As the upcoming second series of You Couldn’t Make It Up, our weekly comedy news panel show for Newstalk, fast approaches, it got me thinking about its long and precarious journey thus far.
No two programme ideas go through the same process to get on air.
Some happen very quickly, from its originator having the initial idea to it being commissioned to it ending up on your TV or radio.
Others move more slowly, winding and wending their way through a longer more time-consuming process.
This might involve an extended development period as the idea morphs and shape-shifts, only arriving in its final, perfectly-structured form after numerous drafts.
It may entail a more laborious journey across the desks of a multitude of station big wigs until one eventually decides its right for them. And that they can afford it.
It could require complex funding often from numerous different sources that necessitates a plethora of pitches and sales meetings and much tedious bureaucratic form-filling.
And then once they get on air, some successful ideas burn brightly for a one-off transmission or over a single short run, while others might be slow-burners, in it for the long haul and only grabbing the headlines a couple of series down the line.
And then there’s You Couldn’t Make It Up.
Each broadcast has its own individual story to tell, and You Couldn’t Make It Up’s is as unique as it gets.
Back on Newstalk for a second 10-week run from Saturday January 19th at 9.30am, YCMIU has been around the houses just to get this far.
As we often describe it, it’s the show that refuses to die, such has been its regular resurgences just when we think its pulse is no more.
And even now we still think we’re only starting out with it.
This despite it being five years since we made the first one…which I would have claimed as a record between a first and second series of anything on radio or TV had not know-it-all journo and music promoter, Barry Hartigan recently pointed me in the direction of US drama, The Comeback on HBO where season 1 in 2005 and 2 in 2014 had a nine year gap.
Firebrand co-producer, Mark Warren, initially told me about YCMIU over lunch in early 2011. We had just worked together at Coco TV on the second RTÉ One television end-of-year news review show, Now That’s What You Call News 2010 and were catching up after the Christmas break.
He had the idea many years before – it came out of a conversation he had with someone who asked him about the elements needed to tell a story – and had already pitched it as a TV format, as well, believe it or not, as a board game.
When he described it to me he figured it might work on radio, an area I had far more experience and contacts in.
I agreed, so I took it home and tweaked it with this in mind. Less than a month later we had our first meeting about it in RTÉ Radio 1. Sadly it was not to be there.
We worked up the format over many nights of tea-and-biscuits-fuelled trial-and-error in the regular company of longtime YCMIU friends, writer Charlie Connelly and comic actor Paddy C Courtney, and relative newcomer, comedian Colm O’Regan who signed up ahead of the first of a bunch of pilots we made for them.
One, presented by Theresa Lowe, was even broadcast, as What’s The Story? with team members Simon Delaney, Tara Flynn, Colm and Ciara O’Callaghan.
Despite all this, in spring 2012 RTÉ passed on it.
Naturally Mark and I were disappointed, more so as we both knew it was in fact a good idea rather than just because we’d put a pile of work into producing the pilots.
But them’s the breaks so we shrugged our shoulders and regrouped. Its other natural home was of course Newstalk so we now took it there. Thankfully they liked the idea on paper and were intrigued when we told them we had made a pilot they could actually listen to.
I clearly remember the wry smile on the face of Garrett Harte, Newstalk’s then Editor in Chief, when a few days after our first meeting as I handed him a CD of last Radio 1 pilot I told him I figured he’d really enjoy it – as RTÉ had paid for it.
My cheekiness paid off as a week later we were back in Newstalk HQ discussing with Garrett how we might now get the damn thing on air.
YCMIU is not a cheap format; it requires a large recording space to accommodate an audience during every recording, something Newstalk doesn’t have, as well as also numerous writers and a couple of producers beavering away in the days before each to come up with potential content and then a variety of funny folk to work their comedy magic on stage week in, week out for 10 weeks.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland‘s Sound & Vision Fund seemed like an obvious place to look, so we applied in early summer 2012, though we were far from sure they’d fund a comedy format. No one was more pleasantly surprised than us when a few months later we found they did.
But this wasn’t our final financial hurdle. We still had to make up a still-significant BAI funding shortfall. Because they never give producers the full amount – and the larger the budget required the smaller the percentage they award – to get it over the line we still needed more money than Newstalk could afford. A sponsor was required.
After knocking on a lot of doors we eventually got one, Vodafone agreeing to help us out in autumn 2013 with only a few weeks to spare before we’d have lost our BAI cash, as their funding is only ever valid for a year from their initial offer.
We were, by the skin of our teeth, good to go.
Over the end of 2013 and early 2014 we produced our first 10 episodes of YCMIU for Newstalk, learning and generally improving as we went.
There we are now. Almost done. #YCMIU RT @RadionationIE: @YCMIUnewstalk reaches end of 1st run http://t.co/6PCu5qL7yR pic.twitter.com/u03XJ1YsZy— Pat O'Mahony (@patomahony1) January 27, 2014
When we wrapped in February we looked forward to getting a second series off the ground as soon as possible.
Little did we know we’d have to wait another five years to get that chance.
One of the understandable quirks of the BAI Sound & Vision scheme is that you can only apply for repeat funding once your project is not only transmitted but then has all its paperwork signed off. This meant it was summer of 2014 before we were ready again.
Except by then Newstalk didn’t want us. Whatever was now in what had then been our Sunday 6pm slot was doing really well, and because they had nowhere else in the schedule to put us, they couldn’t support us in a BAI application.
Without a broadcaster now we really were a dead duck.
And so we thought until about nine months later when completely out of the blue a producer at Newstalk rang me to ask if we’d be interested in submitting YCMIU to an upcoming BAI S&V round.
I was dumbstruck…delighted, but dumbstruck.
Once we got over the shock of this unexpected resurrection Mark and I got stuck into the BAI’s online application form, itself a work of extraordinarily bureaucratic detail that has defeated many of the great and good over the years.
One thing we were especially aware of was that this was a follow-up application and the form specifically says in this case you should pay particular attention to showing how new and different it is from the original.
This time, however, this was our big mistake.
Having never gone for second helpings to the BAI before Mark and I picked the brains of a few people we knew who previously had successfully had a second, and even a third, series qualify for their funding, and to a one they all told us we should make significant changes to convince our potential paymasters of our newness. They were wrong.
A few months later our application was turned down. One reason the BAI gave us was that they felt we were suggesting changes in the format that were untried and untested. As they pointed out, the news content of the show by its very definition made each programme, never mind series, new.
Back to the drawing board.
So we applied again, this time taking their feedback very much on board. And wouldn’t ya know, a few months later – by now it was mid-2016 – we were awarded funding for YCMIU2.
All we needed now was to sort a sponsor. Vodafone were no longer as runner, having in the interim made a corporate decision, apart from their annual comedy festival in Dublin, to concentrate their sponsorship on the Irish rugby team.
But our timing unfortunately couldn’t have been worse…and all because of f**kin’ Brexit.
When the referendum across the Irish Sea to leave the EU passed I initially did little but sigh as to the stupidity of it, a decision as far as I could see based on lies, fear mongering and xenophobia.
But when I read a few weeks later that RTÉ’s advertising income, much of which comes from London-based ad companies dealing in sterling, had taken a serious hit as the British currency nosedived in the result’s immediate aftermath, I figured maybe I had something to worry about here.
Sure enough, a few weeks later an RTÉ television exec told me the department was no longer taking on freelancers as a direct result of this major income drop. Ouch.
As I found out over the following year, Brexit was making a lot of other business people jittery and while I sent umpteen emails and had lots of meetings with potential YCMIU sponsors or their agents, none were biting.
And we weren’t the only ones. One radio station boss told me that they had long-established programmes they couldn’t get sponsors for, all they felt because of Brexit.
I persisted until the very end but a year after the BAI had announced the funding round we were part of we had to go back to them to tell them the bad news: despite our initial confidence based on having got a sponsor first time round, we had failed this time and so couldn’t take up their funding offer.
And though we were gutted, the BAI were terrific about it. They understood the precariousness of the economy at the time, they realised we’d busted a gut on it, and they were fully cognisant of the good track record Mark and I, both individually and together, had with them, so they said to come back if or when in the future we did get a sponsor for the series.
A year later, as much to our surprise as anyone else’s, we were once again online filling out another BAI Sound & Vision Fund form.
In the interim, more by accident than by design, Tesco had come on board as our elusive sponsor. I’d gone to a branding event late in 2016 where something else completely was to be discussed – I didn’t know in advance who the brand even was – and by a welcome stroke of luck before it finished I had one of your classic light-bulb moments and made a move.
A few coffees and a bunch of emails later, Tesco were in. Now we just needed to see if the BAI were serious about us re-applying.
They were and last autumn we were green lit.
Since then Mark and I have been slowly ramping up production, sorting a suitable city centre recording venue that’s available for ten Thursdays in a row from January 17th – Tramline on Hawkins St ticked all our boxes – booking comedians for the opening few shows, getting a new logo for the show to use across social media, on Newstalk’s, Tesco’s and Firebrand’s websites, on our Eventbrite free-tickets page, for the stage backdrop, and so on, as well as arranging writers, sound crew and production staff, recording on-air promos, etc.
By now we’re damn nearly there and raring to go again. Five years is a long time so hopefully we haven’t lost our comedy mojo.
We’ll find out soon enough.
Oh, and we still think it’s a format that has international possibilities and could even crossover to television.
But one step at a time for the moment. No rush.
To keep up to date on all things YCMIU you can follow us on Twitter at @YCMIUNewstalk here:
And/or like us on Facebook at the similarly monikered YCMIUNewstalk here:
*Yawns, stretches, looks around blinking in the light, scratches our inappropriate places, stands up*Well hey. And we'…Posted by You Couldn't Make It Up on Friday, December 28, 2018
To grab free tickets for upcoming recordings at Tramline, check out our Eventbrite page.
And if you miss a show or just want to listen again, click here for our podcasts on newstalk.com or here on iTunes.