Tips: writing radio comedy

Jane Berthoud is head of BBC Radio Comedy. Her team make shows including Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The News Quiz. This is her advice to comedy writers and producers looking to pitch and win commissions across her slate.

Know the market
Research and understand the network and the slots that you’re writing for. Jane has three main timeslots that she commissions into for Radio 4. These are at 11:30 in the morning, 6:30 in the evening and 11:00 at night. They all have different requirements and a pitch is only likely to be successful if your script fits the slot.

Jane remarks that panel shows work well at 6:30. They are a good way of bringing in new talent. They are also suitable for an audience which may be driving, making their way home, or in the middle of making dinner, whose attention might be split between what they’re listening to and what they’re doing.

Build a character
If you have a great idea for a character, rather than a situation, then you could be onto a winner. Jane points to On the Hour, which started out on radio and then moved to TV as The Day Today, as a great character led comedy. It launched Alan Partridge. Jane attributes the success of that character to the in-depth knowledge that creator Steve Coogan had about Alan. He knew his middle name and where he was born. As a result he was able to write credible dialogue and interactions between him and other characters.

"When people pitch to me and say they've got a great idea for a character then I know they could be onto a winner" – Jane Berthoud

Write what you know
There is a temptation to place radio comedy in remarkable situations or places, because you can. Instead Jane advises that people should look to their own experience and write about that. She references the example of Justin Moorhouse, a stand up comic in Manchester who wrote Everyone Quite Likes Justin, a sitcom based on his own experiences, which she thinks is particularly successful.

Know what’s already out there
Be aware of what’s already on radio and tv and don’t pitch for similar ideas. Radio 4 currently have Clare in the Community, a sitcom based around social workers. Jane remarks that as a result she’s currently unlikely to commission another comedy featuring social workers.

Find the right producer
All writers will be teamed up with a producer. Make sure you have the right one, because you will be spending a lot of time with that person. This won’t necessarily be the person who’s most complimentary about your work but should be someone whose opinion and instincts you respect. The writer/producer relationship is nothing short of a marriage in terms of the time you spend together, so it’s important to get it right.