"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

No Fun

A small, possibly erroneous, observation about comedy writing...

Quick story. A couple of months ago I submitted some bits and pieces for the ‘open submission’ satirical comedy Newsjack (on Radio 7). Each week, I did more than necessary and had them scrutinized by a writer friend who told me what worked, what didn’t and how to snazz up those that nearly worked... I then submitted the best. In total, over the 6 weeks, I submitted 15 sketches and 25 one-liners... and not a single solitary one made the grade! This was disappointing. I’d rather like to get on the score-board and radio is a ‘good thing’*. Personally, I prefer Radio 3 but they do very little sketch-based comedy... doesn’t work well between Stockhausen’s greatest hits and Mongolian nose-flute orchestras.

Anyway, this dismal failure got me thinking the simple question- why? Why?!?!?As in ‘why have I failed in such a pusillanimous way?’. I listened to the show each week; I have, contrary to popular rumour, a sense of humour, how could I fail? I think I have an answer- may be wrong, may be right- I think it has a ring of truth.

I listened to the show each week and, while I smirked, I didn’t find it laugh-out loud funny; certainly not as much as the studio audience. However, this is NOT the sour grapes thing of ‘they didn’t pick me therefore they and/or the programme are wrong’. I believe this is a case of I did not find it especially funny therefore I couldn’t write adequately in the idiom required. I love satire- Bremner, Bird & Fortune, Yes Minister, Brass-eye, The Day Today, etc. but Newsjack’s satire was not the type of satire to which I’m acclimatized.

There are two genres (technically three**) which are far more subjective than others presumably because they operate on a very deep primal level: comedy and horror. I find the Marx Brothers funny but can’t stand Laurel & Hardy or Chaplin (mawkish sentimental bilge); I find Mitchell & Webb, Blackadder, Black Books, The IT Crowd and Spaced hilarious while I find Little Britain, Russell Brand and The Catherine Tate Show about as funny as the average knee-capping. I love Blazing Saddles but the farting cowboy scene is the only bit I skip to the end; I know others with the complete opposite view. Could Eddie Braben write successfully for Lucas & Walliams? Could Chris Morris write successfully for Morecambe & Wise? And the same surely follows for horror: some find the supernatural terrifying and are bored by slashers; others think knife-wielding psychos scary while ghost stories leave them cold.

And so to the quite simple conclusion: if you don’t find the show funny, you probably won’t be able to do funny for the show; if you don’t find the monster scary, you probably won’t be able to do the monster scarily. It’s not the fault of the show or the poor beleaguered monster... it’s just that you’re not hard-wired that way. Find your ‘funny’ or ‘scary’ and do that instead.

Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it... it’s either that or I really am just a miserable old git.

*As they put it in 1066 and All That.
**The third would be Porn... the person who loves the plastic-clad dom' may not find the idea of 'plushies' too enticing... or the flying helmet and the wet celery...


Piers said...

I'd estimate I wrote and sent off maybe forty or fifty sketches before I sold the first one.

A hit rate of one in ten to one in five would be a professional rate.

It's a numbers game.

Jon Peacey said...

Interesting stats. Good to know that sort of thing!

However, would you not agree that if your sense of humour is at significant variance with the show you're trying to write for, the chance of writing something they would use is significantly diminished? And this will adversely affect the hit rate. (Imagine Mark Steel trying to write for Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning... or vice versa!)

Piers said...

Also true.