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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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.