04 Dec 2014
basac's picture

On Saturday the British Comedy Guide held their second Big Comedy Conference, which I helped organise. I love being involved with this, because it means I get to learn masses about comedy - the current situation, how to write it, who's coming up with great content.

This was our second conference and it still surprises me that almost the entire audience is made up of people starting out in the business. Which working comedy writer and stand-up is quite happy to miss the heads of Sky, ITV, BBC Radio and UK TV telling creative comedy people exactly what they are looking for to fill their schedules? Who could not learn more about writing comedy from Graham Linehan? Answer - nobody. Even Damon Beesley, co-creator of 'Inbetweeners', the massively successful sitcom and movie franchise, found Graham's talk funny, useful and illuminating.

You really never stop learning how to do comedy, and if you think you can learn no more then you're not stretching yourself enough. Here are ten things I learned on Saturday:

1. It's Tough Out There 

Yes of course no one said it would be easy, but even the successful comedy writers and performers talking on Saturday admitted that it was getting harder. I've been doing this for 30+ years, some have been better than others creatively or financially, and I've always known people doing better and worse than me. But I have noticed in the last three or four years that even people who were ALWAYS doing better than me are struggling. There's less money out there (and as Radio Comedy Commissioner Caroline Raphael pointed out, more BBC cuts to come), and cheaper ways to create content. Companies are paying slower, some are holding back on royalties and secondary payments.

So, apologies from someone who's always telling you how you CAN make a living at comedy, you should know that it's getting a lot harder. However the good news is...

2. Narrative Comedy Is Still Valued

It was heartening to hear all the comedy commissioners showing faith in narrative comedy, which is what most of us want to do, isn't it? It's written into their guidelines, and if there have been times when their enthusiasm has not been matched by their cheque books, this is not one of them. And one of my favourite moments of the day was when Graham Linehan expressed his love for audience sitcom by citing "John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, jumping around the hotel set and being lifted by the laughter of the audience."

3. Write The Brilliant Script

When a producer who you've worked with and who likes your work gets a job as head of development at XTV, it's inevitable to think "Ooh, what projects can they be offered?" It's an easy habit to fall into. Watching those all-powerful commissioners laying out their time slots, explaining what kind of things they were looking for, I realised that all we should be thinking about is creating the brilliant script. I might be closer to a potential meeting than you at the moment, but unless I've got a brilliant script to show them that will be a wasted meeting. The trouble is, very few people write brilliant scripts. Micheal Jacob reckoned he read 10,000 scripts when he was BBC Comedy Script Editor, but that maybe only a dozen or so were brilliant. The chances are it's not going to happen, but that doesn't mean you should stop trying.

4. Write Write Write Write Write

I was pleased to hear Graham Linehan explain that he and Arthur Matthews 'wrote ten sketches a day' when they were working on Big Train, and that more than a hundred never made the cut. I've recently been working on a new sketch show, and I was a little disappointed that more of the sketches weren't as good as they had appeared in my head. I realise now the reason for this was I didn't write enough.

5. Collaborate

Apart from writers lucky enough to have found their partner before achieving success, most of us agonise constantly about whether to work alone or with a partner. Having a partner is twice the fun but half the money. Whatever you decide to do, remember, as David Quantick said, you're collaborating with lots of different people, all the time, across all areas of creating comedy.

6. The Seven Silent Jokes

Recently I wrote a couple of articles for the British Comedy Guide about jokes - what they are, how to write them. Partly in response to that the panellist Julian Dutton kindly put together a list of seven silent jokes, which you can read about here: http://www.comedy.co.uk/forums/thread/31134

7. The Seven Great Habits

I was always suspicious of books with titles like 'The Seven Greatest Grocery Items Of The World's Most Successful People' - but was pleased to discover that in at least one respect I am exactly like Graham Linehan and Damon Beasley.- both admitted to severe bouts of procrastination, time wasted, entire days lost with hardly a word written. Next time it happens I'll console myself about the good company I'm in, but I'll still feel really bad about it. I was also heartened, talking to a writer neighbour whose kids have grown up, and who no longer has to juggle his day round school pick-ups and hanging round at late afternoon music classes. I told him how jealous I was at all the extra writing time he now had, and he explained that every second of that valuable recaptured time he has now learned to waste.

One habit of successful writers that intrigued me was how Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton write all their scripts in longhand. I'm not even sure Andy owns a computer. Always worth remembering that our computers are machines, nothing more than a pen and paper with a few extra gadgets and gizmos thrown in. It's still possible to write brilliant comedy without them.

8. We Brits Are Rubbish At Hustling

This is another piece of advice I used to be in the habit of giving to new writers trying to get noticed in the crowded marketplace - sell yourself, try and be more American, push to get your ideas made. I realise now that was wrong. I can't think of a single comedy writer I've ever met that I didn't like (okay, one). Most comedy writers, including many of the hugely successful ones who came on Saturday, are quiet, good-natured, shy, unconfident people, which is probably what makes them such good writers. We are not like the shiny-teethed optimists across the Ocean for whom comedy is an industry, ours is more like a craft fair, constructed on the twin British pillars of melancholy and disappointment. Best to keep it that way.

9. Linehan - Buxton

I was probably the last person in the room to have found out that Graham Linehan is currently writing with Adam Buxton, but to me that's the equivalent of hearing that Lennon and McCartney have got back together.

10. Keep Going

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that I haven't written a thing in six months. Being a comradely writer you will be pleased to know it's because I've been too busy with proper work to manage doing a blog as well, but being a comedy writer you'll also be irritated to know I'm one of the lucky sods who's been paid to do what he enjoys.

One of the main problems I've found with writing a blog is not coming up with ideas, but seeing them through. The actual writing itself doesn't take long, a couple of hours at the most, including revisions. The problem is coming up with something that no one else has said before - or at the very least, finding a different way to say the same thing. I thought about giving up the blog for good, but the Conference has reminded me that although it's tough at the moment, I have to keep going, keep writing, and keep learning. At the moment, for me this is the best way to do it.