Comedy Writing

Comedy Writing

Picture by Robin Higgins

I just completed a two-course on comedy led by Dave Cohen. It was held in Kings Cross which has undergone an extraordinary regeneration. There were 8 of us on day 1 and 5 on day 2 and was held in the London Canal Museum. We mostly listened but also did some workshops. 

Dave has most recently written for Horrible Histories but has had a long career contributing to many shows such as Have I got News for You and Spitting Image. He has a speciality for one liners and songs. But no, he didn't write The Chicken Song

The five key questions one has to ask when writing a comedy are:

  1. Who's it about?
  2. What's it about?
  3. What's it really about?
  4. Why am I the person to write it?
  5. Why is it relevant now?

Some of these will be familiar to those who've seen John York's list of 10. Tellingly, there is no what do they want although this could be wrapped in number 2. But we'll come to it later. We talked about the difference between audiencen and non-audience shows. The former is more expensive and has fewer locations. It's becomine less popular probably due to the cost being 2-3 x more per episode. However, Not Going Out mand Miranda are recent examples.

Referring to Why now? How come some old shows are still popular. Is it like the theory espoused recently, that they're gentle wind down shows e.g. Friends, BBT - good at the ened of a stressful day. Or are they still relevant and this makes them still popular e.g. Dad's Army. Is this still enjoyed but it reflects the time we are in: the UK at odds with the state of Europe. 

We talked about shows with disability e.g. Jerk, Derek. The disability can be a source of amusement but only if under the control of the person with it or if its a minor element. But clearly, things change over time. We talked about the fact that most comedies are written by pairs of people. If one person doesn't laugh at the other's idea, it's probably not funny. Dave worked on My Family which had a writer's room - unusual for the UK. US shows often have more characters and more shows so the writer's room is pretty much a necessity. US shows are usually shorter and more gags driven. Non audience shows can be less jokey.

We talked about a lot of sitcoms are based on families or family-like structures. For instance, Mrs Brown's Boys or Father Ted (grandfather figure, father figure and son figure). Dave read out the list of the shortlist for comedy at the Writer's Guild award. Most of the runners are as much drama as comedy, few are classic audience sitcoms and many have writer-performers in them. When asked what commissioners want, they don't know. Well they do, comedy drama that's original but familiar. 

What are the types of comedy. This is ever changing but at the moment:

  • Situation comedy: show resets at end of each episode e.g. Simpsons
  • Drama comedy: drama with some humour. Characters develop e.g. Catastrophe
  • Comedy drama: comedy with some drama. Characters develop somewhat, location changes e.g Last Man on Earth, Good Place

Whatever the type of comedy, it will be one of 3 structures:

  1. Single
  2. Duo
  3. Ensemble

For comedy, the main characters will need to satisfy these situations:

  • They want something but they don't get it.
  • They think they're seen as one thing but they're seen as something else

For example, David Brent from The Office wants to be seen as cool and believes he's popular. His staff think he's a bully/idiot and they don't like him. When writing characters, can they represent the world as it is. So Mannering represents the upper class and Wilson the working class, for instance. Now perhaps they represent Brexiters and Remainers. When writing duos, make them opposites to create conflict and contrasts.

On to day 2. We talked about the BBC Writer's Room deadline and what was needed. We focussed a bit more on characters and story. We had a new person in attendance and lost a few others. We talked about the 3 Act structure and Aristotle. As a reminder:

  1. Act 1: beginning. Inciting incident.
  2. Act 2: middle. Complications. All is lost.
  3. Act 3: End. Recovery/resurretion in last 15 minutes (film) or 5 minutes (comedy)

At the end, are they changed? 

Comedy = tragedy + time. This suggests that all tragedy is funny after time has passed. 

Going back to the 3 types of comedy, here is more nuance:

  1. Single: Monster e.g. Brent, Miranda (physical), Sheldon
  2. Duo: Odd Couple e.g. the Odd Couple, Jez and Mark from Peep Show, Laurel and Hardy
  3. Ensemble: BBT, Friends. Not discussed at the workshop but the use of archetypes can really help to shape these. In addition, even with an ensemble you probably have a monster and an odd couple in it

When considering character, they must all be

  1. Original
  2. Familiar
  3. Flawed
  4. Unsatisfied
  5. Proactive
  6. Different from how others see them
  7. Believable
  8. Unteachable (sitcoms)
  9. Sympathetic

They should also show a lack of self-awareness. We covered stories next and we had 8 'P's. 

  1. Plan (your story)
  2. Personal (to you)
  3. Proactive (protagnist)
  4. Pendelum (power/success moves around particularly with duos)
  5. Point of no return
  6. Peril
  7. Pathos e.g. Frasier
  8. Punchline

We discussed how to write for the Writer's Room comedy window. Take your time to think of the charaters, world and story. Show them in their workplace. Have 2-3 stories and write 1200-1500 words of prose forming 10-15 scenes. Then write the script, making sure first 10 pages is strong by ensuring:

  • See main character
  • Get into the story quickly
  • You get the world
  • People cannot talk with nothing happening
  • Think big
  • Don't make it too now
  • Stuff about tv/industry is a no no

Oh, last thing, don't forget radio as an outlet. Radio 4 producers more comedy than all tv combined.

One last last thing, don't forget JOKES!