Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Beast We Dare Not Speak Of - The Comedy Writer.... gasp!

This week some mythbusting in the land of stand up comedy. 

A lot has been said about writers in comedy but not much of it by comedians who’ve actually, you know, worked with comedy writers. People take this whole topic terribly seriously, as though some, strict, unspoken law has been breached. I’m bemused by the contrived scandal that surrounds this topic but perhaps because of the lateral step I’ve taken away from comedy (just for a bit), I don’t see talking about it as that big a deal.

The perception of the dynamic between comedy writer and comedian seems to be one where the evil slave master comedian cages his anonymous chattel in a room with nothing but a legal pad and a can of coke forcing them, under threat of a damn good thrashing, to produce killer material which they’ll then go out and peddle as their own.

I got a tweet once helpfully telling me that I’d been “accused” of using comedy writers. It was hilarious. To me, that’s like being accused of owning a flat or watching X Factor (although that is borderline criminal). It’s not something you can be accused of because it isn’t a crime!

Many comedians have used, are using and will continue to work with comedy writers but because people get their knickers in a twist about this subject, they probably won’t want to talk about it. Personally, I don’t feel it’s something I need to hide.  

Grab a cuppa and let me tell you what it really means, to me, to work with writers. First, a little about writing comedy in general.

I’m not one of those comics who can sit down at the computer at the same time every day and write jokes. My approach is to wait for inspiration to strike and then write it down. Luckily, inspiration is everywhere - a weird commercial, a stored away memory, a crazy online story, an odd interaction. For this reason, I make sure I always have a notebook with me.

Sometimes, the joke arrives fully formed. At others, it needs to be pulled about before it will work and sometimes, it is sheer and unadulterated crap. In fact, a lot of the time, the jokes that occur aren't quite there but I write them down nonetheless because it may be, with some reworking, they could come together.

However, no matter how the joke comes out and whether you like it, your mates like it or it just is, in accordance with comedy law,  an awesome gag, you’ll only really know if it’s got legs once it’s been aired in front of an audience as they’re the true final arbiters. This trying out of material is as much a part of the process as the actual writing.

That’s why it’s funny when, after an audience doesn’t respond well to a joke, the comedian says, “you’re wrong”. It’s a deliberately arrogant acknowledgement of this dynamic. Ironically, sometimes, acknowledging a joke is crap gets a bigger laugh than the joke itself.

Some say the best place to write is on stage and certainly, once you’ve got the fledgling gags “into your bones”, you can start to have fun with them by riffing out the idea to see if there’s more fun to be had with it.

For me, jokes need to land in my body before I can do them any justice. It sounds poncy but what I’m really saying is, I need to know them so well that I can afford to forget them, lose my place, go off on a tangent and still have control. It’s tough going on stage with a routine you only half know because a portion of your energy is going into remember what comes next rather than being in the moment with the crowd. Conversely, one of my favourite things is performing material I know really well in front of an audience that are “up for it”. The cocktail of an open and receptive audience and a comedian who’s ‘loose’ and in the moment means that the material can often take on a life of its own, springing tangential riffs in all directions.

So what about these comedy writers I hear you say. I’m getting there. I just wanted to set the context. Writing material is a skill and takes time, something you don’t always have, particularly when it comes to topical TV. This is where the comedy writer becomes worth their weight in Macbooks. So let’s do a bit of mythbusting around the fabled 'comedy writer'.

Who are they?
There are a select few who work full time in this field but many stand up comedians write for other comics too. Some well-known people have done this. It’s a good way to supplement your income and get to know production companies who may be unfamiliar with your work. Some writers are also actors. You’ll have seen them in a variety of sitcoms and comedy shows. 

Working with writers
I can only speak for myself, but this is what it’s like working with a writer. And note I say ‘working with’. It may seem like semantics but that’s exactly what the process is. You don’t have writers fax over a sheet of jokes Bernie Taupin-style. No, we sit in a room, drink tea, riff ideas, read articles, tell each other funny stories and if, by a stroke of luck, any of it sounds like it could stand up to being repeated in front of an audience, then I type it up. Yes, me. Always me.

You have to work with people that a), you get on with and b) you think are funny and that is a rare alchemy. On Tonightly I was partnered with a writer and he just did not like me. It was a painful working relationship which thankfully ended in divorce. When it comes to comedians and comedy writers, rather than a group of impoverished underlings working remotely, picture a group of friends bantering. I wrote for a “big name” comic once. There were six writers in a room, including the “big name”, throwing thoughts around all afternoon. That’s what working with writers really means, sharing ideas and it’s so much easier to create when more minds are involved because it takes the pressure off having to keep generating and allows you to let inspiration do its job.  

Anonymity and Transparency
Some people take umbrage with shows that don’t “admit” they use writers. Well here’s the thing, sometimes, writers aren’t credited on a show because the comedian hired them rather than the production company. And regarding anonymity, while some shows do attribute their writers with some vague, TV-speak title like associate chief magician, a lot of shows credit them (go to IMDB and look). As for being denied the limelight,  many writers are already stand up comics in their own right, some have tried it and not enjoyed it and some simply don’t want the attention that comes with being a performer and prefer working in the engine room. 

Comedy writers, at the least the ones I’ve worked with are well paid and because there are relatively few good ones, they are in a strong position. It’s not my place to discuss specifics but put it like this, their kids won’t be going hungry this Christmas. The only possibly context in which I can imagine a writer not getting paid their going rate is if everyone on staff (including talent) are having to take a pay cut due to budgetary constraints, they’re working on something speculatively or they’re doing a friend a favour.

Sometimes, I’ve hired friends to write with me, usually for TV shows because firstly, I feel more confident if two people have agreed that something is funny i.e me and them. Often there’s not enough time to run the material out in a comedy club which makes the opinion of the person I’m working with, invaluable and secondly I cannot produce the quantity of material required. So simply because of the work load, I need more hands on deck. In these instances, I’m paying them from my own pocket.

A Comedian's Voice
A common criticism of comedians using writers is that their comedic voice becomes inconsistent and that somehow, those in the know can tell. This is, frankly bollocks. The simple fact is, even when I’m writing for myself my writing  can be inconsistent. Sometimes I’ll write a joke and it just doesn’t work in a stand up routine because for example, it’s too punny but it’s perfect for Twitter or Facebook. I would argue that’s it’s near impossible to distinguish material written by a writer and the act themselves because no matter what the source of the jokes, it is always expressed through the filter or performance style and persona of the act in question. This process automatically makes it, their voice.

Some have declared it an injustice that writers don’t get to share in the fortunes some big name acts make from their ‘acquired’ gag however I would argue that the material only acquires this value once the big name comic performs it.

That’s why, rightly or wrongly, writing is not actually the most important element of stand up. Persona and performance are also critical. For example, if someone wrote a song, the value would be different depending on if it were performed by Katy Perry as opposed to Geri Halliwell (no offense).

Stand up is one of my greatest loves but the business side of it is a little disagreeable sometimes. When I write that bite-sized material, it feels like my day job but when I write stand up, that’s my love. That’s why working with writers on my own shows has never really worked. I’m not motivated as there’s no deadline and also, it’s more about a labour of love. I want to discover the thoughts myself and figure out what I want to say rather than what’s bite-size, pithy and topical. Having said that, occasionally, I’ve taken material from writing sessions I’ve had on TV shows where some good material has been generated. If I reckon it’ll work in my stand up, why wouldn’t I give it another airing? I’m not an idiot!

I understand why people get upset about the idea of writers because it undermines the grand conceit of stand up, that these are all spontaneous thoughts I happen to be having right here, with you, right now. 

In my head, however, I’ve made a distinction between what happens on panel shows for example, a format that can clip the wings of a stand up and being with a live audience.  That’s when stand up is at its finest. I prefer my stand ups standing up. That’s what makes it joyful, that two-way exchange between audience and performer, the experience both parties are having that will never occur again. It’s actually quite mystical because, regardless of its source, stand up is what happens in the space between the performer and their audience and that is a magic no one can write. 

Other posts which may be of interest: Fight For Your Writes - about getting started with a writing project, The Cat That Got The Dream Pt1 - About living your dream and Why Artists Will Always Work For Free

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