Keen to progress in the business of comedy writing, I have given away countless lines hoping to advertise my work and get what I believe is called, ‘paid work.’ Thanks to a series of chats with my very first guest ‘poster’ Charlie Adams, I still tweet away jokes and random thoughts on Twitter throughout my day and post my blog, but I’m saving my best work these days. And I don’t give writing away anymore.
Charlie Adams has spent twenty five happy years writing gags, sketches, introductions and put-downs for the world’s greatest comedians, including Bob Hope, Bob Monkhouse, Les Dawson, Mike Yarwood & Jimmy Tarbuck. He has credits on hundreds of broadcast shows and live productions including comedy, drama, documentary and factual. Here, he shares advice on breaking into the comedy writing business:
First, a warning – There are people in this business who don’t know that comedy writers exist – and we comedy writers have a name for those people. We call them comedians.
From the age of 12 I wanted to be a comedian. I had a huge store of jokes I’d heard on radio, TV and when my parents took me to the theatre on holiday. I read and remembered the hundreds of jokes printed in my comics and in the newspapers we got. Then when I was about 15 I saw the Dick Van Dyke Show. In it he was a comedy writer, he had a fabulous house and a very beautiful wife and so I decided to be a comedy writer.
In a magic shop I bought a joke book for professional magicians. In it the author said it wasn’t necessary to memorise the entire joke only the tag line. He said I’d either remember the set up when I wanted to tell the joke or the tag might fit a completely different set of circumstances. Suddenly I’m talking in punchlines like a New York conjuror. But I was on my way.
Take a chance.
I’d had a few things on Week Ending and The News Huddlines, written for Mike Yarwood, Bob Hope, Brian Conley and Hale & Pace and I sent an idea for a radio show to Bob Monkhouse. He called me and asked me to send him some examples of material I’d written. I sent him everything. Two days later a big envelope landed on the mat and the material was returned. There was a smaller envelope inside and I took out the letter and read it. Monkhouse, a hero, said that all the things he’d liked he’d put a red dot beside. I scanned through the pages for red dots. Not too shabby. At the end of the letter he said he’d like me to do half a dozen topical one-liners for a show he had two days later and he enclosed a cheque for £250. I worked for him on and off for years after.
One day I realised he hadn’t said if he like the radio idea or not. I guess not.
Once I was on a show with BM and we were at Central TV in Nottingham. In the queue for the canteen I made a comment that got a big laugh. Bob said to me, ‘Sell me that gag.’ I said, ‘Have it.’ He got quite angry at this and said ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you say that to anyone. That line is worth money, I can use it every night of the week. How much do you want?’ I said, ‘you can pay for my lunch.’ He looked at my tray; he said ‘Is that all you’re having?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘Done.’
When I was script editor on shows I read everything but I preferred material that was neatly presented with no spelling mistakes and proper punctuation. Obviously, badly typed, error strewn material got read, too, and if it was funny got selected, corrected and considered. But it’s not really the script editor’s job to save your career. You must learn to self-edit and always only submit your best work.
- Read your lines out loud to see if they make sense.
- Put your best, stone bonker certain lines first every time. Put them last they might not read that far.
- Write a lead in for your best gags. An amusing set-up followed by another gag on the subject topped with your best gag – hard to resist.
- As a comedy writer, whether you like it or not, you are in show-business. Whomever you consider to be the best comedy writer in the game is your competition. You start at the top and you’re expected to be good.
- Pay attention to grammar, punctuation, spelling and tone. If you don’t understand those you’re in the wrong job.
- Selling to comics. Ask for the money upfront. If they won’t pay they weren’t gonna pay anyway. If they say, ‘what if I don’t like it?’ they were never gonna pay anyway. If they say, ‘you have no background or reputation,’ they were never gonna pay anyway.
Thanks Charlie! 🙂
I’m currently working on a radio sitcom and a hilarious new novel for women, Mrs David Dando, which you can read about here: http://hell4heather.com/2012/08/02/agreektravesty/