Clausewitz on Comedy

There was a fashion in the closing decades of the last century for books aimed at businessmen based on the great military strategists of the past. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for HR managers, that sort of thing.

Well, as Picasso I famously said, ‘Good borrow, great artists steal’. Here’s a guide to writing comedy based on maxims from Carl von Clausewitz‘s seminal post-Napoleonic military tactical discourse, On War. The internet is full of people giving #writingadvice while they should be #amwriting, so why shouldn’t a Prussian major-general get to stick his oar in. After all, he’s written as many sitcoms as Robert McKee and Syd Field combined. None.

So, does Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), who served at Borodino and Waterloo, know anything about today’s comedy industry? Check out this inspirational-meme-style quote.

CvC b

So he’s clearly been involved in developing a sitcom. He also has something to say about planning your sitcom.

CvC d

What about taking notes? The Prussian who never saved a cat but probably shot a few Frenchmen presents us with this excellent maxim.

CvC g

Notes are a stage in the collaboration not the passing of Old Testament judgement. Engage with them. However, it’s important not to be a dick about it.

CvC e

 

For it’s also important to remember that, like thousands of men exchanging musket fire at 50 paces, this business can be rough.

CvC f

Before you can get to the notes, of course, there’s the writing to get though.

CvC a

 

Don’t play safe.

CvC i

Obviously, for ‘war’ read ‘sitcom writing’ throughout. The thinking-Junker’s William Goldman also has wise words about brevity in scripting that doubles as sage advice to the self-employed to get their finger out and stop mucking about with dead Germans.

CvC h

 

Though his magnum opus went unfinished at his time of death and he was never asked to do a blogpost for BBC Writersroom, Carl von Clausewitz knew how important it was to write regularly and freely.

CvC k

Forget Aristotle, Clausewitz is the patron saint of writing theorists. He even had time and foresight to address Dapper Laughs.

CvC c

Remember though, when reading all these writing advice things (including this one), a final quote from Carl von Clausewitz:

CvCj

So can I have my book deal now?

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IN OTHER NEWS…

If you’re the type who keeps up with these things, you may have heard that Newsjack, Radio 4 Extra’s premier open-door topical sketch show (formerly BBC 7’s premier open-door topical sketch show) is returning in a few weeks. I’m no longer involved but I have been thinking about my time as Newsjack script editor recently and, more specifically, my unwritten hit list. This was an ever evolving checklist of jokes and joke structures that I thought were too trad, hack or rubbish. If I came across them in the slush pile of submissions they’d automatically get a line through them.

You might be thinking ‘Too trad, hack or rubbish for Newsjack? Wow. What are these monsters?”, so I’m going to share one of them with you in an attempt to stamp it out forever.

Please, please, please can we read the last rites to the ‘And in other news, bears shit in the woods / Pope’s a Catholic’ trope?

You’ll be familiar with the basic structure, it goes something like this:

‘In a statement released today, glamour model Jordan has admitted having plastic surgery. In other news, bears admit to shitting in the woods’

Sometimes it’s the Scientist Variant, along the lines of:

‘After six years of research, scientists have released findings that prove chocolate and alcohol make you happy. Meanwhile, bear scientists say they are close to discovering who shits in all those woods’

You’d be amazed how often that cropped up amongst the Newsjack submissions. Or maybe you wouldn’t – perhaps you have a lower opinion of mankind than I do or perhaps you actually like that joke. Well, I hate it. It’s an annoying Joke-like Substance, the absence of wit masquerading as wit, it’s hooking a cadaver up to a car battery so that its lifeless features spasm into a rictus grin. At best it’s a socially lubricant noise that people might use if they’re having a post-work banter. It is not comedy writing that I would be willing to pay for. You might as well scrawl ‘Sumfin bowt da newz’ on a napkin for all the comedic insight you’re bringing to the table.

There is a place for Catholic Popes and shitting bears. In the mouth of a character, in a sitcom say, it’s perfectly acceptable for what it tells us about that character. The repeated ‘That’s what she said’ from The Office is a perfect example – it’s funny because of what it says about Michael Scott.  If you’re suggesting though that the Pope / Catholic / Bear / Woods thing is funny in and of itself then you need to give yourself a slap and try harder. Or maybe try advertising copywriting – they always need more people to churn out banal, unfunny ‘comedy’ dialogue.

Is this trope one of the laziest fallbacks for topical gag writing?

Are bears responsible for covering up years of systematic child abuse?