Graham Linehan would like to make one thing really clear, OK? It is this: Father Ted was filmed in front of a studio audience. It might look as thought it's all done in a draughty house on a remote Irish island, but in fact it's a studio set. Linehan, who turned 44 last week, is irked by the persistence of the idea that the sitcom that brought him and Arthur Mathews to the attention of millions has canned laughter on it.
"I get asked it all the time," he says, his Dublin accent tinged with faint exasperation. "It's like the moon landings or something." He thinks the misunderstanding stems from Wikipedia: a sound recordist captures a track from the audience, other microphones capture the actors; the audience noise is called the "laugh track", but that's not the same as a post-dubbed "laugh track". And there's another one, about him and Mathews having originally offering Father Ted to RTE, the Irish station. "We'd as soon have offered it to Waterford Crystal," he jokes. "They'd have had as much idea what to do with it." But still the rumours go on. Damn you, internet.
Right now he's working on another sitcom for the BBC – he's coy about what, precisely. "We're working in the old BBC [TV Centre] building. Normally I have an office upstairs in my house, but going into the BBC is really strange and spooky, being there in its last days. It feels good, actually, to be connected to history."
A clue from an interview he gave to the Irish Post suggests that it is a TV adaptation of Steve Delaney's Radio 4 series Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show! – damn you, internet.
Except that Linehan, whose amiably burly build is a few inches above any crowd, isn't the sort to damn the internet. It's been the making of him in the past couple of years. Of course he'd already had success in his own right. He began as a music and film journalist on Ireland's Hot Press magazine, and then came over to London to write for Select magazine. "Then I invited Arthur over because we'd written some sketches in Ireland, and we had that 'if one man can do it, why can't another?' attitude. If someone can get into it, why can't someone else? And one day we were watching the credits for Alas Smith and Jones [the Mel Smith/Gryff Rhys Jones comedy show] and noticed they had lots of writers, so we thought 'Oh, we'll send stuff in to the producer, because they obviously take submissions'. And everything else just followed."
They wrote for Harry Enfield and The Fast Show (they created the Ted and Ralph characters) and then came Father Ted. After that there was Big Train, Linehan's collaboration with Dylan Moran on Black Books, and his solo project The IT Crowd (a huge hit with the IT-support workers it portrays), which he also directs; most recently the stage adaptation of The Ladykillers, which was nominated for five Olivier awards.
Yet it's only through the internet that he feels validated. "Twitter is like – it's like I blinked into existence. I've been writing comedy for 20 years, but I only got invited on to Have I Got News For You" – which has been going for 22 years – "six months ago. It's because suddenly I existed for a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have known me. Twitter has made me – it's not only brought me out as an individual, but people don't ask me about priests any more, people don't ask me about Ireland – two things that are a part of my life, but priests are not a big part of my life. It's been great to be able to talk about different things because of Twitter."
Certainly his presence on the social network, where he has nearly 180,000 followers, means he has high visibility among the digerati. (At Google's Big Tent event, where we met last week, a group of Googlers cornered him at one point and made earnest efforts to persuade him to make more use of its Google+ network.) The only problem is that he's torn between loving the internet, and finding it a terrible distraction. In his usual routine, "I go up to my office and sit down in front of my computer and turn on the internet and then I don't work – that's the end of work for the day". He laughs. "I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored. There's just so much to do – it's funny, because I'm more creative, but I'm getting less writing done. I'm trying to balance that at the moment. It's a difficult one."
Presently he's trying to force himself to take an hour-and-a-half every day to force that boredom to happen, where he sits in a cafe with just his phone switched to Flight mode – no internet, no calls. "The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck. That's actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer's block, but it's actually just part one of a long process. The internet has made it very difficult to experience that. I've noticed that in the cafe within about 20 minutes I feel like an hour has passed. I check my phone and it's 'oh, shit, I've got another hour and 10 minutes to go'. I might bring the amount of time down." He laughs.
What he's most aware of, and uncomfortable about, are attempts to brand illicit downloaders of films or music as "pirates". He sounds exasperated: "These people aren't pirates, they're fans," he says. "If you think of them like that, it becomes much easier to understand. What fans hate, what they fear, is spoilers. They want to get the content as soon as they can." He sees himself as standing in the middle of the crossfire: "I'm a creator, and I need to be paid and to feed my family, but I'm also a user and a consumer, and I'm really sick of being left out of the conversation. That's the brilliant thing about Twitter and social media, they can't leave us out of the conversation any more." Give the fans the chance to buy the content if they can, and to get it early, and you'll win their love and their money.
What he's most encouraged by is the idea that there are new models for paying for content online – we just haven't explored them fully. Kickstarter, the "crowdfunding" site, looks like a good one. Or apps. There's a million ways to do it. He wouldn't mind shaking up some of the old funding models: "I've always thought that films would be a lot better if people paid on leaving the cinema," he says. "Right now there's a huge industry built around opening terrible films at hundreds of cinemas and then closing them before word of mouth gets around."
Not always, of course. The other day he was on Twitter when he noticed someone tweet "Just off to torrent The It Crowd". Linehan commented: "Buy it if you like it." The first person responded acidly: "What's it to you?" Which quickly drew responses from others to the would-be torrenter: "Dude, he wrote it." Perhaps shame is another business model that needs exploration. Somehow, it would fit into Linehan's gentle sense of the absurd.