This is an occasional series, the Comedy Book Reviews, in which I’ll look at various books and tell you how useful I think they are to the budding comedy writer, or writer-performer.
Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher. I didn’t spend my own money on it. I’ll leave you to decide how corrupted I may have been by that.
I’m a big fan of the Teach Yourself series. Almost a decade ago it was Ray Frensham’s Teach Yourself Screenwriting that helped me put together my first scripts, and started me on the path to my current – for want of a better word – career. I also learned to ask for beer in Danish from one of them, something that proved almost invaluable on one long weekend in Copenhagen in 2003. I’ve even got an unbroached copy of Teach Yourself Pitman Shorthand somewhere, in readiness for the day when I am reduced to offering outdated skills to faceless corporations for a living.
Just to be clear right from the off: this book will not give you the secrets of writing great comedy. In fact, I doubt anyone knows the secret of great comedy. Those people who have managed to write great comedy have only done it for short periods of time. I don’t think that those great comedians who have produced less than great work simply forgot the lessons of this book; but that great comedy is a mercurial, ephemeral thing that sometimes eludes even the most talented comedy writers. After all, even Richard Curtis wrote Blackadder: Back and Forth.
However, what this book will give you is a good grounding in many different comic modes and styles. It covers all of the basics, and, if you are new to comedy writing, it should help you in all sorts of ways. It’s not an innovative work, but it is packed with good, solid advice.
In many ways, it’s a good British answer to Gene Perret’s The New Comedy Writing Step By Step, which works up from writing gags to sketches to sitcoms. The exercises are useful, all could really help you tune comic ideas, and are more interesting than the writing of 101 Tom Swifties (as Gene Perret suggests). Seriously. I did that exercise. I now have 101 jokes I can never use.
All of the writing advice is sound, and useful, but the book is a little broad. Someone who wants to write great standup does not need the same skills as someone who wants to write a great sitcom, or a great sketch. As a short, helpful introduction to all of these disciplines, packed with facts and exercises, this book is hugely successful. Unfortunately, there are books which deal with each of these things in greater detail.
I would advise any new comedy writer to have a look at this book. There’s a lot of writing wisdom, a lot of helpful information, and a good introduction to many forms of comedy writing in there.
It doesn’t deal with anything in much depth, however. If you’re looking for how to string A and B plots, and act beats through a sitcom script, this isn’t the book you’ll need. If you want information about writing sketches for the web (probably the fastest growing area in comedy), this isn’t the book you’ll need. If you’re looking for information about where you can put your standup or character piece on, this isn’t the book you’ll need. This is the book you’ll need when you’re surveying the comedy world, wanting to write something, anything, but aren’t sure where to start.
It’s a good book, great value for the amount of information it packs in. It might not give you the secrets of great comedy, but it could do something more important. It could give you the skills to get your first comedy, possibly terrible comedy, up on stages in front of people. The Secrets To Writing Terrible Comedy. Because that’s what you’ve got to do. And that, of course, is the first step towards writing great comedy…