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Comedy Script Room - Top tips and advice

Keith Martin

Development Producer, BBC Writersroom

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June is a good month for a comedy geek like me. The head of our readers and his talented and experienced team have finished choosing their “long list” of the 60-70 best new scripts from the UK and Ireland from the 1000’s submitted for the year's Comedy Room; and I get to read them all. We BBC Writersroom Producers share them out of course, but having put together the brief I get to take an overview, because it’s my job and, well I really like this sort of thing.

It’s a genuine treat. A privilege. A man in his house laughing in his tracksuit bottoms and reading tonnes of funny material that people have poured hours of time, love and invention into. All is right with the world. Then the Producers and Execs from BBC Writersroom have to decide who to meet and who gets that complimentary email that you skip reading to see if it’s a yes (or not). The best bit of my job sort of turns into the opposite, because now we have to choose a shortlist.

I’ve been asked to try and put into words a list of common reasons why writers don’t make it through to this shortlist, to meet Simon Nelson and Amanda Farley (who expertly and lovingly run the Comedy Room development group) for an interview.  Seems a bit negative though and not really in keeping with the spirit of the tracksuit bottom wearing, eating my kids’ ice-pops marooned on a beanbag, funny reading marathon highlight of my working year.

So taking into account the readers’ feedback and our producer notes, here are some common areas and observations. All in the name of helping you get your script onto the longlist and ideally even that shortlist. Some will apply to you, don’t worry about the ones that don’t. There are no ‘rules’ of course and a fair bit of crossover, but I hope some of this is helpful.

Make a Good First Impression

Please format your scripts properly. Producers, script editors and readers will still read them but they’ll make an assumption that you don’t really know what you’re doing, even though you do. Plus it’s professional. Polite even. Good etiquette, like putting your trousers on for a first day in a new job/ parents evening/ when being awarded your MBE. 

Have You Seen This Before?

Keep an eye on what else is out in the world. People have similar ideas of course but when for example This Country or Fleabag or Derry Girls is setting the world alight it’s amazing how many scripts we read with a central premise, character or comic purpose that feels very close to these shows.

What’s Your Unique Take?

We get a lot of scripts where the characters and/or the world is like something else. It’s probably ok if the precinct (pub, school, house) is similar but what’s your unique take? What is it about you introducing us to this place, this story and the monsters, idiots or sweethearts you’ve created that gives us something different? Something that is only yours?

Specific and Original Voices

Consider exactly what your character’s voice is. We get dozens of scripts set in England with characters who read like they’re, for example, American. Maybe because we’ve all watched American sitcoms. Also, we read lots of scripts with “loafing man-child” leads or “sex crazed middle aged” sidekicks and that’s ok but what is your unique one of these? Who could only exist in your show and your world? We want the specific, the original. Not someone that’s vaguely like someone else.

Mind the Gap

Take care when writing characters that are significantly different from your personal experiences even if they’re only secondary ones. Maybe characters from a different race, social/ economic background, gender or place in the world. Not to say you should only write what you know but a clunky trope or cliché can damage perceptions of your script. We do hear “a woman would never say that”, “that Caribbean grandmother is borderline offensive” or “the indecipherable Irish character doesn’t count as a character” a lot at this time of year, so ask someone, take advice or do some research.

Key Relationships, Constant Conversations

This can often, oddly, be overlooked. So much about what we’re looking for in specifically, narrative comedy is an understanding of clear and unique relationships. Of their boundaries, or lack of. The intimacy between characters - forced or imprisoned or out of love. Good, bad or strange friendships. What is their constant argument? Their shorthand? Why is this conversation, this argument worth investing in and why does it make each potential storyline and all future aspects of the piece irresistible?

Irresistible Dialogue

Do your characters converse in a way that’s unique to them? So many scripts deliver jokes and let us know what’s going on but underestimate the value of characters who express themselves in a way that we haven’t seen before. It could be attitude, vernacular, turns of phrase or all of the above that feels unique to them. It all helps immerse us in your world and buy into your interesting people.

Not Another Big Set-Up Episode

Ah the big set up episode… Over half of all the new scripts I read fall into this category. You’ve spent your 30ish pages setting up who everyone is or why they’re living in this house, zoo, swamp, beanbag, whatever. If you instead tell a great story that comes from the characters and their flaws and idiosyncrasies the script is a more compelling read and might have a better chance of landing.

Don’t Be a One-Trick Pony

Some really funny scripts fall out of the running because every joke is a sex joke, a shock, or the main character’s patter is just putdowns. If they become a bit one-note and predictable, in the mix of all the other good scripts, they might get knocked back.

Keep It Consistent

Characters shouldn’t flit between really clearly standing for one thing or behaving in one way then bizarrely change mid-script. If you’re 50/50 on whether your character would make a choice or even say a funny thing then have a rethink as it might detract from the person and idea you’ve created.

Characters Drive Stories

And then this happens… Story-wise you’d be surprised how many really interesting scripts include elements where things just happen to the character. Your characters need to be the architect of their own story, and decide to do something because of who they are. Make a mistake, tell a lie, take offence, steal a load of ice-pops from children. Make the story come from the character and their flaws, loves, desperations or whatever is specific to them.

All we want as readers, producers and geeks is to love your script. For it to stick in our heads and make us glad we read it. To grin about it months later, when we should be thinking of something else. So please keep watching comedy and reading scripts you love from our library. Please keep engaging with BBC Writersroom and try again if you didn’t get on the shortlist this year. Thank you for the privilege of letting us read your work. I can’t wait until next year. 

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