From sketch to sitcom, we speak to rising star Max Davis to discover his #comedy #secrets...
Hey Max, thanks for joining us on the #comedy #secrets blog. You're both a comedy writer and stand-up - can you say a little about how you got started in these two worlds?
The way I got started was to make a decade's worth of terrible life choices which resulted in me having to move back to Devon and in with my Mum at the ripe old age of 33 (much like Jesus did. Probably). I'd been farting around with writing for a while, but never with any real focus, so nothing had ever come of it. Then on New Year's day 2012 I looked in the mirror and told myself I needed to get a paid job in comedy by the end of the year or give up show business. I think I actually said the words “show business into the mirror.” You know, like a twat would do.
So I started doing stand-up gigs in Devon and Cornwall, often driving for two hours to do a ten minute set, bomb and drive home. Once I even crashed my car into a ditch on the way back from an unpaid gig in Barnstaple (Jealous?) Regardless though, I was having a great time. I met some great comedians and started building up my comedy chops.
"It literally changed my life. I'll never forget hearing the first laugh on my first sketch on the radio. Incredible."
At the same time, I also started focusing on Newsjack. I'd submitted for previous series but never got anything on, so I had to conclude I was either not funny (an opinion held by an entire audience at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter) or there was something wrong with my sketches. So I got a pad and listened to an episode on iPlayer, pausing after each sketch and breaking it down. What was the news story? What was the angle? How long was it? How many jokes? How many characters?
By the end of the episode I realised I hadn't been writing Newsjack sketches, I'd been writing weird, dark and quite nasty sketches for the Max Davis Comedy Hour - a show which I guarantee you would have been cancelled halfway through its first episode. So when the next series rolled around I worked hard on three sketches I felt were tonally right and sent them off. One of them got onto the show and that was the beginning of everything. It literally changed my life. I'll never forget hearing the first laugh on my first sketch on the radio. Incredible.
"I listened to an episode, pausing after each sketch and breaking it down. By the end I realised I hadn't been writing Newsjack sketches, I'd been writing weird, dark, quite nasty sketches for the Max Davis Comedy Hour...."
I submitted sketches as a non commissioned writer for the rest of that series, then got invited into the writersroom for the next two (I'd moved back to London by this point). I was getting quite a lot on Newsjack and that led to being invited to apply for the Radio Comedy Bursary, which that year (2014) involved a five-hour writing exam with all the other applicants in an underground room, two of whom nearly got into a fight.
I got offered one of the two places and spent a year doing the Bursary, which is a bit like X Men school for comedy writers. I got to work on a huge number of shows, like The News Quiz, The Now Show, Dead Ringers, Listomania, Lewis MacLeod Is Not Himself and others. It's a great job because you also get to build relationships with performers and producers. I worked with Romesh Ranganathan on Newsjack, met producer Sam Michell and those two things led to us all coming together for what would eventually become my sitcom Parental Guidance.
As a writer you've got credits across Newsjack, The News Quiz, Spotlight Tonight with Nish Kumar, Dead Ringers and The Mash Report. What's the key to writing good topical comedy?
Each of those shows is so different from the other, so my first piece of advice would be to make sure the stuff you're writing is tonally right for the show in question. The other main thing is to have that killer angle on the news story. The least successful topical comedy I see is where it's just replaying the story itself, or reinforcing what we already know. There's no point writing a sketch about how Donald Trump is an idiot because we see that every day in real life. I want to be taken by surprise. This is particularly important for Newsjack where you’ll probably be submitting a sketch based on a story that lots of other people are submitting sketches about. Your angle will make yours stand out.
"Make sure the stuff you're writing is tonally right for the show in question."
I once wrote a sketch on a story about tourists complaining that the French staff in Disneyland Paris were rude and unhelpful. I could have set it in the theme park with a surly staff member being rude to a family, but that would be just repeating the story. So instead I wrote about a relationship councilor trying to help Mickey and Minnie Mouse. She wants to leave him because he's become "too French." He smokes, he cheats on her with other Disney characters and he's cooked Donald into a duck a l'orange. It was based on the news story but it also got to spin out and become it's own thing.
Lastly and most importantly, pack your stuff with great jokes from the very beginning and then keep them coming. Never stop practicing your joke writing. It's a skill, not a gift.
Nish Kumar's slot on Newsjack led to Spotlight Tonight, which in turn helped land his role on The Mash Report. Equally, you wrote first for Newsjack, then Spotlight, then Mash. How did moving from one show to the next come about for you?
Sometimes you get lucky and someone you've worked with before will offer you a job on something, but I never rely on that. I started out as an actor and learnt pretty quickly that you have to hustle to get work. In the case of Spotlight Tonight, I'd heard that Nish was making a pilot with Matt Stronge who I'd worked with on Newsjack, so I dropped Matt an email and asked to be considered for the writing staff. It might well have been that I was on the list anyway, but you can't assume anything because there are too many talented people out there.
"Never stop practicing your joke writing. It's a skill, not a gift."
The Mash Report was similar. I'd heard through the grapevine that the Mash pilot was likely to go to series and so I asked my agent to get in touch with the production company and they sent in a short writers packet that included some of my topical jokes and sketches (I had no idea what the format for Mash would be so I had to guess). That, in turn, led to an interview and a trial writing day and then eventually led to my being picked up for the series. So it was a long road, but definitely worth it. I feel very proud and privileged to be on that show.
Your debut sitcom pilot, Parental Guidance, featured on Radio 2 in 2017 and was up for a 2018 BBC Audio Drama Award in the 'Scripted Comedy (Longform)' category. What advice do you have for new writers creating their first sitcom?
You have to come up with great characters and then find the world which is both perfect and terrible for them to inhabit. Basil Fawlty is the worst person to run a hotel, because his personality flaws are terrible for dealing with members of the public. If he was a sculptor living alone, there would be no show because that stuff it wouldn't matter.
Then you have to add the layers of complexity. Basil just wants the hotel to be nicer and that drives his behaviour. He makes mistakes and then he panics, tries to cover them and that causes more problems. All of this is very relatable and the best sitcom characters are relatable.
Remember those conversations where people would talk about what Friends character they were most like? That's the dream because you've created characters that your audience sees themselves in. They are, on the one hand complex and detailed, but on the other archetypes defined by a single characteristic. Monica is an "obsessive", but the moment we see her with her mother, we immediately understand the background that forged those personality flaws. Plus she lives with Rachel, who doesn't know how to take care of herself, so there's conflict there too. Remember, conflict isn't just arguing. It's someone who wants something and is being obstructed in getting it.
"You have to come up with great characters and then find the world which is both perfect and terrible for them to inhabit."
Also, make sure your script is tightly plotted. No one is going to be interested in a meandering sitcom that doesn't get going until page ten. Watch an episode of Brooklyn 99 and see how quickly they get their three storylines up and running (hint it's within the first three minutes and usually less). UK sitcoms are slightly different in terms of structure, but the basic element is the same. Your character wants a thing, they try to get it and are presented with an obstacle. So they try and overcome that obstacle and that leads to another obstacle which necessitates a new or modified plan. Make sure your characters are active - they must be doing things both in dialogue and action.
Lastly, just like with topical comedy, pack your script with great jokes. Jokes that come from character. Watch 30 Rock and see at the sheer volume of jokes that they pack into that script. If it's non audience, write as if an audience was there on set and imagine the terrible silences that would ensue if you didn't write enough jokes or the jokes you wrote weren't funny enough.
You were also nominated as part of the Dead Ringers team, in the 'Scripted Comedy (Sketch)' category. What, for you, are the key ingredients of a great comedy sketch?
Clarity, inventiveness and surprise. One of the most important parts of sketch is when to "tip the reveal" by which I mean the point that your sketch departs reality and takes that sharp left into the weirdness that the bulk of the sketch will inhabit. It's that moment when, after we realise that Peter Cook is auditioning actors for Tarzan, that Dudley Moore comes hopping in with one leg. That's the reveal and we're off to the races.
Ideally in a sketch I want a clearly set up real-world scenario with a solid laugh at the top. Once the reveal has happened I want this unusual scenario played as inventively as possible (Goodness Gracious Me’s "Going for an English" is great for this) and then a final twist or heightening to get us out again. Plus - and this is where I sound like a stuck record - it's got to be packed with good gags throughout. Also, I like a sketch to stay on message, it's frustrating when a sketch tries to be about two different things at once. That rarely works for me. Remember a sketch is always saying something and the lines have to focus on what it’s trying to say.
"Remember a sketch is always saying something...and the lines have to focus on what it’s trying to say."
You've co-written sketches and a key part of being a Script Editor is to work collaboratively with writers. What advice do you have for those considering looking to write with a partner or as part of a team?
I’m definitely still learning how to write with other people and I’m constantly in awe of those successful partnerships. My advice would be to find someone whose comedic sensibilities match up with yours, but not completely. You have to challenge each other a bit too. Be honest, but without being a dick about it. Learn when to fight for a line or a gag but also know when to let
"Pitch confidently, don’t worry about sounding stupid."
it go. If you want to replace something the other person has written, make sure it’s an improvement. Pitch confidently, don’t worry about sounding stupid. Also – and I do this all the time – don’t suggest something and immediately dismiss it yourself in the same sentence. Just be respectful of the other person's time and talent.
You've been Script Editor for Tex Ilyas' sitcom Rashid goes to Hollywood and Newsjack. What do you look for when a script comes across your laptop screen?
Ideally as little work for me to do as possible! The longer answer (and I'm taking more about Newsjack here) is I want a script that just needs helping along, that already has already hit the things I mentioned in my last answer. The worst case scenario for me is a sketch where I have to do an almost complete rewrite, because I'm aware of how frustrating it is for a writer to be told they have something in the show, only to discover that barely two lines of the sketch remain. But as a script editor your responsibility is to the entire show, so if I have to do a big rewrite then I will. A good Newsjack tip is to make it as easy as possible for them to put your sketch in the show. Try and make it perfect because they are actively looking for stuff that doesn't need a big rewrite.
"The worst case scenario for me is a sketch where I have to do an almost complete rewrite."
With sitcom it's a little different. Script Editing there can be anything from adding gags, to fleshing out characters, to rewriting it to fit the "voice" of whoever they've cast (or want to cast) Sometimes it's just looking at the whole at pointing out a few key problems that are stopping it from reaching its full potential.
Finally, there's a lot of competition out there to get your work on the Radio or TV - what 3 things do you think matter most for new comedy creatives trying to make it?
- Learn to be good at everything. There's so little work around that if you decide for example that you can't write topical material or short jokes, you're cutting off one of your legs. So practice! A good gag writer will always find work.
- Be business minded and tenacious. Hustle for work and make looking for a job part of your job. You'd be amazed how many talented people just wait for the phone to ring.
- Don't immerse yourself too deeply in comedy. It can be tempting to only watch comedy or listen to comedy podcasts, but you have to get out into the world and have life experiences that will inform your writing. Work some shitty jobs, strike up a conversation with a stranger, squander a paycheck on something idiotic, get your heart broken - and when it all blows up in your stupid face, move back in with your mum and write about it.
Check out Max's work on Humza Arshad’s Xmas as part of the Sky Arts series of comedy shorts.