Earlier in January, I took part in a Creative Lab Workshop on comedy and sketch writing, organised by the very talented Blewbury Players. It was a fun evening and I had a good time chatting about my experiences as a BBC scriptwriter. Thank you Blewbury Players.
They very kindly asked me to make some introductory comments which I thought might be helpful to anyone thinking of venturing out into the crocodile-infested waters of comedy writing.
WHO AM I?
I’m Sue Clark and I’ve been a professional writer for more than 40 years. Over the years, I’ve been a journalist, PR writer, copywriter, guidebook writer and editor. Have I forgotten any? But these were only my day jobs. Always in the background was my first love – comedy.
HOW DID I GET INTO COMEDY WRITING?
I wrote some sketches and sent them to a radio producer. It was that simple. This was the 1980s and the producer was Jimmy Mulville, since co-founder of Hat Trick Productions and creator of Have I Got News For You, among many other hits. Jimmy invited me to call in for a chat if I ever happened to be in the area of Broadcasting House. So, of course, I made sure I was, the very next week.
From then on I attended weekly meetings in the famous, or infamous, Writers Room. This was an anonymous and grubby little room in 16 Langham Street, always strewn with fag-ends and paper cups of cold coffee. Writers of all shapes and sizes would shuffle in to be given topics to be funny about by that week’s producer. Exciting and terrifying at the same time. That led to writing for the weekly radio satirical shows Week Ending and The News Huddlines, and eventually to TV sketch writing on shows such as Three of a Kind and Alas Smith and Jones.
Sadly, 16 Langham has gone the way of Week Ending, swallowed up in the ghostly blue glow of New Broadcasting House. The Writers Room still exists, though it’s now online and there are no used coffee cups.
WHAT IS COMEDY?
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What is comedy? Analysing comedy, as someone – possibly Barry Cryer. It usually is – once said is like dissecting a frog. No-one laughs and the frog dies. I’m certainly not going to go where the God of Comedy Barry Cryer doesn’t go. Let’s just leave it at comedy is anything that makes you laugh, guffaw, snort or groan.
WHAT IS A SKETCH?
Having ducked the last question, I’m on safer ground when it comes to sketches. A sketch is the short story of the comedy world. It is to a full length drama or play, as a short story is to a novel.
Just like a short story, a sketch has to contain all the ingredients of a drama: characters, story, and setting, only in fewer words. Unlike a short story, a sketch also has to have something that makes you laugh. Not much to ask in only three minutes!
So no words can be wasted; every line must do its work. There’s no room for padding or diversions in a sketch. Stick to the point. Don’t be tempted to put everything you can think of in it. The humour will lose its focus. Oh and don’t forget a surprise twist or two. They are, after all, what usually trigger the laughter.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SKETCH AND NOVEL WRITING?
Length, obviously. A sketch is usually only a few minutes long and its purpose, plain and simple, is to make the audience laugh. Anything that doesn’t add to the laughter has to go.
A novel gives the writer room to expand, to wander down dark side alleys, or through flowery meadows, to add colourful details. But therein lies the danger for a comedy writer. As I learnt when writing my novel, you have to vet your jokes and exercise restraint. It is all-too tempting to go for the cheap gag but this is to be resisted. Just because it amuses you, the writer, that’s no reason to include it. Unless a joke illuminates a character, sets the mood, or moves the plot along in some way, it has to be cut. Though they may be fun to write, ill-chosen quips and misplaced funniness can derail a story and destroy the consistency of characters.
STRUCTURE OF A SKETCH
Sketches and jokes have the same structure as novels and dramas, just shorter. All follow Aristotle’s Three Act structure – says she, as if she knows what she’s talking about! Each act has its own defining moment and ends on a twist. It’s the twist that takes you through to the next act.
- Act One is the Set Up – the status quo. Who is talking? Where are we? What is their relationship to each other? Get this done quickly. Then something happens.
- Act Two is the Bit in the Middle. I hope I’m not being too technical here. The status quo is disrupted and something else, or several something else’s happen, as well as, hopefully, plenty of merriment.
- Act Three is the Pay Off or Punch Line – the story is resolved in a satisfying manner with a cracking good joke, leaving the audience rolling around in their seats in delight.
A word of warning here. Your story has to make sense within the context of the world you have created. This can be as surreal and silly as you like but it still has to make internal sense. Would this character do or say that? Would this other character react in that way? If it doesn’t make sense, at least on a basic level, you’ll lose your audience and most likely your laughs too.
Having said all that, the only rule of comedy is there are no rules. Except when they exist to be broken.
Monty Python and Spike Milligan didn’t much bother with punch lines. Little Britain and The Fast Show did away with the element of surprise, relying instead on repeated jokes and catchphrases. Stuart Lee’s misanthropic rambles seem to have no shape or purpose, until of course you realise they do.
WHERE TO GET YOUR IDEAS?
- Use the person you know best – yourself. Examine your weaknesses and exaggerate them. Writer/performers do this all the time. Basil Fawlty is John Cleese, with knobs on. The same is true of David Brent and Ricky Gervais, Richie Richard and Rik Mayall, and Bernard Black and Dylan Moran.
- Read the news – particularly the small stories. They are a fund of inspiration. A quick look at recent headlines gave me: kangaroos can communicate with humans, squirrels attack people in Rego Park, New York, and Mum finds Jesus in a Brussel sprout.
- Think of a set up. Make a list of words relevant to it. Even if you don’t use them they can spark a line of thought and, hey presto, a sketch is born.
- Don’t go for the obvious. Try to think of situations that haven’t been done to death before. Unless, of course, familiarity is part of the gag.
- Start from the punch line and work back. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the punch line comes first. You just have to provide the rest.
- If an idea doesn’t come quickly, leave it and come back to it later. Laboured jokes aren’t funny.
HOW MANY KINDS OF JOKE ARE THERE?
Is it seven, nine, eleven, three or just one? The truth is, no-one knows how many kinds of jokes there are. Just as they don’t know why the number 42 is funnier than say 56. And why Douglas Adams chose it as the answer to the ultimate question in The Hitchhikers’ Guide. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go. Here’s my list of seven. You can probably think of others.
- The unexpected. Often comes as a list of three – Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation recently about Covid 19. Unpredictable, unavoidable and dangerous, Mr Johnson is ….
- The expected – a sideways comic look at something familiar – Mr Bean changing into his swimming trunks on the beach.
- Pomposity pricked – a pompous character gets their come-uppance. The basis of many a sitcom – Fawlty Towers and Keeping Up Appearances.
- Surreal jokes – Vic and Bob – inspired silliness, beautifully crafted and performed.
- Satire – topical gags based on the news.
- Repetition – repeated punchlines/catchphrases (Little Britain), or strings of one-liners (Tim Vine and Milton Jones). The humour of accumulation.
- Schadenfreude – the age-old banana skin and other physical jokes, often performed without the need for words.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING
- Write with someone else. There’s a reason comedy writers often come in pairs. You need someone to bounce ideas off. Or as Dennis Norden so excellently put it: One to type. One to stare out of the window.
- Watch/listen to sketch shows – Radio 4 Extra has many comedy shows, some old, some new, from Comedy Club to The Navy Lark and On the Hour. Radio 4 sketch and topical shows include The Now Show, Dead Ringers, John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme and The Pin.
- Follow comedians. Gary Delaney dissects his jokes, showing his workings, on Twitter. Actor/comedian Julian Dutton puts his pilot scripts up on his website, and incidentally has written an entertaining book on silent comedy, called Keeping Quiet.
- Read books that about comedy, though I have to warn you, Julian Dutton aside, they’re not always a barrel of laughs. And, as Barry Cryer would say, the frog still dies!
- Read comic fiction – of which there seems to be a lot at the moment. Not only the old masters, PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe, but also new pretenders like Nina Stibbe, Gail Honeyman, Neil Gaiman, Richard Osman and many others. Oh yes, and I hear up-and-coming writer Sue Clark’s new one is funny too!