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?

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THE DICK RULE

This is a blog post about the business of being a writer. It contains no tips on formatting, or structure, or character development. It actually contains only one piece of advice and it is this:

Don’t be a dick.

There comes a time in every writer’s career where they move from sitting in a room on their own eating crisps, to sitting in a room with other people (crisps optional). Even J D Salinger had to come in for the odd meeting – and with J D they really were odd meetings. Aha ha ha. No? You didn’t like that? It was funny. No, it was. Look, let me explain it. J D Salinger, right, was this famous reclusive. So, right, he comes in for a meeting and it’s odd. But it’s also odd, as in occasional. Because he was a recluse. You know what? Fuck this. I’m giving you gold here and… Fine, fine, I get it. Dumbass.

And… scene.

That’s how NOT to handle your joke bombing in a writers’ room. Move on, pitch a different joke, if the first one died really badly maybe make a joke about that but what you must never do is take it personally. No screaming, shouting, crying or sulking. In fact, all writers’ room rules (which include turn up on time, respect your colleagues, buy your fair share of coffee and don’t smell of BO and/or semen) all boil down to…

Don’t be a dick.

A group of comedy writers throwing jokes around can be the most fun you can have with your clothes on (and in most writers’ room you really do want everyone to keep their clothes on) but if someone makes a scene it’s the worst place to be in the world. Yes, facetious internet comment, worse than Darfur. You’re a comedy writer; you’re allowed to be weird, socially awkward, nerdy, creepy, sneezy, bashful and Gimli but  what you must be, above all,  is nice to work with. Being good at your job will get you in the room but it won’t necessarily keep you there. No one is enough of a genius to get away with being a massive dick.

So don’t be a dick.

The Dick Rule is even more important when dealing with non-writers – those sometimes-wonderful, sometimes-infuriating people who stand between you and the finished product. Producers, actors, editors, directors, location managers, camera assistants, script supervisors, receptionists, security guards, drivers – don’t be a dick to any of these people. If any of them are dicks to you, rise above it. Start a ‘Dick List’, put their name on it and try to avoid working with them again. You may also want to think of a better name than ‘Dick List’, particularly if your Mum’s likely to come across it while cleaning your room.

Before you get on set or into the studio there are, of course, lots of hoops to jump through and each one is a chance to practice not being a dick. A script editor might give you notes you disagree with – don’t be a dick about it. Take them on board, think about them, be honest, take what’s useful and be ready to defend (without being a dick) your decisions. A producer might suggest Jack Whitehall to play the part of Josef the Holocaust survivor – don’t be a dick. It’s their job to sell your project to their superiors, they don’t know the script as well as you, they don’t / can’t care about it as much. Tell them why you think they’re wrong but while you’re doing it…

Don’t be a dick.

Trust me, I’ve been a dick on occasion and it did me no good. There was a sitcom project that became mired in the sort of mire that always mires sitcoms. Several changes of personnel took place and I found myself in a situation where I was unable to work with our executive producer. Did I take my own advice, did I rise above it? No. I sulked and tutted every time he spoke and gave him the old crazy eyes. In short, I was a dick. Eventually I had to walk away from the whole project, just to save my sanity and my writing partner’s career.

When I was in Lab Rats, a short-lived BBC 2 sitcom, it was a dream come true. For various reasons the rehearsal and filming process was stressful and a little disorganised and I reacted badly – I seized up, I stopped listening, I became snappy. I thought at the time that my short temper was a valid response. It wasn’t. All it was doing was masking my fear and panic – I wasn’t being the type of actor or co-worker I would want on my own project. Here was a delicate, wonderful thing and in my desperation to hold on to it, I crushed it.

The best reason not to be a dick is that being a dick is easy. Writers and comedians live a toddler’s existence, paid to play and doodle – no wonder a tantrum comes so easily to us. It’s much harder to be calm and controlled and friendly, even when our guts are churning because some dick hasn’t read your script even though it’s been on his fucking desk for six months. Instead of a toddler we should be the toddler’s natural enemy – the swan. Regal above water, never letting on that deep down our big ugly legs are flailing.

Yours truly,

A Dick (Recovering)

PS. Leaving mean comments after a blog post is the ultimate in dick moves.

POV

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.