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. 

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