just run around with our cameras. They were just little enough that you could hold and use as an amateur. The first ones that came out after VHS, basically. The quality was just good enough to put on broadcast. Just.
We used to do stuff like throwing TV’s off the TV3 building, it was stupid fun. They eventually told us we weren’t allowed to throw things off buildings anymore – a great shame. But generally that led us to what we want.
Seems like Jono and Ben have picked up that particular gauntlet.
Yeah, and that’s an evolution that came because the Jono and Ben guys, or at least Ben and Jaime used to do Pulp Sport before that. That show didn’t necessarily come out of Ice TV, but it started about the same time that we finished. I guess you could probably say that they were probably pretty heavily influenced by what we were doing at Ice TV. There’s always a bit of a continuum with this stuff.
Also that same sort of DIY guerrilla madness of Moon TV. Do you think that there’s room for those shows now? It seems like there’s been sort of a steer away from the more low budget and anarchic sort of comedy?
I guess because that’s the sort of stuff that gets made on the Internet all the time now. It’s very easy for anybody to do that at home. It’s not new when you see it on TV anymore. So I think TV, as far as broadcast network TV is concerned, is looking for things that can’t be done either at home, on YouTube. I think those rough and ready homemade sort of things, they’re very much of the 90s and 2000s.
It’s funny actually, I remember explaining what the internet was on Ice TV. We literally had to explain it with Tim Tams and straws, trying to demonstrate how it all worked. These were the days when nobody really had an email address. That was 1995.
But these days, the big things that are working on TV are really topical. Being able to film and go to air the next day is huge, like on 7 Days or even like X Factor where things happen live on TV. They’re real talking points.
7 Days is obviously wildly popular – what do you think is the key to its success?
Panel shows can be long running because they rely on news, so they’re always fresh. Also they’re relatively cheap to do, so it’s never a hard decision for anyone to fund it. That was the whole appeal to TV3 – something that they could make relatively cheaply and that could last for a long time.
The secondary reason is, of course, that the comedians are very good. They’re really funny and the way the show is assembled means that we can concentrate on the jokes that are especially funny for that week. We just put a lot of effort in making sure it’s funny. Funny is the priority, nothing else is really important.
When you were starting out as a younger comedian was there as much exposure to comedy on New Zealand TV as there is now?
There was always some good comedy on New Zealand TV, but it was a little on and off. There was things like Funny Business, those guys did great TV comedy. They did a few good shows on Billy T and stuff. All through the ’90s, the big call was “why can’t New Zealand make any good comedies?” Lots of comedies were tried and didn’t work but, to be fair, most of them didn’t get a good go. Networks would give them one series and then they’d get nervous and wouldn’t put it on till late at night.
I think with 7 Days, the difference was that we just put comedians on TV. So by the time we made 7 Days, the comedy industry had changed quite a lot. The Classic Comedy Club had opened in 1997 and that meant that we had stand up comedians in the country for the first time. Like before ‘97, there weren’t any stand up comedians in New Zealand. It took a really long time for there to be a group of people that you could say were stand up comedians. Guys like Ben Hurley went on the English circuit and got great experience and became experienced comedy writers.
Before we go on, I wanted to bring up Sing Like a Superstar.
[Jon frantically tries to stop the recording “oh look, the batteries are running out. It’s not working anymore. Oh dear, guess that’s that”]
You won’t find any footage of it on the internet. I’ve gone through it all. I’ve been very thorough. That was an early attempt at a musical. I think these sorts of X Factor and Idol shows maybe had already started overseas, and it was an attempt to do a New Zealand version of of that. But with celebrities in it.
It was before we did them properly here, like if you watch X Factor now, that is a massive show. That is a huge program with a giant budget and a whole lot of people working their asses off. They’ve made a program which is indistinguishable from an overseas product of the same sort.
Sing Like a Superstar wasn’t really in that league. It was a flawed idea that was ill-conceived and poorly carried out. That’s a mean way to say it, but I actually had a really good time.
I actually talked to your Singing co-star Mike Puru about this the other week. Did you go far?
No, I did not last. Not only was it a poor show, but I was the first one off. I would like to say that I did that because I realized it was a poor show and pulled the plug. But I didn’t, I really tried my best. My rendition of ‘Where Is the Love?’ by the Black Eyed Peas will one day be recognized as a classic piece in New Zealand television.
You also did some acting in the Jaquie Brown Diaries?
That was quite fun. It is a very good comedy. Some of the performances are lovely, like in the scene I was in, the other actors stole the scene absolutely. I actually felt bad, like I was letting the team down. She did a beautiful, beautiful job with that show, I felt really privileged that I got to do that little scene on there.
As a comedy aficionado, what TV are you watching at the moment?
The most influential shows are some of the old comedies. It’s funny watching that program House because Hugh Laurie is one of my comedy heroes from way back in the day from Fry and Laurie. It’s an incredible English skit show.
I thought Extras and The Office were both amazing, Seinfeld is probably my all-time favorite comedy shows. I love Family Guy, we record Family Guy and watch all the new episodes. I think they’re really impressive, so many jokes per minute.
What I love about Family Guy is the way the way the use references to pop culture. It’s very similar to what we do on 7 Days. When you can talk about something that everyone at home shares. We’re always looking for those sort of topics that a community of people can share and understand. That’s what we’re hunting for – those lovely moment of recognition.
Plans for the future? 7 Days obviously is not going anywhere.
Well, hopefully 7 Days is not going anywhere. For years as comedians we’d dreamed of the chance to get to make our own show, and 7 Days is a dream TV job. I’ve got the best job on TV, absolutely out of anybody.
Beyond that, I don’t know where I’m going. If this train is just carrying on to the distance, I’ll ride it for as long as I can. As I said before, my career has just been solely based on answering saying yes to people when they ask me if I want to do something.
So someone should just pick up the phone?
Yeah. Just give me a call.
7 Days airs every Friday on TV3 at 9pm