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Top 5 (More) Mistakes Comedy Writers Make

Previously On B2W …

Comedy is super-popular amongst us Bang2writers. So Dave Cohen aka @davecohencomedy is back, this time with 5 MORE Mistakes Comedy Writers Make. Dave really knows his stuff, so is well worth a follow on Twitter and

Miss the last one on this topic? Then CLICK HERE. Enjoy, comedy writers – and good luck if you enter the BBC Comedy Window. Over to you, Dave …

It’s That Time Of Year Again!

The BBC Comedy Window opens on April Fool’s Day, and you’ve got until 29 April to hone your budding scripts into comedy gold. Last year James Cary and I interviewed Simon Nelson and Amanda Farley of BBC Writersroom who provided stacks of information and helpful advice for how best to go about entering the competition.  Check it out, HERE.

Meanwhile, let’s concentrate on avoiding the unnecessary mistakes that writers at every level in the profession make, all the time.

1) You Forget The Basics

Every now and then a show comes along, smashes up the building and questions everything we thought we knew. The Goon Show, Hancock, Young Ones, Ab Fab changed comedy for ever.

I understand the urge to want to break everything and start again. Comedy involves surprising your audience, and every time you see someone telling you “the rules” your instinct is to say “sod the rules.” But Aristotle wrote Poetics more than 2,000 years ago and they’ve worked for 99% of all the stories ever written so far. You should at least accept that if it was good enough for Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy and Nora Ephron (among others!) then it’s at least worth your consideration.

Also, it’s not difficult. To paraphrase the great philosopher-writer-student of Plato-zoologist, and inventor of the phrase “multi-task” himself:

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. A big thing happens at the end of the beginning, which takes us to the middle, complications build until another big thing happens, the biggest so far, which takes us to the end, and out of the story as fast as we can make it.

MORE: 14 Masters of Comedy Share Their Secrets

2) You Forget What Makes Comedy Different From Drama

In drama, our hero or heroine comes out the other end, they’ve learned their lesson. Catharsis, as Aristotle calls it. Comedy characters never learn. They make the same mistake every week. Or like Basil Fawlty, instead of saying “next week I won’t lie”, he says “next week I’ll lie better so I don’t get found out.”

This information isn’t helpful when we’re being told to put more drama into our comedy. It’s a direct contradiction. If a character can’t grow how can we do that? That’s the challenge, and writers are beginning to rise to it.

Phil Dunphy, the wannabe all-American superdad in Modern Family, learns in every episode that he’ll never be happy trying to be something he isn’t. But he unlearns that lesson every week, because that’s what we’re like when we’re in the thick of family life.

Cold Feet remains principally the story of five people who never learn from their mistakes. Instead, each series there are issues much bigger than the individual characters that stretch them and their relationships to breaking point … Debt, mental health, breast cancer and more.

3) You Forget To Care

I read dozens of scripts every year. No matter how much I bang on about this the first note is invariably: NOT ENOUGH JEOPARDY. I was at the London Book Fair this week and in a light bulb moment saw for the first time what novel editors take for granted – a graph that plots tension against time.

It’s a simple visual representation of a rising line signifying a story moving forward, important plot moments increasing the tension at regular intervals until around three quarters of the way through, when we reach the point of maximum tension. Simply looking at the graph was enough to produce a knot in my stomach.

4) You Second Guess The Commissioners

Recently there’s been a call from Comedy Commissioners for “more comedy drama”, and a lively debate around the question “what the hell do you mean by comedy drama?” This was followed by a series of responses from Comedy Commissioners along the lines of “Er… dunno.”

We can look at the glut of shows that have arrived this month and get a sense of what was making them excited when they made that call. They’ll have known about returning series of much-praised debuts Fleabag, Soft Border Patrol (BBC), Time Wasters (ITV) and Derry Girls (Channel 4). There’s a new BBC1 Alan Partridge; Warren (BBC1); Home (C4), After Life by Ricky Gervais on Netflix, and Almost Never on CBBC.

Most are writer-performer led, and not a single one is made in front of an audience. Also, you can sense that part of what they mean by comedy-drama is comedy dealing with contemporary issues: Brexit and Syrian refugees both feature, while Fleabag and Almost Never are ‘of the moment’.

There are loads of new or new-ish shows covering a range of subjects. And the only reason there are no studio sitcoms is because nobody has sent in a script in the last couple of years considered strong enough to turn into a series.

BBC Writersroom insist they’re looking for audience shows. They don’t get enough of them, so go ahead, write one. Make it as funny as you can, which brings me to the final mistake …

5) Not Enough Jokes

If you’ve been watching After Life and I say “fish fingers” you’ll know what I mean. Even in a show this bleak there are some brilliant laugh-out-loud moments.

Often, in the excitement of getting your new characters onto the page, you forget what it was that drew you into wanting to write comedy. Something unexpected happened in a show that made you laugh, and you wanted more than anything to be the person who could think up those moments.

There are few thorough analyses of what jokes are, I have some chapters in my forthcoming book The Complete Comedy Writer. Denis Norden called them “the momentary removal of sympathy.” George Orwell called each joke “a tiny revolution”.

However you define jokes, make sure you have plenty of them. If that BBC Writersroom reader is laughing, they’ll want to read more. MORE8 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Comedy Screenplay DEAD

Good luck!

If you’d like to receive notes on your comedy submission contact Dave for details, HERE.

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2 thoughts on “Top 5 (More) Mistakes Comedy Writers Make”

  1. Is a core theme in comedy/drama characters display narcissistic personality disorder behaviour or display the frightening lasting effects of being raised by a narcissist parent. Selfish, self absorbed, sarcastic, tough, heartless behaviour and an arch is the moment the character is forced to change and show empathetic behaviour. Humans who are abused or hurt and survive become either narcissistic or empathetic. It’s about the foundation of human violence. narcissistic desensitised people are funny.

    1. In the case of comedy that ‘punches down’, it can follow this idea but like anything, it depends. In modern times, comedy is just as likely to ‘punch up’ at hierarchal norms such as power and privilege.

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