The perils and pratfalls of being an entitled millennial inform Iain Stirling’s zippy ITV2 sitcom Buffering. The children’s TV presenter-turned-actor and writer tells Neil Batey all about season two of his passion project.
Warning: this could get confusing. In UK sitcom Buffering, former kids’ TV presenter Iain Stirling plays a former kids’ TV presenter called Iain – but he’s emphatically not playing himself, OK?
Clearly the world of semi-autobiographical comedies can be a little bewildering, as the man behind Buffering still finds himself explaining to people that the main character in the show – a bumbling kidult with delusions of grandeur and a strong aversion to romantic commitment – is not a carbon copy of Stirling himself.
To muddy the waters even further, in season two, which launches on ITV2 today, Stirling’s real-life wife Laura Whitmore has been cast in a recurring guest role, while his longtime friend – and series co-creator – Steve Bugeja once again portrays Iain’s mate Finn.
Frankly, it’s hard to see how Buffering isn’t a clear example of art imitating life.
“Yes, a lot of Buffering is more me than I would care to share,” says Stirling. “But on the other hand, a lot is fabricated, so it’s quite a nice way to veil my life. It’s like a little fun guessing game that viewers can play at home – did I actually do that in real life? Did that really happen to Iain Stirling?
“Creating this sitcom has been liberating for me, because there are many things in Buffering that are true to my life that I wouldn’t talk about in interviews or on stage in my stand-up comedy shows, because it’s private and personal to me. It’s a cathartic way to talk about my life experiences without giving away too much. But yes, I do regret calling the main character Iain. Perhaps he should have gone by another name.”
Co-written by Stirling and Bugeja, Buffering’s first six-part season debuted on ITV2 in August 2021. Stirling plays a disenchanted children’s TV host who is regularly upstaged by his colleague – a popular glove puppet called Larry the Lizard.
This scenario closely reflects Stirling’s own career: he was talent-spotted at a live comedy gig and hired as a presenter for kids’ channel CBBC alongside his canine sidekick Hacker T Dog.
In Buffering, on-screen Iain is desperate to get a ‘proper’ job on adult television and is also in an on-but-mostly-off relationship with his bolshy producer Olivia, played by Industry’s Elena Saurel. Away from the struggles of his semi-celebrity life, Iain shares a South London home with his friends – kooky live-in landlord Rosie (Jessie Cave), nerdy Greg (Paul G Raymond) and his philandering girlfriend Ashley (Rosa Robson), and feisty American Thalia (Janine Harouni).
“It’s more than a straight-up flatshare comedy because the scenes shot in the kids’ TV studio with Larry the Lizard give the sitcom a unique feel and vibe,” says Stirling. “ITV were keen on that angle when they commissioned the series.”
Stirling, who describes Buffering as a passion project, started writing the show when he was 27 – the same age bracket as most of Buffering’s characters. It was originally conceived to be shot on location in a real London house, but that idea had to be abandoned after the filming of just two episodes in early 2020 when the Covid pandemic hit.
Following this enforced break, production resumed, but this time with all scenes shot in a studio because of Covid safety regulations as the UK television industry tentatively attempted to return to some semblance of normality.
“It’s wild the amount of effort that goes into making a sitcom,” says Stirling. “It just takes so long to make a project like this happen, which is why I’m now a 34-year-old playing a 29-year-old on screen – when I wrote it, I was still relatively young!
“Especially with the Covid situation, getting Buffering on screen has felt like trying to complete an intricate Tetris puzzle; as soon as you put one block in place, another is already falling out of the sky to deal with.”
Buffering is made by UK- and US-based prodco Avalon, a company that also managed Stirling when he was a regular on the British live comedy circuit.
“I owe a lot to Avalon, they’ve been kind to me since the start of my career,” Stirling says. “So they were perfect for Buffering, as I was a big fan of Avalon programming such as Taskmaster and in particular Catastrophe, with Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan. That show was a massive influence on the look of Buffering – classy and visually punching above its budget.”
Season two once again sees the crew of 20-something housemates get drunk, gossip, banter, bicker and offer emotional support to each other as they navigate love, life, careers and emotional crises.
In both his Amazon Prime comedy special Failing Upwards and autobiography Not Ready to Adult Yet, Stirling has based a lot of his material on the struggles of being a millennial. The challenges and pratfalls of this demographic also inform Buffering in its depiction of young people on the cusp of responsible grown-up life, but completely unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
“The reason the show is called Buffering is because these characters are at that stage of life where they’re ‘loading’ into adulthood,” says Stirling. “They’re waiting for that one job or relationship to fall into place so that all of a sudden they’ll become grown-ups.
“Being a millennial, our parents told us that we’re special little flowers, we’re important, the world’s our oyster and our opinion matters. Then of course we got out into the real world and found that’s not the case at all. Our uniqueness melted away and it was a hard thing for us to deal with.”
Buffering’s flatsharers grapple with many of these existential generational anxieties, though not at the expense of quickfire gags as the friends go speed-dating, throw a disastrous house party and endure a boring weekend visiting a pretentious couple who’ve embraced the rural idyll.
There are celebrity cameos too, with The Inbetweeners actor Emily Atack and radio DJ Melvin Odoom both playing themselves, while David Carlyle (It’s a Sin) portrays a hipster suffering a premature midlife meltdown.
Arguably the most noteworthy new role is reserved for Whitmore, playing a terrifying channel controller who takes an instant dislike to Iain. Dublin-born Whitmore is familiar to British audiences as the host of reality shows Love Island – for which Stirling contributes witty narration – and Survival of the Fittest. The couple married in 2020 and have a daughter together.
With his wife now an official Buffering cast member, was Stirling not wary of blurring the lines between his personal and professionals lives?
“Laura is very convincing playing someone who finds me absolutely repulsive,” jokes Stirling. “She’s either going to win a Bafta acting award or we’re going to break up very soon.”
Stirling’s other partnership is a creative collaboration with co-writer Bugeja, a former stand-up comic who has previously written for shows such as The Russell Howard Hour and Stirling-fronted gameshow CelebAbility. Bugeja’s role as Finn, Iain’s overly detail-driven colleague, has been expanded for season two.
“I’ve known Steve for many years,” says Stirling. “We’ve written loads of stand-up together and we complement each other really well, so when I was asked to do Buffering he was my first port of call. He’s more disciplined than me when it comes to clarifying ideas, narratives and structure to the scripts.
“This second season is a bit of departure for us, in that the gag rate has stepped up and the focus is more on episode-by-episode plots, rather than a linear continuous story arc.
“We’ve got an amazing script editor called Kate Leys who encouraged us to focus on the gags and themes for each individual episode, which would allow the overarching story and characterisation to naturally fall into place. I was a bit sceptical at first, but it works and we’ve stuck with that approach. We’re inspired by zippy US comedies such as Modern Family. Every line in the Buffering scripts is there for a reason, either to tell a joke or advance the story. Nothing is wasted.
“Buffering still touches on the more emotional elements of life that are tougher for people to discuss – like Iain and Olivia losing their unborn baby in season one – but the show is generally done with an intentionally much lighter touch this year.
“Once again, the main theme is that malaise we all experience at some stage of our lives when we just feel like we’re coasting and not reaching our full potential.”
Unfulfilled ambition certainly doesn’t appear to be an issue in Stirling’s own career. With Buffering back on screens, his schedule is further packed out by working on the UK and US versions of Love Island, more stand-up shows and the demands of raising a young daughter.
As well as screening on ITV2, Buffering is also available to watch as a boxset on revamped streaming platform ITVX, which launched last December. With ITV’s director of television Kevin Lygo saying he is actively seeking edgy new comedy content to attract a younger viewing demographic, Stirling claims the digital world has become a vital breeding ground for upcoming creatives with funny bones.
“ITVX would be a great place for aspiring writers to pitch their comedy projects,” he says. “It reminds me of when BBC Three went completely online from 2016 to 2022. There was uproar at first, but what actually happened was that so much great comedy content was made as a result of that.
“With the advent of things like TikTok, commissioners now realise that they don’t need famous faces for younger audiences to connect with. So long as it’s good content, a show will make that journey to findings its fanbase.”
tagged in: Buffering, Iain Stirling, ITV2