Do you want to make a living as a comedy writer? It can be done.
Everyone dreams of writing that hit sitcom or comedy screenplay. But if you want to fulfil those dreams, topical comedy has long been a proven point of entry.
Succession, The Thick Of It, Alan Partridge, Horrible Histories, even the Wallace and Gromit and Arthur Christmas movies were all written by people who began their careers submitting one-line jokes to topical BBC radio shows.
I started writing topical comedy in 1983. One-line jokes and sketches for Week Ending, the Radio 4 comedy training ground that ran 40 weeks a year from 1970-1988. After that I wrote for News Huddlines (Radio 2 1975-2001) and Spitting Image (1984-1994, back in 2020). Performed for three years with the Comedy Store’s Cutting Edge team (established 1990 and still going strong). Spent four years as lead writer on The News Quiz (Radio 4, established 1977 and still going strong). A mere 25 series on Have I Got News For You (BBC1, started 1990 and still going strong, series 62 coming soon).
Other shows come and go but looking at that list you may think becoming a topical comedy writer is the same as it was when I began in 1983, probably writing jokes about war in Afghanistan. And no it wasn’t very funny then, either.
But the landscape has been changing a lot, and there’s more to come. Two years ago the only point of entry for new writers was Radio 4’s Newsjack. This is very much in the mould of old BBC topical shows, one-line jokes and sketches delivered by up-and-coming performers. And it’s been a great training ground for them. Nish Kumar, Miles Jupp, Romesh Ranagathan and Angela Barnes have all achieved greater success.
A Victory For Common Sense, And Satire
Then Spitting Image returned, Trump disappeared (coincidence? You decide? Unlikely that he was brought down by latex but you never know) and covid changed the way we viewed the world.
Meanwhile a new radio show was redefining the parameters for topical comedy. Jon Holmes has been at the forefront of topical shows for decades – one of the founder writers and key members of the Dead Ringers team, then a regular presenter on The Now Show. His new show The Skewer celebrates the medium of radio, splicing together news stories, sounds and music to create an aural sprawl of funny and often hard-hitting comedy.
It’s hard to explain without hearing the show itself why lines like “Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is to be the new host of the Radio panel game Just A Minute” work so well in this format. You might want to find out yourself: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000y0l3
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that writing topical jokes remains the quickest way to kick start your career as a comedy writer.
Jon has been quick to bring on new writers for The Skewer. The BBC continues to produce Newsjack and series 25 should happen in the next few weeks.
Special Guest Jon Holmes
Sitcom Geeks are excited to announce Jon Holmes will be joining us live at 5pm BST next THURSDAY 9 SEPTEMBER. We’ll be hosting a live workshop about how to kick start your comedy writing career by writing topical jokes – and Jon will be there to talk us through the kind of material he’s looking for when the show returns to Radio 4 later in the autumn.
This workshop is the latest in a series we began earlier this year, packed with advice about how to develop your comedy writing career. You can join us by signing in at https://www.patreon.com/SitcomGeeks
If you want to join us or watch the video after, all you have to do is sign up to our Real Mackay tier. It’s $20 (currently around £14.50) and that also gives you access to our previous workshops including How To Get An Agent, How To Plot Your Sitcom and How To Write More And Funnier Jokes. You can join as a one-off or stick around to enjoy many other benefits of Patreon membership including our free books, discounted courses and future workshops.
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And if you want to sign up for a fortnight of free emails about how to write topical comedy you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org