Last week we looked at topical comedy as one of the quickest ways to become a professional paid comedy writer. There’s still time to decide if that’s for you – don’t forget you can sign up at firstname.lastname@example.org today for 10 free daily emails.
Unfortunately writing topical comedy is also one of the most exclusive comedy jobs. At the peak time of my own career as a topical writer I was one of maybe a dozen or so men (yes, all men) on a list who were always contacted when a new topical show started. In the years before my little purple patch there were maybe a dozen more who had since moved on to exciting new jobs writing Hollywood hit movies, novels, Broadway musicals or, in the case of Mark Burton and John O’Farrell, all three.
Because this is Britain and our comedy industry is tiny there had never been quite enough topical comedy to bring through new talent. Writers I worked with on shows like Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You had mostly graduated through the late 1970s and early 80s, a brief moment when the arrival of alternative (Young Ones, Alexei Sayle, French and Saunders) and Oxbridge undergraduate (Fry and Laurie, Emma Thompson) sparked a small explosion on the British comedy scene.
Since then there have essentially been two more ways in to kickstarting your professional comedy writer career – as a stand-up, or by writing a brilliant script that will bring you to the attention of producers and agents. I’ll be looking in more detail at those two in later blogs, but for now I’d like to concentrate on the new way of entering the market.
Doing it yourself has been around for a while – it too sprang to life in the late 1970s, fuelled by the revolution in music that was punk rock. Most people now remember that era for its headlines – the aggression, the spiky haircuts, the noise, Sid Vicious and comedians dressing up pretending to be Sid Vicious. Nowadays punk is viewed through the lens of Johnny Rotten adverts for butter and countless BBC4 documentaries emphasising the aggression, the spiky haircuts and so on.
But punk was so much more than that, the music spawned an entire cottage industry that was an early prototype of the internet. People who had never played an instrument got together and formed a band. Each band split up and created another four new bands. If you weren’t interested in being in a band you started a record label, recorded your mates and sold your dodgy singles with hand-written labels to your local record shop and at gigs.
Through the 80s and 90s a number of punk-inspired moviemakers blasted a similar path to success. Quentin Tarantino, Shane Meadows and Kevin Smith were just a few of the movie directors who taught themselves how to do it. What their early work lacked in professional finesse was more than made up for by real talent- just like the punk bands that came from nowhere.
More recently the digital revolution has changed our entire approach to comedy: how we make it, how we buy it, how we watch it.
Initially the move was slow – the simultaneous arrival of broadband and YouTube saw early adopters like Peter Serafinowicz take time out of his already successful career to create a series of sketches that led soon after to his own TV series – but since then there’s been a steady trickle of TV shows emerging from writers and performers who learned their craft mucking about with camcorders and digital cameras.
The early 2010s saw a steady rise in DIY but the costs of the means of production were still too prohibitive. When James Cary and I started our Sitcom Geeks podcast in 2015 we discussed the options but mainly concluded that the amount of time and money needed to make something that would never look as good as the real thing wasn’t worth the effort.
That’s all changed now. Mac technology means you can write, produce, film, edit and market your comedy masterpiece using your phone. PC and Android is not so easy with one device but the creation of content is almost as straightforward.
Meanwhile podcasting continues to develop and expand. Spotify has moved in, and they have their eye (or ear) on audiobooks next. In the past if you wanted to create audio comedy there was only one place in the world – the BBC – and the decision on what to put out rested with just two people, at least one of whom (the boss of BBC Radio 4) had no expert knowledge of the genre.
Throughout the year I’m going to be looking in greater detail at how you can develop your online comedy voice but here’s a little experiment you might want to try, now:
- Pick up your phone
- Press record
- Turn the camera on yourself
- Talk about the first funny thing that comes into your head
- Turn it off
- Watch it back.
Okay it’s not going to be comedy gold. It may well be complete dross. But in the two minutes it takes you to create that short video you will have learned more about filming, lighting, sound, the visual nature of comedy, the rhythms of funny language, knowing where to edit, what works and what doesn’t, than I managed in the first two years of writing scripts.
Go ahead punk – make it yourself.