Yesterday I chummed my other half to a BBC Comedy Writers’ Workshop at Potterow.  I wouldn’t describe myself as a comedy writer per se, but book nine is down as being humour and any help is welcome.  I’m not sure what it will entail – probably pictures of animals with whimsical captions.

It being a rainy Tuesday, the event was only about 2/3 full.  It took place in a tent with a lovely star cloth ceiling which kept getting lighter and dimmer on a constant loop and there were also chandeliers, because the beeb likes to spend our license fee on grandeur.

Unfortunately we arrived right as the names of the panel were being read out, so I don’t know exactly who they all were.  Hopefully this high quality iPhone picture will help you to identify, from left to right: a writer called John who started out by sending a couple of sketches to producers he liked, Caroline who commissions stuff for Radio 4, Sarah Millican, James Cary, Jane who is from some sort of production company, and one of the guys who is in charge of Newsjack

Broadly speaking Newsjack man was overseeing things, so he started by getting Sarah Millican to explain what she likes about doing radio as opposed to stand up.  “It makes me more creative with language,” she said, “because you can’t swear as much.  I also like the collaborative side of sending something off to be checked over.  I just want help, essentially.”

He then moved on to James Cary, who has written series including Think the Unthinkable and Hut 33, as well as material for various comedians.  He pointed out that the two are quite separate, but if you are going down the route of writing for other people (which is how a lot of comedy writers start out) you have to be aware they know what works for them, and will in all likelihood reject half your jokes on the grounds they can’t make it work.  In such situations you just need to churn stuff out and don’t take rejection personally.

Then Caroline from Radio 4 explained what she looks for when commissioning new stuff.  Funniness, she says, is not the be all and end all – it has to work in the overall context of the schedule.  She’s ruthless in her efforts to find shows that fit, to the extent that she turned down Flight of the Conchords because she didn’t think they were right for the station.

“I still think that they worked much better on Radio 2 which is where they ended up,” she continues.  “And they moved on pretty quickly, I didn’t halt their career – I’m not that important!”

She went on to give a brief overview of what she looks for to fill the different comedy time slots on Radio 4:

  • 11.30 is the ‘warm bath’ moment where listeners are more likely to want something narrative like a sitcom.  Three days a week they have comedy in this slot, and the other days they have arts features or fiction.
  • 6.30 is the end of the day energy boost show.  It’s a definite switch on moment, she says, and people are switching on for comedy – but equally they’re busy feeding kids and doing other bits and pieces so it’s better to have something to dip in and out of at this time, like a panel show or a sketch show.
  • The late night slot is billed as entertainment rather than comedy.  At this point she is looking for something experimental, to capture the listener’s imagination.

There then followed a lot of chat about researching your audience.  We were advised to listen to everything the station has to offer, from comedy to Women’s Hour, because that’s the only way to know the type of language to use.  This seems kind of obvious to me, but that’s probably because of the amount of research I’ve done on building a freelance journalism career of late.  Writing for yourself works up to a point but if you want to make a living, at some stage you have to target what you’re doing to the audience you’re meant to be doing it for.

Up until this point in proceedings I had assumed most of the audience were writers of some description, but when the floor was opened up to questions I began to doubt it.  The first questioner genuinely couldn’t get her head round the notion of writing something and sending it to a producer for feedback, as John did.

“But Writersroom says you have to send things through them, and you’ll have to wait 4 months before anyone looks at it,” she said plaintively.

“That’s only full scripts,” John said kindly, “I sent off a few different sketches to different people.”

“Off spec?” audience woman was incredulous.  I assume she meant on spec, but you never can tell.

“Yes,” he said.

“But how did you know who to send it to?”

He had already explained this in pretty clear terms, as had most of the rest of the panel – he listened to lots of shows, and sent stuff to the producers of the ones he liked as to open doors shows in the same vein as Newsjack.  Still, he went through it again.

“But how do you get in touch?” she said.

Caroline fielded that one.  You listen to the show and jot down the names of those involved, because they generally aren’t listed in the Radio Times.  But once you’ve done that, you can get everyone at the BBC over email – the address will just be first name dot surname @bbc.co.uk

“But what do you write about?” she persisted.

“Well it depends on the show,” Newsjack guy interceded.  “If you want to send something to Newsjack it has to be topical news.  We tend to get between 600 and 1000 submissions on the couple of days before the weekly deadline and then we read them all and choose the ones that best fit the week’s show.”

There was more, but I think you get the point.  The panel were very good with her, because after all there’s no such thing as a stupid question (except arguably there is if you are a beginner in a room with intermediates/experts) but I really wanted one of them to just be like ‘hey love, there’s this wonderful tool we have now called the internet – why not try it out?’    

I dread to think what she’ll be like when she starts sending out queries and discovers the majority of people never get back to you and you have no idea whether it’s because you’re crap, got them in a bad mood, or emailed the wrong person.

Eventually other people were able to ask questions, although by and large these were people trying to plug their own shows – two stand ups and someone that apparently wanted to break into voice acting.  However, a couple of actual writers did manage to get a word in edgeways that led to some interesting points.

“The script has to be more than the sum total of jokes and characters,” advised Cary.  It is not enough to merely be funny; you have to actually be writing about something – making the audience angry, or getting them to think.  I thought that was quite an interesting point, at least until Andrew went “alright, so what’s the deeper meaning behind The Mighty Boosh?”  Answers on a postcard…

The other thing was that you need someone – preferably a producer – to advocate your work.  Apparently if you’re good this shouldn’t be too problematic, as producers are always looking for new stuff.  “If you make a producer laugh in the first two pages,” says Newsjack guy, “they’ll very often give your script the benefit of the doubt.”

However, Caroline points out, they aren’t looking for stuff that needs a lot of work put in.  A producer will not take you on unless they are confident you have at least two hours of solid material, preferably more, and before you ask them to watch it at your Free Fringe show or whatever it needs to be as good as you think it can be.  The sentiment had echoes of the #badcoveringletter hashtag on twitter – you wouldn’t send a query letter to a publisher like “I’m sending chapters 1, 8 and 27 because they are the best,” and equally if you want a producer to give you a go you shouldn’t get them to come to a performance that you’ve only tried twice.  The same goes for scripts.

“If you’ve got a really good half hour script and you’re a serial killer, they’ll take it,” claims Cary.  Put the effort in and eventually you will be rewarded. 

“Although,” he says, “and this is an unpopular thing to say… if you write a sketch and it disappears off into the void, it might just not be as funny as you thought it was.  And if you’ve been going for 15 years without any success whatsoever, maybe stop.”

“It took me 12 years to get to the point of doing it for a living,” Millican points out, “so 12 years is OK…  I always sort of think though that if you give up, you don’t deserve it.”

Other things that came up:

  • Mixed feelings from the panel on whether you should make your own stuff – eg Youtube videos or podcasts of your work.  Jane and James said the BBC and some production companies like Positive read everything they get sent so there’s no need; meanwhile Caroline recently commissioned a script off the back of some videos she saw on Youtube – although she got in touch with the comedians involved and said ‘this is what we want and this is the deadline’ rather than just giving them work outright.
  • Just write – don’t censor yourself or worry about the technical side of how things can be achieved, that’s the producer’s job.
  • Don’t feel that just because its radio and you can do anything that you have to cram in all kinds of stuff – keeping it simple can work just as well.
  • Characters are hugely important in comedy.  When pitching you need to be able to say “I have these characters that are funny for these reasons.”
  • Start every show assuming people haven’t heard it before – mention character names and give the audience a mental picture of where they are.

There was quite a lot of food for thought packed into an hour and it was free as well, which is always good for poor aspiring writers in our candlelit garrets.  Perhaps next year I shall do a comedy script a month. 

Probably not, though.

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