Friday, April 04, 2008

Writing Comedy Sketches

Hi James
I hope you don't mind this unsolicited email but I wanted to ask your advice about comedy sketch writing as I know you contributed to Green Wing. Can you tell me if you studied journalism or went on a comedy writing course?  If so, can you recommend somewhere where I should go. I like watching stand-up comedy but would prefer to be a writer as opposed to being on stage. Thanks in advance

I didn't study journalism (I WOULD RATHER DIE) or go on a comedy sketch writing course (I WOULD RATHER- oh, wait, I might be teaching one at some point), although I did take a course on scriptwriting at Derby University (glittering jewel of the Midlands) about ten years ago, what turned my life around. Nothing specifically about comedy though, more a blitz through various different formats (radio, short film, I think possibly theatre, although I may have dodged that one).

After I got this enquiry, I did some basic sums to see if I was qualified to hand out advice on how to write comedy sketches, and it turns out I have had exactly the same number of commissions as rejections, having written for Smack the Pony, Man Stroke Woman and a kid's thing called Planet Sketch, been rejected by Little Britain, Omid Djalili and The Bearded Ladies, and have decisions pending on three other sketch shows. Although some would mistake this for a sketch career teetering precariously on the edge, I would say it was a different edge entirely, a cutting edge if you will, and thus I am more qualified than anyone else in the world to dole out How To's.

Any-old-hoo, here is the sum total of my hard-won experience writing for multiple Emmy-award winning comedy sketch shows (/Gervais) for anyone who wants to write for a sketch show, but doesn't have an agent:

1. DO NOT write sketches that in the space of thirty seconds, attempt to cram in a spaceship collision, a flock of burning ostriches and a series of exploding cars. Sketch shows don't tend to have that much money. More than you think are filmed in the producer's own dwellings to save cash. This bit of video from Charlie Brooker's Screen Wipe shows how something as simple as a man falling off a log takes fifteen weeks, one kerjllion pounds and a crew of thirty to get on camera.

2. DO NOT send in sketches that don't have roles for the main actors. Which sounds obvious, but in my last meeting with the Ands, they told me of a series of sketches sent in revolving around a eight year old girl and her mother. The Ands in question are in their early fourties, and although jolly good actors, the make-up bill for that one would be considerable. And even if it worked, it would be really really creepy.

3. DO NOT send in a load of stuff you blatantly wrote for other shows. Or if you do, at least have the sense to change the character names. And if you remember that, make sure to also change 'him's to 'her's. And make sure it doesn't have a document title like 'greenwingscene732(rejected).doc. Ahem.

4. DO make sure you're sending your stuff in to the right place/person. If you see a sketch show you like, look at the credits to see which production company made it, and the name of the producer (don't usually worry about the executive producer, this tends to just be someone in a suit from Channel 4 or the BBC who walked past at some point and said 'yes well that seems fine, carry on, can't stop, overdue for my sex dungeon paid for by YOUR TAX' or similar).

5. Send in at least six sketches (better to do between eight and ten I reckon) to the producer with a brief covering letter stating previous experience if you have any, a brief statement explaining that you liked the show very much and would love to be given the chance to contribute if not. Don't write down your hobbies, or ambitions, nobody cares. Do Not, FOR THE SAKE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND PURE, try and be funny in your covering letter.

6. Get someone to read your sketches before you send them off, just to cover spelling and to make sure you haven't left any silly mistakes in. If they say 'so where's the funny bit then?' shout 'I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU THINK!' and run to the kitchen in floods of tears to drown your sorrows in thick slabs of toast with marmite.

7. Try to keep track of which sketches have been accepted for which shows. Otherwise, you might have one sketch accepted for a recent show, only to suddenly remember that the very same sketch was also accepted for another show a few years ago, and that now there are two versions of the same sketch in existence. Prepare also to feel obscurely disappointed when no-one even notices.

8. Do not, if you get a meeting with, say, a couple of Ands, where they say that of the four sketches you sent in on spec they particularly liked three of them, ask 'what was wrong with the fourth one then?'. Because you will hear the words coming out of your mouth seconds after you say it, and will already be flushed with embarrassment by the time the producer says, in a not-unkind sort of way 'I'm sorry, we just didn't think it was very funny'.

I'll ask some of the other Green Wing types if they have any useful stuff in a tick, they all have a much longer and more distinguished sketch writing career than me, in some cases starting out before I was born (Rob).

UPDATE: just thought of this one: DON'T, when you get your first cheque for about £250 for your first ever comedy commission, immediately quit your job in the expectation of a glittering comedic career. You will Look Silly. Although I did then end up getting a temp job at Waterstone's, which turned into a proper job, and then The Best Job I Ever Had, ahhhhhhhh.


nuttycow said...

Good advice... it's just a shame I don't write comedy sketches otherwise I think I may have been in with a shot :)

Have a good weekend


Dave said...

Just in case you needed confirmation that you are a mover and shaker, I have just received my weekly viewer statistics, and see that yesterday (following your suggestion) I got twice as many vistors as on any other day.

Less this go to your head, I note that none of the new visitors left a comment, as you asked.

On a completely different topic, following your comment about linking the vintage travel poster (available from, by the way) next week I shall be showing a display of similar posters which are currently on my bedroom wall. Hope this isn't blog pimping.

I know this has nothing to do with your current post (which was very enlightening) but I have no aspirations to be a comic writer.

james henry said...

Ooh cool, my colleague Alex is well into them vintage travel posters as well.

We shall Geek Out.

Oli said...

Did you address your Little Britain pitch to "the man with cold dead eyes, plucked from the cadaver of a shark which washed up on one of his country estates"? Because that may have counted against you.

james henry said...

I shall choose to think that was it.

Anonymous said...

Hee! TWA, Braniff, Clippers, plumes of white water as the floats touch down, lovely ladies in garlands of pink petals and grass skirts, a smoking barrel, shifty eyes peering from a leathery face over tankards of rum. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, travel posters!

Let the Geekathon commence!


nanga parbat said...

You were rejected by the Bearded Ladies? I thought they were your friends!

Showbiz is harsh...

james henry said...

Lesson you have learned, youngling.

Fat Roland said...

"Greenwingscene732(rejected).doc" Lol.

That post was the jolt I needed. I'm going to sign up for that screenwriting course I've had my eye on.

patroclus said...

Why does no one ever aspire to write brochures about inventory management systems, I wonder.

james henry said...

Ooh do it FR.

It's a mystery Patroclus.

Anonymous said...

my name is monique and i'm a closet sketch writer (i'm trying to come out though)I want you to know that I haven't heard toast and marmite in a sentance for years.........I feel better already.