Thursday 8 September 2011

Why You Should Seriously Consider Writing for Newsjack

After leaving university, I applied for a number of jobs - mostly in advertising and copywriting. I had no idea that I could be a professional comedy writer, although in a way, I must have done subconsciously. I remember being asked in one interview 'Where do you see yourself in five years time?' I answered 'Writing a sitcom for television'. Now, I know there are no right or wrong answers in interviews, but that is a very wrong answer. I should have said something like 'Spearheading an award-winning campaign that changes the way people think about washing powder' or something. But I didn't. The truth came out.

And so I moved to London to do some work experience at a magazine, which I broadly hated. But one lunch time a week, I would turn up to a writers meeting for Week Ending - the open-door Radio 4 comedy show that was, frankly, on its last legs. Nonetheless, in the evenings, I would try and write some topical sketches and after about six weeks, succeeded in getting a few jokes or a sketch on. Can't really remember. I've got it on a cassette somewhere.

It was a really good experience - even though the actual show itself felt way past its best. It taught me to work hard, work fast, turn over ideas, read the newspapers, rewrite, accept failure and, above all, write jokes. These are all key lessons that can be learned 'on the job' (if by 'job' you mean unpaid writing). I also met some other people in my position and was able to swap stories, experiences and contacts, and overall began to 'feel like a writer', which is no small thing.

And so to Newsjack
That's why I would urge all aspiring comedy writers to seriously consider writing for Newsjack, a new series of which starts a week today. I don't work for the show - and never have, but I do know that they read everything they get. And not only that, they want every sketch they are sent to be hilarious. It often doesn't feel that way stuck at home, and hearing another show broadcast in which your work isn't broadcast, but it is true. They want funny. And they can spot funny. And if you're sketch isn't spotted, the likeliest reason is that it's not as funny, or well-executed, as you thought.

I worked on Recorded For Training Purposes, and my approach was the same. I wanted each sketch I was sent to be really funny, fresh and original - and ideally not about Sat Navs, Phone Call-waiting menus and TV producers pitching terrible programme ideas to TV execs, which were topics covered by about 33% of all sketches.

Read the shows instructions carefully - and follow them. It's all here. Think about every sketch you send in - before you send it in. Lots of people don't do this and just send it off unfinished, half-written or too long. (Some thoughts on that sort of thing here)

Ask yourself, is the sketch original? Is it one idea written well, with a nice twist at the end? If so, good. Or is it two ideas whammed together and not really about either? If so, bad.

Is it short/edited so that it's just funny after funny, so that the studio audience is laughing out loud every few seconds? Is the set-up as crisp and quick as it could be?

Does it end properly? THINK OF A PROPER PUNCHLINE - one that is surprising rather than cliched or convenient. Your sketch stands a much better chance of being used if it ends properly, since a script editor won't have to take up precious time thinking one up for you. (Some thoughts on writing jokes here) Also bear in mind the audience are much happier with traditional punchlines than you might think.

Is the sketch easy to read? Don't worry too much about exact formatting, but make sure it's easy to read (see here).

And so, if you can bear to spend the time on it, give this a go with both barrells. Even if you're not interested in topical comedy, you'll benefit from it. Even if you're not interested in sketch comedy, you'll benefit from it. Even if you fail to get a single joke onto the show, you will have benefited from the overall experience, and had a good work out. You may find the task to be thankless, largely unpaid and virtually impossible. If so, welcome to the world of comedy writing.

More info at various links here, mostly by Dan Tetsell who used to script edit the show.


  1. Having been lucky enough to go in and write with the team for Newsjack and indeed with James on Recorded For Training Purposes I would endorse this blog wholeheartedly.

    However it might be worth pointing out you don't have to wait for Newsjack to come around - there are live sketch shows like Newsrevue and The Treason Show who will read your topical sketches all year round and offer a similar "work experience" to the aspiring writer.

  2. Hi James

    Thanks for this post - it kept me motivated, and I'm pleased to say that I am now an accredited writer on BBC's Newsjack! My sketch airs tonight. Appreciate your pointers!

  3. I've been half thinking about comedy writing since leaving university myself but have always put it to the back of my mind because I got myself a job in teaching and that takes up a lot of my time! Thanks for this advice - I'm going to take it and give it a shot. I doubt I'll ever make a career out of it, but it'd be rather lovely to hear a joke of mine on the radio.

  4. There are loads of comedy clubs now. Is that a good way of getting jokes out ?

  5. Thank you for this post. As someone who would one day love to have a sketch show on radio 4, Newsjack and shows like it seem like a great way to get on the right path. I have written and performed sketch comedy for a few years while at University, and am now trying to get onto shows like this. Your advice really helps reduce how intimidating and impenetrable they can feel.

  6. Hi, James

    I was on the Writing for Radio course you and Dave ran last year (I was the Hut 33 fan), and just wanted to let you know that after three series of trying I finally got my first Newsjack credit on Thursday (dunno if you caught the show - my sketch was the parody on Grand Theft Auto). I'm chuffed beyond belief (though I've ruined my weekend worrying about whether I can pull off that tricky second album). Your course really helped me to see how vital it is to continue slogging away. Thank you!