Newsjack: Explosion In A Clown Factory

Monday 18 January 2010, 12:57

Dan Tetsell Dan Tetsell

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Sorry about that last blog. I never wanted to come across as a font-obsessed monomaniac. Oh, I am one; I just didn't want everyone knowing.

So, the sketch deadline for Newsjack show 3 has passed. Did you send anything in? Slow news week, isn't it? And where it's not slow, it's grim.

The first radio job I had was writing on The Way It Is - like Newsjack, a topical open-door sketch show. The phrase 'explosion in a clown factory' became a writers' meeting joke for when we'd discussed all the headlines and we'd moved on to the AOB news stories; a code for the ideal subject for a topical sketch show. Anything other than write another sketch about London Fashion Week. It always seemed to be London Fashion Week back then - it was snow of the late 90s.

Newsjack has brought those days flooding back. Of course, then a non-comm could actually come in and wave their script under nose of the producer and find a corner of the canteen to do rewrites. This was before the whole Jill Dando thing made the BBC much pickier about their door policy. Added to that, most of the open door submissions were coming in by post or fax so the competition from slush pile was only a few inches rather than a couple of feet. Email has oddly made submitting both easier and harder.

These days I use 'explosion in a clown factory' slightly differently. For me it's a news story that at first sight looks like it'll result in comedy gold but actually has little to offer the sketch writer because it's already funny, a joke on a joke.

Last year, Swindon twinned with Disney World. Brilliant! Yet, I think it's a prime example of a light industrial Pierrot tragedy. The problem for a comedy writer is that all the jokes are already in the story. There's no sideways angle, there's nothing other than a funny news story. The jokes are already there for everyone to see - no matter how much you extrapolate, there's very little you can do that is funnier than the fact that Swindon and Disney World have twinned.

Beware the 'And finally...' news stories. Beware anything in a tabloid that's less than two inches in length - and beware anything that sounds like a set-up to a penis joke. Beware the Most Emailed on the BBC website, where comedy news never dies - that goat was still getting married last year. It might sound pretentious, but a sketch has to have tension and drama like any other script, just in miniature. OK, it did sound pretentious, but it's still true. Often that tension and drama turns on the juxtaposition of the story and your treatment of it. So if the source material is already a joke, where do you have left to go? Obviously, we're not asking for page upon page of Haiti jokes, but if there's nothing real under discussion what's the point of the sketch? That's not to say that 'just being funny' can't be the point - I certainly don't want a drily po-faced satirical show where the cast solemnly hold their fists in the air after every sketch - but it's better to be funny about something with a bit of balls than a nothing story that happens to include a dead parrot.

There's also a sub-set of the EiaCF (as all the cool kids are calling it) and it's this: the bleeding obvious take. Last week we had a lot of stuff about Iris Robinson and I'd say 90% were some form of The Graduate parody. That's not to say some weren't good, but they were all parodies of The Graduate - with a story about an older woman called Robinson seducing a younger man that's route one; the bleeding, dare I say it, obvious. That might sound harsher than I mean it to be. All I'm asking of you is this: when you're thinking of a funny angle on a story, be better than a Sun sub-editor. Could anyone have written that sketch or only you?

Now, by way of variety and to give some respite from my endless stream of opinionated rule-making, I've asked some writers that I respect and, more importantly, have the email addresses for, to write down the one bit of advice they'd give to someone starting out writing for a show like Newsjack. First up is Tony Roche, writer of The Thick of It, In The Loop, The Comic Side of 7 Days , World Of Pub and many more. Tony...

Always re-read what you've written before you send it.

Always re-write what you've written if you think you can make it better.

Persevere, persevere, persevere, then give up.

Give all your writing fees to charity.

Don't take other people's advice as gospel.

Thanks, Tony. Considering the nature of these blogs, that last one's quite interesting and I'll be discussing it in my next dictatorial rant: Script Editors - Where Do They Get Off?

Dan

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    Comment number 1.

    Hi Dan,
    I'm surprised you haven't been flamed by a bunch of irate Sun sub-editors yet (I'm sure there's a better collective noun for them - a punctuation of subs perhaps?) but in the meantime, are you going to be posting any Newsjack scripts anywhere? There aren't any so far in the Script Archives but apologies if you have put them up somewhere else. I'd definitely find it helpful to see what Newsjack looks like on the page. And to admire the beauty that is Arial 12pt, of course.
    Cheers,
    Kats

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    Comment number 2.

    @KatsLondon - the odd thing about sketch show scripts (the ones I've worked on anyway) is that they're never one single document. Sketches get printed out individually then put in order and page numbered by hand. It's the Occam's Razor solution. I'll ask about whether it's possible technically or legally - there's a lot of writers that need clearing.
    Dan

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    Comment number 3.

    Hi. What sort of time in the day is the deadline for chosing from the Newsjack sketch submissions? Thanks ever so much.

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    Comment number 4.

    Great advice again. Hands up to falling into the Mrs Robinson honeytrap last week, but I also got halfway through writing a Cadburys sketch with a full selection box of Twirl and Snickers puns before binning it because I thought that was too obvious. Then on the show the Cadbury sketch you used was fantastic.

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    Comment number 5.

    @nikkiowen40 - you need to get your sketches in by noon on Mondays, as it says in the Writers' Brief. These are read by our team all day until we have whittled them down to the ones we might use. Tuesday and Wednesday morning are spent working on these and whittling them down further until our cut off point of about lunchtime on Wednesday, when we have to print the scripts. I'd say by 6pm Tuesday we have a pretty clear idea of the sketches we'll be taking in to the cast read - subject to the whims of overnight current events.
    @GregorP - that's one of the risks of an open-door show, we get so many sketches that overlap that sometimes it's a matter of choosing between three or four equally good versions. Sometimes I do cut-and-shunt portmanteau sketches, with an intro from here and a sketch from there, and single lines from other versions but normally only on Newsbullet, where the format suits that kind of approach.
    Dan

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    Comment number 6.

    Thanks, Dan.

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    Comment number 7.

    If you're lucky enough to have one of your sketches chosen for the show, when will you find out about it?

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    Comment number 8.

    @David Halliday - as far as I know, emails go out a few hours before the broadcast.
    Dan

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    Comment number 9.

    Thanks you.

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    Comment number 10.

    Sorry if that last message came across rude. I meant thank you, not thanks you. Man I should get some sleep :)

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    Comment number 11.

    There you are criticising Sun sub-editors, when you are lifting ideas from Richard Herring:

    "EiaCF (as all the cool kids are calling it)"

    Never mind Sun sub-editors - you are more like a Metro sub-editor! Shame on you Tetsell!

    Dave (budding writer - thanks for reading my material though!)

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    Comment number 12.

    @Dave_W - Homage, dear boy, homage. Honestly, you people want the moon on a stick.

    Dan

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    Comment number 13.

    I'm, of course, not interested in this question myself, but what do you pay writers if you use their work? Is there a flat fee? Or does it depend on the length of the sketch?

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    Comment number 14.

    Interested in the Robinson v Cadburys 'obviousness' debate. I will hold my hand up as one of those who is, in your book at least, heading for a job on the Sun. However similarly to one of the other posters, I didn't go for Cadburys on the grounds that it was far, far too obvious and I'd already heard it done before - either LLfiles on Radio Wales or Now Show - soon after the takeover started. Didn't want to be done for plagiarism. Where do you draw the line if stuff has been covered in a similar vein or is it simply if its good and topical then we'll use it and then wait for the lawyers to phone?

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    Comment number 15.

    A nerdy question regarding types of Word file for submissions. I've acquired the latest sparkly version of Word, but have received some emails from people saying they can't open the files, which save as .docx
    Take it this is fine for the BBC, or should we be reformatting files to .doc in an earlier version?

    Sorry for being so nerdy.

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    Comment number 16.

    @RobTheWriter - The money's not really my area, but payment is based on a per-minute rate for the length of material broadcast, not recorded. I think last series they waited until the end to crunch the numbers.

    @Donna Scott - the BBC computers vary in youth and quality from decrepit to antidiluvian but all the ones I've used can just about read .docx files.

    @AuroratheBlack - I suppose one man's terrorist is another man's Cadbury's sketch. The chocolate pun sketch we did in the end, while not the most original in the world, felt like it might be fun for the cast and the audience while the Mrs Robinsons didn't, for me, offer much past a bit of dry film parody. Part of my job is making taste-based calls like that - they don't always pay off but that's one I stand by.

    Unless you are actually stealing jokes, then there's no need to worry about plagiarism accusations. With so many people writing jokes - and I don't mean just Newsjack contributers, we've got Mock The Week and those two shows you mentioned alongside Twitter and everything else - there are bound to be overlaps. If I've heard it somewhere else, I won't use it. If someone tells me they've heard it somewhere else, I won't use it. Other than that we have to operate from a position of good faith. As you say, if it's good and topical we'll use it. All I was suggesting with the facetious Sun sub editor comment was that people take some time to double check their work is the best it can be - a second look at a script might throw up a more interesting take or a dialogue tweak that will lift the sketch. If I came across as prosciptive or dictatorial, I apologise - the most important thing is that you find what you're writing funny.

    Anyway, I hope these answers are useful. I'm new to this feedback thing. If anyone has anything they need answered at greater length, perhaps I can do a Q&A blog next week.

    Dan

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    Comment number 17.

    Hi Dan

    Useful stuff as ever. One problem I have is that, given that my writing efforts haven't yet allowed me to give up my full-time job, I only have a bit of time in the evenings to work on Newsjack submissions. Hence I will usually start work on Monday evening and refine things over the course of the week, with a view to submitting the "polished" stuff by the next Monday's deadline. Problem is, it gets to Friday, I listen to the Thursday night episode only to find that most of the stories I'm using for the next show have already been used. An example would be the Obama/Masachusetts debacle. Gratifyingly, I'd also planned a sketch around Fox news commentators, but obviously it's no use now as the story has already been covered.

    I'm babbling. My question is, essentially, would it be possible for you to give us an idea of what stories/angles you will be covering by, say, Wednesday morning? Then we could focus on using other stuff for the next week's episode. Presume this would also make your job easier as it would reduce the amount of repetetive sketches you have to wade through. See, non-comms are such givers.

    Cheers

    Chris

    P.S. David Halliday - are you my long-lost brother? If so, I'm sure you'll share the royalties if you get on the show.

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    Comment number 18.

    What does EiaCF stand for?
    Mick.

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    Comment number 19.

    Cheers Dan. Much appreciated.

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    Comment number 20.

    Hi Dan
    really grateful for the blog and the constructuve feedback you take the time to give for all the posts. My earlier post about the "Mrs Robinson / Cadbury" thing was intended to show that part of the challenge I find is not just trying to write something funny, but hitting on the right story to target, and how to know what is obvious or not. I would also back up your call on the Cadbury sketch, as I said earlier it was a real hoot.
    Also, one of the Halliday twins asked earlier about when you find out if your sketches are on the show. The Newsjack webpage also lists the writers round about 8:00 on the Thursday night before the show goes out. If your name ain't there you can just sit back and enjoy the show rather than listening for your own gag to see if it gets a laugh.
    Cheers again

 

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