Jon Plowman, for many years an executive producer with and former head of BBC comedy, has called for comedy writers to be paid more. And (although I would say that) I think he’s right. Because comedy writing, as a career, doesn’t add up.
A “starting” (generally someone who has been honing their craft unpaid for years) will get paid £6,000 for an half hour episode of a sitcom. Say you are lucky and get a show on air with 6 episodes. That’s £36,000. Enough to keep you in London for a year. Maybe two if you are frugal and have no dependants and an understanding partner. So you need to get another series on in one to two years if you are to give up the day job. That’s assuming you have no writing partner.
There is always the possibility of writing for the continuing drama series – that does at least give steady work. But the skills of writing a successful sitcom don’t necessarily translate to soap or hospital drama, at least not without work.
Successful comedy writers have to be intelligent, articulate, and have project management skills. Although not necessarily social skills or dress sense. That does mean that most people who could be successful comedy writers could earn a lot more doing another job, with greater security as well. We accept that there is the risk of never making in comedy writing. But the terrible thing is that, even for most of those that do, the pay won’t be enough to make a career of it.
This, more than anything, restricts the voices that we hear. If you can’t afford to live on the pay, the only people that will do it are those who don’t have to work for a living. I’m sure they’re all lovely people but do we really want only Trustafarians writing our comedies?
Much as I would love to I don’t expect to be able to give up my day job to write comedy. I have a family and we couldn’t survive on the occaisional bursts of money even successful comedy writers get. Ironically the only way I’m likely to be able to write comedy full time is if I save up enough money from my better paid and less interesting day job. Or win the lottery. Or write a break out smash hit that breaks America…
In the mean time I’ll carry on buying those lottery tickets. It’s a more rational investment of my time and money than comedy writing. But less fun.