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!