James Cary is a comedy writer, working on sitcoms for the BBC in TV (Miranda, My Family) and radio (Hut 33, Think the Unthinkable, Another Case of Milton Jones). He has been nominated for BAFTA, RTS, Sony and Perrier awards.
What attracted you to comedy writing?
Comedy has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. My parents had some funny LPs (e.g. Pam Ayers. Seriously) and I obsessively watched the Two Ronnies. In once sense, I think I've had a long-standing admiration for the control that one person can exert over a roomful of people, purely by the power of words. So I was left either trying to be a dictator or a comedian.
How did you get into it?
I wrote sketches at school, and then I was involved with the university revue at Durham, and ended up running it. Leaving Uni, I applied for one or two jobs, mainly in advertising-related fields, but didn't get any of them. I did some work experience at BBC News and The Week magazine, and didn't like that. Then I was a runner for The Friday Night Armistice on BBC2 - and realised I didn't like TV production either. I liked the idea of being in the room when they came up with the funnies. I was having some success writing sketches for Week Ending on Radio 4 and then, through Sally Phillips who went to my church, heard about Smack the Pony and ended up having half a dozen sketches on that show. And soon I realised I was a comedy writer.
What do you love about your job?
The freedom. For some, the lack of structure would be scary or difficult. Being my own boss, going wherever I like during the working day and picking my projects is a real privilege. I also love the actual product of the job itself. Comedy - when it works - is wonderful and brings great joy, and can also speak really powerful truth.
And what do you hate about it?
The waiting can be frustrating, but while you wait for some producer or commissioner to make up their mind about a project, you can just get on with the next thing. The really annoying thing is the reasons you are given for rejection, which are frequently arbitrary, dumb or non-sensical. Usually, the real reason my show has not been commissioned or progressed is because the commissioner or executive doesn't find it funny. It would be refreshing if more people just said that.
How does your work relate to your faith?
It worries me that Christians separate work and faith - when faith is everything. If we are living in God's world, if Jesus is King and will return to make all things new, that affects every single thing we do. It doesn't mean we should become weird or needlessly different - but my faith affects my work, the content of it and the way I work. Some think this means that all my scripts, therefore, should be 'positive' or have secret or blatant Christian messages. I don't agree. The Bible is The Great Story - about creation, fall, forbearance, sacrifice, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and glory. All stories we tell are subsets of that Great Story. The Bible is a story, but also contains propositional truth (within a context). Jesus told stories. He also made statements. We need storytelling. We need preaching and teaching. And we must be careful when we merge the two.
In terms of putting together a Christian framework for my particular work, I've always been confident that comedy and Christianity fit together well, and any apparent mismatch must be theological error and not the Creator’s design. The question comes down to whether we believe that Christ laughed. The gospels never show Him laughing, and yet he drew people to himself, told stories and shocked the crowds with satire, sarcasm and even impersonating Pharisees. Christ was a comedian. Clearly he was, and is, plenty of other things too, but I've always been confident that Christians can laugh, should laugh and probably don't laugh enough.
The challenge for all of us is to get a Biblical mandate for our work, so that when we work, and excel in our field, we feel God's pleasure, to quote Eric Liddell. I believe that if we've got a Bible, the mandate is sitting in our hands. We just need to read a bit more closely.
What is the most challenging thing about being a Christian in mainstream media?
Perhaps maintaining a healthy attitude to success? The Bible regularly uses the phrases 'But as for me' or 'but as for you', encouraging God's people to not worry about the success of others, or the esteem of the world. We should seek a quiet life, and work with our hands in humble obedience. If God gives us an Oscar or a yacht for that work, or a lifetime of contented obscurity, that's up to Him. He is good - and remains so regardless of the content of our trophy cabinet or bank account.