How I Got to Write for Topical Comedy Shows
If six months ago somebody had told me I would be writing for topical comedy shows, my response would have been - “What’s tropical comedy? Some form of new entertainment only to be enjoyed in exotic locations?” However I was fortunate enough after submitting a comedy pilot script to BBC Writersroom to be selected from 2,632 entries (but seriously, who’s counting?) as one of 15 writers to participate in the 2018/19 Comedy Room group. That’s when I caught this topical comedy writing bug.
There are a few people to blame for infecting me with this contagious disease. I’ll start with the award-winning stand up comedian and writer Gráinne Maguire. She was responsible for running a Comedy Room workshop explaining the art of writing topical comedy and how to construct gags from headlines and articles. If Hollywood were thinking of doing another Karate Kid re-make and instead of learning martial arts, Daniel-son had to come up with one-liners and gags, then she would be the frontrunner to play Ms Miyagi. Gráinne dropped some serious “wax on, wax off” techniques that got me feeling like I could karate chop any headline into a comical gag.
The Comedy Room writers 2018/19
At the end of this workshop, the second culprit Amanda Farley, who co-runs the Comedy Room (along with the equally culpable Simon Nelson) decided to set some homework. Our mission was to submit sketches and one-liners for the next few weeks to the BBC’s Newsjack. Whilst being on the Comedy Room and having the pleasure of listening to a vast number of comedy writing legends such as Gemma Arrowsmith, Ged Parsons, Logan Murray, Sarah Morgan and many more there seemed to be a recurring theme. Everyone waxed lyrical about BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Newsjack and how it was the best route for a new comedy writer to earn their first writing credit and get their name “out there”. It was also frequently mentioned that Newsjack can open doors to other writing opportunities. So the challenge was set, try to get some material featured on the show. Unfortunately (for me) we weren’t able to name drop the BBC Writersroom scheme and get any special treatment, we simply had to submit via the “open to the public” regular Newsjack submissions email address. Nevertheless I decided to give it a go.
Newsjack airs on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Thursday evenings when it's on-air. When submissions are open the deadlines are midday Monday for sketches and midday Tuesday for one-liners. Simply because of the sheer volume of entries the team can’t respond to everyone so you’ll only receive an email if any of your material is selected to appear on the show. So Thursday rolls around and I receive an email from the Newsjack team. As soon as I see the email header I’m dancing around the room doing my best Diddy bop, thinking about the type of tweet I was going to unleash to let the world know I’m now a bonafide comedy writer. However when I get around to actually reading the full email my Diddy bop comes to an abrupt halt. Here’s where I explain that there is a slight caveat to the “you only receive an email if you get featured on the show” rule. Your material may make it to the show’s script and may even get performed and recorded. However, there is a chance it will not make the final edit of the show. Nevertheless take heart because making the script is still deemed a solid achievement and the good folk at Newsjack will send you an email of encouragement to let you know your material made the script but unfortunately not the final edit.
So I put my tweet into the drafts folder and went back to the drawing board. What everyone failed to mention was that this topical comedy writing is a bit like a drug (one can only assume). You find yourself trawling the headlines day after day mining a joke from every headline and article. Trust me, once you start, you’ll never look at a headline the same way again. The second week I submitted my sketches and one-liners as per the deadline and waited. Thursday came around and another email, this time my material made it onto the show and I was over the moon. It’s a great feeling to hear the material that you’ve written being performed and come to life. After the last episode of Newsjack aired, I sighed a sigh of relief and felt pleased that I had fought the good fight and done Aunty Amanda proud with my homework assignment.
However that wasn’t the end of the ride. I received an email from one of the Newsjack producers inviting me to submit material for Newsjack Unplugged, a shorter version of the show which airs for five weeks after the main show finishes. I was chuffed to be invited and managed to get some more material featured to bolster my credits.
Newsjack on BBC Radio 4 Extra
The Newsjack Writers' Room
Following Newsjack Unplugged I was invited to attend the Newsjack Writers' Room for the day and was looking forward to being in the room with other writers. My typical writing process consists of me lounging at home, satin pyjamas, smoking jacket, surrounded by important magenta coloured encyclopedias and dictionaries, the smell of freshly opened potpourri and the soothing sounds of Enya’s Orinoco Flow to get the juices moving, so truth be told - I was looking forward to a change of scenery.
We were advised to read the papers in advance and come armed with 2 or 3 ideas for sketches. I ensured I had about 6 ideas ready to go just to be safe. Having arrived at BBC HQ we all sat down in a rather swanky room and for the first couple of hours took turns in discussing our ideas. The producers were welcoming, funny and constructive in their comments and feedback. The other writers in the room also chipped in with suggestions on the ideas pitched, the whole experience was really laid back and it was a supportive environment with tons of encouragement and great ideas on how to improve and frame concepts.
Once each writer had at least two solid sketch ideas we had the rest of the day to work on them. There was a deadline of 1pm to email a draft of our 1st sketch to the producers who would give us some feedback to tweak if necessary. We would also need to get a draft of our 2nd sketch to the producers by at least 3pm and again they would reply with any comments for us to try and improve if necessary. The whole process was really helpful in shaping an initial idea into a sharp sketch and being in the room with other writers was great as you were able to bounce ideas and get inspiration from each other.
At the end of the day we had to email our final drafts to the producers and they would review and decide which sketches would make the show. It’s important to mention that just because you are in the Writers' Room for the day, it doesn’t guarantee your material being featured. Sounds harsh but that’s the breaks. Naturally being in the room increases your chances but the material will still be judged alongside all of the other content submitted for that week. All in all it was really good to be in the room and get a front row seat on how the show is constructed.
The Now Show with Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis
The Now Show
As I mentioned earlier, word on the street was that Newsjack was a great way to start your comedy writing career and it will help open the door for other opportunities. I can confirm - the streets don’t lie. I received an email out of the blue from Adnan Ahmed, producer extraordinaire of the The Now Show. Adnan had read some of the material I had submitted to Newsjack and invited me into his Writers' Room for an episode. The process for The Now Show is slightly different and was another great learning experience. Whilst the show is still based around topical news, where it slightly differs from Newsjack is that the aim is to write material for the hosts of the show - the legendary Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt. So it’s important to try and understand their voices, listen to previous episodes and tailor the jokes and and material to fit their comedy style.
I was surrounded by a room full of funny women including Laura Major who has written on everything such as Have I Got News for You, 8/10 Cats, Mock The Week and too many more to mention. Also there were the super funny BBC Radio Comedy Bursary writers Catherine Brinkworth and Kat Sadler. There was also standup comedian and all round funny man Ian Smith, so I was in very good company.
The hosts Hugh and Steve joined us in the morning and we discussed some of the key topics that we were going to focus on and had a clear idea of the areas to target. However with topical comedy, events can move pretty fast, especially in the glorious era of Brexit, so being able to quickly adapt an idea or sketch based on the ever changing news cycle always comes in handy.
The journey so far has been fantastic and the good news is you don’t have to be a right-honourable gentleman or gentlewoman to write topical comedy. Just because you’re not glued to the parliament channel doesn’t mean you can’t whack out some topical comedy.
Some Top Tips
- Submit to Newsjack EVERY WEEK. That might sound like a no-brainer but I guarantee if you are submitting good material for 8 weeks consistently, you will get noticed. Don’t be disheartened if you aren’t featured and don’t think that it’s because your material wasn’t funny enough. Being in the Writers' Room really opened my eyes to see there are a plethora of reasons why your sketch or one-liner may not get included and it could have absolutely nothing to do with how funny it is. For example there were two completely different sketches pitched in the room, both equally as funny but both were centred around an emergency room type situation. It wouldn’t have made sense to have them both in the show. Now one of them had to be dropped, not because it wasn’t funny but simply because both wouldn’t work within the same episode. So submit, submit, submit. Last thing on this tip….. SUBMIT!
- Don’t always go for the top headline grabbers. Yes, if you’ve got a great angle on a top headline, go for it, but look out for the equally as funny, smaller local stories. The first sketch that I got featured was a story about a BBC Radio Norfolk DJ who happened to share the same name as a notorious French Rapper who had just released an inflammatory new rap single. Now this poor old Radio Norfolk DJ was mistakenly receiving online abuse and trolling. So I wrote a sketch about this hapless DJ receiving a bunch of calls from angry French people during his local mid-morning show. So it doesn’t always have to be breaking news. You can find the funny in all types of stories.
Now I need to go and pick up my satin pyjamas from the dry cleaners so I’ll leave you with this. I don’t know where this topical comedy writing journey will end but I know where it began. The BBC Writersroom Comedy Room is truly a money-can’t-buy type of experience. The industry knowledge, the connections you will make, the writing opportunities…. The scheme not only opened doors but opened my mind to a world of new writing opportunities that I had previously never even comprehended. The icing on the cake is the good folks at BBC Writersroom don’t leave you high and dry once the scheme is over. Having finished the scheme a few months ago I've still been invited to a number of events and been given the opportunity to pitch ideas for current shows simply because I am part of the Comedy Room alumni. So please, stop reading my incoherent ramblings and start your own journey.
The Comedy Script Window Is Open people. The BBC Need You.