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.