17 Mar 2015
dave's picture

This week I've been teaching people how to write comedy. By which I mean I've been reminding myself of the basics of how to write comedy, by repeating the stuff that I think I know, and having it questioned by people who are starting out.
 
Teaching, for me, is learning. It helps that my co-teacher is James Cary, who along with Richard Hurst writes the brilliant 'Bluestone 42' currently on BBC3. We only get to teach together once a year, so each time I see him now he's done something new and challenging. How do you go from writing series two of an increasingly popular TV series to writing series three? I've absolutely no idea, but I'm lucky enough to be spending three days in the same room as someone who's just done that.
 
In the course of a day, we have a rough idea of what the other is going to say but not the details, though there's quite a lot that we agree on. Occasionally there's a difference of opinion that may seem small to us, but can be quite a big deal if you're starting out as a writer.
 
A dilemma that came up last week was this: BBC Writersroom has changed its policy for accepting scripts. It used to be a general policy that you submit anything, any time, although there would be deadlines for the occasional competition, and they would guarantee to get back to you within six weeks or so.
 
Their new plan, which seems very sensible to me, is to set deadlines, so if you want to send in a sitcom script, you need to do that by April 2, which is not far away at all. One of our students asked this: 'I have a script which I don't think I can make good enough by that time, should I send it off anyway? Or keep working on it?' You're probably working full-time at another job, or using all your spare hours to get more work, so time is precious and you have to prioritise every moment.
 
James's first answer, which is a perfectly good one, was 'why would you want to send out a script that you're not happy with?' That's a pretty valid point, this is a script which you've put so much effort into, it's your calling card for future work, why would you want to blow all that by sending something based on an arbitrary deadline?
 
I disagreed, tentatively at first, but then more as I warmed to my theme. I'm a big believer in deadlines, before I did comedy I trained as a journalist, and fear of deadlines has always been one of my prime motivations for writing.
 
The best thing about an arbitrary deadline, I think, is it forces you into the mindset of a professional writer. When you're starting out, writing what is possibly your first sitcom script, you're investing a huge amount emotionally into that single project. It isn't just a sitcom, it's the piece of work you're hoping to write that will launch your comedy writing career and take you away from whatever it is you're doing now, allowing you to fulfil your dream of becoming a full time writer.
 
To be brutal and realistic about this, I can say with almost complete certainty that the first sitcom you write will not get made. I'm sure there are exceptions, but what you want to happen at this stage is for producers and script editors to get to know about you as a writer. They're not so much looking for your sitcom idea at this stage, what they're really interested in is seeing in your writing an ability and skill that they can develop.
 
However experienced you are, you'll never know if a project you're working on is going to be a success until it appears in front of the audience. But one thing you do pick up with experience is a sense of whether an idea is worth pursuing. Over the years I've got better at realising when to give up on a particular project, and move on to something else.
 
Giving up, by the way, is different from abandoning. Sometimes an idea that wasn't working three years ago becomes relevant again for whatever reason, and I may return to an old idea and even make some progress with it.
 
When you're starting out, if that perfect sitcom script you're aiming for turns into the total focus of your strategy towards becoming a full time comedy writer, my guess is that you won't succeed. Better to have a few projects in your head or on the go, ready to work up when the time is right.
 
How will you know when that is? I think that you should drop everything, and concentrate on the one project that you might be able to work up into something decent by 2 April. There might be a few cancelled evenings out with friends, or a few late nights, but you know that after 2 April you can resume your normal life.
 
As soon as you decide to concentrate on that single script, and throw yourself into it, I guarantee you'll suddenly start to have lots of brilliant ideas for things that are nothing to do with the task you have set yourself.
 
These are the tests that are sent to the freelance writer, and the question they are asking is 'can you concentrate on one script and shut out everything else?' You have to, or you'll miss that deadline.
 
What I do in those circumstances is write those other ideas down as quickly as possible in a separate notebook, and return to the important task. There will be good days and bad days, hours will pass when you wonder if you'll ever get the job finished. It's not a long time away, 2 April, but it's far enough for you to waste whole sessions staring into space and wondering if you should have just gone to the gym instead. Even so it’s far enough away for you to complete a script that's already half formed in your head.
 
You can always decide, on the evening of April 1, actually, this script is really so not good enough that I won't send it off. Even if you decide to do that, the chances are that come April 3 you've got a notebook full of more half-formed ideas, and you're ready to enthuse about a new project.
 
If you want to find out more about how to make a living at comedy, James and I will be concentrating on this for our last teaching day, this Friday. http://davecohen.org.uk/content/making-living-writing-comedy

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