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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…
In the intro to this, Ian McMillan says: “In ten years’ time we’ll remember this play.”
I’d forgotten about it until I turned up an old CD when clearing out the shed. So, for Natt completists, here it is…
…A decapitated pig’s head.
Sir Ian is back and he’s taking no prisoners. Although he is detaining people at the border in a legal fashion.
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.]
So. I’m just packing for Edinburgh.
But I thought you were going to be there the whole month. Weren’t you in some kind of show?
Well, yes. But that’s another story for another time. A time very distant in the future.
However, if any of you would like to see me while I’m up there, I’ll be one of the regular presenters of Crunch The News!
But what’s Crunch The News?
I’m intensely glad you asked. It’s a daily topical comedy show with all sorts of wonderful guests. Guests like Josie Long, Nick Doody, Joe Wells, Kate Smurthwaite, David Mills, Michael Legge, Hils Barker, all together with real life political people. And it’s hosted by people like me, Danielle Ward and John-Luke Roberts. It’s on at 12:20 at the Voodoo Rooms every day, and it will cost you exactly £0 to get in. It’s going to be amazong.
I’ll also be around and about the place doing various other gigs from the 8th to the 23rd. So, why not pop along (to Edinburgh) and see me. That, too, will be amazong.
Here are some of the gigs you could come and see me at, if you’re feeling so inclined…
8th – Spank! (midnight at The Underbelly)
9th – Crunch The News!
10th – Crunch The News!
11th – Crunch The News!
16th – Crunch The News!
17th – Crunch The News!
18th – Crunch The News!
20th – Jim Smallman’s Group Therapy (13:00 Just The Tonic at The Tron)
22nd – The Super Serious Show! (20:55 Assembly Rooms)
There are more, but I’ll fill those in when I find my diary! See you all in Edinburgh!
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…