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Dave Cohen

· Tips,Comedy,Interview,Secrets,Writing

New year, new interview! Find out what legendary writer-performer Dave Cohen thinks about the comedy commissioning system and more...

Your website says you've been writing, performing and teaching since 1983 - can you tell us what got you started in comedy in the first place?

My earliest memory is getting a joke book when I was about seven years old - I learned every joke in the book and went around telling them to anyone who would listen. Ignoring people who told me to shut up. Absolutely perfect training for stand-up. I started writing silly songs when I was about 13, then playing folk clubs and Working Mens' Clubs around Leeds soon after. Then punk happened and I found an audience. I got on to the London Comedy circuit in 1983, and lots of things developed from there...

How do you find performing influences your writing, and vice-versa?

I think they tended to get in the way of each other. I should probably have stuck to writing but when I started doing stand-up in the early 80s it was so much easier than writing. I'd earn as much doing my 20 minute set as I did from hours of sweating over sketches for the radio. Took me a long time after quitting stand-up to get the idea out of my head that I might one day go back to it. I did, but for fun.

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"I learned every joke in the book and went around telling them to anyone who would listen."

As a comedy teacher, what common mistakes or bad practices you tend to spot in new writers?

I think the main mistake made by writers at every level is to not work hard enough at giving each character a distinctive voice. Too often I'm reading a line in a script and I'll have to check who this person is saying it, and the flow of reading is interrupted. You want your reader to race through the script, hungry to find out what's going to happen to these compelling characters you have created. View Dave's comedy classes here!

You've written on a number of shows such as Horrible Histories, Not Going Out and HIGNFY - what's the one big lesson you'd give if you could to your younger self, just starting out in the comedy writing business?

Don't imagine that the first joke you write or say out loud is the best you can do. There's always a better joke.

"There's always a better joke."

At the 2018 Craft of Comedy conference in Llandudno, you have the keynote speech, saying how writers need to become writer-prenuers. In a nutshell, what is a writer-prenuer and why is it important we become one?

Apologies for the horrible word - this is something that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a freelance anything. As well as being a writer and/or performer, even if you have an agent and an accountant you are still responsible for large parts of your work that otherwise get done for you if you have an office job. You have to get your own meetings, make sure your accounts are done on time, keep your diary full as far ahead as you can and so on. What's changed in the last couple of years or so is that you need to turn yourself into a product to sell on the internet. It goes against all our instincts as behind-the-scenes writers, and it challenges my own dearly held anti-capitalist beliefs, but until I work out how to negotiate with Amazon and Google on even terms I'm a slave to the algorithm.

"You need to turn yourself into a product to sell on the internet."

As part of becoming a writer-preneur yourself you've got a new book out - what inspired you to write it and what should we expect from the book?

About ten years ago Chortle started a Correspondents page, and I thought I had a lot to say that could be interesting to people reading it. This was also around the time I started teaching. I brought out a book about five years ago that was a rag-bag collection of stand-up stories and comedy advice. I thought if I was to do another book like that it would need to be more focused. I looked at all the areas where there is no advice for comedy writers - story and character, analysis of the joke, how to make a living at comedy - and came up with my own. The Complete Comedy Writer

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"The current system of commissioning for radio and TV is falling apart".

You also chair the Comedy Committee at the WGGB. What are your three big takes on the future of the UK comedy writing scene?

  1. The current system of commissioning for radio and TV is falling apart. Nobody knows what will happen.
  2. Therefore, at the risk of sounding like a comedy TED talker, you are the change. The future is what you can get people to watch on their phones
  3. BUT It all still begins with a great script.
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The WGGB has made great advances in securing pay deals for comedy writers - what's next on the agenda and is now a good time to join?

There's never been a more important time to be part of a collective. Although if Brexit does indeed turn out to be a massive success I'll concede that it's much better to negotiate when you're going it alone.

For current writers, we're determined to win back the word "writer" on TV shows where it's been replaced by "programme associate". And for the role of writers to be recognised on shows where they are used (like all the massive weekend big floor shows, for example).

If you're starting out, we're starting to look into ways of ensuring that you can start earning a living at writing as soon as possible. We're looking at training and mentoring by working members - which will probably work both ways, as old gits like me can learn a lot from new and younger writers about technology - and we're hoping to try and make the profession more welcoming to working-class writers and writers from ethnic minorities.

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