Dave Cohen is a professional comedy writer who’s worked on a number of high profile programmes (which includes Have I Got News For You, My Family, plus radio and TV sketch/panel shows). He’s also script edited a number of comedy shows, and he teaches a comedy writing course for Raindance).
Here’s an excerpt from his handout ‘Writing Comedy for a Living’ which gives you a practical heads up and what you need, and what it takes, if you’re going to break into this side of the biz.
What do you need to be a comedy writer?
The ability to write jokes, of course. Without that I’m afraid we have to stop right here. That’s the one thing I can’t teach. A thick skin. Even the most successful comedy writers get their projects turned down. There’s just too much stuff out there and no time to make or show it all. Nothing personal. (Except of course it is personal, you‘ve slaved for months over that masterpiece.)
An optimistic outlook tempered with realism. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, which it probably is. What I’m trying to say is, there are very few people out there making a living from comedy – dozens, maybe, rather than hundreds or thousands. But if you stick at it and don’t lose heart there’s no reason why you can’t be one of them.
A writing partner. Not essential, but it happens a lot in comedy. Some of the finest comedy ever written has come from writing pairs – Porridge (Clement & Le Frenais), Steptoe (Galton & Simpson), Peep Show (Armstrong & Bain) countless others.
How do I break in?
In a rapidly changing world, the BBC remains the best place to start. Log on to ‘BBC Writers’ Room’ at any time of year and you’ll find they’re looking for new talent. Often there’ll be a specific show they’re inviting submissions for: radio, TV and internet. The pro is that your script will be read and you’ll probably get some feedback. The disadvantage is that you’re competing with everyone else in the English-speaking world.
There are now so many other ways in to comedy. There are lots of independent TV companies looking for new, cheap comedy ideas. There are up-and-coming new stand-ups who may be looking for new writers to hook up with to develop their acts. And there are always radio shows looking for topical material.
For many years BBC Radio was where every writer started. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s the Pythons, then the alternative comics all worked there. To a large extent this is still true. Matt Lucas, Meera Syal, The League Of Gentlemen and the ‘Dead Ringers’ team are all more recent graduates.
However, the internet is changing everything and it’s impossible to say at this stage exactly how that will affect us. I predict that more and more comedy stars will emerge from sites like YouTube and MySpace, and that more and more development money will go out there in search of the next Little Britain/JackAss/new idea no one’s heard of yet, that will have been created in someone’s bedroom on a budget of ten pence.
If you have the time, and the inclination, I would suggest that it won’t do you any harm at this stage to find yourself a creative partner who can hold a camera and edit on line, and start developing some nice, short, visual sketches with jokes in them, and see where this leads you.
But – whichever medium you choose to develop your craft, the same basic rules apply – and they apply every step of the way…”
Check out Raindance for details of Dave’s next course or email firstname.lastname@example.org with enquiries.