Some answers to the FAQs
There are some things which I’m asked quite often, as a cartoonist and a scriptwriter. Here I’ve tried to answer these questions at some length. We’ll start with the scriptwriting ones; scroll down for the cartoon stuff.
For the most part I’m talking about working in the UK. I’ve got some experience in other countries, mostly the US, but I’ve always been based in Britain.
How can I break into comedy scriptwriting?
My own first steps were in 1991, and the broadcasting landscape has utterly changed since then. All the same, there are some things Kevin Cecil (my writing partner) and myself did then which would still work now.
Our way into comedy was writing shorter things – jokes, sketches and songs, rather than long-form pieces like sitcoms or feature length films. It could be that you want to go straight on to sitcom or film, and miss out the short stage. Now, this might work. People have done it. But you should be aware that it’s like walking into a gym for the first time and deciding to pick up one of the heaviest dumbbells. Maybe you’re naturally strong, and you can do it; but you might want to build your muscles by hefting some of the lighter weights first, which in this analogy are jokes and sketches. You’d be in good company. David Renwick, Andrew Marshall, Richard Curtis, and John Sullivan all wrote many sketches before they went on to write classic sitcoms.
When we started in 1991, there was a weekly topical news based comedy on Radio 4 called Week Ending. If you asked anybody in comedy where to begin writing, they pointed you there. It had an open door policy, and each week’s half hour show might have twenty-five names in the credits. Back then the open door was quite literal; you could walk in off the street, ask for a pass, get one, go to the non-commissioned writers meeting, and pitch directly to the producer. All very pre 9/11.
Although Week Ending is gone, the BBC does have a show with a similar policy on new writers: Newsjack on Radio 4 Extra. It’s a great place to get your first experience of writing. Even if you don’t get stuff on straight away, writing sketches to a deadline and submitting them to a professional, week after week, will hone your skills. Also there is Newsrevue, a weekly on-stage topical comedy show in London which takes sketch submissions.
So far so predictable. You may well have heard other people say go and write for Newsjack and Newsrevue. So I’ll try to dig a little deeper now.
One of the best things you can do is meet other people like yourself. Online certainly, but in the flesh is better still. Comedy loves company. Writing partnerships are much more common than they are in drama. All the comedy that gets made is filtered through producers, directors, performers, script editors. They all have input, and rightly so. The sooner you get used to your staff being constructively critiqued the better. If you can find a couple of like-minded souls, meet up and read each other’s stuff and make suggestions for what’s good and what could be improved, you will learn much faster than you could alone.
Some history to illustrate the point. One of the greatest comedy training grounds ever created was the WW2-era concert party. People who cut their teeth that way went on to dominate comedy for decades afterwards. Off the top of my head – Jimmy Perry, Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Denis Norden, Eric Sykes, Tony Hancock, Benny Hill. Perry even co-wrote a sitcom all about the experience (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum). These were gang shows with a mixture of – as the IAHHM theme tune tells us – songs, and sketches, and jokes old and new. The revue format. And with the end of national service and the demise of variety theatre in the 1950s, that format all but vanished.
But not in Oxford and Cambridge universities. I can’t tell you why the revue show clung on there but not elsewhere; all I know is that it did. Other universities had revues, but only Oxford and Cambridge had strong self-perpetuating revue cultures. That’s how we got the Goodies, the Pythons, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Sandi Toksvig, Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci, Mel and Sue, Fry and Laurie, and so on.
I went to Oxford University. I spent a couple of years devising sketches with my friends, having blazing rows about single punchlines, taking amateurish shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, handing out flyers on Princes Street trying to drag in an audience, and then performing to ten people. Not because I wanted a comedy career at that point, but because it was a fun thing to do. So after graduating, when Kevin and me turned up at Week Ending meetings, we had already got some practice in. Many people in the room were writing their first ever sketches; we’d written and performed dozens. We’d already experienced – quite a few times – the sickening jolt that all new comedy writers get, when an idea that had your mates absolutely falling about in the pub just dies when presented to an audience. You learn a lot from that jolt.
All this amounted a small advantage, but enough to make a difference at that crucial early stage when it’s so easy to give up.
So, if you find a way to meet a few other dreamers, maybe write some sketches, and find a way to perform it to almost nobody – you’ve just given yourself a taste of the Burma concert party/Cambridge Footlights experience.
The internet makes it fairly easy to make contact with like-minded souls. Check out thecomedycrowd.com, a forum specifically designed to do this. Its regular email newsletters alert you to all kinds of opportunities for new writers. Also there is London Comedy Writers. Yes, I know, I know, you don’t live in London. That does put you at a disadvantage if you’re trying to break into comedy, but thanks to the internet, and a BBC comedy department that makes more things than before in Cardiff, Salford and Glasgow, maybe at less of a disadvantage than it used to.
When I began, live performance was the only way to get some flying hours in. Now there’s podcasts and YouTube. It’s not as visceral and immediately instructive as doing it to a real audience. But if you’re prepared to perform your own stuff, or find a friend who’ll do it, putting out short comedy things online is well within everyone’s grasp. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll make mistakes, and the sooner you can start learning. Don’t worry yet about how many views you get.
Some people have done very well through the YouTube route as an end in itself, such as Chris Kendall (@crabstickz). But it does naturally favour the writer/performer over the straight-up writer.
There are more schemes and bursaries for new writers than ever before. Some good ones include; The BBC Writersroom comedy room, The Betty Box and Peter Rogers Comedy Writing Programme, The Bafta Rocliffe comedy writing competition, The David Nobbs Memorial Trust Comedy Writing Competition, and the NFTS comedy writing and producing diploma course. I run a tiny informal mentoring scheme of my own – scroll down to find out more about that.
Another thing you can do is send a script directly to the credited producer of a comedy show that you like. Producers are busy people, but may get the chance to read them if you’re lucky. If they really like what you do, they might just get in touch. Or you could send it to a production company which turns out shows you enjoy.
Any tips for new writers?
This is such an open-ended question that the possible answers feel infinite. But I’ve boiled it down to a few of my favourites.
The first one is: write. This sounds obvious, but it’s something a good number of people who fancy being writers don’t do much of. If you actually write stuff, regularly, this will immediately separate you from the vast number of people who definitely know that if they just wrote down the hilarious things them and their friends got up to, it would be the best show on TV… but who never get round to it for some reason. You might have cracked out some funny tweets, but don’t expect opportunities to drop into lap just because of that. You need to turn out some scripts.
The beauty of writing is that you can just begin any time you like. Actors can’t start work until they get the part; they need permission before they can do their job. You don’t.
Never mind the laptop. You can become a writer with an investment of one quid. At my local pound shop, that buys you a two hundred page lined pad. Pens are free from any betting shop. Go in and grab a fistful. Now write. When you’ve got down something you like, you can type it up for free at the local library then store it in the cloud. One quid.
The barrier to entry is low, but the barrier to success is high. You’re up against a whole lot of other people who want that same sketch commission. More than before, I think. Scriptwriting is a much more visible profession than it was when I began. Back then there were exactly zero courses in comedy writing, no BBC initiatives to find new talent, no YouTube to give people their first sniff. If you’re aiming for a sitcom, it’s even tougher – you’re directly competing with your Sharon Horgans, your Arthur Mathewses, your Peter Kays, for that broadcaster’s limited pot of money. Barring a miracle, your first attempt at a brand new sitcom is going to be knocked back, however passionate you are about it, however much hard-won life experience you ploughed into it.
Which brings me to the second thing you need to do, which is: keep writing. If you really mean business, you won’t stop because Hat Trick didn’t bite on your terrific script about the year you worked in a shoe shop. Be dogged. Have more ideas. Then more. Then a few more. Keep carving out the time. You’ll get better; perhaps good enough for people to start noticing you. They might not say, “please write us a six part series on BBC2!” But they might just say, “please come in to work a bit on our existing show.” This happened to my first mentee, Christine Robertson, who got paid days on Trollied on the strength of her sitcom script sample. It got her foot in the door.
The early stages of a comedy writing career are as much a test of bloody-minded persistence as they are of creative talent. So are the middle stages. And the later stages.
Thirdly: when showing a TV or film script around, always use standard screenplay format. It’s very common for people going into scriptwriting for the first time to just lay it out however they feel. The result is countless weird home-grown variations of font, line spacing and margins. Many of them are just hard to read. They also suggest to the reader you haven’t been reading any scripts by other people, which you really should have been doing if you’re intent on cutting it in the professional environment. Most importantly of all, they make it hard for the reader to get a true sense of the pacing, plot density, scene length and gag rate. All of which are things that the reader will absolutely want to know. Give yourself the best chance, and lay it out right. You’ll lose points for doing it any other way. Here’s a summary of how to do it. Final Draft, the industry standard software, makes it all very easy. However Final Draft is expensive, so if you’re strapped and can’t yet afford it, there are free alternatives. But you should look to get it as soon as you can. Radio formatting is different again: it works like this. This may all seem didactic. But the less time the reader has to spend wrestling with your highly original but awkward bloody layout, the more time they can spend thinking about the actual content of what you’ve written – and that’s where you should be pouring all your originality.
Fourthly: see below in cartoon advice for the ‘look after your body’ section.
Fifthly: learn how to turn your internal editor off for a while. Give yourself the freedom to run away with an idea for a bit without worrying about whether it’s good or bad. Then have a few more ideas in the same way. Then put on your editing hat, look at your ideas and decide what’s good. Then repeat the process. It’s a bit like driving a car from your house to distant destination. There are times when you need to hit the gas, other times where you need to brake, but you don’t want to do both at once. If as soon as you have your first idea of the day you slip into thinking ‘but is it a good idea? Hmm, probably not,’ then you are pulling away with the handbrake on.
Sixthly: you absolutely must learn how to use punctuation and grammar. Most people can’t punctuate for toffee. They don’t put question marks at the end of questions. They either miss out commas or strew them around by the fistful. They don’t use dashes, semicolons or colons, but love to daisy-chain thoughts using the ellipsis. And for most people, that’s absolutely fine. Quarterly reports and Facebook posts from the beach don’t need to be top-drawer writing. But you’re not most people – you’re setting out to be a comedy writer. You’ve got to show people that you’re uncommonly adept with the language. Scripts are always a reading experience before they’re ever performed. Then there are the inevitable pitch documents and story outlines which precede the scripting stage. Every scriptwriter must be a prose writer too.
If you’re reading this and thinking “none of that should matter! If my ideas are funny that’s what counts!”… well, best of luck. Because if you can’t compose sentences well, and I have to expend mental energy re-reading your lines to check what you meant, I’m likely to favour another writer whose stuff reads very well. And if your dialogue is hard for actors to say, you’re sunk. So learn grammar, and learn punctuation.
There’s one common error to watch for – the comma splice. If you don’t know what one of those is, follow that link and find out. It’s a pet peeve of mine, is the comma splice – can you tell? – so I’m attaching more importance to it than anyone else might. But if I’m looking for a fast and fairly reliable indicator of whether or not someone can write well, the comma splice is it. Lots of comma splices = probably can’t. Few or no comma splices = probably can.
I don’t even regard avoiding the comma splice as an absolute rule. There’s a time and a place for everything. But it’s good to learn the rules so you know how to break them, as my English teacher said.
Further reading/listening – you might want to check out the sitcomgeeks podcast and blog.
I’ve got a script – can you read it and give me some feedback?
I have done this quite a lot of times over the years, to people who ask nicely, but I’ve stopped now. It just involves a whole lot of work. If I’m going to give really useful feedback, I can’t just skim-read the thing and send back one or two sentences. I find I have to get right under the bonnet. That means an initial read, taking about 30 to 35 minutes (if it’s sitcom length); another deeper read where I make notes, taking perhaps an hour; a stare-out-the-window half hour where I ponder what I think and how to say it; then an email which is really more like an essay, going into what works, what doesn’t, the story structure, the characters, and some steers for where to take it on the next draft. Then I have to rewrite the email to get out all the typos and make sure my points are as clear as they should be. Add that all up and that’s half a working day. I’ve got scripts and books to write and cartoons to draw, all with deadlines: I don’t have many half days lying idle.
The really tricky part is that the more things that are wrong with the script, the longer it’s going to take me. Some first-time scripts are just not good. I don’t mean your one, obviously. Yours is great. I mean those other ones. Anyway: on occasion I’ve agreed to look at a script, but when I read it my heart sinks because there’s no plot, no characterisation, and not one joke that would get into even the first draft of a broadcast quality show. But I’ve already promised to give feedback, so then I have to spend quite a while explaining some very basic principles of character and story structure, and in such a way but I don’t come across as unnecessarily cruel. That involves some quite careful writing, taking more time – time I’m not spending playing in the sunshine. I’m afraid that I can never tell by a perfectly polite covering email if it’s going to be one of those ones.
Sadly, there are some people who don’t really want feedback at all, even if that’s what they’ve explicitly asked for. What they really want is praise, encouragement, and me saying “I’m going to show this to Charlie Brooker!” Honest feedback to a writer can be painful. You have to sit there and be told what you did wrong. If you did a lot wrong, it’ll sting. I understand that; I’ve had feedback on my material literally thousands of times over twenty five years. It’s the process. Some either don’t know that, don’t get that, or assume that somehow their stuff is so good that it’ll just be waved through like a President’s car, then get on Channel Four next year. Sometimes I’ve been sent a bad script, have given careful notes, then been rewarded for my unpaid hours of work for a stranger with a lengthy and defensive email explaining why I’m wrong on most points. That person has refused to learn anything. But I’ve learned two things; that they’ll never be a writer, and that I’ve wasted my time. Again… I can never tell from a polite covering email if it’s going to be one of those.
So – with regret – outside of my mentoring scheme, I’ve ruled myself out of giving feedback on scripts. It’s too much like a job.
In fact, it is a job; it’s script editing. Which is good news for you, because there are some terrific professionals who will do that job, and give notes on your script, for a fee. You could try Louise Coats (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Andrew Ellard or Dave Cohen.
How does your mentoring scheme work?
Every year or so, I take on one new BAME comedy writer as a mentee for a 12 month period. For that time I’ll read everything they send me, offer notes and advice, and watch out for any breaks I can give them. You’ll find a fuller explanation in this link. The next time it comes up, I’ll make as much noise as I can on social media.
I’ve got a script and I want to send it around. But what if someone rips off my idea?
This is a common dread amongst novice writers. First-timers’ scripts often come with a copyright symbol on the front page, so fearful is the writer that someone will run away with their precious ideas.
You need to stop worrying about this.
Those ideas of yours may not be as sensationally original as you think. There are, at any one time, dozens of people working on a sketch about a man arguing with a taxi driver. Or on a sitcom that’s based in a Greggs. Or a Wolf Of Wall Street-type financial office, or an art gallery, or a crazy flatshare, or a secret base full of alien artefacts. What’s going to mark you out is not what you’re writing about, but how you’re writing it.
So let’s say a producer is reading your script. It’s likely set in a situation which she’s seen in scripts before – but yours is somehow different. The characters are compelling, the jokes are singing, the story weaves and darts rather than plods, and it builds to a great payoff. She might rip off your great material, right? No. If what you’ve written is good enough to get her attention, she won’t be looking to purloin those few jokes in her hand – it’ll be you she wants, and the many more scripts that will come if she can get to work with you. She will be in touch. If your script really is the golden egg you hope it is, everyone will want a meet-and-greet with the goose.
In any case, the comedy business as a whole takes a very dim view of plagiarism. It’s a smallish industry where reputation matters. In twenty-five years, having worked on countless projects with a vast number of people, there’s only been one occasion where someone nicked an idea from Kevin and myself. And zero occasions when we’ve been asked to work on a nicked idea.
How do I break into cartooning?
My route into comedy writing was fairly orthodox. Many parts of my experience can be replicated. That’s harder to say for my cartooning career. But keep reading because I do have a few points to make, and some of them may even be useful.
I was very focused on becoming a cartoonist from 13 onwards. I drew relentlessly as a teenager, experimenting and developing my style. Then at college I drew for every student publication that would take me. This was Oxford University, which back then was heaving with papers and magazines because so many students were eager to pursue journalism as a career. By the time I came out of college in 1991, I was pretty good – but had little idea of where to sit commercially. I was too comicsy for newspapers, too newspapery for comics. I got a strip in a local free paper for a couple of years, and one illustration job for a language textbook, but that was all. The comedy writing career was taking off, so I concentrated on that instead.
When I reached 30 I knew I had to give the cartooning another proper go, or I would burst. I drew the first Bunny Suicides cartoons, and showed them to my writing agent, Ben Hall. Ben represents scripts, not print matter, so sent me down the corridor to meet Camilla Hornby, another agent at the Curtis Brown agency. She took me on. Through Camilla I heard that the magazine section of the Observer wanted a weekly strip. I pitched for it, and got it because one of the people there was a fan of Black Books, a sitcom I was writing for at the time. The strip was called Roasted and ran from 2002 until 2010.
Eventually The Book of Bunny Suicides was published, thanks to editor Katy Follain championing it at Hodder and Stoughton. It came out on 2003 and did very nicely.
So I’m afraid some of my key breaks are difficult for others to reproduce. I got an agent because I was already with the same agency for script writing. Even then, they weren’t (and still aren’t) an agency for visual artists, but rather for authors, actors, presenters and scriptwriters. As far as I know I’m the only cartoonist on their books. I got the Observer strip partly because of a TV show I wrote for. Also, my cartoons themselves benefited a great deal from my scriptwriting experience. I was able to cast aside my clever cross-hatching and really home in the joke, leading me to the blunter yet funnier style that I’ve mostly used since. But it’s hard to say to people, “if you want a break as a cartoonist, it helps to become a comedy writer ten years earlier.” That is, to put it mildly, the long way round.
What it’s like for people who take a more normal route, I can’t really tell you. I’ve never pitched a cartoon to Private Eye, The Oldie or The Spectator. I’ve got no experience in the comics industry (as distinct to the book trade). And because I’ve done a vanishingly small amount of illustration work on other people’s things – only two jobs ever, both from people who already knew me – I don’t know the right approach to get that sort of work either.
If I was starting off now I would probably begin a webcomic or a tumblr feed. These days it would be difficult for me to get interest from a publisher for a humour book in that same way I did in the early 2000s. Back then the world was still on dial-up internet. Viral memes were few, and seen by few. Publishers weren’t looking to them as a source of humour books. Now they love to find things that way, because it produces ideas that are road tested and that a chunk of the buying public might already recognize. One good recent example of this: Rubyetc whose very successful tumblr feed has spawned its own book.
Even if your webcomic doesn’t get much traffic, the discipline of writing and drawing it regularly, even when you may not be in the mood, will be good for you. Being able to produce work when you’re not in the mood is requisite for every creative professional. I’m certain that after a year, you’ll be a noticeably better cartoonist.
Can you help me get my cartoon book published?
I can’t because I’m like you, banging on the gate; I’m not one of the gatekeepers. It’s editors and publishers you want. If you can get an agent first that may help – anything coming from a known and respected agent will get looked at faster. If you’d like me to share a load of useful contacts with you, I’m afraid that’s a list I don’t have. In the book trade I deal with my one agent, my editor at Hodder & Stoughton, my other editor at Hodder Children’s, and that’s it. Your best resource for contacts is the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which comes out annually and is crammed full of useful information, including details on how to send your stuff to just about every agent and publisher in the UK. Whenever sending material to an editor or and agent, be sure to check their preferred method for submissions, which will doubtless be on their website.
Can I collaborate with you on a cartoon project?
Can I send you my cartoons for you to give me your thoughts on?
Possibly, BUT… please ask me first, before you send me files or a link. At any given time, I might be working on a new book project (I’m half way through one as I write this post). If your idea bears even a faint similarity to mine, and it might because people think of similar ideas way more frequently than many people think, that puts me in a problematic position. So I’m often going to say a polite ‘no’ to viewing any cartoons in this way. I hope you understand.
If you send me your cartoon opus without asking me first, I will delete the pictures without looking at them.
Do you have any advice for new cartoonists?
I cover the business (and my untypical route through it) above, but as far as the actual craft of cartooning goes…
Draw from life. Even if your style is very simple, you’ll need to know how a body sags when someone’s tired, how to make eyebrows twist in anguish or jump in delight, how to make a hand look like a hand and not a bunch of bananas. So draw from life. And I don’t mean copying photographs, which removes the tough work of really looking, and seeing not what your mind thinks should be there, but what’s really there. Cartooning is deceptively difficult. Even if it’s as simple as stick figures, you need a lot of drawing ability to make sure your stick figures have more expression, personality and humour than everyone else’s. That’s why people love David Shrigley and Modern Toss. Sure, their stuff looks like a few scrawls that anybody could fling on to a piece of paper. But there’s years of craft behind that, which enables them to fling precisely the right scrawls. And of course, you’ll need to write great material for your simple figures to perform on the page or screen. So writing is another thing you’ll need to practice, even if your cartoons are wordless like my Bunny Suicides. Composing those jokes, polishing them to their absolute best, I would certainly class as a form of writing.
Draw a lot – and without directly copying another artist. It’s the only way to find your unique rhythm. But, having said that…
Look after your body. Your body doesn’t know you’re a cartoonist. It’s not evolved for that. Your body thinks you’re a hunter/gatherer in east Africa 50,000 years ago. You are built to walk twelve miles a day, gather seeds, dig roots, knap flints, swim for shellfish, climb trees for fruit, maybe run down the odd antelope. Hunter-gatherers live varied lives and rarely do one endlessly repetitive physical action. Hunching your back for hours on end, head bent down, one shoulder thrust forward to draw, is a form of bodily misuse. Add to that the other daily strains – computers, games consoles, smartphones, tablets, driving a car. Be honest; how much of your day do you spend doing those things? If it’s a lot, you’re hammering the same few muscles over, and over, and over again. One day that’ll bite you. You’ll develop pain in your hand, arm, neck, shoulder, back, or the whole lot if you’re unlucky, and once it starts it’s hard to stop. So if you want to be a cartoonist, make a couple of investments. Learn how to give yourself trigger point massage using The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davies.* Then make an appointment to see a physiotherapist. Explain to them you’re a cartoonist and that although you’re not hurting now, prevention is better than cure. Draw in front of them for five minutes so they can see how your work, then ask them to prescribe exercises to offset the inevitable strains you’re causing it.** A lot of artists find swimming, pilates and yoga useful.
*Prediction one: you’ll need to loosen your scalenes, pectorals and anterior deltoids on your drawing side.
**Prediction two: you’ll need to strengthen your core, your rhomboids and your posterior deltoids.
Last and most strident point –
DRAW YOUR CHARACTERS FROM SCRATCH EVERY TIME THEY APPEAR. I can hardly believe I have to say this one, but I really do. Photoshop makes it very easy to draw a character once or twice, then use those few images as digital assets which can be re-used over and over. A lot of webcomics are made this way. It makes for an ugly style, with mismatched line weights and tediously repetitive panels. Yes, it’s quick to do. And it means you’re not developing as a cartoonist in any way. You’re de-skilling yourself. Don’t do it! Get drawing! Then your characters will start to come alive.
To show you what I mean – look at Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Many of the strips are just the two main characters talking, but each panel grabs your attention because the figures are so expressive and fun and amazingly well drawn. Calvin and Hobbes is a masterpiece. Now look at the anonymous webcomic Jesus and Mo. It’s been going since 2005, and in all that time the artist has only been bothered to draw each character twice. I’m not exaggerating. Every single frame has the same couple of tedious, dull, stiff pictures cut-and-pasted in. There is simply no reason to look at any given panel because they are all the same. No expression. No development as an artist. Ask yourself who want to be like – the Jesus and Mo artist, or Bill Watterson?
Will you be drawing any more Bunny Suicides?
I’ve done three books of rabbits killing themselves now… that’s about 350 pages of bunny death. I’ll never say never, but I’ve got no plans to do any more. There’s lots of other exciting things I’m getting on with. Not least this children’s book series.
There we go. Maybe your question was covered in there… if it wasn’t, please get in touch on email@example.com. Ta!