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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2 Comments on "Learning to write comedy – just make something."

  1. Vivienne Riddoch
    31/12/2013 at 10:01 am Permalink

    Hi, David – Happy New Year (almost)

    Thanks (as ever) for your encouragement. It really does chime with how I feel about my writing – that everything I do is practice, and if it gets anywhere then, at this stage, that’s a massive bonus (so far three Newsjack and two News Revue credits).

    Have you any plans for another Kirrin Island show?


  2. david
    31/12/2013 at 9:20 pm Permalink

    Thanks Vivenne.

    I agree. Right now, getting better is more important than getting validated or getting paid. Until you reach the point where what you write provides food and clothes for your kids.

    You should ask Alison about KI not me! But I think there are plans for a show sometime earlyish in the New Year. But I assume we won’t want to clash with any of the BBC open sub shows.

    Happy New Year (give or take three hours)!


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