Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Clement and La Frenais, French and Saunders, Armstrong and Bain. It’s no coincidence that since the start of radio and TV comedy, there have always been hugely successful writing partnerships.
Norden said you need two people when you’re writing comedy, one to type and one to stare out the window. I’ve written alone and in partnerships, been typer and starer. I enjoy writing alone, but writing with a partner is way more fun.
I’ve been giggling to myself for weeks about a joke I wrote for something that’s a year from happening. I’m desperate to share but it’s not funny out of context. I needed to have someone in the room when I thought of it. Not least because if they hadn’t found it funny, I’d have had to have considered binning it.
You don’t get the same in drama. When Jed Mercurio builds to an exciting climax in episode 83 of Line of Duty, he doesn’t have someone else in the room cowering in the corner to validate that the thing he just thought of is scary enough.
When it comes to topical programmes, having a writing partner is especially helpful. Many of the producers I’ve worked with over the years met me for the first time in the corridors of BBC Radio Comedy where Week Ending was made. Ian Brown and James Hendrie, who have together written hundreds of sitcom episodes for radio and TV, met there. Baddiel and Newman began their partnership writing for that show. Two people I wrote with the most were Jeremy Hardy and Pete Sinclair, both of whom I met there in 1983. 38 years later I still occasionally write with Pete.
Sadly BBC Radio Comedy, where most new writers have always met, no longer has a show for this purpose.
Where else can you go to meet the co-writer of your dreams?
A Good Wag Is Hard To Find
If you’re in London there’s London Comedy Writers (londoncomedywriters.com).
Do you need to be in London? One of the few positives – the only positive – about the BBC shutting down on topical is that it has removed the last reason for having to be in London if you want to be a comedy writer. And to be fair to the BBC they have long pioneered attempts to move the centre of comedy gravity from London to the regions. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Manchester all now have growing comedy departments. And Channel 4, if it survives, is planning to move more programme making to Leeds.
Any reticence to creating our working relationships online has been swept away by the pandemic. Nowadays the most obvious places to meet a partner are the British Comedy Guide (comedy.co.uk) and The Comedy Crowd (thecomedycrowd.com). For a small annual fee you can join BCG Pro and find a ton of resources, while Comedy Crowd hold frequent meetings (still currently online) for new writers.
In both cases though you’re going to have to do a bit of detective work to find like-minded people.
But even when you meet someone, you might struggle to hit it off initially.
I suggest you come together to work on a single project. It could be writing jokes for a series of Breaking The News, or coming up with ideas for The Skewer. Or entering a sitcom/sketch writing competition with a closing date that’s a few months away.
Are You THE One?
A lot of people talk about writing partnerships like they’re marriages, or dating. And there are similarities. Working with a partner I sometimes spent more time with them than my wife. And some of your conversations can be quite revealing and intimate.
But in the early stages of the partnership, it’s more businesslike. Which is good. Imagine you’re looking for a shop to buy a loaf of bread. You might not like the first place you go, but you’re not then going to say “That’s it! I’m through with yeast products. From now on I’m sticking to Ryvita.”
If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay to move on. There’s plenty more fish in the surrealist joke book.
But let’s say you agree, after your initial chat, to give it a go. What should you do?
1 Sign a contract It’s not a formal contract. Initially it’s for a single project. It can be an email. As long as you’ve written something down that both have agreed on. Beyond agreeing to split your earnings and costs 50-50, there’s not a lot else at this stage.
And then it does become like dating. If after that one project you enjoyed the process then by all means have another meeting and discuss if you want to work more.
2 Be realistic I remember the first time Lee Evans met Stuart Silver, who went on to become his co-writer for many decades. I remember because I was there. A few of us were, writing for a TV show for Lee. It was love at first sight. Lee was a generous person in the room but it soon became obvious that this was the start of something big, and the rest of us would be spectators.
The reason I remember it so vividly is because it’s the only time I’ve ever seen that happen. It was the summer of 1990 and here were two people approaching the peak of their successful careers. Be realistic about where your partnership may be going…
3 But dare to dream I have seen how in topical that two heads are often twice as good as one. In the Week Ending days if a writer was struggling with a sketch as the deadline approached he’d often ask someone in the room to come and sit with him (Yes it was always a he back then, sadly). Often the problem was simple enough, it just needed another comedy brain to fix. If you can find ways to complement each other’s writing you can move ahead in this business pretty quickly.
4 Talk about your strengths and weaknesses Ahead of working together it’s worth discussing openly what you believe these to be. Sometimes you don’t know until you start writing with a partner. You may think you’re good at something but the partner might be better. Or the opposite. Either way it’s good to have a little vulnerability out in the open. You need to be able to say “sorry I didn’t find that line funny” without the other person thinking “you know nothing!” and “I hate you!”
5 Work with your differences and similarities Often the similarities can be what brings you together. Pete and I shared interests, a similar sense of humour and similar attitudes to rewriting. At least I thought I was quite thorough at rewriting but Pete was way ahead of me in that field. I think I may have tried to compete with him in the early days but soon let him loose, leaving other areas for me to concentrate on.
6 Enjoy other people’s contributions to your ideas One of the big problems I used to have in writing rooms was lack of confidence. I didn’t always like to shout out. Sometimes I thought of a line but judged myself and held it in. Seconds later someone else would say it and get the credit. Other times I would say it, and the man with the louder voice would run with it and claim it as his own.
This is something I know a lot of women struggle with, one of the reasons why it has taken so long for comedy writers’ rooms in the UK to move into the 21st century, out of the the 19th. When you’re writing with a partner you can enjoy coming up with an idea and watching them run with it. And vice versa. You are a single unit, no one is proprietorial.
7 Enjoy working with others towards a common goal It’s good to accept we can’t do everything ourselves. We need to recognise our limitations. And it’s always a good feeling to be with someone who’s got your back.
8 Have fun Bear in mind that when you’re writing with a partner you’re earning half as much as when you’re on your own. Of course it’s hard work as well, but be sure to enjoy the experience.