How do you write good comedy? Some of Britain’s finest comedians share their knowledge
By Bruce Dessau
Writing comedy is not easy – which is why next weekend, aspiring comedy writers will be gathering in Llandudno in north Wales for the second annual Craft of Comedy Writing conference.
There, commissioning editors, producers, production company bosses and comedians will be divulging their trade secrets in a range of talks, discussions and networking sessions. It’s a great way to learn more about the industry – although it does cost £60. For a cheaper option, we have asked some the biggest names in comedy for their pithiest writing tips.
(For more information on the Craft of Comedy Writing Conference see www.venuecymru.co.uk)
His new series ‘Ballot Monkeys’, a satirical sitcom set around the General Election, starts on C4, Tuesday at 10pm.
- Become a ruthless editor of your own stuff. You have to be brutal.
- Learn to be concise. Pay attention to the rhythm of a sentence and how a joke unfolds. Just moving an adverb can change it. I’m still learning.
- Make sure you invest in a character. Anyone can write jokes. Well, almost anyone. But if you are writing a sitcom it’s the characters that make it interesting. They have to resonate.
The latest series of Shearsmith’s ‘Inside No 9’, co-written with Steve Pemberton, is on BBC2 on Thursdays.
I think it’s important when writing, and especially sketches, that you very quickly let the audience in on what it is they are supposed to find funny. What is “the thing of it?” Let them in on the joke as quickly as possible. “Oh – I see, it’s a clown that doesn’t like children.” Or “Oh I get it – it’s a squeamish surgeon”. The quicker you get to that penny-dropping moment, the longer your audience have to enjoy the situation and find it funny. Also, try to be as lean as possible. Come in late, and go out early. More often than not, you can lose half of a scene quite easily and still impart the story. And above all else – hide the exposition! No one wants to sound like they are narrating facts. A neat trick is to hide exposition inside a joke. That way it feels valid, and its presence is disguised by a laugh.
To borrow an image from David Lynch, you’re looking for the big fish. The tiddlers flashing about just below the surface – the trite observations, the easy targets, the established joke-constructions – you need to ignore them and wait for the big one. An image or scene that makes you double over with laughter and could only have come from deep within your subconscious. The good news is that once you have it, the smaller jokes leading up to and away from the scene/sequence/sight gag will also feel fresh. To give you an example from my own work, Mrs Doyle wondering where the “perfectly square bit of black dirt” on the window came from is a set-up so odd the audience doesn’t even think of it as a set-up, and enjoy it for its own sake. So when Ted appears at the window with a Hitler moustache (and that’s the big fish, that’s what Arthur Mathews and I thought of first), one of the reasons it works is that the audience didn’t realise we were setting them up.
Stand-up/TV and radio writer
Walsh has previously written BBC3 sitcom ‘Dead Boss’ with Sharon Horgan, and her new radio series ‘Best Behaviour’ starts on Radio 4 on 7 May at 6.30pm.
My tip for writing comedy would be to find someone to collaborate with. OK, so you’ll share the money, but you’ll also share self-doubt and inner loathing, so it kind of balances out. My favourite days are sitting in a room with someone else and trying to make them laugh. You might then have to go off and work stuff up on your own, but at least you know one person has found it funny. Oh, and move around. You’d be surprised how many problems are solved walking to and from the loo. So drink plenty of tea.
There once was a man of erudition /
who took to writing science fiction. /
His thoughts were transcendent, /
his paragraphs perfectly indented, /
but still something got lost in transmission.
Why crime fiction is leftwing and thrillers are rightwing
Today’s crime novels are overtly critical of the status quo, while the thriller explores the danger of the world turned upside down. And with trust in politicians nonexistent, writers are being listened to as rarely before
by Val McDermid
I spent the weekend in Lyon, at a crime writing festival that feted writers from all over the world in exchange for us engaging in panel discussions about thought-provoking and wide-ranging topics. They take crime fiction seriously in France – I was asked questions about geopolitics, and the function of fear. I found myself saying things like “escaping the hegemony of the metropolis” in relation to British crime writing in the 1980s.
What they are also deeply interested in is the place of politics in literature. Over the weekend, there were local elections in France, and a thin murmur of unease ran through many of the off-stage conversations with my French friends and colleagues. They were anxious about the renaissance of the right, of the return of Nicolas Sarkozy, the failure of the left and the creeping rise of the Front National.
As my compatriot Ian Rankin pointed out, the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote.
The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Of course, these positions don’t usually hit the reader over the head like a party political broadcast. If it is not subtle, all you succeed in doing is turning off readers in their droves. Our views generally slip into our work precisely because they are our views, because they inform our perspective and because they’re how we interpret the world, not because we have any desire to convert our readership to our perspective.
Except, of course, that sometimes we do.
Thrillers are politically conservative? That’s not right
Val McDermid says that while crime fiction is naturally of the left, thrillers are on the side of the status quo. Jonathan Freedland votes against this reading
by Jonathan Freedland
Quickfire quiz. Identify the following as left or right. Big business? On the right, obviously. Trade unions? Left, of course. The one per cent? That’d be the right. Nicola Sturgeon? Clearly, on the left. If those are too easy, try this literary variant. Crime novels: right or left? And what about thrillers: where on the political spectrum do those belong?
Val McDermid, undisputed maestro of crime, reckons she knows the answer. Writing earlier this week, she argued that her own genre was rooted firmly on the left: “It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote.”. Thrillers, by contrast, are inherently conservative, “probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you.”
I understand the logic. You can see how McDermid’s own novels, like those of, say, Ian Rankin – another giant in the field, whom she cited as an ally in this new left/right branding exercise – do indeed offer a glimpse into the lives of those too often consigned to the margins, those power would prefer to ignore. But does that really go for all crime writing, always? If it does, someone forgot to tell Miss Marple.
Still, my quibble is not really with McDermid’s claim that the crime novel leans leftward. I want to object to the other half of her case: that the thriller tilts inevitably towards the right. As someone who is both a card-carrying Guardian columnist and a writer of political thrillers, I feel compelled to denounce the very idea.
Sure, there are individual stars of the genre who sit on the right. Tom Clancy was an outspoken Republican (though even his most famous creation, Jack Ryan, was ready to rebel against a bellicose US president for meddling in Latin America). But Clancy’s conservatism is more the exception than the rule.
Consider the supreme master of the spy thriller, John le Carré. His cold war novels stood against the mindless jingoism of the period, resisting the Manichean equation of east-west with evil-good. In the last decade, Le Carré has mercilessly exposed the follies of the war on terror, probing deep into the web of connections that ties together finance, politics and the deep state. The older he gets, the more Le Carré seems to be tearing away at the establishment and its secret, complacently amoral ways.