26 Jan 2015
dave's picture

I'm quite excited about the imminent opening of Shaun The Sheep - The Movie. Probably far more excited than a 56-year-old man should be about a sheep-farming animation aimed principally at children aged between 4 and 8 years old. But if you've never watched the Aardman show I recommend you start - it's as funny as anything you'll see on grown-up TV.


I'm looking forward to it not just because my kids are excited, but also because it's been written and co-directed by Mark Burton, a comedy writer I've known and worked with from time to time over 30 years.


In fact the closest I've ever come to the world of Hollywood screenplays was one morning when Mark and I were working in a tiny room in Soho on that week's Have I Got News For You. Over the previous six months, Mark had been one of the main writers on two big movies, Madagascar and Wallace And Gromit - The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. Mark's mobile rang and he said hello, there was a pause, then a few seconds later, he said 'Hello Jeffrey'. I could tell instantly from his body language that the first hello was the secretary for a powerful person who had just been told 'get me Mark Burton on the phone', and from Mark's body language I sensed that his second hello was to Jeffrey Katzenberg, the mega-Hollywood producer responsible for both those movies. The next thing I heard was Mark saying 'Thanks... which one?' And I guessed correctly that Jeffrey had rung to congratulate him for a big award nomination, forgetting that it could have been for one of two movies.


The reason I'm mentioning this is because you may be wondering, as I did at that moment, what the hell an award-nominated Hollywood screenplay writer on TWO hit movies was doing, spending all day in a tiny room in Soho coming up with jokes for a comedy show that are hardly ever used (Watch any episode of Have I Got News and you'll see exactly how little of the chairman's script survives the edit)? I asked Mark that question and he said it was where he came to flex his comedy joke-writing muscle - 'this is the comedy gym.'


At this stage you're probably still trying to work out the relevance of the title of this blog. Those of you expecting help with your unfinished cinematic masterpiece along the lines of Sid Field (make sure your first big moment happens on page 17, line 6 of your script) or John Truby and his cast-iron guaranteed 22-step plan to a perfect screenplay, will be particularly annoyed.


Previously I only ever gave one piece of screenplay-writing advice to comedy writers at every level beyond the very top - don't. Especially if you're starting out. I've changed my mind and have now modified that opinion, not just because of Mark but all the other names I'm starting to see on the credits of comedy movies: Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith (Arthur Christmas), Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (What We Did On Our Holiday), Tony Roche and Armando Iannucci (In The Loop), Paul Bassett Davies (Magic Roundabout), Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley (Gnomeo and Juliet).


That's a massively impressive list of writers and directors, and most of them are still working on screenplays in various stages of development. Each of those individuals will I'm sure have their own advice and suggestions for how you can add a little bit of magic to that screenplay sitting in a folder on your screen.


But the single factor that links every name on that list, and Mark, is this: they all began their careers writing or producing topical comedy programmes for the BBC. So if I have one piece of advice for you it's this: if you want to write a successful screenplay, you need to become a very good comedy writer. And to do that, you need to start, today, and get writing for shows like Newsjack.


I'm guessing that's not the advice you're expecting or wanting to hear. You can't yet make a link from the blockbuster rom-com Disney-backed smash hit in your head, to the idea of staring at a news-heavy website trying to think of jokes about Ed Miliband promising to employ more nurses. But I would say by the law of averages, and especially once you factor out the box-office names who largely generate their own work (Simon Pegg, Sasha Baron Cohen, Richard Curtis), the percentage of movie writers who started out writing gags for Radio 4 shows is sizeable.


James Cary and I will be running three courses in March for those of you who seek to make a living writing comedy. Two days will be spent concentrating on sitcom writing, and one day on how to start out in the comedy world. On that day we'll spend a fair amount of time creating topical gags and sketches. There are now many different ways of starting out in comedy, but writing for topical BBC radio shows, which is how James and I both started, remains one of the most effective.


As a business model this sucks. James and I could advertise classes for comic movie-writing and I know we would get ten times as many applicants as we do for our other classes. I don't know how it has happened, but it's probably something to do with the lure of Hollywood, the fantasy of the screenplay writer lounging by the pool in LA, hanging out with movie superstars and industry royalty. 


The fantasy is so much more enticing than the dull reality - or rather, the quite nice reality, that writing a movie screenplay is like any other writing: you get up in the morning, go to work, and finish at the end of the day. And if today, wannabe screenwriter, you are not actively involved in writing your next movie, then the preferable option to lounging by a pool is to go to an office and work with some other writers on a topical comedy show.


You won't see the words 'movie' or 'screenplay' in the titles of our courses, but if that's what you want to be doing then we suggest that while you're waiting for your movie screenplay career to take off - and even during it - you can do a lot worse than hang out in a small room with James and I, learning to write topical jokes.


How To Write Comedy: 12/13/20 March, details here: http://www.davecohen.org.uk/content/making-living-writing-comedy



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