All change for Newsjack Series 10

The Show What You Wrote has closed its doors but just down the hallway another BBC sketch opportunity is back: Newsjack.

And there are lots of changes for Series 10. Check out the details of what they want carefully on the BBC website, but here’s my summary of what’s going to be different to Series 9.

NEW EMAIL ADDRESS: Don’t just use the one in your address book!

New Producers. (So I’m told, but I won’t give out chapter and verse  until their names appear on a website or credit list somewhere just in case!)

New Host – Romesh Ranganathan. Rumour has it he will be writing or at least shaping a lot of the host material. I’ve been watching his back catalogue on Youtube to try and get a sense of his voice, which is delightfully acerbic. It will be interesting to see how this the tone of the show as a new host inevitably will.

New cast members (Morgana Robinson, Ellie White and Alice Levine) as well as some returning (Lewis MacLeod, Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Pippa Evans)

New sketch limit – ONLY 2 SKETCHES per week.

New one liners limit – 3 sections, 3 per section = 9 one liners per week.

New templates – which should hopefully be easier to use and make life easier for the producers, so that they’ll be in a better mood when they read my sketches. That’s the theory, anyway.

Writing for Newsjack Series 10 will feel quite to previous series, but I think that constant reinvention is a good thing – to keep the show fresh and give more writers opportunities.

I better get writing – first deadline tomorrow at noon.



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Learning to write comedy – just make something.

Writing well is hard. (I’m not going to tell you how many times I’ve rewritten this simple opening paragraph.) Writing comedy well is… (actually probably no harder than for other kinds of writing, but based on how much comedy writers complain) …writing comedy well is even harder. Whatever natural talent you have the craft of writing comedy is something you have to learn.

To learn anything you need two things – practice (which stretches you) and feedback (so you know where to improve). A newbie stand up comedian (assuming they can find a gig performing to something other than a roomful of empty chairs) will get their feedback straight away. The audience laugh or they don’t. They throw things or they don’t.

For a new comedy writer (who doesn’t perform) things are not so simple. You send things out there to be bought or (much more likely) not by producers etc. But generally you get very little idea why a particular piece failed – it may have been awful, or very good but just not fit with their current plans. And even if you do get some feedback (and be grateful and polite when you do) it is unlikely to be at the level of detail you really need to improve your work.

So what can you do? Produce something yourself. Either on your own or with a few friends. Realistically if it’s your first production it is very unlikely to be great. Or even good. Or even OK. But it doesn’t matter because you will learn. Don’t kid yourself that this project will be your breakout sold-to-Hollywood success. Take the pressure off and have fun. Because…

Doing something badly is the best way to learn how to do something well.

I wish someone had taught me that in primary school. Or graduate school. Or anywhere. It’s so important I’ll write it again in slightly different, slightly clichéd, and slightly stolen from Samuel Beckett, words.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

And if you don’t believe me, go read the great Dan “Community” Harmon’s tongue in cheek rant on how not to improve at making short films here.

Personally I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with the Live from Kirrin Island podcast – which started out of a chance conversation between a few comedy writers. Being involved has been a great learning experience.

Whisper it but not every sketch produced has been a masterpiece. But that’s OK. Because we are all learning. Each episode has been better than the last.

I’ve learned a lot. About working creatively with others. About editing other people’s work. And how to completely rewrite a sketch 5 times until it’s funny.  But most importantly I’ve learned that making something makes you learn.


(It sounds obvious saying it like that, doesn’t it. Should really have figured this out before… Oh well.)

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Book Review: Comedy Rules by Jonathan Lynn

Christmas is over and the New Year has not yet begun. The chocolates have gone but there is still turkey in the fridge.  And for those of us lucky enough to have some time off, this stretch is a wonderful “no man’s time” – a chance to catch up with friends, family and all the things you meant to do all year but haven’t quite got around to yet.

Like writing a book review of Comedy Rules (From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister) by Jonathan Lynn, to give a purely hypothetical* example.

Lynn is probably best known now for co-writing Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister with Anthony Jay. (If you haven’t seen these, they are sort like The Thick of It without the swearing and wobbly camerawork. In fact if you haven’t seen them go watch them now. Go on. What are you waiting for? Seen them now? Good.) But he also acted and directed in the theatre for many years and has directed a number of films including The Whole Nine Yards and Nuns on the Run.

The book is structured as a list of comedy do’s and don’ts, some more tongue in cheek than others. But mixed in with the advice are anecdotes of Lynn’s life as a writer, actor and director, including his disastrous trip to New Zealand with some of the future stars of Monty Python, and a rather intimidating lunch with the Inland Revenue which could be straight out of Yes Minister.

This book isn’t a step by step how-to guide. But it is full of hints and tips about what makes funny and what doesn’t  from the long experience of a comedy practitioner.

This isn’t the “one book you must read to make you a comedy genius”. But it will encourage, inspire, and entertain. Definitely worth a read

Right, now I should start reviewing some of the comedy books I got for this Christmas…

* It’s not actually hypothetical. But it is a Yes Minister reference.

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British Comedy Guide conference read out

And we’re back. Long time no post. Normal (ie irregular) service resumed.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been planning to write up the British Comedy Guide Big Comedy Conference. First I have to say well done to Mark, Aaron and the team on making the whole thing run so smoothly. (And to Dave Cohen for programming it so successfully.)

My personal highlights were:

1. Hearing Andrew Ellard, John Finnemore, and Michael Jacob downloading just a fraction of what they know about constructing sitcom. Like sitcom itself many of the ideas on how to construct sitcom are deceptively simple. The skill is in applying them without producing something mechanistic and dead. So hearing real life examples from experienced practitioners is incredibly useful.

2. Mellie Buse, Howard Read (as in Little Howard) and Paul McKenzie talking about writing for children. A subject I didn’t know anything about. Mellie specialises in the pre-school market (CBeebies) whereas the other two work on shows for slightly older kids (CBBC level). Writing for younger kids demands a good knowledge of child development as well as storytelling. So it is worth trying to write spec scripts specifically for that market if you want to break into it (according to Mellie). For older children Howard and Paul suggested that having a funny adult calling card script is probably the way to go. If you can write funny, you can write funny.

Being a parent I’ve rediscovered a love for children’s TV. Some of it is brilliant (and produced on a shoestring budget). When I, ahem, have some time, I’m going to try writing some.

3. Hanging out with Lewis MacLeod for part of the day. Nuff said.

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What not to write for Newsjack

A new series of Newsjack starts on 19 September:

Which means, for anyone who wants to write for it, the first deadline is Monday 16 September at 12 noon – that’s less than a week away.

Newsjack is not just a funny show in its own right, it’s also a fantastic opportunity for writers for get noticed at BBC radio comedy. Many people have gone on from Newsjack to greater things.
There is already lots of advice out there on what to do: Ed Morrish, now ex-Newsjack producer has some good advice here for example. Or Scriblit’s excellent piece about making it as a non-comm. If you want to read more look at Dan Sweryt‘s very handy BCG forum post.

But none of these tell what not to do for Newsjack. So here’s my list of “don’ts”. Following these won’t guarantee you get on, but they will stop the producers complaining about you on Twitter…

Bad taste material

Doesn’t matter how funny it is, it won’t get used. And remember this is being broadcast to (potentially) anyone and everyone. Stuff that seems funny with your mates in the pub might be deeply upsetting to someone else.
Pushing the boundaries of taste is not what Newsjack does. Experienced writers and performers might get away with pushing the boundaries at the Beeb. You won’t. Not yet. You have to earn it.

Non topical material

At the risk of stating the obvious, Newsjack is a topical comedy show. Sketches and gags should have at least a tangential relationship to the news.

That doesn’t mean you have to go for well known and obvious stories. The inside pages of the papers are definitely fair game. But do remember to set up the topical link (quickly and amusingly of course) in the intro or start of the sketch/gag.

Oh and “topical” means happened in the last few days not in the last few years.

A sketch with no premise

A sketch needs a premise – a funny idea – that drives it. Most sketches only have room for one idea. Coming up with a killer premise is not a guarantee of getting on, but it gives you a good chance.

Two people throwing funny lines at each other or a collection of jokes on a theme doesn’t make a sketch. You might have been able to get away with this in music hall in the 1930s but I don’t see it making a comeback. A comedy sketch has a funny idea. And a sketch has characters.

A sketch with an obvious well worn premise

Newsjack prides itself on finding interesting angles on the news. It’s not going to do something a bit like a Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch updated with modern references. Write something original and brilliant, not something we’ve all heard before.

Jokes that are all over twitter

Once a joke is all over twitter it is dead to Newsjack. Doesn’t matter if you came up with it yourself independently and didn’t copy it from Twitter, no one listening will know that. All they will think is “I heard that joke four days ago on Twitter.” Congratulate yourself on having come up with a joke that obviously works. And then go and come up with another one.

Sketches that are too long

Most Newsjack sketches run to one or two pages. Possibly three pages for a great sketch that builds well and where lots happens. That’s it. Any longer and it will either get binned or drastically trimmed. And if they have a choice between a sketch that needs trimming and one that doesn’t, guess which is more likely to get used.

A sketch with no intro gag

Not all Newsjack sketches need or use an intro gag but it is easier for them to cut one out than to put one in, if they think it needs one. And it’s another chance to show people you can write funny. So why wouldn’t you? (Because they are hard – I personally hate writing intro gags but no one makes you send sketches to Newsjack, right? And if they are, you might want to call the police…)

Subjects which are sub judice or libellous

The Newsjack team are too busy to be spending hours with the lawyers deciding what is or isn’t sub judice, libellous or otherwise legally questionable – they’ll just throw it out.

Basically don’t write sketches which are:

  • About a current court case
  • Saying something bad about a living person (which isn’t generally accepted/proven)

Anything with no name and email address on it

Unless you don’t want a credit or any money. And if that is what you want you can get the same effect by printing your sketches out, folding them into paper aeroplanes and throwing them into the monkey enclosure at the zoo.

Material which is physically difficult to read

The producers and script editors have to read a lot of sketches and jokes. You want them to read yours in a good mood, ready to laugh and cry and generally wonder at how brilliant you are. You don’t want them rubbing their sore eyes and cursing you under their breath as they struggle to make out what you mean.

There is a standard format for radio sketches. This is isn’t enforced rigidly but it exists for a reason. And why wouldn’t you want to impress them with your professionalism?
That’s it. Good luck with your submissions. Let me know of any “don’ts” that I’ve forgotten in the comments.

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How to be a better writer

I don’t claim to be a good writer, although I plan to be one day, but I’m sure I’m a better writer than I used to be. Looking back at old work is both deflating (did I really write this badly?) and uplifiting (look how far I’ve come) at the same time. So, while I’m not going to tell anyone how to be a good writer, here’s the things I think have me a better one:

1. Write

Writers write. Writing makes you a writer. Writing makes you a better writer. Practice is the only way to get better at anything. Some say you need to do at least ten thousand hours to master a skill. But whatever the number you won’t improve without putting the hours in.

The way to get those hours is to write regularly. Every day if you can. Even one hour a day will add up over time. During the week I spend an hour a day stuck on a train. That gives me a clear hour to write in. Find the dead time in your day and see if you can make it writing time.

2. Get feedback

If you want to get better you also have to know how you’ve done. This isn’t simple with a piece of writing. Everyone will have a different opinion. And if you are writing for performance it’s not always clear if some good writing has been ruined by a terrible performance or if some poor writing has been made to shine by a brilliant actor.

You have to trust your own instincts but if you can find people whose opinion you respect and who understand writing (whether they are writers, performers, producers or um, people) their feedback is invaluable. They can help you find holes that need fixing, see when lines need to be clearer or spark ideas for new angles on your work.

3. Rewrite

First drafts suck. Maybe some people are so brilliant their first drafts are great. But even those people could almost certainly make their stuff better with a second or third pass. And for the rest of us, first drafts suck.

But that’s OK. Because you’re allowed to rewrite it until it doesn’t suck. Until it has chance of being good or even great. Don’t give up on an idea you like until you’ve given at least two chances. Rewrite it till it works.

4. Read/watch other people’s work.

Be inspired by the brilliant stuff to do something just as good. Be inspired by the terrible stuff to do something much better.

All of it will teach you something, but sometimes I find it’s the less good stuff, the ones where you can see the metaphorical hand working the puppet, that teach you more about writing that the good stuff that blows you away. You can see the workings and that makes the techniques more obvious than the excellent writers who are able to hide their tricks away. And it can show you plenty of things to avoid in your own writing.

5. Get together with other writers

For moral support if nothing else. You can also pick up tips on technique and find out about opportunities.

And if you want to get anywhere in this business you have to network. (Don’t look at me like that, I know I’m terrible at it. It’s a dreadful irony that comedy writing which attracts the socially inept like myself also requires a great deal of social skills in order to make any progress at it. Yet another reason for the bitterness of so many comedy writers.)

Not that meeting other writers will get you work directly – you need get on to more important people like producers for that. But it gets you out there and it’s much easier to talk to a producer or agent if you have mutual friend they are already working with.

6. Relax

Getting wound up about trying to make my work perfect or worrying that a piece will get rejected doesn’t make me write better. It makes me not write at all.

I’m learning not to worry. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. At least you found out what doesn’t work. Go write another draft that does work. And if that doesn’t work, etc…

Not everything you do has to be brilliant. You only need to write some good stuff, be able to recognise when it’s good and learn how to make it better. Even Shakespeare had his off days. And he rewrote whole chunks of his plays. And if it’s good enough for Will, it’s good enough for me.

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Call for submissions: Live from Kirrin Island episode 5

Live from Kirrin Island (the comedy podcast produced by LippyAlison) is open for submissions for Episode 5. Details on how to submit are here. Sketches need to be in by 31 July (yes that’s tomorrow) so get scribbling.

Follow the @LiveFromKI account on Twitter for updates (and, unlike parts of Twitter, it’s guaranteed free from threats of sexual violence).

There are tips on what the script editors are looking for on this useful page. Or ask questions on the BCG forum thread. Or even take a look at the useful (?) things I post on here about the things I’ve learned about writing comedy. Like this. Or this. Or this. Well you get the idea. Or this.

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Sketch comedy writing: Sketches need characters

So far, so obvious.  A sketch without characters would be,um, a very long  joke or a short stand up set. And even then the persona of the performer gives you at least one character to play with. So sketches need characters. So what?

Well, they need funny characters. Again, obvious. We’re trying to write comedy sketches here. So obviously funny characters. Except it isn’t obvious, it is. I mean it’s obvious we need them. It’s not always obvious how to get them. Certainly not to me in the heat of sketch composition.

Writing topical comedy many of the characters come ready made. We’ve already got some idea of what Cameron, Boris, Clegg, Milliband etc are like so this gives us their comic angle on a story. But to take the last series of Newsjack, many of the best sketches introduced new comic characters we had never seen before – like the Downing Street cat diary sketch.Others gave a new angle to a public figure and got that ideal “ah yes, that really is the comic truth about so-and-so” reaction.

I look around at the best sketches and sketch writers and they are getting character right in their sketches. They have characters with their own unique comic angles on the story, who thus bring out or even counterpoint the premise of the sketch. Often character and premise are so intertwined as to be indivisible. The funny lines then arise naturally from the comic characters, stuck in that comic premise. No need to shoehorn jokes into a dull interview format.

It’s said the late Eddie Braben (prolific joke writer for Morecome and Wise amongst others) treated each joke as a miniature story. That should be even more true of a sketch. They need to want something and they need their own way of looking at the world they are in. For minor characters, there may not need an elaborate back story, but you should still think about them as a character. Each character has to have a reason to be.

Which means sketch writers have to put almost as much thinking into their characters as sitcom writers do. (Sitcom characters have to more range, and more places to go, I admit). This is why parody (using characters someone else has created) is so often used by beginning writers. (Not saying it’s a bad thing or that I haven’t done it myself, just that it can be a short cut.)

But it does mean that writing good sketches is excellent preparation for writing good sitcom (and vice versa). All the more reason to do it well. Remember it’s not meant to be easy. But it is meant to be fun.

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The Show What You Wrote – the things what I learned

Well, 15,000 sketches read less than 1% of those used. And The Show What You Wrote is done (apart from the editing and broadcast…  🙂 ).

No credit for me this time. But I have learned a lot from the process of writing for a non-topical show. And from Jon Hunter‘s excellent general feedback which he has shared on the BBC website.

The big learning point for me is that I need to have to discipline to give my sketches the good hard edit they deserve. It’s too easy when writing topical comedy to use the excuse that it has to be fast, there’s no time to give it another polish, fire and forget and write the next one. But there is no point in writing mediocre sketches. Some of those pieces in the TSWYW will have been polished over months (if not years). I can’t hope to bang out 20 sketches, not look at half of them twice and compete with that.

I need to make sure I take the time to edit each sentence to get rid of dead words and get the funniest possible construction and also to “tick the laughs”. If there are any long gaps between jokes I want that to be deliberate.

Also on a practical note, I think getting your sketches in early helps. With the best will in the world, if you are reading 15,000 sketches by the time you get to the second 7,500 you are looking for reasons not to read on, rather than looking for more sketches for the maybe pile.

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My gmail address will be out of action till Wednesday

Just in case anyone is trying to get hold of me on david.salisbury.writer :at: gmail (please turn this into a normal email address if you are not a spambot scraping the internet) I won’t have access to it until the middle of next week. Please use my personal email or the contact form on this website. Or DM me on Twitter or Facebook.

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