Tuesday 5 August 2014

All is Not Lost

Life is straightforward in TV drama. Writers write. Actors act. Directors direct.

Sitcoms used to be like this. They were written by great writers like Galton and Simpson or Carla Lane – and then performed by the best comic actors of the age like Ronnie Barker or Leonard Rossiter. And there were plenty of sitcoms written by half-decent writers, and performed by pretty good comedy actors. In short, there were lots of sitcoms. But my point is this: There was a division between writers and performers.

This is no longer the case. The rise of the comedian, as opposed to the comedy actor, or comedy writer, has led to a signficant increase in shows by comedians. (See here for the pros and cons) But looks can be deceptive. Many of these shows are co-written with an off-screen writing partner. Pete Sinclair co-wrote Lead Balloon with Jack Dee. Freddy Syborn co-wrote Bad Education with Jack Whitehall. Dan Swimer wrote Grandma’s House with Simon Amstell. I’ve co-written seven series of radio comedy with Milton Jones. And I met my Bluestone 42 writing partner, Richard Hurst, writing on Miranda

So what should the writer learn from this? Well, that depends on your half-full-half-empty perspective.

Half Full or Half Empty?
Who cares? It's not even beer.
Half Empty
If you tend towards the half-empty, you could conclude ‘What’s the point? Unless I’m a writer-performer, I’m never going to get a chance.’ This is not true. There are still writer-led sitcoms out there. I write one with Richard Hurst (Bluestone 42), but there's more of a mixed economy now. You'll need to think outside of yourself. Sorry.

Half Full
If you’re more of a half-full type, you could decide to turn yourself into a performer so you are increasing your chances. That could work. It worked for Ben Elton who realised very early that writer-performers like French and Saunders, Fry and Laurie et al were going to get all the work unless he got in there with a sparkly jacket.

Performing on some level is not alien to most comedy writers. Almost every full-time writer I can think of working today has been in a sketch group in their early years or done stand-up. Pete Sinclair, whom I mentioned earlier, went into full-time comedy writing from music into political/punk poetry and then stand-up. (More on that here) And this is not all that unusual.

At the time of writing, The Edinburgh Fringe is on. If you could get hold of the programme from ten, twenty or thirty years back and look at the stand-ups and sketch groups you’ll see plenty of names and faces that you may not recognise – but who are now making a living as a writer, having given up performing.

So what did these people get out of Edinburgh? Certainly not money. They got a number of things, but let's focus on two main ones.

The Fringe gives you experience of writing for an audience who don’t know you personally, or you work. If you do shows in your home town or your student bar, your mates will probably laugh, because they're supportive and nice (Well, they turned up, didn't they?). In Edinburgh, your audiences are strangers. They have no idea who you are. And you will soon find out if your material is funny.

Comedy Friends
But the main thing these people got out of Edinburgh is comedy friends. Hanging out in the Pleasance Courtyard or pushing through Late and Live is all about making friends with like-minded people, finding allies who like what you like, and forming alliances and partnerships. You are very unlikely to win an award at Edinburgh, or even be critically acclaimed. You might not even get a Radio 4 series. But you may impress someone who’s being fast-tracked onto the TV, who is looking for back-up and people to cling on to. You could be Larry David to their Seinfeld. Or their Stephen Merchant to their Ricky Gervaise. You get the idea. Or you might create an impression on someone who’s Head of Comedy Development at the BBC in four years time, which means you get the benefit of the doubt when your script hits their desk and could go either way.

All is not Lost
If you’re in Edinburgh, and you’ve already realised your show isn’t what you thought it was, or isn’t quite working, and you know who’s show is going to be the talk of the town, don’t worry.  That’s only a small part of why you’re there. You’re on the scene. You’re in the mix. That’s a start.

If you’re not in Edinburgh, I really recommend getting along there and having a look, watching some shows, seeing what’s possible, and what’s passable, and think about what you could do next year. Like it or not, Edinburgh really is The comedy trade fair.

So this is a way of introducing a series of blogposts about writing for other people’s shows – since, if you make it as a professional comedy writer, this could easily take up the bulk of your time and bring in the lion’s share of your income. Stay tuned.

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