22 Jul 2018
dave's picture

Do you think you could become a topical comedy writer?
First, let me put you off. The answer is almost certainly no. There are a number of perfectly straightforward reasons why the chances of this happening are slim.
There are very few people who do it regularly, dozens perhaps in the whole of the UK (there are probably around 3,000 brain surgeons, to give you an idea of how few that is). Most shows are written by commissioned writers - News Quiz, Now Show, Dead Ringers. To work on them, you have to have proved yourself somewhere else, and be invited by the producer. This makes complete sense. You can’t expect the producers of a weekly topical show not to have the insurance of knowing that if all else fails they’ll be able to fill the show with the work of writers who have proved they can do it. You can try writing for NewsJack, but there is massive competition for this.
Then there’s the subject matter. For the last couple of years the news agenda has been dominated by two stories, you don’t need me to tell you which but I’ll give you a clue, they both cover similar ground and both feature Nigel Farage in a walk-on part. These are ongoing stories and my guess is the producers wait until the last moment before deciding what angle to take. Unless you can think of some fantastically new comedy slant in the days leading up to the deadline it’s probably best to avoid them.
Next, how is your ego feeling these days? Do you have plentiful reserves of mental strength? You’re going to need them. It’s quite rare even for the writers most suited to the work to be instantly successful, and even rarer for them to be able to follow up that success consistently over the six week run of the series. If you try writing for Newsjack likely you’ll have a go in the first week, send off your jokes and sketches, wait with anticipation, listen to the show with a growing sense of foreboding and disappointment, not get anything on, then give up straight away. At least 50% of you will, according to the producer we spoke to earlier this year.
Finally there’s the timing, which as we all know is the secret of comedy. Newsjack goes out on a Thursday evening, which means the search for material for the following week’s show begins on Friday morning. If there was an episode next Thursday you would have to start looking now. Because the commissioned writers will be working as close to the deadline as possible, you’re going to have to do all your work before them. The deadline for your sketches is Monday morning, jokes Tuesday morning.
That means all your hard work will take place over the weekend. You get to write two sketches, so you’ll want to spend most of today looking through the news and searching for two stories that will provide you with two minutes of jokes. If you have time to do a first draft on Friday, great, that gives you all of Saturday and Sunday to rewrite (and hope your story doesn’t become out of date).
And you really need to rewrite. Because writing is all about rewriting, you know that. No first draft ever got made. If you want to write for Newsjack, be prepared to wave goodbye to six weekends on the trot.
If you're going to try and write for the show, I suggest you look on this series as the one in which you learn the process. If you want to be a comedy writer, I strongly believe it's less important for you to get something on, than it is for you to get into the habit of writing. If you spend the weekend writing, then get nothing on, and spend the next weekend writing, and get nothing on, and the next weekend, and so on, you may come away having got nothing on - in which case, welcome to the world of the professional writer. From any time in my career I'm sure I could easily find a run of twelve consecutive days of writing, maybe working on a pilot that never got commissioned, or sitting in a writers' room where almost everything I said didn't make it to the screen. Writing stuff that doesn't get used happens to everyone, however successful, and the rejection never goes away. But - tomorrow is another day. If you can stick at the task for six weeks in a row, you may not get anything on but those hours of agonising, staring into space and tearing your hair out will have helped push you a long way forward when you finally get a chance to sit down and work at the ideas you're really keen on.
Still think you can write topical comedy? Okay, let’s start.
For the next four days I'll be offering advice to help you write for a topical comedy show. Today you should be looking for stories for sketches. I’ll be looking through the papers and coming up with suggestions of my own that I’ll share with you tomorrow – but why not send me yours? 

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