Or: notes on being slightly out of my depth.
Last week, I was lucky enough to do a trial writing spot on Radio 4’s The Now Show. This is the first part of a summary of what the process was like, and what I’d do differently next time.1
I was offered a trial writing spot once before, in spring 2016. The fact that it was five whole years ago should give you a good idea of how it went: I only got one joke in the script, which was eventually cut from the final broadcast. (But I still got a writing credit, so hooray?)
I had struggled with the challenge of coming up with material to a deadline, which I now know is pretty much the fundamental skill required to be a professional comedy writer.
I’d been performing stand-up for a while at that point, so I knew how to write jokes — but I was still coming up with them organically, based on random thoughts and observations I had throughout the day. It was only when I working on my second Edinburgh Fringe show in 2019 (and also started tweeting more regularly) that I started to develop that magic comedy muscle that lets you sit down with a blank page and zero inspiration and still come up with something.2
I’m still not as good as I need to be, but I’m definitely improving. So my goal for this week was to do better than last time and get at least one joke into the final broadcast.
Given that my previous preparation strategy failed miserably — that is, doing nothing whatsoever and naively hoping that my raw talent would be enough to carry me through LOL — I thought that, this time, it would be a good idea to try the opposite of that.
So I listened to the first episode in the current series, and wrote out the transcript, to get a sense of what types of jokes and sketches did make it to air.3 In hindsight, it probably would’ve been easier to just email the producer and ask for the script — but I guess listening to it slowly and typing out each sentence myself was useful for internalising the distinct style and rhythm of the show.
I then categorised each joke and sketch into broad types. For example:
And my personal favourite:
I’ve been trying to minimise how much time I spend reading the news, because it tends to make my soul cry. But given that The Now Show is a topical show that literally has the word ‘now’ in the title, I thought it would be a good idea to catch up.
There were a couple of clear topics that emerged over the weekend: Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah (which I also watched), and the proposed 1% pay rise for NHS workers. Plus: on the morning of the first actual writing day, the producer sent round an email with a handy list of news stories — such as schools going back after lockdown and the London mayoral elections.
So I read articles around those topics, and started collecting sentences that might be useful for setups. I also started noting down early ideas, using the joke types above as a guide. For example: I thought it was funny that everyone was trying to guess which royal made those comments about skin colour — so using ‘reframe context’, I thought that it was like a weird game of Cluedo: “I think it was the duchess in the castle over one too many glasses of merlot”. (A modified version of that joke made the script, but wasn’t in the final broadcast.)
One thing I’d do differently next time would be to keep an eye on the news for a few weeks in advance, not just the weekend before. That’s because one of the joke types was:
But I didn’t know enough about what was going on in general to write those. Sure, reading more news would mean causing more soul pain, but that is a funny joke.
And then it was time for the first writers’ room. To be continued…