24 Mar 2015
dave's picture

A while back the comedy writer Sam Bain wrote an article for ‘The Guardian’ about how to be a comedy writer. He co-writes Peep Show and Fresh Meat among others, so he knows.
It’s a great article which I’m sure you’ll be able to search out, but I thought it would be good to answer the comments. There are loads of general questions here, so I’ve tried to answer them as honestly and fairly as I can. Let me know if you have any more.
What always seems to be missing, from this and every article, is how you get a script sold in the first place. Do you need an agent? Do you just send them into tv companies, or go to production companies? Do you try and organise meetings where you pitch the idea to some stern executive, or does your agent?
DC – A number of responses here have given the more or less correct answer. Write a brilliant script. Most of what we all write is not brilliant enough. Some of it is good, some mediocre, and some awful. When a producer sees a good script, or even an imperfect script that contains moments of brilliance, they will be all over you. At which point, you may think about getting an agent.
Very funny. Years ago I once entered a competition to write a bit of The Old Guys. I wrote what I though was a really funny script and got a letter saying that, though I hadn't won, I'd made the long-list that eventually made up the shortlist. Close but no cigar.
DC – Which is where most professional writers are, most of the time.
Do you need an agent?
DC – No. See above.
How can I get one?
                          Do the Footlights/have a famous and-or well-connected relative. Approach an agent and they
                          will say ''Come back when you've had something made.' But I can't get anything made 
                          because I don't have agent...' it's a mantra that goes to the tune of There's a Hole in My Bucket
DC – There’s a very lively debate throughout this column regarding how important an Oxbridge education is to comedy.  
Going to Oxford or Cambridge is really helpful, whatever your line of work. Oxbridge graduates are disproportionately more successful at politics, the civil service, the media, the church, comedy - just about everything except snooker and embroidery.
And people who succeed like to work with people they get on with, don't we all, so a disproportionate number of successful people's best mates also went to Oxbridge.
There is an unfair disadvantage and it's getting unfairer. There are fewer working class writers and performers getting into Cambridge now, not because they're less clever but because the system is even more stacked against the less well-off getting there in the first place.
When I started out in the early 80s I felt angry at the bias towards Oxbridge. But you just have to find your way round it. I genuinely believe that a combination of talent and persistence will
always win through. An untalented Oxbridge graduate will survive longer in the business than an untalented non-Oxbridge graduate, but only by a year or two.
You can moan about it all you want but it isn't going to change. In the meantime you have to keep working away at what you do, and make sure what you produce is as good, or better than everything else.
Mind you I would say that, wouldn't I, I got lucky with the comedy/Jew thing.
Do you just send them into tv companies, or go to production companies?
                                 Neither unless you want the idea ripped off. I was actually warned by good mate who was
                                 an employee of an extremely well-known and 'well-loved' star not to give him stuff as
                                 they'd only steal it without an atom of shame. Lacking the cloak of Parliamentary privilege
                                 I cannot reveal the name of said star.
DC – The oldest urban comedy myth. Having a great idea is not enough if you can’t write it. Peep Show, about two 20 now 30something mates who probably went to University together, now sharing a flat, is not by any stretch of the imagination an original idea. But its execution is one of the most original things on British TV.
“What always seems to be missing, from this and every article, is how you get a script sold in the first place.”
                                 If it was nicely laid out online in the Guardian, with a "beginners guide to getting your script 
                                 on tv", don't you think your script would be competing against a whole load more scripts 
                                 than it would be if you used your initiative and worked it out yourself? If you're looking for 
                                 tips, checking for typos before hitting "send" is usually a good idea for aspiring [sic]!
DC  - Another myth, annoyingly also pushed by some people who teach comedy writing. ‘Don’t have spelling mistakes in your script.’ But if you’re dyslexic – as many famous comedians and writers are – how do you know? A brilliantly hilarious script, unformatted and with spelling mistakes, will attract producers and agents. If you are or think you are dyslexic, find a sympathetic friend to read through your script and correct as much as possible before you send it.
Response to Silversunpickup,
                                 Have a little look into Sam Bain's family connections, and you'll understand why that part is 
                                 missing. His DNA is linked to a long line of British directing / writing talent, so the necessary 
                                 doors to get started were already open for him.
DC – I tried tailoring and I was rubbish at it. Then again our family tailoring firm went bust in the 70s so maybe I was following in family footsteps after all. I have yet to see proof anywhere that being a successful person’s son or daughter guarantees you success in their field.
Response to Silversunpickup
                                 Saw your thing about script selling. You won't get anywhere without an agent and agents -
                                 by and large - are looking after their existing clients. It's a huge closed shop that runs on
                                 name recognition and hard business principle - namely, unless you've got an agent you
                                 might as well shut up shop and open a newsagents. Just read Catch 22 and you'll get the
DC – Sorry, nope, see above.
"What always seems to be missing, from this and every article, is how you get a script sold in the first place."
                                  I've read elsewhere all you need to do is write an utterly brilliant and original script, then
                                  get very, very lucky. I'd like to see an article from someone who has written a brilliant
                                  script, got very lucky, then spent years writing for daytime soaps. Are they happy? Or are
                                  they reading columns on how to get their first novel published and wondering where it all
                                  went wrong? You know, to get the whole picture.
DC – That’s an excellent question. There are many many many more hours of soap and long-running drama series on TV than sitcoms, so even people who get their sitcom made often end up writing for soaps. It’s how they keep making a living, while they continue to write up ideas for sitcoms for free, that are more frequently rejected.
Everyone is writing, or has written, a sitcom. Probably because a) everyone believes themselves to be funny, b) everyone likes some sitcoms and hates most, therefore they can do better than half the crap on telly, and c) a 30-minute script runs to about 25 pages, so it's less daunting than a novel or a movie.
This means there are thousands of badly written, poorly plotted and cliche-ridden pilots out there, and thousands of would-be writers trying to get theirs noticed. No wonder there is so much frustration above - and yes you probably do need to either be connected somehow or get lucky.
Solution: give up. Stick to your day job. Write for the pleasure of it, don't get bitter, maybe buy a motorbike or take a lover instead. If enough people give up, my script should have a better chance of being noticed, and trust me it's miles better than half the shite on TV at the moment.
DC – Okay. To which I would add: keep writing so long as you enjoy it.
It was a lot easier getting an agent 20-odd years ago than it is today. Most will want a reference from some producer bod or somebody else in the industry. Like most things in the 21st century, this side of the business has been corporatized. Mainstream film and TV in the UK and USA aren't interested so much in fresh ideas, as marketing a "product" and maximising its various income streams (by owning all the distribution channels).
DC – I’m not sure I agree. Comedy is one of the few places where the ‘open market’ actually works. Stand-up certainly. If you stand onstage and make people laugh, you will carry on working. If they stop laughing you stop working. A similar principle applies to your scripts.
FP77, you say: >>Years ago I once entered a competition to write a bit of The Old Guys.<<  Ah yes, the Last Laugh, I remember it well, even though it was a long time ago. Well done for getting short listed. Did you carry on the good work? Have you had any interesting responses from production companies yet?
One thing I found frustrating was tracking down a production company that would actually read a script. One such company, who said that they were agreeable to reading submitted scripts, took 18 months doing nothing, before emailing back that they'd dumped all their entire stock of unsolicited scripts after becoming overwhelmed. They suggested that everybody, if they wanted to try again, should send in a short synopsis and character breakdown.
Outside of the sitcom genre, there are one or two production companies that run a script competition now and then. Unfortunately, what starts out to be a once a year extravaganza, often becomes a once-in-five-years event which you can miss unless you keep your wits about you.
DC – It’s true that there are less companies reading unsolicited material these days. All the more reason why you need to find other ways to get your work out there. (see lots of other posts on this blog, also read Sitcom Geek)
It is all very cliquey and nepotistic - like most things in modern Britain. But I've been commissioned to write high level TV comedy on the basis of just sending material 'cold'. And I've had a film script optioned on the same basis. My experience is that if you send people good stuff, they get back to you. Perhaps I've been lucky.
DC – Lucky? Maybe. Sounds like you also had a script that was funny.
Some ways to get started: Write sketches and either film and perform them yourself or with friends/student actors willing to work for free using readily available equipment such as smart phones, digital cameras and upload to YouTube. Write for radio: Some comedy radio shows accept sketches for their weekly output - such as NewsJack on BBC Radio 4 Extra:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kvs8r
Stephen Merchant's website is quite useful, and very honest about your chances: http://stephenmerchant.com/faq/
DC – Great advice. And good luck to you,
I thought sitcoms were dead. No offense but what could you possibly do that hasn't been done umpteen times before? yawn
DC – see above. How about ‘two ex-students sharing a flat’?

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
20 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.