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It’s a sad fact that despite having written sketches, plays, online series, and actual half-hour sitcoms that were broadcast on the television and everything, the thing which has most excited my parents was getting credited on The News Quiz. There is no prouder moment for a middle-class parent than when their child is writing additional material for Sandi Toksvig. Providing them with grandchildren pales into insignificance when your name is read out in the 6:30 slot on Radio 4.

And when I say ‘my parents’, I mean ‘me’. It was great fun: a furious whirl of reading papers, trying to squash the news into something vaguely amusing, and saying “Can anyone think of anything that rhymes with Andrew Lansley?”

It was exhausting and pressurised, having to produce joke after joke about occasionally abstruse economic stories, but it was also exhilarating. It was a real thrill to sit in the BBC Radio Theatre and listen to the show be recorded, hearing the instant reactions of the audience to the jokes that made it into the script. And to get to be in a Green Room with Jeremy Hardy.

Topical comedy is difficult and draining because yesterday’s brilliant joke is, today, a reference nobody understands. The fact that it dates so quickly means that there’s a huge appetite for new material, which also tends to mean that there are opportunities for newer writers, some of which I’ll list here.

Topical comedy was my way into writing comedy, it allowed me to develop my skills, hone characters, learn a lot about how to craft a joke, and get paid (a little bit) whilst doing it. If you write a good topical joke or sketch there are lots of places you could try to sell it, and you’ve a better chance as a newcomer than in almost any other field.

Stage Shows – Both The Treason Show and News Revue have open submissions policies and pay for anything they use. They won’t pay a lot and it will take a while for the money to arrive, but if it is funny and you send it to them, they are very likely to use it. Then: congratulations, you’re a professional comedy writer!

The Treason Show also holds meetings for its writers where (if you are Brighton-based) the director will tell you what they are looking for. It is well-worth going along to one or the other show to see what sorts of things work and don’t work, if you can make it.

These two shows provide a great apprenticeship in topical comedy. The first sketch I was ever paid for I sold to News Revue, and if one of the two shows doesn’t like your sketch you can always send it to the other. If the worst comes to the worst you can do what I did and become a writer-performer, get cast in the shows, and then refuse to go on unless they use your work*. This is blackmail. It is also very effective if you do it once the audience are seated.

Youtube – If you’ve written a sketch or a topical song that isn’t suitable for the other shows, or that you want to perform yourself, Youtube is a great way of doing it. Nowadays, if there is a certain amount of interest in your video (I’ve found that about 1,000 views over a couple of days seems to be the trigger), Youtube invites you to join its affiliate programme. You can then stick an annoying advert over the top of your sketch in return for money. Again, the financial rewards are fairly minimal, but it is at least a way of making something from your writing. Here’s what a video looks like when it has been whored out:

However, if your video contains any profanity, then they will not approve you for the affiliate programme. Instead you will be hunted down by a pack of slavering obscenity-hounds and have your remains fed to the crows. As happened with this video, which I forgot I had sworn in the middle of.

RadioNewsjack has open submissions, and you should be sending them stuff. A series is running right now. Go away. Write a good joke, work out which of their segments it could be useful for and send it in now. Better still, write lots of good jokes and send those in.

Recorded For Training Purposes also has an open submission policy (or has had in the past), so keep an eye open on Writers’ Room for when that opens to submissions. Submitting to these shows is an excellent way to get your work in front of the eyes of joke-hungry producers. Following Jason Arnopp would be a good way to learn more about RFTP.

Comedians – If you are good at writing jokes, topical or not, you may well find that there are comedians who are willing to buy them from you. Keep an eye on the forums on Chortle, or advertise yourself there.

Online – BBC Comedy Online currently produce topical sketches, although their turnaround times for submissions tend to mean that if your jokes are bleeding-edge in their topicality this might not be the way to go. However, you can always make it yourself, and then see if they want to buy it. Other sites have, unfortunately stopped commissioning, and, with the demise of Comedybox and Funny Or Die UK, you may be better off making things yourself and putting them on Youtube for a while.

TV – There aren’t really many ‘open opportunities’ here, as such, but there will be occasional sweeps for ‘new talent’, and I got my first proper TV work (not that my appearances in Smile as The Queen weren’t proper, but you know…) from doing topical jokes.

If writing gags for TV floats your boat, why not follow Aiden Spackman, who is something of a god at that sort of thing…

Twitter – Twitter is a great place to practise gag-writing. 140 characters is a little limiting, but it encourages brevity and can give you an instant barometer of how funny people found something with the ‘Your Tweets, Retweeted’ tab. Note: clicking this can also be a tremendously dispiriting experience.

So, whilst topical comedy is hugely ephemeral and can require an enormous amount of thought and concentration for something that won’t be funny in a week’s time, it is still an area in which new writers can get their work performed, and can even make a little money out of. It’s tough, brain-scrunching work, but there are real rewards in terms of credits for getting it right. And a crushing sense of defeat and humiliation for getting it wrong.

Go forth and satirise…

* There are slightly different opportunities for writer-performers, and I’ll do a separate post on those next week.

This article was originally published on the Spectator Arts Blog on September 10th.

I am rubbish at interviews.

During an interview with BBC Kent last week, I was in the middle of telling a joke for which the punchline was “A penchant for ethnic cleansing, incest, and the films of Matthew McConaughey” when I realised that most of those things were inappropriate for an early afternoon on the nation’s broadcaster of record. Especially Matthew McConaughey.

Did I calmly think of a new punchline? Did I deftly redirect the questioning to a happier place? Did I turn it into a musical number?

No. I stopped half-way through the punchline (just after “ethnic”) and then just listed random nouns for a few seconds, while my brain pedalled thin air like Wile E. Coyote. Needless to say I plummeted into a stony chasm of radio silence while the presenter gamely tried to work out if what I had said was even in English.

I am rubbish at interviews.

One staple question of the interview with comedians is: “Are men funnier than women?” Or, worse: “Why are men funnier than women?” Or, in the passive-aggressive formulation I was asked last week: “I don’t find women comedians as funny as men. Why do you think that is?”

The answer, of course, is: Because you’re a horrible sexist.

It’s really that simple. Obviously, it wasn’t the answer I gave. The answer I gave was nuanced, talked about implicit power relationships with people who are on stage, and a hyper-aggressive culture in some aspects of the comedy world. It was also not the whole truth. The whole truth is that telling journalists that they are horrible sexists doesn’t win you any favours. I am not a horrible sexist. I am a horrible coward.

This is a subject that pops its outdated head above the parapet with dreary regularity. Even Christopher Hitchens has stooped to write about how much funnier men are than women, littering the article with sodden, sub-Richard Curtis analogies in what we can only assume is an exercise in disproving the argument of a piece of prose using the evidence of the prose itself. Give him a participle long enough and Hitch will hang himself…

On its return from Edinburgh, Chortle, the comedy website, did a breakdown of its reviews over the course of the Festival. This analysed the star ratings given by Chortle reviewers, and led to the startling finding that, on average, the reviews of men’s solo shows garnered 0.23 more stars than the solo shows of women. They also broke down the number of stars by venue and reviewer, and published these moderately interesting figures under the headline “Men ‘are funnier than women’”

In 2010, the difference was 0.23 stars. Yes, ‘stars’ is a scientifically valid term. Each star is composed of 64% applause duration, 12% applause volume, 8% performer sexiness & 16% booze with a +/- 5% guffaw modifier. That’s 0.23 stars out of a possible 5. So men are about 4.5% funnier than women.

Some women – flighty, overwrought balls of screeching hormones that they are – and some men – probably the sort with overbearing mothers – objected to the headline and the fact that the article purported to represent, you know, actual research. Katy Brand wrote a particularly good dissection of it. There have been other insightful responses from Liam Mullone, Will Andrews, and Charlotte Browne.

The most depressing thing is that despite all evidence to the contrary, this is a meme that – like Rasputin – just will not die. Joan Rivers fed it cyanide-laced rice cakes: it popped back up rubbing its filthy stomach and asking for more. Victoria Wood shot it through the heart, but it leaped up behind her to whisper in her ear: “You bad girl.” French and Saunders shot it again. Roseanne Barr clubbed it around the head, Lily Tomlin kicked its face off and threw it into the Neva river. Again and again it gets up.

The ‘argument’ is often clothed in evolutionary psychological terms (Hitchens’ article is particularly dire on this count). Cavemen had to be funny to attract a mate. Women’s concerns (being domestic, don’t you know?) are less impressive to men than men’s are to women because they are not meat-providers. The function of humour is to make mammoths fall over and literally split their sides, neatly arranging their tasty innards as they do.

This, of course, is all arrant horse manure dressed in papier-mache bollocks. As a joke, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran wrote a paper called “Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?” in 1997 to show how you could use the vague, unprovable nonsense that makes up a lot of evolutionary psychology to justify any prejudice you want. To his horror it was accepted for publication in reputable journals, and some people, to this day, refuse to believe that the paper is anything but the truth.

But why do some people prefer male comics? Apart from its having been made acceptable by constantly being recycled in the media, why do people not feel more ashamed about saying that they don’t find half of the population of the world funny? Why would they cut themselves off from a whole swathe of great comedy?

My suspicion is that there is a power relationship at play when you are on stage. It is palpable. If a performer is not in control of the stage then it makes the whole audience uncomfortable. When I’m telling jokes, I’m deciding what your response will be. You are laughing when I prompt you to. You are ceding a certain amount of control over the situation to me because I’m on the stage, and I have the microphone. And if you have a problem with the idea that someone like me should, even briefly, be in control over you, then you won’t laugh on princple, whether you’re a sexist, a racist, or just someone who hates me. (There are apparently loads of you)

Dress it up how you want: if you think that women are not as funny as men, and you nod to yourself sagely whenever any ‘research’ appears to confirm your prejudices, you are a sexist. By definition. You’re making value judgments about someone’s abilities based on their sex. You’re a sexist. Suck it up. Own it. You horrible sexist.

And couching it in your experience isn’t good enough. Just because you can more easily think of male comedians you like, does not make it reasonable to assume that men are funnier than women. If you like Harry Hill, Dara O’Briain and Al Murray, would you really opine loudly that bald people are funnier than the hairy? Middle-aged people more hilarious than the old or young? White people just more laughtastic than all the other races?

My daughter is funnier than my son. This may be because he is only yet capable of sitting in his own faeces and falling over backwards*, but, on the empirical evidence offered by my children, women are much funnier than men.

There are women doing incredible comedy, excellent comedy, comedy you should drop everything and go to see now. Without thinking very hard, there’s Susan Calman, Sara Pascoe, Grainne Maguire, Holly Burn, Rachel Stubbings, Ruth Bratt, Josie Long, Nat Luurtsema, Sarah Hendrickx, Sarah Campbell, Pippa Evans, Alice Lowe, Lizzie Roper, Helen Keen. And loads more. You owe it to yourself to go and track down some really exciting comedy.

Could I have given an equally long list of excellent male comedians? Yes. Am I going to? No. Why not? Because I’m a horrible, horrible sexist…

(*Actually, that’s an exaggeration for effect. He can actually toddle around in his own faeces and fall over in any cardinal direction, when oriented along a North-South axis.)

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