In the director's chair: Jamie Jay Johnson on TV comedy becoming more diverse & laughing at Karl Pilkington

Jamie Jay Johnson is the latest in the director's chair

The latest director to face The Drum’s questions in our Director’s Chair series is Rattling Stick director Jamie Jay Johnson, famed for work on British TV comedies including Fresh Meat and Carl Pilkington, as well as ads for brands such as Google.

He discusses laughing so hard cameras need stabilization, the increasing diversity in comedy and the importance of finding a connection for the audience.

Previously in the series, The Drum has quizzed Emmanuel Adjei, Henry Busby, Andrew Lang, Camille Marotte, Mea Dols de Jong, Klaus Obermeyer, Eli Roth, Mate Steinforth, Pamela Romanowsky, Traktor and Doug Liman.

Who or what inspired you to be a Director? (or who are your creative heroes and why?)

I guess when I was young I was inspired by various things from The Adam and Joe Show and Sesame St animations to Monkey Magic and BBC Nature docs… I remember rushing home to watch surreal comedies like Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV Series and then when I went to art school at Saint Martin's, I loved ideas and wrote my thesis on Conceptual art. I was watching lots of experimental and art house movies there, and also music videos and ads by people like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Hammer and Tongs.

Outside of work, what are you into?

I like exploring new places and stuff which all my friends berate me for dragging them along to. I went to Billingsgate fish market last week which was brilliant people watching and a piece of London culture I’d never seen before.

During the heatwave my partner, our daughter and I wanted to go swimming in the sea, so we drove to a place called Jaywick Sands which was pretty extraordinary and felt quite modern-day-Dickens.

Sometimes I pretend I’m looking for locations but I know really I’m just being nosey. Open House weekend is probably my favorite weekend of the year… I love seeing how other people live and nosing around strangers houses… I think that’s why I got into documentary making in the first place; nosey-curiosity.

How would you describe your style of commercial/filmmaking? What are you known for?

I guess I’d say hopefully playful and imaginative but with some heart too. I always gravitate to a comic/absurd way of looking at stuff but I’d like to think with quite an accessible/ populist sensibility if that makes any sense.

Have you got an idea about what sort of projects you’d like to work on or are you quite open-minded about what work comes your way?

I’m open-minded. I just shot some shorts for Google starring some of the guys from People Just Do Nothing. They were all mock-doc and that was really fun and liberating to be able to improvise and keep the energy going without waiting for relighting but I’m very open.

When you’re looking at scripts and projects that come in, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?

Maybe something believable/truthful… Something I connect with and think an audience could connect with also. I’ll usually be looking for some element of humor in there too as that’s the kind of thing I like watching.

What's your funniest moment on set?

I laugh a fair bit on set much to the annoyance of the sound department. Not sure what my funniest moment would be but there was definitely lots with Jack Whitehall and Charlotte Ritchie and the rest of the Fresh Meat cast improvising and ad-libbing things which made me spit my drink through my nose laughing. Also, Karl Pilkington on Idiot Abroad would often make us have to stabilize shots lots in post-production as I was shaking with laughter trying to hold the camera steady.

What's your best piece of work?

I guess my cinema feature doc Sounds Like Teen Spirit. It’s an affectionate portrayal following the losers of the Junior Eurovision. The characters are just very touching and funny and scarily wise for their age and audiences seemed to really love and connect with it.

I’m still proud of Holiday Around My Bedroom which is pretty distinctively ‘me’ but it’s also it the project which makes me cringe most too.

Which ad do you wish you'd made?

Dougal Wilson I think is a genius so probably most anything that he’s done. I still can’t watch his Paralympics ‘Yes I can’ without laughing and welling up simultaneously. Megaforce’s LDN also makes me weirdly emotional. Danny (Kleinman), Ringan, Andy Mcleod, and the whole Rattling roster’s work is also a big inspiration so hoping to pick up some tips and guidance from them.

How well does the information flow between client, agency and production company on a job?

In the Google 'People Just Do Nothing' job I’m just finishing it seemed to flow pretty smoothly. We had good clear conversations before so everyone was on the same page and then on set we shot the script and then also did a fair bit of improvising to make the films feel more like the series. All the agency and client seemed to really enjoy that and it made the shoot really fun too.

What's been the biggest change in the industry during your career?

From a TV comedy/Film point of view, it’s maybe the mix of people. Previously there sometimes seemed to maybe be a bit of an Oxbridge dominance but the success of shows like This Country, People Just Do Nothing, and Chewing Gum means that’s shifting more and more.

Have you worked on any client direct commercials (no agency involved)? What's been the difference?

I’ve only worked on projects which involved an agency so can’t tell you yet I’m afraid.

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