I've previously talked about the importance of learning and mastering the basics of comedy writing and how it can help you move up the ‘ladder’ of opportunity and get noticed by producers. Below are ten ways you can go about this… I recommend you try as many as possible!
1. Listen to Newsjack. BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Newsjack (http://bbc.in/O7dyIz) is a great example of how new writers should write topical sketches and one-liners. Listen carefully to an episode (sticking a pencil behind your ear might help) and try to unpick the structure and rhythm of the material. They all follow a very similar formula and they ALL generate laughs (and the occasional groan) from the audience. It’s a simple but effective style that's recognised across the comedy writing industry. Plus the producers are really great guys. Like super great. Top top people. Like THE best (no really). Any jobs guys…? No?
2. Read a book. There are many books on writing comedy, so why not invest a few pounds in what amounts to a masterclass from a professional. To get ahead of the pack, I recommend investing the time putting into practice the words on the page (and you thought you’d escaped homework...). I found The Serious Guide to Joke Writing by Sally Holloway (http://amzn.to/1PtGXFJ) to be a fantastic foundation into the basics which you can dip into time and again. For a more detailed inspection of humour The Cheeky Monkey by Tim Ferguson (http://amzn.to/1XphPb8) is pretty much the mother-lode, but be prepared to sink hours into that bad boy and James Carey’s thorough, charming and honest Writing that Sitcom (http://amzn.to/1Uju8Co) gets my vote for all aspiring sitcom writers (plus it’s a Kindle book, which makes you look cooler when you read it...right?)
3. Read writer’s blogs. James Cary keeps a really good blog (http://bit.ly/28Scl7W) about the art of sitcom writing, PLUS does a free podcast. He’s basically a very nice man sharing some very useful information. I’d also recommend David Salisbury’s archive (http://bit.ly/28QKAYa), Ian Tiller’s site (http://bit.ly/290DnWa) and of course my site (http://bit.ly/28VHvtd).
4. Read some scripts. Studying scripts that Producers have bought can provide a great insight into what ‘good’ looks like. Try breaking down and understanding how the script was put together and what makes it strong. Is is the characters? The pithiness of the dialogue? The surprising jokes? Or that hilarious custard pie fight on page 7? (Idea for sitcom - two sexually repressed clowns head to Vegas where HILARIOUS antics ensue). The BBC Writersroom (http://bbc.in/28JFcb1) is a great place to find sample UK scripts and this site (http://bit.ly/28JL8zA) is amazing for US shows. Newsjack host a nice sketch from Sarah Campbell (http://bbc.in/17golt9) and Tom Neenan has written a brilliant introspective (http://bbc.in/28Jco0A) that is a must read. Both Sarah and Tom are ex-BBC Bursary Writers, the ‘gold standard’ of comedy writing placements to aspire to! I’d also recommend anytime you meet a writer to ask if you can swap scripts - that way you’ll see what the ‘competition’ is up to, get a feel for different writing styles and maybe spot some techniques you can add to your repertoire. Don’t forget, this deal only works if you have something for them to read as well.
5. Watch some sketches online. Try looking at sketches from the perspective of a writer. Once you feel you’ve understood the basics, looking for the theory action can be a brilliant way of mastering your craft (and is a great excuse to sit on YouTube for a couple of hours). Look for common structure, rhythm and mechanics. Do they follow what you’ve learned or break the rules in a knowing way? If you think they’re rubbish can you work out why they didn’t work? Mitchell and Webb sketches (e.g. http://bit.ly/1dMYla0, http://bit.ly/1T6enLT & http://bit.ly/2fzUlhj) can be a great place to start.
6. Collaborate. Writing can be a lonely art...but it doesn’t have to be. Bouncing ideas and gags off other writers and performers can help you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t and fellow writers will be facing the same challenges as you. Some may even have found solutions. Places like the Comedy Crowd’s collaboration board or the British Comedy Guide’s collaboration forum are a great way to find someone to work with. Why not try teaming up with that writer you just met the other day who you got on really well with? When you find someone good, learn from them. When you just don’t click with someone, don’t be afraid to move on.
7. Go see live comedy. It doesn’t matter if it’s stand-up or live sketch, there’s little substitute for seeing first hand what makes an audience laugh. Again put on your writer's hat (unless it blocks the view of the people behind you) and get a feel for why something is or isn’t working. In particular, spot the moments that build the ‘energy’ in the room and help the audience find their way into a routine. NewsRevue for me was a revelation - bad writing had nowhere to hide but good writing...that got the room in stitches and a round of applause. If it’s your words that do this then the feeling is incredible.
8. Practice. You wouldn’t enter a tennis tournament without having a few practice matches first, would you? Actually, you might, but chances are you’d crash and burn. Write some jokes. Write some more. Create some sketches. Bin them and try again. They say it’s 10,000 hours to master something and whilst you might not agree with the exact number hopefully you'll agree that someone who’s been writing for a year probably has the edge on someone who’s been writing for a week. That’s unless you don’t bother doing 10.
9. Ask for feedback. I can’t understate the importance of this one. If you’ve written 1,000 jokes but not shown them to anyone then I’m afraid you’ve not understood what it is to be a comedy writer. Feedback allows you to test some material before it’s put in front of an audience. It’s VERY painful when no-one laughs at your material, so why not test it first by sharing your work in a safer environment? Free options include friends and family, creative contacts you get on well with and the forums at sites such as the Comedy Crowd or, if you’re feeling a little braver, the critique forum at the British Comedy Guide. If you're prepared to pay a modest fee then a script-editor can provide detailed notes that can often really make difference to your writing. It’s vital that you embrace negative feedback as this is nature’s way of telling you where something isn’t working and allows you to try and fix it. It’s worth double any positive feedback you may receive, so be brave and share. It will make you a better writer.
10. Go on a comedy course. You wouldn’t try baking a cake without a recipe, so why try to write comedy without understanding how it works? They’d both just be a big floury mess. There are lots of courses to choose from, offered by academic institutions and industry writers/performers. Have a good look at the course description and tutor bio to find something that matches your comfort level and budget. The chance to ask questions of an experienced tutor and bounce ideas off fellow writers can make a real difference to your learning. Whilst some courses focus on sitcom (e.g. ), others look at sketch or more general techniques. But you can't go far wrong with our Beginners course if you just want to learn the basics.
You’ll note that none of the above include ‘send stuff off to a producer’ or send ideas into a competition. That’s because I’d only recommend doing so after you’ve built your technique, rather than as a way of building your technique. For more ways on doing this, check out my blog either directly or via the Comedy Crowd.
Daniel is a freelance script-editor, writer and producer of comedy shorts, sketch, sitcom and one-liners with credits including BBC's Breaking the News, the award winning Newsjack and Damn the Torpedoes and the record-breaking NewsRevue.