12 Mar 2014
basac's picture

Two things happened since I last wrote. Well, of course, more than two things happened, but they're less relevant to this blog. The first was the 30th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of 'Spitting Image', and the second was the return of Radio 4 Extra’s topical show 'Newsjack'.

How we look at the news, and how we make jokes about it, has changed radically over that time, but the fact remains that if you want to make a living writing comedy, doing topical jokes remains the quickest and most efficient way in.

I was lucky enough to be involved with ‘Spitting Image’, writing some sketches and a bunch of songs with Pete Sinclair (and to your next question, the one I've been asked more than any other in my career, the answer is no, we didn't write 'the Chicken Song'). The show was considerably more popular than Margaret Thatcher – it regularly pulled more viewers than she managed to win votes – but with the opposition split between Labour and the Liberal/SDP alliance she kept returning to power.

There was a lot of discussion on programmes like 'Newsnight' about whether or not 'Spitting Image' could return. The consensus was 'no, its far too expensive to make, but yes, right now we need it more than ever.' I'm not so sure that latter part is true. I'm afraid that no topical comedy show is ever going to bring down a government - if anything, the opposite is true. Comedy often has different consequences to those intended: Johnny Speight wanted Alf Garnett to be seen as the most hated man in Britain, instead he became number one hero of the nation's taxi drivers and racists.

I loved ‘Spitting Image’ and what it achieved, but we see the news in a different way now, and ‘Newsjack’ is what we have. If you’re starting out in comedy, I strongly recommend you try writing jokes and sketches for it. The second episode goes out tonight on Radio 4 Extra at 1030pm, so if you don’t know the show yet, listen now or on iPlayer later. I haven’t heard it for a couple of years, but from what I remember it’s less about the news than shows like 'Spitting Image' or 'Have I Got News', and more a programme that uses the headlines as a starting point to spring off in other directions. So it might be about creating funny characters in places you wouldn’t normally imagine. Some great comedy ideas began as one-off sketches – ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’ are two good examples.

Because it’s so much harder to get into writing for radio now, and there’s less of it made, a lot of new writers correctly put an incredible amount of hard work and effort into writing for ‘Newsjack’. If you want some advice on writing for the show, there are any number of forums on the British Comedy Guide, and this from the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kvs8r

In addition, yesterday BBC Radio announced the launch of an online book about writing for radio comedy, thus adding an extra layer of heightened topicality to my otherwise random blog: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2014/comedy-ebook.html

The Writing For Newsjack Advice Pile is almost as tall as the Rejected Scripts Mountain outside the appropriately named home of BBC comedy, Grafton House. So I won’t add any more, instead I’ll offer some thoughts about Failing To Get Anything On Newsjack.

I can guarantee that hundreds of you who send in your scripts and one-liners over the next few weeks will not get anything on the show. Thousands of people are sending in sketches, and that’s over and above all the minutes that will be written by commissioned writers. Also, you'll know if you're on Twitter that there are a limited number of top funny gags to be had from news stories, and the chances are they will have been told and copied a thousand times over before the show goes out.

In my book I suggested that you should aim to get one thing on in a series. I'm afraid I've changed my mind and the main suggestion I want to make now is this: don’t expect to get ANYTHING on. Seriously, nothing at all. You’re doing this because there is a show out there on the BBC that is promising to broadcast jokes and sketches by new writers who have never had anything on before.

So why even bother? Because it’s really good practise to write to a deadline, and to try and write to order for a show that is not necessarily a match for your talents.

You will also learn many of the mood swings a typical comedy writer goes through every day. The thrill of coming up with a new idea, the graft of turning it into something to send off, which is the best you can do in the time you have, (but is your best good enough? You hope so), or will someone else have already written that? The stomach churning sensation as you wait to find out if your idea has made the script. The thrill of seeing it recorded. The wait to see if it has made it to the final edit. The relief. Or despair.

Richard Curtis slagged off ‘Week Ending’, Radio 4’s topical show which he tried writing for in 1978, because it wasn’t Richard Curtis enough for him: “You were told, it’s funny that the Chancellor had done that, or British Rail had done that. That was a disastrous way of writing, because I only write stuff because I like it, I think it’s funny and I assume people will like it.”

Sadly we’re not all in Richard Curtis’s position - indeed only Richard Curtis is – and when we’re starting out we have to at least pay attention to what writers are being paid for out there, and how to become a part of that.

I began writing comedy in 1983, also at ‘Week Ending’. This show is mocked and largely remembered unfondly – and unfairly - as a po-faced clunking old dinosaur of topical comedy, recruiting Oxbridge graduates to the world of comedy they would come to dominate.

But it was much more than that. It ran for 40 weeks every year – imagine, almost twenty hours of new material every year, all about the news. It also existed to train new comedy writers, and dozens of people who now make a living at comedy began writing for or producing the show. There was much fondness and rose-tinted nostalgia around ‘Spitting Image’ last week, but I remember ‘Week Ending’, at its best, challenging the consensus and pushing at the boundaries of what could be talked about on air.

During the Falklands war, for example, ‘Week Ending’ was the only place on radio or TV where you could hear any dissent from the Government stance - this despite considerable national opposition to the war. Every week James Hendrie was writing a superb mini sitcom about The Patriots, a family and their dog Jingo, who were always competing for who could be the biggest warmonger.

Recently here I talked about how the best new things were usually shows that took what was already out there and added one thing. 'Spitting Image' was 'Week Ending', only with puppets. Note how much work that word 'only' is doing there. The idea of using puppets to tell topical jokes was revolutionary. The jokes were funny, especially during the golden era when Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were script editing. But it was the incredible latex creations of Peter Fluck and Roger Law that everyone remembers.

So who knows, maybe the next new topical comedy idea is only one step away from arriving. In the meantime, if you’re starting out as a writer be thankful that there’s still a BBC, and that ‘Newsjack’ is still there for you.

Good luck!