This month I am preparing to deliver a workshop on comedy writing to Falmouth University students taking the Writing for Script and Screen online MA and it has given me plenty to think about. I began writing comedy after a brief time trying stand-up and stopped after realising, I only really enjoyed it once it was over. Which is a bit like wearing shoes several sizes too small for you, just for the sheer pleasure to be had in taking them off. I therefore started writing spec scripts for a TV sketch show with some degree of success until a good friend encouraged me to try my hand at a sitcom. This I did and I sent it off to a number of production companies, with the first response being a two-page diatribe telling me just how much that particular production company hated it and I nearly gave up there and then.
But luckily another producer up in Glasgow bought it and it also led to another couple of other commissions, proving that comedy is hugely subjective so you should never give up on a script unless everyone hates it. Then it’s time to try something else and you’ll develop a nose for sensing when. Over the years I have tried my hand at sitcom, comedy drama, sketch shows, children’s comedy, radio, online content, panel and chat shows and I have learned all kinds of tips along the way. From the producer who used to mark my scripts with ‘BL’ and ‘SL.’ Or 'Big Laugh' and 'Small Laugh.' His note for the next draft would often be as simple as to try to turn every 'SL' into a 'BL' and to fill in any gaps between the 'L’s' that were too long. Something I still try to this day. Then another tip from a fellow writer who suggested imaging what the Radio Times cover of your potential sitcom might look like. If it’s not clear, then there is likely to be a problem with your premise or ‘sit.’ And from CBBC who ask two questions when you pitch them a series idea. What’s the story? And then What’s the story really about? The second question being a way to find a universal theme that all kids watching should be able to relate to, even if the story is something really quite light and silly.
Comedy really is a tricky genre to get work in. Broadcasters will tell you all the time that they are desperate for great new primetime sitcoms but once they have given most of the slots to Ricky Gervais or a new series of Alan Partridge, there is not that much spare change left. A couple of years ago I wrote a new script and a producer called me to say that he liked it a lot but there really just wasn’t likely to be a slot for it. Shame, he said. If Greg Davies had written it, they’d be filming it by now, showing just what you are up against. And yes, panel and sketch shows do have lots of writers, but they tend to use the same names and it’s a really tricky world to break into. Mainly because they are just so good at them. The best thing I think you can do is to practice. Watch them all then press the pause button and make up a new gag every time one is delivered. Then if you do find a way to break through into the inner circle, you’ll be ready.
There are other options like Kid’s TV and there are possibilities on radio, but the greatest gift new writers have right now is the ability to get their own content out there. Film yourself being funny and potentially hundreds of thousands of people will watch it overnight. Just look at Will Hislop’s clap for carers sketches. Yes, the surname is familiar, but he went viral very quickly because the idea is so simple, it's really funny and it was all perfectly timed to chime with what the nation was doing and thinking at that particular moment.
And there are plenty of ways to keep your hand in while waiting for a break. In my case, I love writing spoof articles for satirical news websites. No money to be had from most of them but some will pay out a bit and it’s a great way of testing your material. If you are really bored, I write under the name Barry Van Hire on News Biscuit and here are a few from recent years:
I also really enjoy keeping my hand in by sending in stuff to Johnny Vaughn for his Kickabout show on Saturdays. He has a section called Mexican handbags which are observations on everyday life beginning with the words - The old followed by a place and then an action. I send in stuff under the name Cheshire Ian and recent selections he has chosen have included:
The old Aldershot Adjustment - The movements you make to your office chair that give you the feeling that you are actually flying a plane or spacecraft.
The old Dixon of Dock Green Duck - When a policeman on a TV drama puts someone they have just arrested into their car by completely unnecessarily shoving their head down.
The old Kenilworth Keith Floyd - What every bloke becomes after opening the wine just before they start cooking.
The old Filbert Street Finish - When a striker is ruled offside and play stops, but they drive the ball into the back of the net anyway. Closely followed by the old Tottenham Tut - The look the keeper gives them after having to retrieve the ball.
The old Daytime Disco - When a seagull realises it can make a streetlight come on and off just by placing its foot on the sensor.
The beauty is that opportunities like this are open to anyone. As is You Tube. And this will be the main thrust of my talk to the students next month - they have ways past the gate keepers which were not open to me when I first started so to take full advantage.