The sublime Gemma Arrowsmith shares with us her writing and performing secrets...
You're both a comedy writer and performer, but much like the chicken and the omelette, which came first and how did one lead to the other?
I knew I wanted to write comedy since I first saw Fawlty Towers when I was ten. I was in a video rental shop (which dates this anecdote) and I was looking at the cartoons. On the opposite wall was the comedy section and for some reason a brown VHS tape caught my eye. My mother told me that Fawlty Towers was a really funny programme and I should give it a try. The first episode I saw was 'The Builders' with the two building firms; Stubbs and O’Reilly. And I watched it, eyes wide. I just couldn’t believe anything could be that funny.
That was when I decided I wanted to write comedy. So, to answer your question, I guess writing came first. From the age of ten onwards, I would watch and listen to endless comedy programmes; sitcoms, sketch shows, standup. I was lucky to have parents that humoured this as long as I was doing well at school. I was allowed a TV and VCR in my room and I would watch contemporary shows like The Fast Show, The Day Today and The Vicar of Dibley but also I hoovered up comedy history - I vividly remember my dad bringing home a VHS double boxset of the Young Ones.
"From the age of ten onwards, I would watch and listen to endless comedy programmes"
I had piles of VHS tapes from Victoria Wood to Ben Elton. Even my nan and grandad got involved and would record every episode of Dad’s Army and Porridge off the telly for me. My parents took me to see Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson live at the Wolverhampton Civic (when I was way too young to be seeing that show) and my grandad helped me build a cardboard replica of the space ship Red Dwarf. It hung from my bedroom ceiling, a bedroom which was covered in posters of comedians. French and Saunders, Tony Hancock, even the Marx Brothers were on my bedroom wall at one time or another. Surprisingly I wasn’t bullied.
Acting came a few years later when I joined the Crescent Youth Theatre in Birmingham. From then on, it’s always been about writing and performing together. All my favourite performers did both; the Pythons, the League of Gentlemen, French and Saunders, Victoria Wood, Steve Coogan .So I went off to drama school and since graduating, I’ve worked as both an actor and writer - but always in comedy.
"My grandad helped me build a cardboard replica of the space ship Red Dwarf."
As a writer you're perhaps best known for the 'Mugged' sketch that has over 40 MILLION views on Facebook. What was your secret to writing this?
Anger and righteous indignation are great motivators. What makes you boil over with irritation? When I'm annoyed, I write a sketch about it. Others scream at one another on Twitter. I think my way is healthier.
The mugging sketch is essentially an analogy sketch; taking one situation and the language used there- and mapping it onto a different situation to highlight the absurdity. Give it a go, readers. It's a fun technique to try.
"Take one situation and the language used, mapping it onto a different situation to highlight the absurdity"
You also teach comedy as well - what are the three most important things new writers should consider when attempting to write a sketch?
1) Keep it short. Sketches tend to be about one single thing - if you have several threads in your sketch, consider separating them out into different sketches. If your script is nudging over 3 pages, edit it down. Economise and streamline until every line in your sketch is working extremely hard for you; either setting something up or paying something off.
2) If you're finding the punchline tricky to write - you are correct! They are very difficult and intimidating. I would recommend segueing into a bit of animation or having someone step in front of frame and telling everyone what they are doing is silly - but the Pythons have already got dibs on that. Instead, maybe try escalating or completely inverting what has been happening in the sketch so far. But do try to end on your strongest laugh.
3) I attended a masterclass with Julie Walters recently. She was asked "what makes a great sketch?" and this was her response: "short, with characters based in truth and with your best joke at the end." I don't think I can put it any better than that, really.
"Try escalating or completely inverting what has been happening in the sketch so far."
An important source of work for comedy writers at the moment is kids TV and in particular, animated series. Why is this such a rewarding area to work in?
Because children's TV is making a ton of shows! And sketch shows! My favourite! In the last few years we've had Horrible Histories, DNN, Sorry I've Got No Head, Fit and Class Dismissed. What a luxury! You might think writing for children is very restrictive but the writing within the obvious guidelines of no swearing, no sex, no gory violence actually forces you to work a bit harder as a writer - be a bit more creative. And you only need to take one look at Horrible Histories to see how incredibly refreshing and creative the writing for CBBC gets.
"Writing for children....forces you to be a bit more creative."
You've performed in the hallowed NewsRevue, which takes open submissions from writers. What tips do you have for those looking to write a sketch for the team?
There is a rotating cast of four; two men, two women. So don't write sketches with seven characters unless you've really thought about how the doubling will work.
If you're going to submit sketches to both Newsrevue and The Treason Show in Brighton, at least change the title which says "The Treason Show" and remove references to the screen at the back of the stage which The Treason Show has but Newsrevue does not have. Come along, people! When I directed Newsrevue, we got loads of these.
The show has a musical director and songs are very welcome. The best advice I was given is to keep your rewritten lyrics as close to the sound of the original lyrics as possible. Best example: "Total Eclipse of the Heart" becoming "Totally Shit Modern Art".
"The best advice I was given is to keep your rewritten lyrics as close to the sound of the original lyrics as possible."
You recently shared your experiences on Twitter around the frustrations of getting scripts read and developed. What advice do you have for emerging writers trying to get on the ladder?
I think the old advice that you should just listen to or watch your favourite shows, make a note of the producer and then write to them is out of date. If you write a completely unsolicited email to a producer or a production company the truth is you probably won't get a reply. More and more you'll find you don't get rejections, you just get silence. Rejection is easy. Silence is much harder to deal with, I think. So prepare yourself for lots and lots of unanswered emails.
Better advice would be to attend as many industry events as possible. Now, I realise this is far easier for those based in or near London - but BBC Writersroom do hold some events in Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow. Go along to any event where you might meet fellow writers, directors, producers, casting directors. Watch shows being recorded, attend panels. Talk to people. Put faces to names. A producer is far more likely to open an email from someone they met and chatted to recently. Honestly I think that's the best advice I have.
"The old advice that you should just listen to or watch your favourite shows, make a note of the producer and then write to them is out of date"
What are your top tips for comedy writers with one or two credits under their belt and looking to gain more experience?
Genuinely just keep going. It sounds impossibly hack but it's true. Most people will fall away, understandably disillusioned by the endless unanswered emails. You need to be the one that just. keeps. going.
Remember Steve Martin said "thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent.” I owe most of my career to that statement.