We spoke to Funny Women 2017 Awards Commended sketch group Bear With to find out their #comedy #secrets...
Congratulations on achieving Commended status for your sketches in the Funny Women 2017 Shorts Awards! How do you feel having your work recognised by an industry team?
We make these sketches for fun, but it takes a lot of hard work, so we’re happy and it shows us we’re going in the right direction, plus gives us more confidence in our craft.
I understand you all met on the National Film and Television School's (NFTS) comedy writing and producing course - what inspired you to sign up?
There's a lot that's enticing about the course, particularly some of the big comedy names attached to it, but what's really exciting is that there's kind of nothing else out there like it. Of course, there's short-term sitcom writing or stand up courses by the dozen, but for an institution like the NFTS to offer a 2-year course dedicated entirely to comedy (in all different forms) shows a real commitment to fostering comedy talent and something we wanted to be part of.
"For the NFTS to offer a 2-year course dedicated to comedy shows a real commitment to fostering comedy talent"
The course looks fantastic with a range of high profile tutors - for those interested, what can you say about what you learnt and who you were taught by?
We'd love to tell you everything we learned, but then we'd have to kill you - it's part of the NFTS contract. But, in general, the course covers everything from sketch writing to one-liners to sitcom for both Radio and TV. Essentially the course allows you to get out all of your worst ideas without facing dire professional consequences which is nice because we've all had some BAD ideas. Not that we don't still have bad ideas, they're just less bad? And I guess that's worth the price of tuition alone. But the tutors were all people that were able to offer incredibly valuable insights into the pro comedy world - like Bill Dare (Radio 4 Dead Ringers et al) who's the head tutor. We also had Graham Linehan, Bob Mortimer, Caroline Norris, John Finnemore, John Llyod and many many other comedy legends as guest lecturers or mentors. It turns out, their genius did not magically seep into our brains by proximity but it was worth a try. Apparently you have to actually work at it? They should really tell you that before you start.
"When you're going for things like Newsjack or various writing competitions you're going to fail A LOT, you just are."
Given your NFTS experience what one piece of advice would you share with new writers?
I took away the very important lesson of 'you're not funny... yet'. And that kind of goes on and on every time you start a new project - it's just not funny (or not as funny as you think it is) at the start. And once you realise that, you learn how to collaborate and take on criticism in a way that means you understand it's never personal. It's just all part of working to bring something to life and make it as good as it can be.
You've now formed sketch group Bear With for which you all write and perform. What was the motivation behind building your own creative vehicle rather than writing for others?
I think we all still write in other capacities and accept that, especially when you're starting out, writing for others or to a brief is part and parcel of the job. But because of that, it's exciting and somewhat liberating to have our own creative freedom. Once we realised that we were capable of producing these things on our own, we pretty much had to do it. It can get disheartening when you are writing loads of things that never make it off the page, so to be able to see things fully realised and with our own say throughout has been a great learning experience and ultimately very satisfying.
I took away the very important lesson of 'you're not funny... ...yet'.
How would you describe the style of the group?
I think we once tried to define it as Big Train for the internet generation? Something like that - it's probably more fluid than that, but we all have similar senses of humour, so it's really whatever falls within that realm. We tend to like to start with a real-world observation and then uproot that in a dark or surreal kind of way. And we stick to things happening in the here and now rather than sketches set in the past or future, because that's what's relevant and important to us (it's also most cost-effective from a production standpoint but let's pretend it's a thematic choice).
"Like Big Train for the internet generation"
What are the biggest challenges in producing your own work? How do you overcome them?
Weirdly, the comedy gods haven't visited us and bestowed us with infinite funds with which to do whatever we like. Maybe they need a blood sacrifice or something? Not sure. But yeah, budget is really the main challenge but in a way that can sometimes be a blessing. When we have limitations on locations, props, costumes, etc. it just means we have to get more creative (ie turning an office into a hair salon using props from Poundland, then changing the lighting up and making the same room look like an underground bunker moments later). It is limiting but some of our best ideas come out of those restrictions.
Your sketches are fantastic, taking a simple concept or observation and executing it really well. What's your secret for coming up with such strong ideas?
Why thank you! Again... blood sacrifices. As often and as fervently as possible. No, I think we just benefit from the fact that there's 4 of us. We'll meet up when starting a new round of sketches and each come with as many ideas as possible. Sometimes they're just in the form of really rudimentary observations and we'll just throw them out there and see what tickles everyone. Normally it's pretty unanimous what we latch on to. And then we develop the idea together with loads of "well, what if this happens and wouldn't it be great/weird/stupid if this happens?". And then we go away to work on the actual writing. It's a very collaborative process and it's great because so often someone else will think of an angle or perspective that never would have occured to you - and it's just what the sketch needed.
"We tend to like to start with a real-world observation and then uproot that in a dark or surreal kind of way."
You sometimes have guest stars in your sketches such as Gabby Best (Top Coppers) and Stevie Martin (Massive Dad) - how important is it to collaborate with others?
Yeah, we've been very fortunate to work with some other comedy performers who's work we admire greatly - or more accurately, they've been kind enough to donate their time to us. There are few things as fun as seeing someone else take an idea you've had and truly bring it to life in a way you couldn't have imagined. There's a lot of exciting comedy talent out there - tapped and untapped - that I think we'd definitely be looking to do more of that in the future.
What are your thoughts on the UK comedy market right now - is online the way forward or are traditional broadcasters still key?
It certainly seems like online and digital video are the ways of the future. At the moment, traditional telly is still the kind of ultimate outlet but I do think that's changing. And part of what's interesting about that change is that online outlets like BBC3, Netflix, Amazon, etc. seem to be more willing to take risks with their programming. That's exciting because with everything that's going on in the world today - it's the perfect time for comedy to be bold and innovative.
"There's a lot of exciting comedy talent out there - tapped and untapped"
You've all had individual success such as credits on Newsjack and highly placed entries in competitions run by The Comedy Crowd, Sketch Scribe and the Funny Women Awards. How important is it that new comedy writers get this kind of experience under their belt?
It's everything really, because it helps teach you the discipline of writing to a brief or writing in a professional/competitive environment. Also when you're going for things like Newsjack or various writing competitions you're going to fail A LOT, you just are. And that's part of learning how to come up with more ideas that are better than the old ones or just how to rework the old ideas to make them better. It can be discouraging, especially at first, but you've gotta keep at it. Take inspiration from one of our personal idols, Oprah, and one of her greatest quotes - "I love bread."
What advice would you give to those entering writing competitions in the next few months?
I think it's helpful to look at a competition as just a deadline to get something finished. Don't think too much about the outcome, or what they might want to see. Just do whatever you can to get your best work out there and afterwards just think that you've created something that's part of your portfolio that you didn't have before. And it's something you can continue to develop in the future no matter what. Essentially, don't get discouraged if you don't get the outcome you'd hoped for because the real value is the work you've put in. And also, get someone else to read your stuff. Do it now. And note every time they laugh and every time they don't. You can unfriend them or break up with them after the competition, but in the meantime, use them.
"It's the perfect time for comedy to be bold and innovative.
What's next for Bear With?
We've been making lots of plans for future projects in 2018 and are excited to see what the new year holds! We've reached a good rhythm with how we work to write and produce sketches so think we'll continue in that vein, but we're also looking to collaborate more with other writers/performers and hopefully expand our outfit a bit. We've got some short film ideas we'd like to see brought to fruition and if we manage that - probably just total world domination to follow? We'll see how we feel...