Something that I’ve been asked a lot over the years when people see/hear my name come up in the credits for something or ask what I’ve been working on is, “How did you get that?” Of course, having spent 16 years performing as a stand-up comedian, the question is usually from a stand-up and the undertone to it is a definite, “Why you and not me?” Just the same as it is when I ask other people that question!
Anyway, I thought that I’d put together as simple a guide as I can. My ‘Professional Comedy Writing 101’, if you will. Will it help you? That’s hard to say. Talent can be nurtured through practice… but if it’s not there then nothing’s going to improve the situation. However, if you don’t try, you’ll never know.
This is the simplest but most important piece of advice that I can give. If you want to be a comedy writer (or any kind of writer), write! Imagine saying to a taxi driver, “I’d love to get paid to drive a car”, then follow it up with, “Although I don’t actually have a driving licence.” One of the common misconceptions people have is that you start doing something once somebody pays you to do it. Wrong, you do it because you want to, you keep doing it to get better and eventually you build up both your abilities and the body of work that you have behind you to act as a portfolio. Then somebody might pay you to do it.
‘Writing’ can sound very daunting but it doesn’t have to be. I wrote a play script last year (it didn’t get picked up, but hey) and a few years ago that would have seemed like a very daunting prospect to me. However, I looked at it this way.
• Have I written jokes? Yes.
• Have I written sketches? Yes.
• Have I written (on spec) a sitcom script? Yes.
• So could I write something a length up from that – a 50min play script? Yes, why not?
So whether what you have bouncing around in your head to start with is a joke, a limerick, a real story that you want to edit to make sharper and funnier… get it written down. Then the next format up in length that you try to write won’t seem so daunting.
Understand that writing for money will mean writing to a brief other than your own.
Writing for stand-up was simple, I just said what I wanted to say. Of course, I had to take into account the audience’s likely reaction, then the audience’s actual reaction and keep re-shaping things from there. Well… actually, I didn’t always have such a good record on that. It depended on my mood. Anyway, let’s gloss over that part.
If you’re serious about writing professionally then you should be used to writing for pleasure but very few people will be able to go straight to fully realising their own dream in a paid capacity. Or to ever get to do that. Generally, you’ll be writing to briefs laid down by producers for existing or upcoming shows (or to the parameters of a comedians’ style and requirements if you begin writing for comedians).
That’s something that you just have to get your head around and get on with. What you need to consider is, does what I’ve written match the parameters of the –
Generate comedy ideas through perspiration when inspiration isn’t working
This is the other difficult part about writing comedy professionally. If you have a commission, you’ve made an agreement in advance to produce a certain amount of material of a certain quality. Hence, you can’t just write whatever you generate through inspiration alone, send that in and hope for the best. You have to produce at least (and usually more – to allow leeway for the producer’s take on that material) the agreed amount of material.
What are some tips to generate ideas? Well, sometimes, geekily, I think of jokes at their most basic form as being like a chemical reaction. a + b = joke. So perhaps if you were writing for a sketch show, character + setting = funny sketch. You could do something as basic as draw up a list of different types of person/job and a list of different locations and then go down them seeing if the thought of each combination sparks an idea.
Nope? Then try raising the stakes a little. Think about extremes. That list of characters, some of them were perhaps no more than job titles – so who would be the best or the worst person who could have that role? This may help you to come up with a character that can more easily be used to generate comedy in different situations. Equally, you can have a look at that list of locations/settings – who would be the worst person that could be present? Think of the old phrase ‘A bull in a china shop’, it’s used so much because it really paints a vivid and extreme picture. It works. Can you come up with something similar?
How can you create topical humour?
Sometimes, either for a programme or for your own purposes, you’ll want to use topical humour. A simple tip for writing jokes (which you may then be able to extrapolate into longer sketches) is to look at a headline and think, “If this is the set-up, what’s the punchline?”
Tabloids are probably easier to use for this than broadsheets, for two reasons. Their headlines tend to be more succinct and they also tend to be more extreme. So while you might feel a little grubbier (literally, given the way newsprint comes off in your hands) using them, there is a reason behind it. Jokes – certainly one-liner jokes – work best when there’s no flab on them. When every word is crucial to the joke and the excess has been stripped off. That’s the same kind of succinct approach that the tabloids take. With a joke, you need to convey the premise as clearly and succinctly as possible so that everybody understands it… then deliver the punchline.
The exception to that ‘clear and succinct’ rule would be if you’re watching an after-dinner speaker. Having liberated a joke from its creator, they’re usually keen to take ownership of it by having a lot of faff at the start setting up how this was something that really happened to them, before eventually delivering what should be a relatively simple joke that in fact has nothing to do with them. I think of this as being like the misdirection used by magicians. Anyway.
Another tip for using topicality is to try to work out how you can combine two of the major news stories of the day in one joke to ‘double the impact’ if you like. Again, think of it as a + b = joke.
Relax… then apply stimuli for comedic inspiration
Mind won’t work at all? Take a little bit of time out so that you’re not just staring blankly at a screen or a newspaper. Take 15 or 30 minutes or an hour… or whatever you can. Go away and do something else. Come back to things and try to keep your mind relaxed. Look up ‘random word generators’ on the internet. Have a click on them, look at the words being brought up and see what they make you think of. It’s a good way to quickly run through a lot of possible stimuli try to find something that sparks an idea and gets you back into creative mode.
Showcase yourself AND seek out comedy writing opportunities
You need to be producing content and you need to be getting it out there. The good news is that the latter part has never been easier, thanks to the explosion in social media. My background in comedy gave me some opportunities as my ability to craft a joke was being demonstrated in comedy clubs in front of whoever was coming to watch and also in front of peers who went on to situations in which they required the back-up of writers to produce enough content.
At the same time, you have to pursue things. In 2004 I entered a Channel 4 competition to write a short film / long sketch script. Mine was one of 20 selected to be put through Masterclass workshops and it was then one of 4 eventual winners. Through the process, I met people at The Comedy Unit production company.
They suggested that if any of us wanted to, we could submit sketches for the upcoming series of The Karen Dunbar Show. Determined to get a writing credit under my belt, I sent around 80 sketches and got a few used. They also offered the opportunity of a week’s work experience. I took this working on the football show, Offside, wrote gags for it during my work experience that got broadcast, then continued submitting gags on a paid-if-broadcast basis.
This combination earned me a small writing commission for the Radio Scotland series Watson’s Wind-Up and being able to hit my commitments for that eventually led to me being taken on full-time. I left after a couple of years to go freelance but made sure to still make use of the contacts and connections I’d made, but a new showcase was looming.
Around 2009 I began using Twitter fairly prolifically to showcase my gag-writing abilities and build a following. This led me to some regular paid work writing for somebody. Unfortunately, at this point I took my eye off the ball a little and lost that freelancer’s mentality for a while. I got comfortable. My content went to that one (uncredited) source, I coasted. Then they stopped doing the work that required that content.
Thankfully, since then, a (fear-fuelled) frenzy of activity has seen me re-invigorated and back in gainful employment, making use of both my comedy and acquired social media skills. Being able to write funny content for social media these days is no longer a way to show-off, it’s a way to earn money. Create the opportunity and take the opportunity.
If you’re looking for TV/Radio or similar opportunities then the BBC Writer’s Room is a great place to start. Keep an eye on it for programmes coming up that are looking for material. In the meantime, do your own writing and get it out there (credited) by whatever means you can. It’s your calling card. Make it work for you.