Thursday, 28 November 2013

And Now For Something Just The Same?

So the Pythons’ reunion sells out in 43 seconds. There’s life in the franchise yet, but what kind of life? It is that of a reanimated zombie, or a rejuvenated second spring?

In a rather blown-up spat in the Guardian, Charlie Higson and Adil Ray took either side of the argument. To Charlie, they are a wonderful vintage act with lessons still to teach the young’uns, to Adil a fossilised bunch of old farts with nothing to say to a new generation.

I was lucky enough to see the pre-Python Palin perform at a get-together of the Oxford University Etceteras Club (their version of the Footlights). He inspired me for years, and still does. The a-logical buffoonery of “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, with some of the team that were to become the Pythons, spoke directly to our post-war, break-out, desperate to play generation, and when the Pythons burst out in all their glory a year later it was as if heaven had descended on earth.

It all began with them. Not surrealist comedy – that had been done by the Goons – or madcap characters – ITMA was before them – but intellectually respectable comedy. Comedy with a hinterland. Philosophy, history, abstract concepts were all jumbled in with suburban banality and random nonsense. Marx and Hegel jostled together with Arthur Two-Sheds. It was influenced by Ionesco and N F Simpson as much as by Tommy Cooper, but it was never remotely pretentious.

Spike Milligan and Galton & Simpson were the generation who fought in the war, keen to debunk the fossilised authority of the officer class, a more egalitarian society in view. But the Pythons simply exploded everything. Nothing made sense, the only fun to be had was to turn everything inside out.

That was then. Today’s standups and sketch comedians work in an entirely different landscape. Comedy is more personal and audiences much more knowing. The rules have already been broken and put together again. There is no great cachet now, thanks to the Pythons, of being clever, surreal or literate. It’s just another style choice.

Let the old boys and their audience have their fun and pay off their tax bills. Let them roar “This is an ex-parrot!” together. But let’s not pretend it’s that different from the elderly ladies who scream “Where the nuts come from!” in “Charley’s Aunt” (I love that, as well). They won’t be doing any new material, but I don’t think anyone wants them to. I wish them well, but I won’t be going along (I’d have never made the 43 second deadline anyway).

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Comic Behaviour
There’s a nice sketch in the underrated show “ManStrokeWoman” of a few years ago. Daisy Haggard accosts slobby boyfriend Nick Frost to tell him she’s leaving. It’s all been going wrong. Rather than acting with shock or pain, he tries to reassure her, mumbling “No, it’s been fine.” When she starts to get a bit het up, his mood changes to lust: “I know that look. Time for a bit of hanky panky!” The madder she gets, the more he treats it as a game.

It’s funny because an expected reaction is being subverted. In every situation, there’s an accepted way of behaving. Or, if not accepted, one that we can expect, whether in a formal situation like a job interview or an emotional trauma like being dumped by your partner. If you think that comedy comes from the unexpected, as I do about half the time, then by making someone behave in a way which breaks either the formal protocol, the polite way of going about the business in hand, or an emotional rule, you give yourself a load of comic possibilities.

Pick a situation, any situation, and ask “How are they expected to behave?” Make the response subtly different from the accepted one, wildly askew, or even an exaggerated version of it. When you go to the dentist, you’re supposed to be slightly nervous. There may be pain. Someone is going to delve about in a very intimate part of your body, your mouth. But instead of fear, what if this actually turns you on? Everything about sitting in that chair, the plastic bib, the drill, the injection, gives you an ineffable thrill…. You bet the dentist won’t be used to this. It’s creepy. There are various ways he or she could react, but whatever way you take it, you’re giving yourself comedy possibilities.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

To film or not to film? 

There’s a great article by Andrew Collins in this week’s Radio Times defending studio recorded sitcoms such as “Mrs Brown’s Boys” and “Father Figure”, which get such a slating from the critics. Andrew’s argument is twofold. In spite of what studio sitcom-haters say, the laughter isn’t canned: it’s the genuine spontaneous response of the audience in the room. You can’t can it, you can’t fake it. And that to obtain these laughs regularly over thirty minutes takes a huge amount of work and talent. I’ve acted in a couple of studio sitcoms and I agree with Andrew. “Mrs Brown’s Boys” may not be subtle or sophisticated (and it’s not my taste) but it works as comedy. People love it. They laugh.

I’d like to take the argument further and say that there’s not the gulf between the two comedy genres which critics assume. Whether filmed on one camera or with three in a studio, the format of the half hour sitcom has stayed remarkably constant. Take “Friday Night Dinner”.  Embarrassing, dysfunctional dad: well-intentioned prying mum trying to keep the family together: two squabbling and slightly rebellious offspring: eccentric neighbour. And their squabbles and misunderstandings. It sounds just like one of those dreaded, cheesy wobbly-wall sitcoms of the 1970s. Except it took the point of view of the boys, was about a Jewish family and, crucially, was filmed without a laugh track. It’s brilliant. But it’s not a million miles from the dreaded “Terry and June”. OK, ten thousand. But no more.

Grittier, more “real” subject matter? Emphasis on characters and not laboured setups and punch lines? Grappling with issues? These have been sitcom staples since the first disastrous tea with the vicar circa 1965. “Steptoe & Son” steered well clear of jokes, was downbeat to the point of being morose, and was all about social aspiration and the generation gap.  “Porridge” didn’t shy from extortion and bullying in prison or sexual frustration, and had two of the most naturalistic sitcom performers ever in Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale.  OK, it didn’t deal with forced male-on-male sex or heroin but I can’t think of any modern sitcoms that do, either.

People complain that the breaking of the fourth wall in “Mrs Brown’s Boys” destroys the purity of sitcom, but are somehow silent on the straight-to-camera rants of Jez and Mark in “Peep Show”. If Gerald Wright in “The Wright Way” had burst into song, critics would have had a hernia. But Bret and Jermaine’s music routines in “Flight of the Conchords” was part of its postmodern charm.

There’s a mismatch somewhere between what’s trendy and what isn’t. I’m looking forward to the day when no one really cares whether a sitcom has a studio audience or not, but laugh at it on its own merits. I doubt if it will be soon.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

What do you mean, women are funny?

Hooray. Last weekend Bridget Christie became only the third female comedian in 33 years to win the Edinburgh Festival Comedy Award. Double hooray because her act (by reports) isn’t a lightweight crowd-pleaser but an hour of hard-hitting and funny feminism.

Why is she only the third? Is it because women are only one eleventh as funny as men? Or is it because there are eleven times as many males as females on the circuit? I’ve just done a rough count of the comics listed in the Chortle website (As, Bs and Cs only. I haven’t got all night) and there are 216 men and 57 women. More men than women, but not eleven times as many. It seems that, simply, there’s an unwillingness to appreciate female comics.

There’s not this problem with sketch comedy. Wood & Walters, Smack the Pony, Katy Brand, Watson & Oliver (they’ve come in for a bit of stick, but their last series had some wonderful moments) – no one would dare argue that they’re not as funny as men.

But in standup women struggle to be recognised. The circuit can be a testosterone-sweaty gladiatorial arena in which most men would wilt. They say that it takes balls of steel to survive on it, which, if true, cuts out half the human race. But women don’t lack courage, talent or determination. The difficulty is that, in standup, they simply have fewer choices.

A comedian’s stage persona isn’t created by force of will. It’s forged over long months through a compact between the comic and their audiences. Laughing at someone involves a degree of acceptance and trust. And at the moment the stock of available routines audiences are willing to buy into is far more meagre for women than it is for men.

The dysfunctional weirdo (Emo Phillips, Paul Foot). The sexual predator (Mike Wilmot). The grossed-out drunk (Carey Marx). The innocent from outer space (Milton Jones). If these comics were women, audiences – male and female - would tend to feel threatened, worried or bemused. They would have to work far harder to gain acceptance.

This is why so many female comedians fall into either bubbly/loveable, sassy/chic, abrasive but likeable/gay categories. There’s so much more pressure for them to be loveable, sweet and attractive.

Hang on. Not all women comics are like that. Jo Brand was magnificently scruffy, grungy and grumpy, not giving a toss she wasn’t going to appear on the cover of “Cosmopolitan”. But notably few have followed in her footsteps. I can’t think of anyone at the moment with the same air of simply not giving a toss. (I’d be happy to be corrected on this)

The solution is for more and more women to get up on the standup stages, to renegotiate the space with audiences and get us used to the idea that they can be whoever they damn well want to be. As Bridget Christie is doing. Let’s hope she starts an unstoppable trend.

Look up Funny Women who are working hard to promote female comedy. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Funny Words

“What’s comedy all abou- TIMING!!!!!”, according to the old joke. Actually it’s about quite a lot else, and one of the main factors by which a joke stands or falls is wording. Yesterday’s flat joke may bring the house down today if expressed with just one altered word.

Some words are funnier than others. Haddock is funnier than Fish. Cake is funnier than Gateau. Grub is funnier than Larva. Why? Often comedy writers just say “Well, they just are funnier” and leave it at that, but I think there’s a science to it. Or a bit of a science, let’s not get too nerdy about this...

The first rule is that short words are funnier than longer ones. Cake vs Gateau, Grub vs Larva, Wig vs Hairpiece. A short word has a punch which pushes the breath out and causes laughter. Brevity is the soul of wit. Long words can get in the way very quickly. Then again, Haddock is longer than Fish, so you can hardly say that this is an unbreakable rule, just like everything else in comedy.

The second rule is that hard consonants are funnier than soft. Cake and Haddock both have that wonderful edgy “k” sound, the ideal comedy consonant (there we go again). Cookie is funnier than Biscuit. The “g” in Wig is fairly hard. It has impact, and adds to the punch factor. Also, and this is important, hard consonants are easier to hear. A muffled joke has no impact.

The third rule is that words with hidden, or slightly underground, associations, can work really well. Hob Nob is funnier than Biscuit because, subliminally, it sounds like part of a  knob gag. Lunchbox is funnier than Packed Lunch because it also has knobby connotations. The Fluke fish sounds funny because it also sounds like something else. It doesn’t mean these work as puns. If they did, it would distract from the point of the joke. But there’s something in all these words which makes the audience sit up and listen. Their comedy sensibility has been alerted.

The fourth rule is probably the most important but also the most obvious. The word has to convey the sense of the joke precisely. If you set up with the phrase “The butler fetched the president a hob nob” it’s distracting because we’re expecting something posh – unless the joke is about spending cuts in the White House, or something like that. This rule overcomes all the others. Unless it doesn’t. This is comedy, after all.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


When I first saw the TV version of “Count Arthur Strong” I laughed a lot in patches but wasn’t too sure overall. Now I’ve seen a few more episodes I’m still laughing and I’m still not sure.

I was a big fan of the Count’s radio show. It seems strange that such a bumbling, harmless character should be described in the Radio Times as “divisive”. The nearest character to him (and this goes way back) was Harry Worth in the 1960s, who also either delighted you or made you want to slap him. But how does the Count’s show come across as a TV sitcom?

Strong’s a great character. He’s a failed music hall star, lost in the modern world, exasperated but terrified underneath, bombastic, tongue-tied, but strangely affectionate. Stephen Delaney’s terrific delivery painted a vivid picture for radio. His TV performance loses none of the vocal nuance, but is physically very mannered. He twitches and blinks and always seems as if he’s about to trip over his shoulders. And, looking at Delaney, you see he’s thirty years younger than the Count.

And I can’t get a hang on Rory Kinnear’s Michael Baker, the new character created by co-writer Graham Linehan. He’s been wisely added so we can see the Count and his consortium of 1950s throwback freaks through his eyes - but is he normal? Is he a neurotic hysteric? At times he’s sensible, at others he over-reacts to the madness round him. The problem’s not Kinnear’s performance but the concept of the character, who doesn’t seem to belong to the same sitcom as the rest.

While Baker is rounded, the Count teeters on the brink of caricature. The malapropisms at times are overused: I couldn’t buy him thinking “Twitter” was to do with Hitler. Some of the jokes are signalled with the subtlety of a Brucie gag on “Strictly”.

But then…. watching the Count perform “Windmills of Your Mind” as he twirled his brolly before the captive audience trapped by the riot had me nearly breaking springs on the sofa. He has the makings of a great sitcom character. He has a life outside each individual episode. You can hear his voice in your head as you go through your day, you ask yourself “How would he react to that?” at things going on around you. At least I do.

I just wish his vehicle carried him a bit better.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Things I hate about (some) sketches…….

OK for selling fried food, less so for comedy

There are some topics which should be made illegal as material for sketches.

TV SENDUPS Nothing reveals a lack of imagination and courage more than TV comedians relying on their own medium to get easy laughs. I’ll rephrase that: the writing’s easy, the laughs come damn hard. With all the topics in the universe out there for writers to look to to create hilarity, turning to the nearest thing at hand is just lazy.

I was looking forward to the recent series of Anna and Katy.  Talented performers, but I’m sorry to say they gave me a headache. Nearly every sketch was a games show, TV chef, panel show or soap opera spoof…..and a take-off of “The Apprentice”. In every office across the country, people do send-ups of Lord Sugar’s hapless contestants. Do we need yet another on TV?

COSTUME DRAMA SPOOFS   Yes, we know that Jane Austen characters talk in a slightly stilted way and are absolutely hilarious when they fiddle with their parasols and call all the men “Mr”.  That’s the trouble: we know. We want sketches to surprise us.

PEOPLE DRESSED UP AS ANIMALS  Often, about half way through the series, when the ideas are beginning to flag, someone in the team says “Wouldn’t it be funny if we dressed up as poodles?” People are interesting. Dogs are boring. People dressed up as dogs are desperate.

Writing comedy can be tough.  A sketch which seemed brilliant and fresh when you wrote it at midnight can look stale and clichéd at 10.30am. The stress and adrenalin involved in being funny can cloud your judgement of your work.  Ernest Hemingway spoke of his inner bullshit detector. Developing one of these is nearly as important as building your self-belief.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Why Square Pegs are Good for You

It can be tough finding comedy ideas, or any writing ideas, for that matter. I’ve been reading Stephen King’s marvellous book “On Writing” in which he tells how some of his best ideas came in the shower, while driving, while shaving… Unfortunately the poor comedy writer, labouring to drum up 6 sketch ideas within a 72 hour deadline, doesn’t have the time (or the money for the water bill) You need to create ideas cold, while you’re sitting by your laptop on a bleak Thursday morning.

One of my favourite ways of getting your brain to stand up, comedy-wise, is to think of square pegs - people in a situation they weren’t built for and can’t handle. Many great sketches were built on this situation. First of all, jot down a list of professions.

Such as: Undertaker. Surgeon. Supermodel. Tour Guide. Dentist. Submarine Captain. Doctor’s receptionist…. Write down at least 20 of them.

Now jot down adjectives for human characteristics: Happy. Lecherous. Negative. Monosyllabic. Overfamiliar. Boring... Do 20 of these.

Write them in columns. What you do now is mix and mismatch. How about a negative tour guide? Tour guides are meant to be enthusiastic. How about one who’s very negative,  and puts down all the lovely sights. What would happen? How would the tourists react? When someone doing a job has all the wrong attributes for it, you’re creating tension and conflict, the staples of comedy.

Or an overfamiliar doctor’s receptionist? The cliché is that of the forbidding, frosty gatekeeper. But if she (it’s always a she, for some reason) is a chatterbox who tries to elicit your symptoms while she shares hers with you and the rest of the room, you’re breaking a mould and creating embarrassment and anxiety. And if you don’t think these two emotions are wonderful comedy subjects, then go back to your office desk.

These lists aren’t mechanical. They stoke your creativity to help you write sketches, stories and articles. Good luck with them.

Thursday, 23 May 2013


A quote from Richard Curtis: “When I’m advising people about writing, I say that the biggest hurdle you have to get over is how bad your own writing is.”  What he’s talking about is that first draft. So much of the time, after sweating blood over the first few pages or thousand words, when you read them they seem rubbish.

I still feel nervous when I start something new. I know it’s going to be clumsy and feeble, overlong, unfunny, lacking in any kind of elegance. The first draft pain never goes away. It’s even worse with comedy, with that immediate judgement hovering over you: “It’s not funny!”

The second draft remains hard labour. The idea still seems flabby, every word wrong. I feel sometimes as if I’m patching up the Titanic. Often it’s just willpower that keeps me toiling. I bet this is the same for most writers.

I think the best way to get through this is to stop thinking of each draft as being discrete, as a distinct stage. The process from the conception in your head to the finished piece is a continuum. It moves forward extremely slowly, incrementally, and the improvement in the quality of writing is imperceptible.  I try now to think of the first few words or images in my head as being the first draft.  Typing them up is a chore that has to be done. The second draft may be started in my sleep, on the train, or through an altered word on my PC. There are probably hundreds of drafts, all tiny steps forward.

Thinking of it like this removes a lot of pressure and some of the pain. If you set yourself a fixed number of stages, say five, and find that stage three is still no good, you’re going to be stressed.

I often spend about 20 minutes reworking something, move onto another project and come back later for another half hour. It’s more like chipping slowly at a piece of stone, revealing the statue bit by bit.

I hadn’t meant to go on so long about me. Back to Richard Curtis: “After you’ve been writing for a while, you know that when you get a finished film, that’ll be one-thirtieth of what you wrote on the subject. You mustn’t torture yourself with the fact that most of every day is spent writing stuff that’s not great. It’s basically all rewriting. Most of the process is to do with rewriting rather than writing.”

The quotes are from “Now That’s Funny” by David Bradbury and Joe McGrath, a fascinating book of interviews with comedy writers.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Why Writing Sketches is Good For You

There seem to be a lot of disillusioned comedy writers out there. I’ve heard people talk about the glory days of the 1990s, when Hale & Pace, Smith & Jones and Weekending, not to mention loads of European shows, were gasping for material. It’s all gone tits up, I’ve heard say. No one wants comedy writers any more, especially sketch writers.  

I’d like to correct this negativity. First of all, there are opportunities out there, not least Newsjack. There’s always a competition running (for example the Cofilmic Comedy Sketch competition currently advertised in the BBC Writersroom).  There’s a mini-boom in sketch comedy on the standup circuit –  get up and do some of your stuff, or get to know some performers. Think how The League of Gentlemen started off. And why not get a camera and put your stuff on youtube… Not all of this will make you much money, but you never know what it may lead to.

Apart from anything else, though, writing sketches is good for you as a writer, giving you skills like no other genre. Sketches teach you

Brevity  No other narrative art form makes you get to the point quite like the sketch. You’ve got two minutes – often one minute – in which to set up the idea, get it running and resolve it. Compression is key. If you want to write magazine articles or short stories, this ability gives you a head start.

Scattergunning ideas  Sketch writing trains your brain to come out with a flow of ideas, test run them in your head and turn the strong ones into finished pieces. I’ve met captains of industry who moaned about their executives’ difficulty in doing this.

Lateral thinking  The classic technique of juxtaposing inappropriate things, twisting situations and looking through an unaccustomed lens, is one which often passes more literary and “serious” writers by. By chucking together two things which shouldn’t be, as you’ve been doing with your sketches, you can get ideas for stories or add zip to your novel. It’s certainly helped me to come up with humorous article ideas.

Sketches are low-commitment  You can write sketches in between your other projects – sitcoms, novels, memoirs. You’ll refresh your mind and hone your skills. And it’s fun!

So don’t give up on your sketch writing. And if you’re just starting off – keep it going!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Wright Way - or the Wrong Way?

The world can't get it together to stop the Syrian conflict or halt global warming, but everyone seems to be united in hatred of Ben Elton's new sitcom "The Wright Way". Among the critics' comments were "Unmitigated horror" and "fully deserved its graveyard slot in the schedule". Even the Radio Times slated it for being old-fashioned and sexist - adjectives which would have horrified Ben Elton twenty years ago.

Sorry folks, but I thought it was OK. The plots intertwined and cracked along quite nicely, there was some nice visual comedy with the tap which only spouts when pressure is exerted (they drive me mad as well), the routine in which Gerald Wright has to keep returning to the apathetic salesgirl to get his scarf built well and had me chuckling. And Wright's character, though far from being a David Brent sitcom monster of genius, is a competently drawn and amusing study of someone who can't handle the world not going all his way.

That's the word - competent. "The Wright Way" was efficiently put together. It was well paced. There were set pieces at the right times. There were at least four or five gags per minute, ranging from the good-ish to the lame. There was a good mix of characters..... and so on. If a new police procedural thriller was reviewed as "competently written", that would pass as a good notice.

Not so a comedy. If  a sitcom is deemed to be old-fashioned or harking back (perish the thought!) to the 70s, to be a bit sitcom-ish, with too many gags or broad generic characters, critics and punters react as if the writer had suggested that paedophilia is actually quite a good idea. Being well-made is almost part of the insult. If a singer performs in the style of 30 years ago, it's charmingly retro. If a sitcom seems as if it was made in 1975, it's an unmitigated horror.

There's lots wrong with "The Wright Way". The young characters are a cliche based on a cliche (constant repetitions of "yeah, like, totally" won't win Elton any awards for best-observed contemporary dialogue). Too often gag was piled on gag to throw any credibility out of the window. That's something good 70s sitcoms never did. I can see why he included all the characters in Wright's office, but they were so thinly drawn that you could virtually see the actors puffing out their cheeks to make themselves feel present.

I'll probably catch up with Gerald Wright again, but I won't watch every episode. The only sitcom really lighting my fire at the moment is "Parks and Recreation": sweet, real, of the moment and just bloody funny.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

How lifelike are comedy characters?

Where do we get our characters from? When I started writing, I had a simple, confident answer: life. If the population of our sitcoms or sketches weren’t lifted directly from the people we met around us, there was something suspiciously untruthful about them.

I once met Maurice Gran (half of Marks & Gran, writers of “The New Statesman” and “Birds of a Feather”) and asked him how much they took their characters from “real life”. “If any of them had been,” he retorted, “They’d have been locked up in a mental home”. I withdrew into my shell. My question had been viciously trampled over.

That was then. Now I know Maurice was right. Characters in sitcoms don’t behave like real humans - even those in ostensibly naturalistic shows like “The Office”. They run through tangled loops of repetitive behaviour with people who, after a week or two, would avoid them, scream at them, hit them or have them locked up. “The Office” ’s David Brent wouldn’t have lasted a month in a real office. He’d have been sacked, demoted or moved sideways.

We keep watching a sitcom, though, because we somehow feel the characters are real.  There’s a vitality to them. We recognise many of their emotions as our own. They ring bells. “I’ve met people just like that” is a frequent comment when people discuss David Brent. What they mean is that they’ve come across managers who sometimes spout meaningless office jargon, who can be embarrassingly matey, who at times can be excruciatingly insensitive.

But none of these real people would interrupt a team building meeting by accompanying themselves on the guitar to their own bad pop song, or give a motivation lecture by rapping throughout with a baseball cap on backwards, and next week leave a person in a wheelchair stranded on the stairs in a fire practice. Brent will commit several similar gaffes every episode.

When we’re writing a sitcom character, they’re a composite of people we’ve met, images dredged from our imagination, ideas springing from our own attitudes, and a calculated need to create conflict with other characters. We’re not copying behaviour from life. We’re doing something much better: we’re creating a completely new entity.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Are Old Jokes Funny?

The first recorded joke was written down in ancient Sumeria in about 1800BC. It went something like this:

“Something which has not occurred since time immemorial: that a young woman did not fart till her husband’s embrace.”

Got you in stitches? Me neither.  Maybe the double negative kills the laugh. Maybe something got lost in translation.

Another old joke, rather more recent, from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”:

OLIVIA  Go to, y’re are a dry fool: I’ll no more of you: besides, you grow dishonest.
CLOWN: Two faults, Madonna, that drink and good company will amend: for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry.

By anyone’s standards, that’s pretty feeble. But at least we understand the “dry fool” gag, even if we don’t laugh at it. What can we make of this one from later in the play?

“Remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt hold the opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits; and fear to kill a woodcock, lest thou dispossess the soul of  thy grandam.”

No doubt Pythagoras and woodcock jokes were all the rage in 1600, but they leave us stony-faced.

It’s clear that context and style in comedy change drastically over the years, to the extent that jokes and sitcoms which made us hoot only twenty years ago now leave us cold. In terms of forcing us to drop our defences and let out a laugh, that is, which you could say is what comedy is all about.

But looking closer at the first two, you can see that they take the form of a joke much as we understand it today. They’re both in two parts. The first sets up an expectation (the setup) and the second subverts it (the punch line).

Our Sumerian gag writer sets things up with a pompous intro which leads us to expect something in the way of historical grandeur. What do we get? A fart.

The sense of the joke is that women fart anyway, and don’t bother too much about what men may think, even when they’re still in the market for a husband. That’s how I take it anyway. If you assume that Sumerian Society was a prim one in which women were expected to be like that, the appeal to people of the time is clear. It’s even slightly subversive. After thought, it’s rather humorous, even to us today.

Shakespeare’s gag is still terrible, but we can see the joke format OK.

Subject matter changes. The existence of the joke seems to be timeless. And long live fart gags.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Comedy Writing -  craft or art?

Is a great joke, sketch or sitcom created in the white heat of inspiration – or is it the product of hours or even months of hard work, refining and honing? You’ve probably guessed my answer from the way I’ve phrased the question.

Maybe the idea for a great joke or a sketch will come to you while you’re washing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Maybe it will arrive in your head fully formed and all you have to do is jot it down as fast as you can before the vision fades. I often think of the legend of “Kubla Khan”: that Coleridge dreamt the whole poem while stoned out of his head on opium. He was feverishly scribbling it down the next morning but was interrupted by a caller from Porlock. After the visit, the dream had gone, he’d forgotten nearly all of it and we’re left with a truncated few lines.

Imagine Coleridge’s script editor the next morning. “Interrupted by a man from Porlock? Why not just say your dog ate the script, I’d believe it more. Besides, you’ve passed the deadline!”

Comedy writing – like all writing except, obviously, romantic poetry – is all about producing stuff. In this case, a certain number of sketches, jokes or episodes, on time, which fit the bill and which make people laugh. You can’t do that if you’re smashed out of your mind on opium. It’s a nuts and bolts thing:  X number of laughs in Y number of minutes. It takes time to learn how to do that, and a lot of trial, error and falling on your face.

I remember Bill Dare of the BBC saying at a script meeting years ago that they weren’t interested in someone who produced one immortal sketch of genius, but people who could write five or six reliably funny sketches, and come back next week with five or six more. It takes craft to do that.

It’s not to say that brilliance and inspiration don’t come into it. We’re all aiming for that. But it’s more important we just keep writing. Once you’ve really mastered the lower slopes, you can more confidently tackle the heights.