Monthly Archives: March 2007

How to write sketches (Part One)

Let me clarify that: how I write sketches for The Treason Show and NewsRevue. I’m not saying this is the only way, I’m not even saying it’s the best way; but this is the way I do it and it seems to work for me.

When I have time to write sketches, they always appear to be well received; both in the number of sketches performed by each company and by the general reaction of the audience. Within the satirical revue world, or at least the two shows I write for, I’m almost confident I know what I’m doing.

You’re never going to get rich writing for these shows; but you will get your material performed (if you’re good enough), you will get to hear people laugh at what you’ve written (if you live nearby) and you will get paid. It may not buy you a fancy car, or even a fancy remote controlled car, but the little bits do add up. So for anyone who fancies having a go, this is how I go about it.

First, a few basic rules:

Watch the show you’re writing for. This is really important. If you haven’t seen the show, how do you know what type of sketch they want? You need to see what works well within the constraints of the show, how the cast perform, what the audience laughs at and more importantly, what they don’t.

I have already broken this rule. I’ve never been to see NewsRevue; but I have seen The Treason Show fairly regularly and since they both use a lot of my material, I’m assuming the shows are fairly similar.

Gordon Robertson (who writes more for each show than is humanly possible) has never, to the best of my knowledge, seen either show. This hasn’t affected his ability to write fantastic sketches, but from what I can gather (and I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong) it took him longer than me to zero in on what material does and doesn’t make it through the selection process. This had nothing to do with talent; I just had access to better research.

Read the papers/watch the news. This is topical satire, if you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t take the piss out of it. Fairly self-explanatory, I think.

Watch, read and listen to as many comedy sketches as you can. Doesn’t matter what type of comedy, they all have certain universal truths. Pay attention to the structure, the rhythm, the number and placement of the gags. Writers like to think of themselves as artists, and artistic creativity knows no bounds.

Balls.

There’s a very definite pattern which underlies most successful sketches. There’s a formula, one which can be replicated. Most sketches have a beginning, middle and end – the ending being the punch line. You have to introduce your characters and the situation at the beginning, be funny in the middle and finish off with a big laugh at the end.

True, not all sketch shows have a punch line. Monty Python didn’t bother, but a lot of their material still followed formulas. One of the most obvious ones, one I use a lot, is two people arguing: one reasonable, one a total, wrong thinking, idiot. Think of the ‘Argument sketch’, or the ‘Dead Parrot sketch’. An important thing to consider here is your target market: both shows want sketches which have punch lines – give them what they want.

Other general points to consider:

This is satire, having a point helps. Wikipedia has this to say about satire:

“Although satire is usually witty, and often very funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour but criticism of an event, an individual or a group in a clever manner.”

Satire can be silly and should be funny, but more than that, satire is comedy of criticism. Pick someone you think is being stupid, foolish, ignorant or just plain wrong and make fun of them.

Be funny.

Both The Treason Show and NewsRevue only have four performers, sometimes they need to change costumes (or completely remove them) for the next sketch. Sketches with two people in are easier for them to do. The easier something is to do, the more likely it is to be used. Sketches which require a huge cast just aren’t going to happen. If you have to have someone addressing a crowd, get them to address the audience.

Be funny.

The shows tend to have their own point of view on things: at The Treason Show, David Cameron is portrayed as an upper class layabout, a Lesley Philips style character; Tony Blair is an attention seeker who toadies to George W. Bush. George W. is a complete moron who can barely remember to breathe. These things may not be true, but the papers like to portray these images and the shows ramp them up to the next level. Because these are recurring characters, if you choose to portray them in a different way, your material may stand less chance of being accepted.

Seriously, be funny.

There are less women in the news than men, hence less sketches get written for women. Both shows have two female and two male performers, material written for the women is scarce and therefore likely to be accepted. If a sketch contains characters who aren’t famous (such as ‘scientists say’ bits, skits which happen at a newspaper, anonymous civil servants, etc …) I don’t specify a gender. Leave the parts open to either sex.

In my George W. Bush sketches, almost all of which are an AIDE talking to the President, I forgot this rule and had George calling the Aide ‘son’. Whenever The Treason Show perform these, the Aide is played by a woman. This adds an extra level of humour into the sketch, and I keep it up. NewsRevue may use a man in this part, I don’t know.

No really, it has to be funny.

Be a little bit tasteful. Taking the piss out of someone who’s been raped and murdered is unlikely to go down well. Taking the piss out of the way the media portrays their fate does much better. At the moment, The Daily Mail seems to be running a competition with itself to find the sexiest photo it can of Lindsay Hawker. I find this shameless attempt to glamorise her death appalling, so I’ve written a sketch about it.

That’ll teach ‘em. Cunts.

Which leads me neatly to swearing. Contrary to what you may have been told, swearing is big and it is clever. You can have an intricately crafted sketch with amazing dialogue, supremely clever word play and a poignant message which changes the way people think about the world; and it still won’t be as funny as one person saying ‘fuck’.

Sad, but true.

Swearing, however, is like Golden Syrup – a little goes a long way. An audience becomes numb to it pretty quickly and it loses its impact. Almost swearing before being interrupted gets a big laugh – the ruder the word, the better. Use swear words wisely and you can have an audience rolling around on the floor.

Lastly, watch the length. Keep it short, there’s a lot of news to cover in each show; a half hour sketch is unlikely to get accepted. Thirty seconds to a minute is best, two minutes is a long time; but okay if it’s really good. Longer? Forget it.

So there you go, an incomplete list of rules to break when it suits you. I know I’ve broken most of them.

Tomorrow I’ll go through the process of writing a sketch, using one of mine as an example of: where I got the inspiration, how I wrote it and what I was thinking.

Whether anyone wants me to or not.

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Categories: My Way, Sad Bastard | 12 Comments

Opinions

On a whim, I sent a script into the BBC’s writersroom a while back.

I didn’t have big expectations, I don’t even know why I did it really. I think I printed the script out for a competition then found out I could enter it online. Whatever the reason, it was lying around and I slapped it in the post.

The script I sent was Cause and Effect, which had previously won free script coverage from Script Shark. Coverage you can read here, if you really feel the need.

Script Shark liked the script and gave it a consider, which is quite good and not something which happens often (or so I’m led to believe). Part of the service Script Shark offer is free pimping if they give you a consider, and pimp they did.

Shortly after they took up my corner, I got a phone call from Colin O’Reilly who, according to his company’s website, just co-produced ‘Blades of Glory’. He likes the script and wanted to read anything else I’ve written.

This all sounded quite promising.

Nothing came of it, of course, but it sounded quite promising.

Anyway, whereas I was pretty certain the BBC wouldn’t like the script, I thought it might lead to one of those: ‘it’s not terrible, what else have you got?’ Kind of letters.

Yes folks, I’m that much of an optimist.

The reply came back today, no wait, yesterday now.

Shit, it’s bedtime.

The reply’s here, in black and white …

That’s right, it’s a bog-standard rejection. Absolutely bog-standard, no praise or criticisms whatsoever.

Which is fine, everyone has different opinions.

Maybe the BBC gets a far higher standard of submissions than Script Shark? Maybe they just have far higher standards? Maybe, giving myself a little break, the BBC are just looking for different things?

Of course, the most likely explanation for the widely varying coverage (glowing and none) is just a matter of opinion. Different people read the same script on different days and guess what?

They have different opinions.

(Right now I’m having a difference of opinion with my spellchecker – it seems to think ‘big’ isn’t a real word. It is a real word, I’m sure of it. There was even a film starring Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks never lies.)

It just serves to remind me that the whole business is based on opinions and you can’t really trust any one person’s, good or bad. You have to take an aggregate of several to gain some sort of insight. Mind you, it’s hard to gain any insight from a flat rejection.

Still, last month I had two producers read the first half of the script on my website and go on to request the full script. Neither has got back to me yet. Actually, one did. He said he hadn’t read it yet, but would.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

In other news, I’ve just finished another draft of ‘The Seventh Sword of Bathrick‘, for the producer; and I’ve actually managed to write some sketches for The Treason Show and NewsRevue this month. NewsRevue have already used a half dozen of them, we’ll have to wait and see how I get on with The Treason Show. There are twelve sketches and a song in the current provisional running order, but that will probably reduce to four or five by the time the show runs.

Still, it feels nice to be back in the sketch saddle again, taking an interest in the world and then making fun of it. At least I can still make people laugh, and not just at me either.

Categories: Industry Musings, Progress, Two steps back | 11 Comments

Who’s the daddy?

Everyone knows a good film starts with a good script. The script is the single most important element in creating a good feature film. If the story makes no sense, it’s the first thing people will notice; therefore, scriptwriters should be considered the most important people in the process, right?

Erm, no. Not really.

I’ve heard a very similar justification used by every department on set:

“If the sound doesn’t synch, it’s the first thing people notice.”

“People will accept less than perfect sound quality, but if the performances are poor, it ruins the film.”

“It doesn’t matter how good the actors are; if the sets aren’t realistic, it destroys the illusion.”

“By and large, people won’t notice if you nail a bread tray to the wall to make a space ship interior; but if the lighting’s wrong it all turns to shit.”

“A bad editor can ruin any movie, no matter how well … ”

And so on.

It seems everyone has a high opinion of their own craft and little regard for anyone else’s. “This film couldn’t be made without me, this is my set/performance/script and everyone else should respect me for making this film a success.”

As an exception to this, I once met someone who was working on ‘White Noise’. He told me the concept and I thought it sounded quite good. He said:

“Yeah, you’d think so; but it’s shit; and everyone working on it, except the director, knows it’s shit.”

I wanted to know why no one spoke up. The answer:

“We’re all getting paid anyway, we just make sure our bits are the best we can.”

I’m prepared to bet he still thought his department was the one essential to making a film believable, it just so happened in this case he was trying to polish a turd.

I think everyone knows we’re all just one part of a huge movie-making machine; but the arrogance creeps into everyday language, no matter how hard you try to be open minded. No one likes to be thought of as replaceable, but I’ve enjoyed movies with appalling dialogue, or atrocious acting, or mind-numbingly bad set design.

I genuinely think you can get by with one or two of the ‘key elements’ missing; but the more shit you put into the mix, the harder it is to get a good cake at the end. Everyone involved has a vital role to play and the movie would probably suffer without them. Why does everyone have to be THE ONE who makes it all worthwhile? It’s nice that people take a proprietary view of the work they’re involved in, but why do they have to do so by ignoring the value of everyone else’s contribution?

To me, scriptwriters seem to be the worst for this: we wrote it, therefore it’s our film; but then I guess I don’t spend much time hanging around sound effects or lighting forums, listening to them carp on about how they can single-handedly save the film industry if only someone gave them a break.

Of course you should have a good script, but you should also have a good everything else. Film making is a co-operative business, so can’t we all just respect each other and try to get along?

Categories: Industry Musings | 3 Comments

Fighting in drag

Studio

Yesterday was fun, in a ‘sitting around all day bored out of my mind’ sort of way.

Actually, before I get into all that; yesterday I had seventeen referrals from this page of the New York Times, and I’ve no idea why. I’ll post a lollipop to anyone who can come up with a satisfactory explanation.

While all that was going on, I spent the day at POP Productions in Walthamstow, watching the filming of some viral promotional pieces, and waiting for my tiny role.

The thirty second piece of film I was needed for was scheduled for 11.30. I was due there for 11.00 and was amazed to discover I’d not only turned up on time, but was actually early.

For anyone who knows me, this is unheard of.

So I’m there, I’m ready. Mandy’s with me because it’s only going to take an hour or so and then we’re going to go and see my brother, Martin.

Ah, slight problem. The set hasn’t been built yet and they’re going to do some of the other scenes first. Do we mind hanging around?

No, no problem. Martin is teaching at the Almeida until 16.30 anyway, so we were just going to be killing time.

Seven hours, and countless cups of tea later, we’re still there.

Don’t get me wrong, the pieces are very funny (I thank you) and the two actors who brought them to life, Alex Woodhall and Greg Donaldson, performed them brilliantly; but watching the same minute-long pieces filmed over and over again from a variety of angles is pretty dull.

This made me laugh though:

Alex and Greg

It’s a David Beckham Memory Enhancing Hat, obviously.

At 18.30, when we got round to my part, I finally realised what I’d let myself in for. When I wrote the script, it seemed quite funny to have two grannies fighting in the background. It never occurred to me it would lead to this:

Granny Phill

Which in turn led to this:

Which eventually led to this:

Bruises

I’m in quite a lot of pain today. Still, it was funny so it’s worth it, right?

We never did get to see my brother.

Categories: Progress, Sad Bastard | 8 Comments

Pleasing America

There’s a phrase which keeps cropping up recently:

‘Will the Americans understand it?’

Everything I write has to be understood by Americans who, according to most of the people I’m working with, are stupid, xenophobic and will instantly dislike any film which contains even a single word they don’t understand.

Is this really true?

I know it’s a view popularised by the press over here, but are Americans really that incapable of understanding UK words and colloquialisms?

I read this today in a Monty Python Biography:

TERRY GILLIAM – John would say we’ve got to say canned peaches for America. I would say, ‘No, you’ve got to say tinned peaches. It’s an English word and Americans will have to learn what tinned means. And they will learn and will get excited by the idea of learning.’

And it got me thinking: does any other country go out of its way to kow-tow so much to a foreign market?

Americans don’t, they either: assume everyone knows what they’re talking about; don’t care; or guess most people are clever enough to understand an unknown word when it’s used in context.

Spain, Italy, France, do they re-word things for foreigners? I have no idea. There are certainly phrases in the subtitles I don’t fully understand; but then the majority of them may already have been altered to make more sense to me.

I know America is huge in terms of film markets, and UK films may need to perform well over there to make any money; but still, isn’t part of the joy of seeing a foreign film do to with the country’s culture?

Should we not be celebrating our culture and showing it to the world; instead of hiding it and pretending it’s exactly the same as America’s?

I honestly don’t know.

I do know I feel hamstrung when I’ve written something funny only to be told Americans won’t get it. Especially when I go over there and can’t get them to shut up about how much they love Monty Python.

So what’s the score? Are we under-estimating their intelligence or can they really not understand any reference which doesn’t involve a hamburger? If they have to have every film de-British-ised; why did ‘Shaun of the Dead’ do so well?

I guess what I’m really asking is, do I really have to do another re-write based on what Americans may or may not understand?

Any thoughts?

Categories: Industry Musings | 7 Comments

Sitting in the dark

During a herculean procrastination session, I found this on Rotunda Films’ website:

We are sorry to announce that officially Rotunda Films is no longer involved with Chameleon. After some serious issues and concerns we decided that the best course of action for our company would be to cease all involvement in the project.

The writer is also now searching for a new production company to take the project on after Chi Media failed to get the project ready in time.

What? You’ve never heard of Chameleon? Do none of you pay attention to the intricacies of my career?

No? Oh well.

Chameleon is (or rather, was) a feature film I re-wrote for Rotunda Films, and I suppose by extension, Chi Media. It was set to star Zara Phythian, who is apparently a big name in martial arts circles. All I know about her is what it says on her website, but I can say I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of her hands and feet when she’s in a bad mood.

The film falling through is news to me. I had absolutely no idea; but then, I’m just a writer.

I’m not, however, the writer who’s searching for a new production company; that would be Mike Anka who wrote the original script, or maybe a book? No idea there either.

In fact, I have very little idea of what happened at any stage during the project. And why should I? I am, after all, just a writer for hire. I don’t even know if Mike Anka was aware the script was being re-written, or why he didn’t/couldn’t do it himself.

I just don’t know anything.

Which was always the popular playground opinion, back in the day. Only they didn’t phrase it quite like that.

So there we are, and here I am: sitting in the dark wondering what the hell happened. I’ve fired off an email in a vain attempt to find out, but no reply as of yet.

The real kicker in all this is, the majority of the money was payable when production started.

Bugger. Back to eating woodlice from the garden then.

Categories: Two steps back | 9 Comments

De-Bullshitting

Over the weekend I suddenly felt the need to de-bullshit my website.

Not that it was full of bullshit, mind you. It was more of a gentle aroma.

I was flicking through the net during a period of procrastination and I found the CV of a guy I think is full of shit. You know the type, he has forty-odd feature films listed on his CV and not one of them has any mention anywhere else on the net.

No imdb page, no production company website, no casting calls – nothing.

Yep, that’s right, his CV is pure bullshit. All of his ‘credits’ are spec scripts or stuff he’s written for a friend. Not that bullshit is a bad thing, you need a certain amount to get ahead; but this type is instantly recognisable to anyone who knows what to look for.

I know what to look for, because I’ve done it.

When I first set up my website, my CV was a little on the flimsy side; so I padded it out. Every time somebody expressed an interest in a script, it went on my CV. Over time, my CV grew to an impressive size; unfortunately, it was mostly lies.

White lies, but still lies.

And as it turns out, lies do help. Producers/Directors have approached me in the past on the grounds of an impressive CV.

Sorry.

Anyway, after the weekend’s browsing I re-evaluated my bullshit position and was surprised to discover my CV stands up quite well without it.

So it’s gone.

For the first time, my CV is revealed in all its naked truth. I’ve split it up into three sections: PRODUCED, PRE-PRODUCTION and IN DEVELOPMENT. I’ve also split the information pages into the same categories.

The stuff in the PRODUCED category is all verifiable, the stuff in the Pre-Production category at least has concept art and cast lists (either/or – rarely both), and the stuff in the IN DEVELOPMENT category … well, you’re just going to have to trust me on that.

In a fit of website spring cleaning, I also added a handful of new sketches. Well, by new I mean written within the last year.

See, as soon as you turn your back, the bullshit creeps back in. I’ve got to go now, Spielberg’s on the phone. I wish he’d stop bothering me …

Categories: Progress, Sad Bastard | 5 Comments

A nice cup of tea

Tea is so important.

I mean this. You’re not a true writer unless you consume your own body mass in tea on a daily basis.

Some writers advocate coffee – they’re wrong.

Some writers, reckless, devil-may-care writers, write on a concoction of drugs and alcohol. Drinking and writing? Lord knows where that can lead.

No, a nice cup of tea (or twelve) and a brace of chocolate biscuits and I’m set for …

I haven’t really got anything to blog about.

You can tell, can’t you?

I’ve spent the day up at POP Productions, my regular corporate gig. I sat and watched two people take four hours to light a bottle of whiskey for a commercial.

Four hours!

Apparently, that’s quite quick for a hero shot. That’s advert terminology for the final shot of the product, or so I’m told.

I have to say, the end result,a bottle of Glenfiddich, slowly revolving against a black background; a golden glow, sparkling in the centre of the honey-gold liquid, was a sight to behold. But, still …

Four hours!

And I think that’s me underestimating it. I’m not counting the lunch break.

On the plus side, I did write a few comedy pieces, including a modern retelling of Cinderella involving leeks, stunt goldfish and a scented hemorrhoid cream. I also wrote up a proposal for two business themed reality shows and looked over some corporate commercial stuff. So it’s not all bad.

Not that watching people scrutinise a bottle isn’t fun.

They even built a little tent around it.

What else? A short film I co-wrote a year (or two?) ago has reared its ugly head again. It’s a good script written with Mick Fowler which has been dogged by production difficulties. Who knows, maybe it will actually move forward this time? Certainly sounds positive.

I actually managed to write a Treason Show sketch (unfortunately, not one suitable for NewsRevue, hence only one lot of money). Not only that, but it actually got performed and by all accounts (one account, from Mark Brailsford, the director) went down extremely well.

That means 100% of the material I wrote got performed. You can make any fact sound good with statistics, can’t you?

And the rest of my time is just fiddling with various projects for various people. Nothing really meaty.

Hence the spiel about tea. Now, I used to be a PG Tips kind of guy; but recently I’ve switched to …

Categories: Sad Bastard | 10 Comments

Virtual money

A couple of weeks back I got an email from the producer of one of my feature scripts.

Not in itself unusual.

In it, said producer, mentioned something which had previously been a source of mild curiosity for me: the budget.

By American standards, it’s nothing. By British standards, it’s a lot. By my standards it’s a fucking fortune.

Quick as a flash I did the maths (a very slow flash, one who uses his fingers a lot) and calculated my percentage: a shit load of money.

My first thought: Fuck me! I’m rich!

My second: I’m going to lose 40% of it in tax! 40% of a shit load is more tax than I’ve paid in my whole working life.

My third thought: does anyone know a good tax lawyer?

The rest of the night’s thoughts (fantasies) revolved around the best way to spend that much money. I’d managed to work my way through most of it, including an argument with my wife about how we were going to spend money we didn’t have, when I got round to reading the rest of the email and put things in context:

The producer was struggling to raise such a large sum.

Bugger.

I have a very laissez faire attitude to the projects of mine in development. If it happens, it happens, but I don’t get my hopes up. You can’t, things fall through much more frequently than they go ahead.

Until now.

All of a sudden it became vitally important that this film gets produced. It really is a shit load of money.

To me, anyway.

Then a lifeline. The producer is approaching exec-producers (or maybe co-producers? Something technical) about coming onboard and adding their weight and name to the project. Several seem interested, one even had a dynamite suggestion:

Shift the production to Eastern Europe and you can knock a third off the budget.

Holy shit! With those few words I just lost a third of a shit load of money! The bastard, he’s taking my money!

Money I haven’t actually got.

Closer examination showed they might be able to half the budget.

Fuck me! I’m losing money hand over fist!

I’m going to have to seriously re-think the Aston Martin situation!

Of course, this is money I haven’t got, haven’t even seen and potentially will never, ever see a penny of. Why am I getting so wound up about it? Obviously, the main thing is to get the film made. No film = no money. Half of a shit load is still a shit load, but half of nothing will always be nothing.

(Pause to check sum on fingers.)

Yes.

I should be looking at the half full glass, not wondering who drank the other half. A difficult task.

It feels a little like a visiting uncle promised me £50, only to look in his wallet and realise all he has is a £20 note. I’m still (hopefully) going to be better off, but not nearly as better off as I could have been.

So why do I feel like I’ve been mugged?

Categories: Sad Bastard | Leave a comment

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