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Right, with PMQs coming up tomorrow – here’s a look at last week’s jokes, what they got right, and what they got wrong…
“Not so much the iron lady as the irony lady” (3:41)
This one’s just a disaster from start to finish. Badly written, badly delivered, and vague enough that it sounds like it might be a compliment.
- There’s no link between setup and punchline, Delivered separately it’s quite difficult to remember what the irony is that Jeremy mentioned in the setup. It might even have been worth mentioning the word irony before, because there’s quite a conceptual leap to be made.
- This is a laboured pun. Not impossible, but more difficult than some kinds of jokes to deliver well. It requires getting the audience on board and acknowledging that the joke is weak and that you’re enjoying its weakness. Jeremy does none of this. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone except the Speaker, and delivers it like he thinks it’s a good line. It’s not a good line.
- The inflection is wrong. I’d advise using a rising, incredulous inflection or putting a huge pause after “Not so much the iron lady…” and seeing if the audience will do some of the work for you. Again, acknowledging the weakness of the gag is the key to pulling something like this off.
- However, there’s no such thing as an “irony lady”. It fundamentally doesn’t make sense as a statement. That hobbles this joke as it’s always going somewhere that isn’t going to make sense when you arrive.
- It’s hugely context-specific, and isn’t going to stick in anyone’s memory unless you’ve done a lot more work to establish that Theresa May is full of irony somehow. Maybe at the end of something like: “She wants to represent the will of the people, but has never won an election to anything; she wants to being back parliamentary sovereignty but sideline parliament; she wants Britain to be a global power, but seems determined to annoy large chunks of the globe! She’s not so much the iron lady…”
- Eye contact. Throughout this exchange, Theresa May, as ineffective a speaker as she largely is, makes eye contact with the Opposition benches, and is unafraid to turn and gesture to her own. She makes a point of closing her notes as she’s getting up (with a finger in so she can find what she might need to later). Jeremy Corbyn only makes eye contact with his notes or, occasionally, the Speaker. This does him no favours at all.
“I’ve got a plan. He doesn’t have a clue.” (4:55)
This is solid, but so confident is Theresa of her delivery here that she veers into actual caricature of a disapproving gossip serving tea at a jumble sale.
- Much better written than her jokes usually are. This is a simple balancing statement with a contrast between its two halves. Here is one statement (“We have a plan”). Here is another (“He doesn’t have a clue”).
- The lengthy petard-hoisting quotation works better for her than it does to Jeremy, although he tries in at least three question to do the same to her. Partly because she’s quoting his own words at him, whereas he’s trying to tie her to other ministers, and partly because it’s simply a better-selected quotation. It ends with its killer line.
- The quotation – of course – isn’t saying what she’s saying it is, but it doesn’t matter because the look of incredulous despair and change it tone sell it utterly and distract you from the fact that the quotation is entirely reasonable.
- This is the best performance I’ve seen from her. Withering contempt seems to be effective as a stance from her, and she seems to actually relish it, as opposed to the concerned statesman she’s tried to pull off before.
Not many jokes this week. Theresa had the much easier job, in that hers was better written and easier to deliver, but she also did a better job with what she was given.
If you are intending to use humour in a speech it’s essential that it look like it’s coming organically from you. Very little is more awkward than someone trying to do a joke they’re not happy with. Corbyn’s pun seemed forced on him, May’s scorn seemed real.
Full disclosure: I’m part of TTW, a company that teaches this sort of thing to people who have to talk in public. If you’d like more of this sort of thing, do get in touch.
Some friends and I have just set up a training company, to teach business people (and others) how to speak in public. We’re a television presenter, an actor, a comedian, and someone who teaches people to win pitches for a living who are tired of seeing people whose job involves speaking for a living doing that job less well than they should. Also, we want them to give us pots of cash.
In that spirit, then, here are 4 tips for Theresa May, to help her improve her joke-telling style.
When she launched her leadership campaign, you may have heard that she told a “hilarious joke”. It was certainly a well-written joke, but was it hilarious?
The squelch and crunch on “nearly new water cannon” is delightful, the set up is well-weighted, but a joke (in this context) consists of both content and performance, and her performance of the joke could be bumped up with a few simple steps. I think it’s fair to say that her delivery is a disgrace to the words she is uttering and she should never be allowed near a joke again. Unless she heeds the following tips…
- At least try to pretend that you’re happy to be telling a joke. At 00:29 your demeanour changes entirely. The breathing becomes quicker, you start looking down at notes to convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing, your tell-tale lower mouth discomfort-twitch becomes more pronounced. Breathe. Relax. You’re about to tell a joke. What’s the worst that could happen? It could bomb and the nation’s media could turn on you for ill-considered flippancy thus scuppering your hopes to become Prime Minister, and leaving your career at the mercy of one of the people you’re standing against. But APART FROM THAT.
- Don’t gabble. This is related to the point above, and is one of the nervous tics that being confident in telling your joke will help resolve. You almost kill this joke by running over “last time he did a deal with the Germans” which are all important words that help “three nearly new water cannon” land. Without that phrase it’s a much weaker gag. We can all see in your eyes that you wish you weren’t having to tell this joke, but you do. You’re standing there, so give it every chance of life by making the whole thing audible.
- Eye contact. In the first 29 seconds, where you’re not telling a joke you look down twice, both times at the ends of sentences of phrases so it seems natural. In the ten seconds you’re telling the joke you also look down twice, this time in the middle of sentences, which makes it look like you’re thinking about bailing on the joke. Don’t Commit to it. And try to keep the desperate pleading for a response out of your eyes when you look up at the end.
- Revel in your joke. Well done. You’ve told a joke. In this case the laugh seems slightly delayed, probably because it wasn’t a context in which people were expecting a joke and your body language didn’t cue them to the fact that you had told one. But once they are laughing, let them laugh. Seem to enjoy it. Don’t crash the laugh by rushing on when you have a second in which to enjoy it. After all, you might not get many of those in the months and years to come…
TTW Training is available to whack your business leaders’s words into shape here…
Gene Perret’s other book – The New Comedy Writing Step By Step – is a thorough introduction to gag writing. It covers all of the basics, and includes many exercises on which neophyte comedy writers can try out what they have learned. Whilst some of the material may have dated, and it’s focused very much on gag writing rather than performance or sitcom writing, it’s one of the standard texts for people looking to learn how to write jokes, and deservedly so.
The new one – The Ten Commandments Of Comedy – is… different.
A slim volume, The Ten Commandments gives 10 principles for the writing of jokes, and show’s how you can punch a joke up by seeing which of them it violates. All of the rules are good, make sense, and are things every comic should know.
And that – I think – is where the problem is. Any working comic or comedy writer will know these rules, even if they have never thought of them explicitly. They will know from experience the value of being concise, of being understood, of giving the audience definite beats on which to laugh.
Let’s be clear – all of these points are valuable, well worth knowing, and important to bear in mind when writing comedy. However, they aren’t examined in any depth. There’s a little more context than the original Ten Commandments had, but not by much.
The chapters are short, so it’s an easy read, but it also makes it a not-exceedingly-useful one.
it’s difficult to know who would benefit from the information in this book, although all of it is worth having. In terms of what it’s saying and who needs to hear it, beginners would probably benefit most from it, but the absence of exercises or context mean that it’s not particularly helpful as a book to kickstart your comedy writing.
Anyone for whom such a brief book might be useful will probably already know everything that’s in it.
There are 64 pages, each has helpful, well-argued information on. If I’m going to have to imagine who would benefit from this book, I would think that public speakers looking to inject humour into their speeches would do best.
For business people. after-dinner speakers, lecturers, and anyone who has to speak in public but doesn’t want to have to do a whole comedy course to find out the secrets, The Ten Commandments Of Comedy is a helpful primer, with real insight into what makes people laugh. In a few brief chapters you can be apprised of all of the fundamental principles of jokes, and reminded of what you really shold know when you write and tell them.
For comedy writers, however, I can’t imagine a stage in your career when this book wouldn’t either be redundant or too sparse to be helpful.
The Ten Commandment Of Comedy, then, will be most useful for those who don’t do comedy. For the rest of us, start with his other book.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: This review was based on a review copy sent to me by the publisher.]
I straightened my Union Jack tie and looked straight down the lens. Was I really going to do this? Today? Well, there was only one way to find out…
Did you hear the one about the Woolwich murder? Probably not, comedy’s been a little quiet on the subject for the last week. Even Twitter, where paedophilia, death, and genocide can provide punchlines mere moments after they’ve happened* seemed muted.
Usually, a tragedy is the time at which Twitter divides (roughly equally in my timeline) between those making puns about it, and those saying “Hey! A man / woman / Thatcher just died here people! Show a little respect!” Last week, half of those people suddenly seemed to discover that discretion was the something part of whatsit, and decided to stay quiet.
When a Dutch show included a cheap reference to the murder in a sketch about Eurovision, the hyperventilation of the British press (who, lest we forget, are staunch defenders of freedom of speech) became a constant, high-pitched whine capable of shattering snail shells. All of the coverage mis-characterised the sketch as ‘mocking the murder of Lee Rigby’. All of the headlines named Lee Rigby, who wasn’t referred to in the sketch at all, as the butt of the sketch. It’s pretty clear from watching it that they weren’t mocking Rigby at all, they were using his murderers as a stereotype for all of Britain, the same way they were using German stereotypes for the Germans.
But any joke which contains reference to the Woolwich murder is – in the eyes of the British press – a joke that mocks Lee Rigby.
In character as Sir Ian Bowler, a corrupt MP, on the Thursday morning I tweeted a not-hugely-amusing joke about MPs resenting being recalled to Parliament every time they went away on holiday. I was surprised by the fact that someone was hurt by it. I’d actually made someone cry with a joke. And not in a speaking-truth-to-power way, in a you’re-probably-an-inconsiderate-dick way.
So I decided to ask social media whether or not I should do an Ian Bowler video that day. There was a lot I wanted to say about the responses of politicians to the incident, and the ways in which they were spinning it to suit their own agenda. I was cross that the half-truths (which are equally half-untruths) of a whole swathe of people from Theresa May to the EDL weren’t being challenged in the media’s narrative. I was angry. And when I’m angry I tend to put on a blue suit and bellow into a camera.
Like during the riots.
But I’d been brought down to earth by that tweet. Should I say something that I knew would upset a lot of people? Should I say it that day?
The responses were interesting. The advice from most comedians was to leave it well alone. Most people who like watching the videos wanted one. Family members (mine) politely suggested that holding off might not be a bad idea, at least until they had had time to board up the windows.
One comment, however, completely took the wind out of my sails.
I think Sir Ian should be thinking about the victim’s family, not his own career.
I’ll deal with the issue of respect in a minute, but the accusation of careerism was particularly painful. I don’t know what sort of career the commenter assumes talking into a video camera in a shed comprises (My wife could tell him. “Not much of one.”) but it was a point I couldn’t answer.
As someone whose career is his jokes, and often his jokes in response to the news, I can’t help but be something of a vulture, picking at the carrion of current affairs. It’s what I do, it’s the way I communicate. Some people write columns in newspapers, some people write plays, some people go and nod at each other on news programmes. I write jokes. They are the way I work out what I’m thinking.
When it comes to respect, of course, I don’t think it’s the satirist’s job to offer respect. Quite the reverse, when the whole country is united in feeling something, it’s the satirist’s job to point out the ways in which we are blinding ourselves to the truth. Or to what they see as the truth.
Even if it’s wrong, especially if it’s uncomfortable, there should be someone taking an unpopular position.
Someone should always challenge the prevailing media narrative, especially when a consensus is reached as quickly and completely as it was last week.
If a satirist has a duty it is not to show respect, not to defer to the social norms which are being used to silence and ensure conformity of word and thought.
There was a survey recently, which scientifically proved (did not scientifically prove) that there was such a thing as ‘too soon‘. Distance in time allows us to see the violation of social norms as ‘benign’. However, in a country where we are all more than happy to work ourselves into a group-think lather at the drop of a people’s princess, one must wonder whether our humour should be ‘benign’.
Gawker recently lamented the fact that ‘too soon’ had apparently disappeared from the world with social media. The response to the Boston bombing showed, they thought, that Twitter had killed the concept of ‘too soon’. What they might have seen in the Woolwich case is the way in which Twitter is used to police ‘too soon’.
There have, of course, been jokes. Sickipedia has 5 pages of jokes about the Woolwich murder. Most of them gleefully taking the opportunity to be openly racist.
The left has also found its outlet: the EDL. From the EDF gags to the ‘Never Submit to Aslan’ photoshops, the EDL are the one thing the country is letting itself laugh at. The anarchist blogger who pleads with his audience not to laugh at the EDL may well be right that the problem they pose is serious and imminent. However, in a culture where the central tenets of the narrative are not open for mockery, we latch onto the next closest thing. Sorry, EDL.
In their responses to the Aurora shootings both Dane Cook and Chris Rock had different experiences. Cook used the tragedy to make a tired joke about how bad the film was; Rock used it to raise issues of gun control and joke about them.
One used the moment to joke about the issues, his anger, and what he felt was important, and was rightly praised for so doing. The other used it to trot out some hack material, and caught the rage of the Internet.
There is no such thing as too soon. There is, however, such a thing as too stupid.
I’m a great believer in the fact that not all self-censorship is wrong. Taking the impact of what we say into account when we say something is not a betrayal of free speech. Taking responsibility for our words and the effect they have on others isn’t always a bad idea.
However, we shouldn’t frame all of our discussions as if they are likely to be beamed directly into the faces of grieving relatives, even though, with the Internet, they can. And we really shouldn’t let concerns about what people will think our motives are govern whether or not we speak out.
Ian Bowler will be back tomorrow. Some of the things I wanted to say still need saying. Other seem tired now, or trite, or just like I couldn’t pull them off as my rage has matured. Look forward to that. Some slightly stale material that feels like it would have been more relevant last week.
Because I didn’t do it. I switched the camera off, took off the tie, turned on the News, and felt awful. Awful that I was conspiring in silence, awful that I hadn’t had the courage of my convictions, awful that I hadn’t said something deeply offensive to right-thinking individuals. Just awful.
* For those unaware of Twitter, it’s a system used to ensure that Frankie Boyle gets pretty much blanket coverage by The Daily Mail.
- Sick Dutch TV sketch mocks Lee Rigby murder (thesun.co.uk)
- Attacks on Muslims soar in wake of Woolwich murder (ramyabdeljabbar.wordpress.com)
Good news for fans of the horror-comedy anthology series this month: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are working on a new series for BBC2, and In The Gloaming is returning with a new episode to the Leicester Square Theatre at the end of October. Admittedly, those two pieces of news might not have quite the same impact, but with the success of last year’s Black Mirror, it’s a hopeful sign that the horror-comedy anthology series might be on the way back.
It’s a format that, just a couple of years ago, seemed irretrievably lost. In the arc-heavy, densely-plotted world of television of the 2000s, the idea that you wouldn’t continue a story from week to week seemed like a quaint anachronism, one of things you were able to do in television’s infancy, but that had been superseded, like a clock to count you down to the programme’s start or actors who hadn’t eaten worms in a jungle.
Shows that were held up as the epitome of the new storytelling – 24, Lost, Heroes – had taken the twist ending to beloved of anthology shows, but used it to drive you into next week’s episode, rather than nastily rounding things off for the audience and trusting they’d come back for more. The showrunner who seemed to be the most direct descendant of Rod Serling – J.J. Abrams – was held up as an example of why shows like The Twilight Zone just weren’t feasible any more.
The 1990s saw revivals of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and the creation of Tales From The Crypt in the US. In Britain we had Murder Most Horrid, which ran for four series and won a British Comedy Award, but it pretty much stood alone*. Hammer House Of Horror and Tales Of The Unexpected had given up the ghost, and there was nothing to fill their shoes.
There were a couple of attempts to revive the format in the early 2000s. It’s diffiocult to know whether or not to count Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible as a proper horror-comedy anthology series because it’s a spoof. The jokes come mainly from the way in which they parody actual anthology series (and lots of knob gags), rather than from the stories themselves.
It’s difficult not to drift into spoof sometimes, though. Particularly in its titles, Murder Most Horrid often made fun of the conventions of the murder-mystery. The League Of Gentlemen Christmas Special (much like The Simpsons‘ Treehouse Of Horror series) are all the more effective for having a stock bag of horror cliches to play with.
In In The Gloaming we made a conscious effort to avoid spoof, but sometimes the comedy relies on your awareness of the genre, and your audience’s awareness of the genre. Even so, listening back, there’s one joke in ‘Dead Skinny’ that only works as a take on the old ‘disappearing shop’ bit (and which, in retrospect, The Simpsons also mocked in their ‘Monkey’s Paw’ episode.)
The third series of The League of Gentlemen was a comedy-horror anthology series, tied together with the motif of the crashing van, and it was an interesting development from the more sketchy format of the first two series. BBC Three also had a go at the format with Spine Chillers, which I never saw (2003 was something of a ‘lost year’ for me. I am reasonably reliably informed that it was much like 2002 and 2004).
And that was pretty much it for a decade. Not only was it not attempted, but it was thought of as impossible.
I first developed In the Gloaming as a series of shorts for Comedybox in 2007/8. When that inevitably went the way of all sites that were producing internet comedy (and not allowing you to embed the videos) during 2008 that was one of the projects that sank with it.
After doing Tonightly I reworked it as a television pitch, and took it to a few TV production companies in the autumn of 2008. Everyone thought it would be far too expensive (which may well have been a nice way of saying, “We saw Tonightly. No thank you.”) and it wasn’t the sort of thing anyone was looking for.
At around the same time I went to a BAFTA screening of Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, which had a Q&A after it. At that, he mentioned that he was working in something like Tales Of The Unexpected. I gave a grim chuckle. Horror anthology series seemed dead in the water. (Which would be an episode where a businessman in a yacht rescues a drowning man far out at sea, only to discover that he’s his exact doppleganger…)
There was a place, of course, for the anthology series. On the radio. BBC Radio Seven (what is now Four Extra) had revived The Man In Black with none other than Mark Gatiss in the titular role. So, in 2009, we decided to do In The Gloaming as a series of audio podcasts. We had great casts (Michael Greco, Lizzie Roper, Darren Strange, Ruth Bratt, John Voce, Rachel Stubbings), and we won some awards, but, for too many reasons to list here, we only managed to do four episodes.
Fast forward two years: Black Mirror is filming its second series, Happy Endings will be coming out next year, and there are brand new episode of In The Gloaming live in London.
It’s a great time to be a horror-comedy fan.
And I can finally use the sign-off line I never dared use on any of the podcasts:
“You won’t know whether to piss yourself or shit yourself.”
Good night. Mhwah ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaa!
* Incidentally, my father-in-law played a Chinnery-esque butcher in an episode of Murder Most Horrid. You can see him here:
- Halloween Season For Horror Writers: The List Of Who’s Accepting (aknifeandaquill.wordpress.com)
- Matt Reeves Passes on Directing ‘The Twilight Zone’ (screenrant.com)
- New In The Gloaming! Live at the Leicester Square Theatre! (inthegloamingpodcasts.wordpress.com)
Given the great result in the #Twitterjoketrial this morning, and in a continuing effort to republish my articles which have disappeared from the Spectator Arts Blog, here’s what I had to say about the whole thing in November 2010…
I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.
And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No
(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)
No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.
And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.
This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.
Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.
For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncaster Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read:
“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.
Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”
Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?
No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.
The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.
Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The Week, The Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.
Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 60 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.
In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @
Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting:
“Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”
On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.
Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.
It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.
The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.
The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.
You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.
I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.
This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.
Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.
A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?
Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?
Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.
Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ’emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.
We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.
Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.
(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)
We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.
Benjamin Franklin said:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.
During 2009 and 2010 I did a bit of blogging for The Spectator Arts Blog. As it seems to have disappeared, and its content to have been dispersed amongst the aether like so much unwanted bum-fluff. I’m going to republish a couple of the bits I did here, so at least they will be archived somewhere online.
This piece was from October 2010. My views have changed slightly since then, but I thought it was worth putting up here in the wake of the Daniel Tosh thing…
A couple of Thursdays ago, TheDaily Mail told us, on Prince Charles’ behalf, that modern comedy was offensive, ‘cruel and witless’. However, its front page the very next day was a dire warning that the EU was coming, and the thing it was coming to take away? Our good, honest, cruel British comedy, by which only pansies, Guardian readers, and the deaf could possibly be offended. Confused readers were possibly not helped by the following Wednesday’s article which was back to bemoaning how offensive British comedy now is.
The Daily Mail is of two minds about how offensive comedy should be. Or would be, if that didn’t imply that it had one fully-functioning mind to begin with.
The columnists in question, of course, may accidentally not have been describing comedy, but themselves. Who, for example, is more “impossibly ugly”: comedy or Jan Moir? Is it possible that there was a mirror somewhere in the periphery of Quentin Letts’ vision when he described comedy as “smug, scornful and obsessed with sex and flatulence”? What, Prince Charles, is more cruel: knob gags, or, when sitting with your wife-to-be, suggesting that someone who wants to know whether you love your fiancee should define their terms?
The paper’s split personality over comedy doesn’t mean its readers are going slowly, bitterly mad, however. Neither do the front page headlines calling for the abortion of gay foetuses (July 1993). Or the editorials suggesting Hitler should be given large chunks of Africa (March 1934). Or the support for the British Union of Fascists (“Hurrah For The Blackshirts!” January 1934). Individually, none of those things reveal you to be squalid and hateful beings, hypocritical, nasty, and prurient, but put them all together…
Of course, I’m being facetious in suggesting that the paper was being in any way inconsistent. The offensive humour that was to be celebrated and cherished and the EU were coming to grab was jokes about women, blacks, and disableds. The sort we should despise is the kind that makes fun of middle-class white men.
That’s not to say that modern comedy isn’t cruel and witless. Just that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The cruel and the scatological are not new elements in British comedy. On the contrary, they are two of the great pillars of British humour. From Chaucer through Shakespeare to Swift and Sterne, from Gillray through Marie Lloyd to the Inbetweeners, great swathes of what the British find funny has been bums and humiliation. Often humiliation because of bums and the things that come out of them.
When Quentin Letts rails against the ‘sex-obsessed’ I can only assume he’s talking about the smutty undergraduates of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue:
“Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.”
“The archivist says he always loves to watch his little dog as he scampers up to Samantha with her couple of crackers held out and pants around her ankles.”
Those who claim bleakness and cynicism in comedy are new and deplorable traits are, quite frankly, jabbering idiots who would be best served by being put the sort of establishment where they restrict access to pointy objects and have special non-swallowable Scrabble tiles. British comedy has never been darker than during its ‘golden age’: Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe And Son, Rising Damp are all utterly pitiless, as is Fawlty Towers.
To sanitise and strip British comedy of its rich (and thoroughly offensive) heritage is to do it a disservice. I don’t blame the columnists of The Daily Mail for preferring to live in a Baden-Powell fantasy world, but we should really stop listening to them as if they were talking about, you know, reality.
Two other pillars of British comedy are silliness and satire, at both of which we excel, and which are often combined. From the Big-End and Little-Enders to On The Hour’s train drivers, on strike because they can see the track narrowing as it reaches the horizon and “with fixed-guage rolling stock, this could derail our trains” satire often tends towards the surreal, making the point that the world is often surreal.
However, as satire ages, and its targets become more distant its silliness is what endures. Now, MontyPython’s Flying Circus is usually described as ‘surreal’, but what made the programme unique wasn’t its nonsense, but it’s gimlet-eyed view of the world.
All jokes have a point. No matter how surreal or slapstick, every joke tells a story, it represents a take on the world. Richard Curtis appears to have forgotten that.
In this spectacularly misjudged video for the 10:10 campaign, he appears to be labouring under the impression that people blowing up is funny in and of itself. Even when the people around react with screams of horror. Even when it’s grownups blowing up children.
Franny Armstrong, a founder of the 10:10 campaign said it was:
“a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python orSouth Park”
Except no one in the known universe has been able to divine what it was intended to satirise.
Is this meant to warn us about the potentially fatal consequences of inactivity on climate change? If so, surely after a couple of people had refused the teacher should have sighed and blown everyone up. If you don’t act we all die. Probably still a rubbish film, but at least one with a point.
The film’s called No Pressure (and I’m guessing that the people blow up because they are de-pressurised?) so it would seem that it is suggesting that there really is pressure, even when people say there isn’t. Except that there’s actually much less pressure around them so they explode. Unless they’re highly-pressurised from the inside. Or something.
No one seems clear what it was trying to say, and if you’re unclear about what a joke is trying to say then it doesn’t work. That’s the thing about public communications. It helps if you have something you want to communicate. Instead, and I say that as someone who generally supports the aims of the 10:10 campaign, of just producing a bullying piece of proto-psychotic wish fulfilment.
Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’ worst film. That’s Love, Actually. If you don’t believe me, pause for one second to consider a film that begins with a mawkish voice-over about 9-11 and ends with an 11-year old child breaking through three levels of airport security, essentially unhindered. Next to that, No Pressure begins to look like a conceptual masterpiece.
The campaign organisers seem to be labouring under the delusion that what people found offensive was the gratuitous gore. Here’s a hint: when adults execute children to the screams of their horrified classmates, those adults are not the good guys. The problem is not that it’s offensive, but that it’s utterly incoherent.
For those who are unshocked by massive child-violence, however, there’s always rape. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran this piece which bemoaned that making jokes about rape is becoming more acceptable.
I’m so politically correct it hurts. Literally. At the first whiff of a historical imbalance in power relations I come out in hives. I get gastric cramps when I read the word ‘niggardly’. However, not only should comedians have the right to make rape jokes, but they should be encouraged to.
[In retrospect, this is the part where my views of 18 months ago diverge most from the views I hold today. Although I still believe that the problem with the subject is that those we most need to hear saying things about rape are those who choose not to go near the subject now, I’ll quite happily have stern words with my younger self about a culture of sexual violence, triggering, and a world where child-size “When I Grow Up I Want 2 B A Kardashian” T-shirts are a thing. I wouldn’t write these paragraphs like this now.]
Sexual violence is, unfortunately, part of the world we live in, and, as such, is one of the things we have to deal with as humans. One of the ways humans deal with things is by making jokes about them.
The implication of the article’s sub-heading “What makes comedians think rape is something to laugh about?” is that there are subjects which are off-limits to comedy. You could as easily ask; what makes comedians think mass murder / genocide / paedophilia is something to laugh about. Maybe we shouldn’t touch these issues, but without them we wouldn’t have Gillray’s cartoons about the Terror in France, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, or the Brasseye Special. If we decide that some topics are taboo, the question then becomes who gets to decide what is and isn’t an acceptable subject for comedy.
Not all rape jokes are equal. Every joke takes a position, and not all positions are equally pleasant or unpleasant. There is an obvious difference between a joke or routine that honestly explores a comic’s personal reaction to a difficult subject, and one that trivialises sexual violence.
It’s certainly not unfair to judge a comic by their jokes. If their jokes revel in misogyny and use rape as a means of getting cheap laughs, then that tells you a lot about them. The greater a variety of comedians who feel able to give their personal take on rape and its part in our society, the better. As long as the only people who feel comfortable doing material about rape are those who couldn’t care less about it, the worse for everyone.
The problem is not that too many comics are telling jokes about rape, but that too few are, and many of those who do are doing it simply to shock. We need to have a culture in which comedians of all stripes feel free to discuss any subject that is important to them. More rape gags, please, and from more people.
As a comedian you are responsible for what you say. Like it or not, your jokes are yours. Until Keith Chegwin hears them…
But then I would say that. As a character comic, none of my jokes are mine. I get to espouse the most horrific opinions, tell the foulest, most shocking jokes, and blame them on the character I’m playing. And I do.
One of my characters is a racist, sexist, bigoted freak, and the act consists of watching him slowly have a nervous breakdown, and revealing the reasons for his being such a miserable human being. However, some of the laughs during that act do come simply from the shock value of hearing someone say terrible, terrible things. I did the act once at a rural club, where one of the patrons nodded throughout the whole thing, nodded and pointed and muttered: “Yes. Yes. He knows. That’s right.” I later discovered that the pub the night was being held in was where the local chapter of the BNP hold their meetings.
Even a routine in which a horrible person is shown for the hollow, diseased shell they are will be taken by some people as a positive affirmation of their awful views on minorities, women, and the current underuse of the word ‘poppycock’. Standing on a stage wielding a microphone is a powerful thing.
In the end I decided that, as it had only happened once, and that, for anyone with even a sliver of functioning brain, the point of the act was to discredit those opinions rather than give voice to them, I should continue doing that bit. Although I have to accept that in so doing I am also giving voice to them, and a tiny, stupid minority will take comfort from the very thing I designed to discomfit them.
If one really wishes to find comedy that was ‘cruel and witless’ one doesn’t have to look far beyond Quetin Letts’ ‘golden age’ of comedy. (Incidentally, in his staggeringly ill-informed article, Mr Letts bemoans the fact that we have no Pixar, no animation company capable of making touching films which garner international success. We’ll assume he’s never heard of Aardman.)
The casual, grinning racism of a lot of the acts on ‘The Comedians’ in the 1970s reminds us that not all comedy of the ‘golden age’ was gentle silliness with a good heart. It appears, instead, that any joke of any viciousness was acceptable as long as it was aimed at the Irish, blacks, mothers-in-law, Pakis, immigrants, married women, unmarried women, and gays. Those who seem so horrified by today’s comedy seem to have chortled happily through the ethnic mugging of The Two Ronnies.
Comedy has always been cruel and witless. It’s just that we only really notice when it stops being cruel and witless about the people we don’t care if it’s cruel and witless about. We only feel the need to write opinion columns about how cruel and witless it is when it’s cruel and witless about people like us. Or, in Prince Charles’ case, people very specifically like us. You know, us.
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…
(With apologies to Michael Legge, from whom I have stolen – sort of – the title of this post)
Let’s get one thing straight from the off. You can’t be attacked with a custard pie. You can be splatted with a custard pie. You can be splurged with a custard pie. You can be spooged with a custard pie. You can be humiliated with a custard pie, but it’s not an offensive weapon. It didn’t even have any pastry.
Twitter was outraged yesterday. We heard how News International paid the legal fees of someone who had been convicted of criminal offences. We heard that Rupert Murdoch sometimes ‘wishes Prime Ministers would leave him alone’. We heard that a senior police officer did not think that there was any conflict of interest in appointing someone to investigate one of their friends. We heard Rebekah Brooks give evidence that suggested that previous evidence she had given to parliament was not the truth. We learned that Number Ten had declined invitations to be briefed about phone hacking. Yes, all of Twitter was in a high and righteous dudgeon.
With the pie-throwing guy.
It may not have been all of Twitter, but the middle-aged comedy writer-performers whom I tend to follow were almost universally outraged by the pie-throwing guy. Really furious. Most of them frothing over the fact that this would ‘obscure’ the real news, and knock the substantive issues off the front pages, because otherwise all News International papers would have been forced to just run “We Are Evil!” as headlines tomorrow morning.
A couple of lone voices stuck up for its being funny, but they were quickly silenced with accusations of ‘defending the assault of an 80 year old man’. I didn’t find the pie stunt funny, but challenge any thinking human to read the BBC’s description of the object that was thrust at Rupert Murdoch: “what appeared to be a paper plate with shaving foam on it, in the form of a custard pie” and not find that a little funny.
I think what Johnnie Marbles did was silly. It was a distraction. It was naive and stupid to think that it wouldn’t be spun by the Murdoch press. I would have assumed that it was self-promotional if the only two videos he’s got online weren’t so poor. People trying to promote themselves usually have something to promote.
But, had he hit him, that might have been funny. People getting hit in the face with custard pies is funny. Watch the end of The Great Race if you don’t believe me:
See? Funny. It’s an accepted funny thing, hitting someone in the face with a custard pie. Yes, it’s childish, and in this case, ill-conceived and inappropriate, but, depending on the way the foam had fallen off the face of the world’s most evil man, it could certainly have been funny. Instead of weird and awkward and looking like you were trying to duff up an octogenarian. Which is what happens when you miss.
So, I think the contempt of the great and good was utterly misplaced. It didn’t take long for some of the great writers of political comedy in the country to start referring to pie-guy as a ‘comedian’. With quotation marks. Which is pretty dismissive, because whether you think he’s funny or not, he’s certainly a comedian. Not necessarily a good comedian or one I will be hunting down tickets to go and see, but he is a comedian.
You can tell, because he’s here, doing comedy:
Not ‘comedy’. but comedy. Standing up and telling his jokes. His own jokes that people aren’t laughing at very much, but he’s standing up and telling them because he thinks they are important or funny and that’s what comedians do. And sometimes they are wrong, but that doesn’t make them not comedians, it just makes them not-good comedians. (Full disclosure: many people consider me to be a not-good comedian)
Shortly, these comedy stalwarts were retweeting untrue stories about how Johnnie Marbles’ girlfriend was dumping him on Twitter. They were so busy making jokes about the ‘childish’ Johnnie Marbles that the rest of the day seemed to pass them by.
I think that their howl of frustration was misplaced. I think it was the frustration we were all feeling at seeing the committee paw at the Murdochs like an old, toothless dog, so conditioned by years of rolling over that they could do no real damage. After a forensic start by Tom Watson, very few of the rest of the committee seemed to have a point to what they were asking, they didn’t seem to be trying to establish anything specific, but wanted to be heard fulminating against hacking on the news.
I was particularly incensed because my comment that about the chairman of the other committee was completely overlooked by Twitter. No retweets at all. I had said that he was being so respectful to the police that he was coming of as a complete penis: a Vaz Deferens. I *know*.
We had all started off having such fun with ‘hacking cough’ gags and saying how much an old man looked like a goblin, or Dobby, or Mr Burns, or Golem, or a diseased scrotum in glasses, and commenting on the fact that his wife was much younger than him, but it seemed to be doing no good. No matter how much we tweeted, they were getting away! And so, when the pie was thrown, there was a huge backlog of frustration that spilled over onto Mr Marbles.
If you want to be angry with someone, be angry with committee chairman John Whittingdale. John is one of Rebekah Brooks’ Facebook friends – he says that they aren’t friends friends, but without the greater granularity of Google+ circles I suppose we’ll never know. When, at the end of the session, Tom Watson was pressing James Murdoch on releasing those with whom settlements had been reached from the confidentiality clauses in their settlements – fairly important if we want to find out what actually happened – the line of questioning was shut down by Mr Whittingdale. He claimed that the committee had been through that issue at length. Actually, they were still waiting for a first answer from James Murdoch.
Be furious with the MP who spent the entirety of their questions trying to ascertain which door in Downing Street Rupert Murdoch used when he went to visit the Prime Minister.
Fulminate against Louise Mensch’s absurd grandstanding, in which she made populist speeches that, in trying to broaden the issue, managed to leave the witnesses with nothing substantive to answer. When you have the Murdochs in front of you, try not to spend most of your time talking about newspapers they do not own and cannot really comment on. It was obviously designed to play well on television and appear forceful, but elicited nothing from those in front of her.
Rage against the committee who let Rebekah Brooks claim that there had been a seachange in the way Fleet Street did business after the publication of What Price Privacy without reminding her that this was exactly what she said had already happened when giving evidence eight years ago. It’s Section 4.8 of a pretty short report, not that you would have thought any of the Committee had read it. Back then she claimed that the formation of the PCC had led Fleet Street to fundamentally change the way it did business. Some might suspect that Fleet Street has not fundamentally changed the way it does business.
The truth was obscured yesterday. Our best chance of getting something serious on the Murdochs did slip away. We were let down yesterday. But not by Johnnie Marbles. By the people sitting in a horseshoe opposite him.
First, read this…
Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.
Now watch this:
You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.
Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.
Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.
When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.
But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.
I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.
No one wants to steal your scripts.
No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).
Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.
Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”
However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.
Your ideas are not all that important.
Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.
You need a writer to write a film.
The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”
Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.
It’s all in the execution.
And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.
Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).
In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…