"All my ideas are terrible and I hate myself" - an interview with James Bugg
(...or how a talented writer created a brand new sketch show for 4Music...)
Hi James, thanks for speaking to us. You've written for numerous BBC shows such as The News Quiz and Dead Ringers, PLUS created and wrote 4Music's excellent sketch pilot Pop Sludge. How did you first get started in the world of comedy?
I started the way everyone else starts in comedy - writing a play about table football for University Radio York. I soon realised I could never have a real job because I don’t understand how to make formulas on Microsoft Excel, so I became a writer.
After graduating I started sending sketches to Newsjack, where I was lucky enough to be noticed pretty quickly. From there it all snowballed to me being offered the Comedy Writing Bursary (a staff writing job I talk about here) and that was five years ago now. I’m pretty much in it for the long haul unless bitcoin takes off again or I lose my laptop.
What advice do you have for new writers trying to learn the art of sketch?
Watch things! Write things! Show what you’ve written to your friends. Get your friends to slag it off. Get your friends to slag you off. Get strangers in the Co-Op to slag you off. Just embarrass yourself thoroughly.
My friends and I send stuff to each other all the time, meaning we’re constantly critiquing each other and trying to make each other laugh, which is good practice. We get on terribly but are totally dependent on one another which is pretty much the dream.
"Watch things! Write things! Show what you’ve written to your friends."
At Why did the Chicken? we teach writers that a strong premise is vital for a good sketch. What are your top tips for finding one?
Do stuff. The more you walk around and talk to people the more you’ll find funny situations and funny characters. Plus you’ll find your step count really rockets. Years spent sat at a desk wreaks havoc on your knees but, hey, the comedy writing books won’t teach you that.
Anyway, wander around til you find some ideas. Then chuck those out. Every day I feel like I've reinvented comedy, but then five minutes later I realise all my ideas are terrible and I hate myself. This is (probably) perfectly healthy (definitely -Ed). Because when I do find an idea that stays good for more than five minutes, I know that most of the misery is worthwhile and one day I may be able to come up with an idea lucrative enough to buy new knees. The dream being kneecaps which also USB charge my phone.
My other technique, and one I'd recommend only if desperate, is a little something I call ‘Spanish Hell’. You take this one hour loop of the ‘Spanish Flea’, put your headphones on and then try and slip into a writing trance. Every episode of The News Quiz I wrote on, I wrote like this (Ed - this is actually true). It’s a technique loosely inspired by something I read about Guantanamo Bay*, where they’d just play David Gray over and over until you cracked. It’ll either be the best way you’ve ever worked or you’ll go mad.
*Guantanamo Bay is bad and this technique is only cool if you’re inflicting it upon yourself
"Do stuff. The more you walk around and talk to people the more you’ll find funny situations and funny characters."
Newsjack is considered a really important 'gateway show' for Comedy writers - but if you're struggling to get on or you're in between series, where else might new writers get to submit or road-test their work?
Newsjack is brilliant. It gave my friends and I an opportunity to write comedy professionally and hearing your nonsense on the radio is pretty cool. Although you are at risk of accidentally hearing The Archers. But, all in all, the pros probably just about outweigh that.
However Newsjack's not the be-all and end-all. Some people won’t be right for it and that doesn’t mean you’re no good. Just keep plugging away, maybe with stand up, maybe make a short film. Or just keep a diary where you try to make yourself laugh every day. You’ll stay disciplined AND remember when St David’s Day is.
"Newsjack's not the be-all and end-all. Some people won’t be right for it and that doesn’t mean you’re no good. "
Can you describe your typical writing day for us?
I wake up as early as I can, make a smoothie and listen to Work From Home by Fifth Harmony a minimum of seven times. In case you’re not familiar with this it’s a song about how much people want to have sex with you if you work from home which as everyone knows is 100% true. This gets me pumped so much I will listen to it another four to five times.
By three PM I’ll have stopped listening to Fifth Harmony and will probably check my emails. From then on I’ll write some jokes to warm myself up - this is a bit like stretching in real life, although it is not an adequate substitute (see ‘knees’ above). I do some sweet sketch lunges, a few gag thrusts and of course a spec script burpee.
Then I’ll crack on with the good stuff, namely writing as much as I can before I succumb to the urge to google ‘tottenham news’ or ‘fifth harmony ten hour loop’.
Around ten I drink one more smoothie and then sleep for two days.
"We wanted to make the show feel fresh and (authentically) young."
So how did you end up making Pop Sludge?
Pop Sludge was an idea of mine I developed at Box Plus Productions (who run 4Music). I’ve always loved pop culture and because everyone in that world is ridiculous, it meant we’d have enough material to make a show that was 1,000 hours long. But eventually we settled on a run time of 22 minutes.
We wanted to make the show feel fresh and (authentically) young. 4Music’s audience is slap bang in the 16-30 group, so everyone we got involved was under thirty, meaning we were in the same boat as the audience. We could make references to Ariana Grande and Instagram, which would make about as much sense to Radio 4 listeners as if they aired Moneybox in Swahili.
Myself and the producer (Chris Davies) auditioned and subsequently cast the show. We also filmed the title sequence, drafted the press releases, even drove the equipment to and from shoots. Meanwhile we got a bunch of great writers I’d worked with before involved and I edited the script alongside funny, funny man Joe Hampson. Money was tight but they were giving us cash to pour milk on Jason Forbes, so I don’t know what’s to be expected.
"We also filmed the title sequence, drafted the press releases, even drove the equipment to and from shoots."
I will always be incredibly grateful to 4Music for taking a chance on original comedy commissioning for the first time and letting us make the pilot. It was probably the most fun I’ve had to make I hope everyone who watches it enjoys it too.
Can you run us through your favourite sketches in the show?
I love them all, but The Wigan Swifties is probably my favourite. It’s about a Taylor Swift fandom in Wigan - written by James Boughen and it’s a good example of finding a great premise. Sure we all know about Taylor Swift - but what about her fans?
Then what about one step further and her hyper-fanatic fans who get off at the idea of her eating toast? I laughed at every line when reading it and it was great fun to film. We rented the house off this sweet, old couple who went to the garden centre for lunch whilst we just made orgasm sounds in their lounge for an hour.
"Sure we all know about Taylor Swift - but what about her fans?"
The last series of Dead Ringers was phenomenal - how important is the relationship between writer and performer in a show like this? (what do you put this down to?)
I’ve been writing on Dead Ringers for almost four years now and it did feel like last years was the best since I’ve been there. Even Michael Fabricant tweeted one of my jokes and if that doesn’t make you proud then I don’t know what does.
But I wouldn’t take too much credit for the show’s success as everyone who writes on it is great and incredibly politically informed. I perhaps have slightly different interests/specialist knowledge to the rest of the team, which is why I end up mostly writing entertainment related things, e.g. Newsbeat, or try and shoehorn Mo Farah into sketches. I love pop culture and sport and, although I do write political sketches, I’m much more in my comfort zone with these, which I think is useful if you want to identify your style. I pretty much just sit in the meetings desperately hoping Jamelia tries to overthrow parliament. Then it’s Bugg’s time to shine.
In terms of the writer-performer relationship, the cast members will often tell us characters they’ve been working on who they’d like to try out some point in the series. Then it’s our job to write a sketch that fits this (producer permitting). They’re also very game to try any new characters we suggest. Sadly not Jamelia.
New comedy is being created for new channels all the time. Do you think the market is wide open to new ideas or do writers need to find something special to break through?
I think writers should always be striving to find something special. Why bother doing anything else? Sure, we all need the money, the jobs and those sweet, sweet tax deductibles, but you don’t get into writing just for that. You do it to create something special. Did Shakespeare get into writing just to claim back bus travel? I don’t know. Maybe? Either way, one thing is for sure - he is now dead.
"Writers should always be striving to find something special. Why bother doing anything else?"