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Will, Will and Gramma Grace

Saturday, 5th May, 2001

It's well known, of course, that truth is stranger than fiction.

Television has yet to notice this, pretty much, and throws us drama after drama, soap after soap, sitcom after sitcom that have no relation to real life whatsoever. Or do they? I'd guess that there's more real life embedded in these programmes, not always for the better, than in the supposedly real life chat shows.

Does television imitate real life, or does real life imitate television? Has modern culture worked its weary way to the point where it's only real if it could be on the box? How accurate a vision was 'Videodrome' or 'The Truman Show'? Do we all subconsciously ache to be stars of the silver screen, if only for Warhol's fifteen minutes?

I certainly can't think of another reason anyone in their right mind would ever accept an invitation to be on 'The Jerry Springer Show'.

'Well, Jerry (Jerry! Jerry!), I don't mind losing my wife to my grandma, even though it turns out both of them are male anyway and I haven't noticed in six years of marriage, because it means I get to be on your show, Jerry! (Jerry! Jerry!)'

I'd like to think most of our genes have spent the last couple of million years finessing themselves through evolution (except in Kansas, naturally) for a higher purpose than fifteen minutes of public embarrassment on Springer. But maybe not. If Bill Hicks was right, and Practical Joker God did put fake dinosaur bones in the ground just to test our faith and screw with our minds, then maybe Practical Joker God is a faithful Springer fan.

'Hi, I'm God and I'm from Heaven Above and I just wanna say I love your show, Jerry!'

Truth is stranger than fiction.

What really is strange is that I don't own a television. 'Heresy!' I hear you cry. In 'One of My Turns', Roger Waters described 'fifteen channels of shit on the tv to choose from'. Here in England we only get five terrestrial channels, but the description was accurate. And that's in return for our hundred pound plus licence fee. Yes, licence fee. We are required by law to own a television licence in order to receive television signals. More about that on a future date.

I don't own a television, but I live in a soap opera. Anyone who's spent enough time in any online community will realise that life is a soap opera, with a hundred and one plotlines interweaving through the mix and a hundred and one characters available at any one time who probably will have disappeared by next week.

Anyone who's set up any sort of instant messaging system will probably have been deluged by the strange and the bizarre. I vividly remember one lady asking me in all seriousness for my advice on how she could inform her teenage son about his father's sex change. Like I have a clue? It's not something I tend to deal with on a regular basis as an IT contractor.

It has, however, become something I've come to accept. I can live in a soap opera and try to limit my scenes until the point that the producers kill me off in a bizarre gardening accident straight out of 'Spinal Tap' and I can head out into the real world to find that it isn't really any different, just quieter.

What surprised me last night is to find that my best friend isn't living in our soap opera any more. Quite how she's managed this I don't yet know. Maybe it's partly because she has no PC now and therefore can't live online with the rest of us. Maybe she'll be written back in soon when she can hook up a modem. Maybe she's just been offered a higher rate by the management to shift shows.

Because she may not be in a soap opera any more, but she's still not back in real life. She joined the cast of a new sitcom instead.

It's a risk, naturally. Soap operas rarely die, they just immature gracefully; but sitcoms have an average shelf life roughly equivalent to that of Jesse Jackson speaking at a Ku Klux Klan convention. The powers that be work with the tester theory. They'll throw out episode one and if the viewing figures are down on estimates, it's history. Never mind how much it cost to produce, never mind whether it's actually high quality or not, never mind that 'Hill Street Blues' had an audience for two series totalling the producer and his dog. Market statistics say that it's history, so it's history.

But what if it works? Every now and again a new sitcom hits the screen that lasts more than one episode. Sometimes it's more than two or three. Sometimes it hits series two or three and becomes a cultural phenomenon. And you can never guess in advance which one will work.

My best friend Tracy, for that is her name, seems to be combining a number of existing sitcoms into one new sitcom. It's a new approach, certainly and one that isn't always going to work. But it's looking successful so far.

Picture this, Joe Q Producer.

Take one thirtysomething waitress, home alone in her new place, finding her foothold in life. Make her workplace so badly run that it falls into the hands of a couple of employees to keep the place open, our heroine chief among them. Make the place a central community too, a sort of fish restaurant version of 'Cheers' and split the workforce into a number of misfit groups that we can focus on to keep the variety alive. Most important of all, let our heroine's group be two 21 year old gay guys who form a sort of Three Stooges alliance with her.

You can't lose, Mr Producer, sir!

Comedy is the result of two or more differences being thrown together. In this scenario, you can use every trick in the sitcom book and it'll work like a charm. From the Red Lobster restaurant to the Pink Flamingo drag club, there's a rainbow of locations to play out the storylines. You've got old and young; black and white; gay and straight. You can play every one against every other one. Each has their own place in the story and each can take their turn in the limelight.

And where there isn't a difference, learn from the soaps and throw in a rumour!

Let's see our heroine set up a meeting with the district manager. Let's see the management panic at the unthinkable thought of their incompetence being made aware to the powers above. Let's see one of them removed from their post almost immediately after the meeting finishes. Waitress with a management hitlist? Let's see the rumours fly...

Let's see the featured act at the Pink Flamingo borrow every outfit our heroine owns. Let's see him incorporate them into his show. Let's see him take on her mannerisms and giggle and move like she does. Cute waitress or male drag queen? Let's see the rumours fly...

Let's see our two gay heroes dance around a crush. Let's see one of them open and one of them officially straight. Let's see them get drunk at the Pink Flamingo and head out to the car park for a little nocturnal activity. Let's see them misbehave right next to a car with one way windows. Full of co-workers with wide eyes? Let's see the rumours fly...

On top of all of that, you have the cultural and temporal differences. What if our heroine is a classic rock fan but our heroes have never heard of Woodstock? What if she loves old movies but our heroes thought that Eddie Murphy invented the Nutty Professor?

There's my pitch, Mr Producer. It could never happen in real life, I grant you, but it's perfect for prime time. I just need the financing to get the idea off the ground. A title? You need a title?

How about 'Will, Will and Gramma Grace?'

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