Want to hear some top tips from one of the UK's brightest new comedy writers?
Liam, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. You were lucky enough to be one of two BBC Comedy writer Bursary holders in 2015/16 - can you tell us how this all came about?
No problem. It’s quite a boring story so strap in...I was part of some sketch comedy groups from roughly 2009-2014 and towards the end of this time an open submission show called The Show What You Wrote (TSWYW) was launched. I submitted tons, got nothing on and was upset, but got a nice email from one of the producers telling me to keep going...
Over the next two years I continued submitting to TSWYW and Newsjack, getting some sketches and jokes on. I then got invited to be a trial writer on The Now Show and almost made the cut on trial-writing for The News Quiz. This annoyed me at the time, but I did well on The Now Show which meant I got asked to do a slot on the following series of News Quiz. I wrote for a few more episodes of both and was then was invited to apply for the Bursary. I worked ludicrously hard on the application, got an interview, babbled like a maniac and got the job. It’s a largely dull story about working hard and taking chances when they come up.
"It’s a largely dull story about working hard and taking chances when they come up."
The bursary gives you a chance to work on a whole range of BBC shows - what did you enjoy writing for the most?
They are all great fun but writing on The News Quiz was a moment of personal pride, because I’ve loved it since I was 13. I was also delighted to work on Alexie Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar because he’s a living legend and It’s Jocelyn was tremendous fun because there was so much laughter at every stage in making it. There wasn’t a show I didn’t enjoy working on amd I consider myself fortunate that I’ve never worked with anyone who wasn’t nice. The people at BBC studios are awesome, they are super passionate about comedy and also genuinely lovely people.
Several of the recent bursary holders are writer-performers - do you think this gives them an edge? How can non-performers gain the same insights?
Maybe, but it’s a trade-off I think. Writer-performers are in a way more useful for producers because they can do two things with them as opposed to one (just writing). However, being one means you might have to go to the fringe every year, which isn’t for everyone (especially people who don’t have 5 grand propping up their PS4).
I think if you really want to perform do it, but you have to do what works for you. The worst thing you can do is nothing. If you aren’t at the Fringe, spend that time writing scripts, screenplays, sketches, whatever. I reckon being consistently productive as either a writer or a writer-performer is more important than whether you choose to be a writer or a writer-performer.
"Being consistently productive as either a writer or a writer-performer is more important than whether you choose to be a writer or a writer-performer."
You've written for performers such as Jake Yapp, Jocelyn Jee Esien and Alexei Sayle - what's the secret to creating material for such different voices and styles?
- Research stuff they’ve done before meeting them - it will help if you can discuss something of theirs you thought was amazing.
- If you are writing for a specific voice you need to know what they like, so understand the brief too.
- If a performer wants help developing some characters or sketch ideas they have had, don’t ignore his or her ideas and then pitch your own stuff.
- Similarly, if a performer wants some original characters or sketch ideas from you, have them ready prepared.
Those new to the world of comedy writing may feel a bit daunted by it - what advice do you have for them in terms of how to make sense of it all?
Many hugely experienced people feel that way so don’t worry, it’s normal. If it was easy to make sense of how comedy worked someone would have automated the shit out of it by now. Just work hard on your writing, be nice and try to learn what you can from people. In the past whenever I’ve felt intimidated by it, I’d do something like watch Zoidberg clips - it doesn't feel as daunting when you remind yourself why you fell in love with comedy.
"If it was easy to make sense of how comedy worked someone would have automated the shit out of it by now"
You script-edited for Newsjack, the BBC's open submissions show and a great way for new comedy writers to get started. In your experience, what tended to make a script stand out?
Those with one clear brilliant idea. If it’s a great way of exploring a story, then it almost doesn’t matter too much if the jokes suck because the script editors can add strong gags quickly. It’s much harder, however, to script edit a sketch that has a confused central concept. Adding jokes to a great idea can be done in minutes, changing the angle or concept behind a sketch is very hard and a lot of the original jokes will probably have to go. My advice would be to focus on one clear, original idea. That said if there are lovely jokes in it that will go a long way too.
Writing topical comedy is a great place to gain experience and credits, but it's not for everyone. What other forms of comedy would you advise new writers to try working on?
I strongly suggest trying to write jokes. They are incredibly useful and if you can’t do them you can’t really be a comedy writer. I realised I could write jokes at a comedy night - there was a joke competition in the interval and I really wanted the prize so went outside and trying hard, wrote three gags. I won mainly because they were actual functioning jokes whereas everyone else who tried was drunk and didn’t care. That was a big moment for me because I suddenly realised I could do it. Writing jokes is incredibly difficult at first, but you get better with practice.
"Writing jokes is incredibly difficult at first, but you get better with practice"
What are your thoughts on creating your own content vs writing for others?
Do both. Keep developing your skills. If you prefer one or the other write towards that one. Creating something can be very useful, as can collaborating with others. I certainly don’t see it as an either-or thing.
Online comedy for the likes of BBC3 and BBC Scotland is very much in focus right now - do you think this will increasingly become the place we discover new comedy or will traditional broadcasters be the mainstay for the foreseeable future?
I really don’t know. I think ‘traditional broadcasters’ is going to become a more confusing term. Both BBC3 and BBC Scotland seem to be doing a lot for newer people, so that certainly helps. Everyone will always want someone who writes well, so focus on that and look for opportunities everywhere. If you are consistently writing high-quality stuff, you’ll get chances.
"If you are consistently writing high-quality stuff, you’ll get chances"
What advice do you have for those looking to come up with their own sitcom concept?
The thing that took me a very long time to understand is how jokes need to relate to characters. Funny lines disconnected from characters will die instantly and annoy the reader. That took me forever to work out, even when people were telling me I needed to do it. An exercise that really helped me, was typing up an episode of Brooklyn 99 as I was watching it (pausing often obviously). I strongly recommend this as it will teach you a lot about how tight some scripts are, as well as how the different characters can do different jokes.
The best piece of advice I was given about any difficult activity, is to have fun. I say this partly because you will be doing a lot of it if you’re serious about writing, so you might as well enjoy it, but also if you enjoy it you are more likely to do more. Those huge muscular guys at the gym posing in front of the mirror are having a great time, that’s why they’re there every day.
"The best piece of advice I was given about any difficult activity, is to have fun"
Having spent several years writing comedy, what one piece of advice would you have given your younger self back when you were starting out?
Don’t stress, keep at it and things will work out. Not exactly as you expect, but they do. Oh and stop ringing your girlfriend at 2am because you're upset your writing career isn’t going well. What you’re worrying about really doesn’t matter and she needs sleep.