This brief article in The Guardian today about Popular Orange Vegetables* (or tortuous synonyms used to avoid textual repetition) got me thinking about how POVs have been one of the central planks of sketch writing since at least the Pythons. The echoes of the Cheese Shop sketch and that one about some sort of lifeless bird can still be heard in a lot of sketches today. In fact, it’s a use of language probably limited entirely to journalists and humourists (groups that have little or no cross-over, as the existence of Sam Wollaston proves). What are we to do though? We’re writing a sketch about a carrot shop, if we keep saying carrot it’s going to be boring.
For sketch writing, particularly in radio, the use of POVs and elaborate language (and ostentatious intellectual reference or any other Pythonic residue) can lend our work a musty air; like the shop bell as Mr Normal walks into Crazy Man’s Carrot Shop, it’s something that only happens because that’s the way sketches have been written since time immemorial. I know a lot of people who hate radio sketch comedy for just that reason – it can be an unrecognisable, stilted world.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that trying to create dialogue that mirrors the way that people ‘really speak’ is any less of a contrivance. Have a look at some Hollyoaks or the staged to-and-from of The Only Way Is Essex – that’s dialogue as stripped of baroque decoration as possible but it’s still contrived, boring and unrealistic.
Essentially I am saying horses for courses. Not a very original stand-point but comedy writing often hinges on an Occam’s Razor approach. A character can speak in any way you decide but one of your jobs is to spot where that language becomes flabby, rambling and tedious. Dialogue doesn’t have to be naturalistic, but it has to be believable. It has to be efficient, but it mustn’t be on-the-nose. It should have a distinctive voice, but the characters mustn’t all sound the same. Sometimes saying carrot is funnier, sometimes you’ll want a popular orange vegetable.
I’ve been doing a bit of script editing on some Radio 4 shows recently (The Headset Set and Lucy Montgomery’s Variety Pack) and will hopefully be putting up some dispatches from the front line (with thoughts on brevity and punching up) in the near future.
*Gary Bainbridge on Twitter (@Gary_Bainbridge) has pointed out that the original quote was from The Liverpool Echo and referred to peas as ‘popular round vegetables’ – which is funnier.