Andy Riley | misterandyriley.com

How To Talk Comedy Writer – Updated

zammo pic

Comedy writers often come up with little pieces of terminology, most of which never get circulated beyond a small group of people. So I’m gathering as many as I can in one glossary so we can all share them. The newest entries are at the top – the most recent updates are 22nd April 2017. If you’re a comedy writer and you’ve got a good one, please email me on luckyheathercomic@gmail.com or tweet me on @andyrileyish…I want this list to keep growing.

Chuffa – a term used by the Parks and Recreation writing team, meaning the random dialogue characters say at the beginning of a scene before getting into the storyline. Here’s an example in the Guardian piece about the late Parks and Rec writer Harris Wittels. “Your favourite kind of cake can’t be birthday cake, that’s like saying your favourite kind of cereal is breakfast cereal.” “I love breakfast cereal!” Then, once those lines are done, it’s on with the real meat of the scene. Good chuffa can liven up any show, cramming it full of fun little ideas which might not hold a storyline on their own but are great fun when they’re explored then thrown away in nine seconds flat. Also, they give some flexibility in the edit. If any piece of chuffa doesn’t turn out to be solid gold when performed, or if the show must lose another half a minute to get to required broadcast length, this sort of material can be sliced off and the audience will never know.

Straight Reversal – via Andrew Marshall. A joke construction that’s very useful in topical comedy, where the premise of the gag is more or less a comical inversion of a real news story. So, after the day when the big topic was the doctor who was dragged off a United Airlines flight, Daftynews.com ran the spoof headline ‘Outcry as shocking scenes emerge of passenger being dragged onto Ryanair flight’. There’s a straight reversal that sticks in my mind from an edition of Week Ending in September 1992. At that time, the national moral panic was ram-raiding (smashing a car into through a shop front and then robbing the shop) and the national laughing stock was the Ratners jeweller’s chain (whose founder Gerald Ratner had just slagged his own products). In the quickie radio sketch, some kids ramraid a shop then one says “Get us back out again, it’s a Ratners!” It would be hard to think up a more 1992 joke than that.

Nixomatosis – via Pete Thornton. More one for producers, but then producers are often writers too. Derived from the verb to ‘nix’ or turn a project down, this affliction sometimes comes to bear when you’ve spent half a day reading five different scripts from five different writers and none of them have made you laugh. At that moment you might start to suspect that you’re suffering from a bout of nixomatosis – or the temporary inability to find anything remotely funny. The only known cure is to go and do something else and come back to them another day, reading them all again, but in a different order.

Not This But – via David Baddiel. When you suggest something obvious, crap, or half-formed, hoping that it’ll get the idea ball rolling and lead to something better. An essential writing tool. Saurabh Kakkar has a slightly different meaning: for him it’s a placeholder line suggested in the room prefaced by ‘not this but…’, which inexplicably makes it in to the final show.

Zammo – a pop culture reference gag that works in the writers’ room but plays to painful silence in front of a youthful audience. This comes from Charlie Brooker. On 10 O’Clock Live, a joke was written which mentioned ‘Zammo’ at the laugh point. It went down well with the team, but Charlie delivered it to utter silence on live TV. Nobody knew who the fuck Zammo was. For those reading this who weren’t born in the early 70s, Zammo Maguire was a popular character in the children’s school-based drama Grange Hill in the mid-80s, who was given a heroin addiction storyline. If you’re a very young writer there’s a risk of pitching what you might call an Inverted Zammo: something the oldies won’t understand. This might be fine, depending on the target audience of the show, but it might not be. When Kevin Cecil and me first wrote for Spitting Image we were 23 and 24. Together with Paul Powell and Georgia Pritchett (also young) we came up with what we thought was a very funny sketch based on Mr. Benn, a 1970s children’s TV series. It didn’t get made because nobody over 30 knew what we were on about. Roger Law, the co-founder of Spitting Image, summed it up in his usual style. “I wasn’t watching Mr. Benn because I was earning a fucking living.”

Additing – an attempt to edit / shorten a script during which you end up adding an unhelpful amount of extra material. (via Charlie Brooker)

Pigeon lands on centre court – something impossibly basic… that everyone laughs at. (via Reece Shearsmith)

Not-It – via Reece Shearsmith. When he and Steve Pemberton are writing, they call poor or obvious name choices “not-its”. So if a posh man is called “Ponsenby-Smythe”, that’s a “not-it”.

Route One – An obvious, unsurprising or unimaginative choice. So, very close to the not-it, but I’ve heard this used with a wider meaning. Not just names but entire storylines can be a bit Route One. (via David Baddiel)

First Cab Off The Rank – via Dan Maier. Another variation on Route One or Not-It. That there’s so many ways to express this idea tells you how much work comedy writers put in to avoid cliches.

Needs a Chiropractic Pass – story NEARLY works but *something* structural needs adjusting. It usually means things are a bit too complicated. (via Charlie Brooker)

Harsh It Up a Bit – to make a punchline more abrupt and brutal. (via Charlie Brooker)

Unfunny Moon – the desolate, airless place that comedians and presenters go to when a joke doesn’t land. Coined by Richard Hammond during conversations with the writers of Top Gear. If they came up with something that wasn’t quite right, Richard would say “are we sure this isn’t booking a trip to the Unfunny Moon?” If a presenter is briefly transported to Unfunny Moon, they might encounter somebody else whose joke died at the same moment on another show. In the next crater along is, say, Rob Brydon. “Another crap Top Gear gag, Rich?” Rob says. “Yeah,” says Richard. “Corporate material not playing well then, Rob?” (via @sniffpetrol)

Evidently Chickentown – this one from Jamie Brittain. If a rewrite requires lots of small but not insignificant changes, and it all adds up to a big pile of work, then it’s evidently chickentown. Although the words come from the John Cooper Clarke poem of the same name, Jamie says the real inspiration for the term comes from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall documentary where the chef had to run a chicken farm. Hugh got very upset about the sheer number of chicks he had to euthanase. Offing a few of them would have been okay, but when there was loads of them, it was a terrible ordeal for Hugh’s soul. Also, the John Cooper Clarke poem does evoke the feeling of a long hard slog. “The bloody clocks are bloody wrong / the bloody days are bloody long / It bloody gets you bloody down / Evidently chickentown.”

Birdbrained Nincompoop – used as an adjective to describe dialogue in a script intended for children, where the insults being thrown between the characters are cliched and unconvincing. When you’re writing for kids there’s a limit to how rude you can be, which can be a problem when characters need to argue. Any birdbrained nincompoop lines need a rewrite. (Via Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil)

Langdon - a joke construction named after the writer John Langdon, who loves to write them. The stages of a Langdon are: (i) two elements are introduced. (ii) It appears that we’re continuing to talk about one of those elements in particular… (iii) but then it turns out we were talking about the other one. A 1980s-style example should make it clear. “Ronald Reagan met a chimpanzee today. The simple, gibbering creature… was delighted to meet a chimp.” Pete Sinclair tells me he’s been using that example to explain Langdons since it was current. And he likes to get at least one Langdon a week into Have I Got News For You. Simon Blackwell recalls that he wrote on Radio Four’s Week Ending, a topical news comedy, at a time when Margaret Thatcher went for tea with General Pinochet. As Simon puts it, the show was “shitting Langdons for weeks.”

The Yes (No) – via Ian Martin. A dialogue trick he picked up from Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong while writing for The Thick Of It. The character says yes but the in-parenthesis says no. So we know that they know they’re lying. A: “You didn’t lose those figures, did you?” B: (yes) “No.”

Send that through to Wording – When you’re writing in a room and you’ve collectively got the shape and structure and comic idea of a gag or scene in place, but it needs writing up/rewriting. Via Simon Blackwell, used while on the Have I Got News For You team. Simon likes the idea of there being a separate Wording department, probably paid less than the writers.

Lightning Rod – a joke put into a script which is deliberately controversial, tasteless or offensive, and designed to attract discussion and worry from producers, executives and (in the US) the Standards and Practices department. The lightning rod will be fretted over and eventually dropped, which is fine… because its true purpose was to deflect attention from another, only slightly less offensive joke which you really want to make it through. Jason Hazeley calls the same thing a ‘Queen Mum’, derived from a joke about the Queen Mother being pregnant which Chris Morris put in a Brasseye script as a hostage to fortune. [via Ed Morrish]

Purple Goat – same as lightning rod. Graham Linehan tells me that’s what they called it on Mister Show.

Clay Pigeon – still another term for Lightning Rod (Via Al Murray, who got it from Dan O’Keefe)

The Tesbury Rule – don’t confect an unconvincing commercial brand name in a script when you mean, for example, Tesco or Sainsbury; it weakens the gag. [via Jason Hazeley]

Gags Beasley – a useful name to invoke when a script needs some solid boffo old-school punchlines. As in “Paging Gags Beasley” or “Can we get a Gags Beasley pass?” It’s derived from the name of Fozzie Bear’s joke writer, who was occasionally mentioned, but never seen, in the Muppet Show. [via Sarah Morgan]

Fish Business – a quick set up, so the story hits the ground running. Invented by Laurel & Hardy. They begin Towed in the Hole, 1932, with the line ‘For the first time in our lives we’re a success – nice little fish business, and making money.’ Hollywood seized on this and throughout the 30’s and 40’s producers would throw first drafts across their desks at writers snarling ‘needs better fish business.’ [via Julian Dutton]

Eating The Sandwich – an expression used by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, inspired by a memorably bad scene they read in a script once: a character drugged a sandwich with some sleeping pills and while on the way to deliver it, forgot, took an absent-minded bite, and passed out. Any time a character seems to be directly causing their own problems in a rather contrived way, they’re ‘eating the sandwich.’ More external pressure is needed to make them do something funny.

Gorilla – a plot point or joke which the audience will remember after the show is finished. Any given show would benefit from one of these, or more than one. Derived (it’s thought) from a theatre piece where a gorilla appeared at a very pleasing point, so everyone went home talking about the gorilla. For writers, it’s worth bearing in mind that some of the greatest gorillas in British sitcom – Brent’s dance, Fawlty thrashing the car, Del falling through the bar and Granddad dropping the wrong chandelier – are primarily visual experiences, not dialogue-based. Consider This is Spinal Tap. Now there’s a movie with an astonishing number of memorable bits, mostly in the form of highly quotable lines. Yet for all that, the comedy high point may well be when the tiny Stonehenge is lowered from the ceiling. No reliance on dialogue there at all, and it’s a massive gorilla. And what’s the best bit in the first Inbetweeners film? Yep. They do a funny dance. [via the Dawson Bros, Gareth Edwards and Stephen McCrum]

Factory Nudgers – what the great (sadly late) writer Laurie Rowley called memorable comedy moments. The principle being that if a bit in a show was sufficiently funny, people at work the next day would nudge each other to quote or re-enact it. So more or less like the gorilla, but harking back to a pre-video age where Britain watched the same shows at the same time, and there were a lot of factories. Laurie had a strong Yorkshire accent, so imagine how great it sounded when he said ‘factory nudgers.’ [via Alan Nixon]

Vomit Draft – AKA ‘Puke Draft’ AKA ‘Draft Zero’ – The very very first draft of a script, which is almost certainly not shown to anyone. It’s invariably full of typos, misfired jokes and logical flaws. Only when the writer has cleaned it up a bit can she/he bear to send it to the producer. This is in quite common use. But Katy Brand has a different meaning. Her Vomit Draft is the second one; based on the Biblical saying from Proverbs verse 26, ‘as a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.’ Not a bad description of the rewriting process.

Red Dot – named after Apple’s tamper-proofing. Adding a reference to someone – e.g. a minor character name – to check that person has really read the script. [via Jim Field Smith]

Detonator Word – the key word that reveals the joke – which should be as close to the end of the punchline as is linguistically possible. [via John O’Farrell]

Scales – the first hour or so on a writing session, when everyone’s flexing their muscles, usually with the most inappropriate and unbroadcastable material [via Jason Hazeley]. If the writers gathered in the room aren’t all acquainted with each other, scales can be a good quick way to get to know each others’ comic sensibilities. Once in the 90s, me and Kevin were working on a mainstreamish ITV pilot, during which we had an ideas session with Kim Fuller who we hadn’t met before. We all quickly embarked on some weird and completely unbroadcastable flights of fancy about the IRA – who were still active at the time. There were some ITV execs in the room; they looked increasingly terrified, imagining that this was the sort of stuff we might write for the show. They didn’t know we were doing scales.

Turd in a Slipper – a joke which feels good, but isn’t really any good. [via Judd Apatow]

Jazz Trumpetry – the extra, unneeded punchline that comes after the punchline you should’ve finished a sketch or scene on. It comes from the Brain Surgeon sketch which the Dawson Brothers wrote for Mitchell and Webb. The original draft was road-tested at (they think) London’s tiny Hen and Chickens theatre, where they had a joke where a rocket scientist comes in and says “Brain Surgery? Not exactly Rocket Science.” Big laugh. But they’d written an extra line after that, where a Jazz trumpeter comes in and finishes his line with “Rocket Science? That’s not exactly Jazz Trumpetry.” It tickled them to write it, but at the test out night, no laugh at all. So Jazz Trumpetry was cut from the final sketch that got on air – and ever since, has been the Dawson Bros’ shorthand for misjudged bonus punchlines. [via Andrew Dawson]

Bananas on Bananas – similar to Jazz Trumpetry. Trying to top a punchline with another punchline right after it, and another, and another. Sometimes this might be great – but when it’s not, and the result is just tiring to watch/read/listen to, then you’ve got Bananas on Bananas. [via James Bachman and Simon Blackwell]

Jengags – as in ‘Jenga gags’, i.e. too many gags piled on top of each other. Same thing, really, as Bananas on Bananas. [via Laurence Rickard]

Jenga Jokes – same meaning as Jengags. This version used by Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. [via Alice Lowe]

Load Bearing Pun – one word carrying the whole damn misunderstanding. [via Al Murray]

Character Gibbons – when writing for Green Wing, Oriane Messina and Fay Rusling talked about ‘character gibbons’, which are basically ‘givens’ but misheard early on in their careers as gibbons. They still refer to the gibbons when developing scenes, character, plot etc. [via Oriane Messina]

Malt Shop – when me and Kevin Cecil were starting out and didn’t know fancy words like ‘epilogue,’ this was how we talked about the short scene at the end of a story when the climax has passed, a couple of loose ends are tied up, there is a final joke, and then that’s the end. It’s from the first few series of Scooby Doo, when the gang typically ended up in the malt shop at the end of each episode. We still use this word all the time, in preference to epilogue.

The dog barks (and everyone laughs) – A final punchline to give you laughter into the credits. Usually at the end of a Malt Shop scene (see above). (via Robert Wells)

Mururoa – a subject that you just can’t write a gag about because the word itself just won’t sit within the rhythm of a joke. This one’s from John O’Farrell. When he was writing comedy monologues in the 90s, there was an ongoing news story about the French doing nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll, but he discovered that the place name just has all the wrong letters to be used in a punchline (i.e. the opposite of Cockermouth).

Gag desert – the bit of comedy script which goes on for too long without a joke. [via John O’Farrell]

Group 4 – a subject that is held in such public ridicule that just mentioning it in a topical show can get you a big laugh. Group 4 Security used to get this reaction on Have I Got News For You in the 90s, as did the M25. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games, it was the G4S security firm (AKA the renamed Group 4). Going back to the early 90s, Ratners (the jewellery shop) was the comedy touchstone. Still further back in the late 70s/early 80s, it was British Rail, and even more specifically, the British Rail pork pie. Group Fours which never seem to go away: Pot Noodle, and Sting’s tantric sex. [via John O’Farrell]

Grand Maison – something you’ve made up for the sake of the punchline. In one sense, everything in a script is a Grand Maison; but the term is just used to describe the moments when it feels forced and contrived. From a sketch containing the following exchange:
BARISTA: And would you like that piccolo, medio, or Grand Maison?
CUSTOMER: Grand Maison? That sounds like a big French house!
This comes via Ed Morrish, heard from Jon Hunter. Dan Harmon has a similar term: Monopoly Guy. He derives this from the second Ace Ventura film, where Ace insults a man who just happens to look like the Monopoly guy by calling him ‘Monopoly guy.’

Logic Police – when there is a logical flaw in a script which is significant enough to cause problems, somebody – an actor, producer, director, script editor, or the writer him/herself – must appoint themselves the ‘logic police’ and point it out. It’s no fun, being logic police; your intervention might mean junking a joke, a scene, or even a whole storyline which people like. It’s an ugly but necessary job.

The F***ing Crowbar – cramming in an F-bomb before the final word(s) of a punchline for added pizzazz. Normally effective, but a soft indicator that the joke isn’t one of the best. [via @smilingherbert]

Garden Birds – denotes an unnecessary bit of explanation after the punchline has been delivered and everyone has got the gag. John O’Farrell’s grandfather had a pre-war joke book, with one tortuous tale about an outraged radio listener writing to the BBC after he’d heard the phrase ‘tits like coconuts.’ The BBC’s reply informed him that if he’d continued listening he would have heard ‘while sparrows like breadcrumbs for the talk had been of garden birds’. The laugh is on ‘breadcrumbs’, you don’t need to explain any further.

Baroqueney – pronounced ‘baroque-knee.’ A combination of ‘baroque’ and ‘cockney.’ This is a style of dialogue which came riding hard into British cinema at the end of the nineties, in the films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Gangster No.1 and Sexy Beast. Cockney villain talk, but full of as many interesting verbal images, surprising similes and inventive insults as you can cram in. Me and Kevin Cecil parodied it when writing the part of the East End Thug, a part played by Alan Ford in The Armando Iannucci Shows. The Fast Show did a great spoof of it too, called ‘It’s a Right Royal Cockney Barrel Of Monkeys.’

Ruffle – an aspect of a joke (a name, or reference) which is getting in the way and making things less clear. In the script editing process for the BBC2 chef comedy Whites, there was a reference to a character called Jamie, which made you think of Jamie Oliver. That was a ruffle, so it went. [Via Simon Blackwell]

Bicycle cut – aka the bicycle joke, or a ‘Last Of The Summer Wine.’ A character ends a scene by firmly stating that they will not do a certain thing – for example, riding a bike. The next scene begins with that character doing that thing. Roy Clarke wrote tons of these for Compo in Last of the Summer Wine. “You’re not getting me in that thing with wheels and no brakes!” Cut to Compo, poised to go downhill in that thing with wheels and no brakes. Dave Gorman calls the same thing the B.A. Baracus, as in “I ain’t gettin’ in no plane!”… cut to B.A. in a plane. [via Graham Linehan]

Gilligan Cut – a common American term for the bicycle cut. Derived from Gilligan’s Island. The term Gilligan Cut is never used in the UK because Gilligan’s Island has only been shown very rarely, and even then not in all regions of the country.

Foggy Says He Knows The Way – a joke construction, something like the mirror image of the bicycle cut. In the nineties, when Kevin Cecil and I were writing for The Saturday Night Armistice (AKA the first series of The Friday Night Armistice), we spent a couple of days working in a room normally used by the production team of Last Of The Summer Wine. The best known story from that week has been related by Armando Iannucci in interviews from time to time. A large board was covered with cards detailing Summer Wine plots; Foggy does this, Compo does that. I began adding cards with scenes like ‘Compo bursts puppy with cock’ and ‘Compo finds the body of a child in a burned-out car.’ But I also remember two cards in particular (not ones I added); ‘Foggy says he knows the way,’ followed by the scene ‘Foggy gets lost.’ For me this encapsulated a very elemental comic building block. Character confidently says they can do something; character tries but fails to do that thing. Most scripts, somewhere in them, have a ‘Foggy says he knows the way’ bit.

The Deja Vu Closer - – referring to the subject of a joke earlier in the set within the final joke. A stand up tool, more than a scriptwriting one. [via @SmilingHerbert]

Chutney – stuff that characters are saying in the background, which you don’t normally add into the script until very late because it’s not material which needs jokes. Writing for Veep, chutney often takes the form of perfectly serviceable political speeches, while the real funny material is going on amongst other characters in the foreground. I don’t know if this term exists outside the Veep/Thick Of It writing team.

Scud – a joke that ends up getting the wrong target. E.g. “the energy companies have done some truly appalling things– one of them based itself in Newport.” The punchline is saying that Newport is shit, and not saying anything about the energy companies. Named after the outdated and inaccurate Soviet missile used by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war. [Via Pete Sinclair]

Lampshading – addressing a flaw, recurring trope or plot hole by having a character point it out. There’s a nice example of lampshading in the book of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Just after Violet Beauregarde has been maimed by Wonka’s chewing gum, and the oompa loompas have sung about what a terrible thing chewing gum is, one of the parents asks Wonka: if it’s so bad, why are you making it? Wonka gives a short evasive answer, then the story moves briskly on. [via David Simpkin]

Frampton Comes Alive – in a sitcom written by Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, the script editor wanted them to change a reference to Pete Frampton’s ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ (as an embarrassing album to have owned) to ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ So Steve and Hugh use it to mean a situation when a niche example will be really funny, but only to a small number of people, as opposed to a mainstream example which everyone will know, but which isn’t funny.

F.I.T.O. – stands for ‘Funny In The Office’ – a joke that gets a big laugh at the read-through in the production company, but only because of some in-joke or particular reference that won’t play outside the room. [via John O’Farrell]

Two Sock – when you find yourself using two jokes/motivations/expositions, when only one is necessary. [via Kieron Quirke]

Hat On A Hat – this is in very common use in the USA, and has a similar yet subtly different meaning to ‘Two Sock.’ A Hat On A Hat is an occasion where two funny things are happening at the same moment in the script, or immediately adjacent moments, and those two comic ideas are each distracting from the other. The solution is normally simple: remove one of them.

North by Northwest Gag – Prop introduced at beginning of scene, which stays in shot. Later used to pay off a joke after audience have accepted, then forgotten, its presence. [via @richardosmith1]

Fridge – the piece of paper, noticeboard, book or computer file where you put the jokes you cut for whatever reason, but which may work in another time and place. ‘Fridge’ came from Gareth Edwards, but lots of writers have different names for the same thing. Sarah Morgan has a ‘bottom drawer.’ Dave Cohen has a ‘shoebox.’ Greg Daniels calls it ‘the sweetie bag.’ When writing In The Loop, Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong called theirs ‘the fun bucket.”

Doofer – Paul Bassett Davies says his mother and her friends used this word in the second world war, to describe a saved half-smoked cigarette that will ‘do for later.’ For Paul, it’s a gag he’ll use later. So, a good example of the sort of thing you’d put in the Fridge (see above).

The Restaurant on the Corner – (American) – a bit in a script where no matter what joke you put there, its still never quite works. Also called a ‘Bono’, after a restaurant opened by Sonny Bono in West Hollywood. It shut quickly, as did every other restaurant which opened on the same spot. Writers working nearby decided the corner must be cursed. If you have a Bono in a script, it will be a gradual realisation, because it always feels like something SHOULD work there, and you might try a dozen or more things before the truth dawns. You can only deal with a Bono by taking apart and rebuilding a larger section around it – probably the whole scene, maybe even a bit more. [via Dave Cohen]

Killing Kittens – removing jokes which you really love, because they’re getting in the way of the story. [Chris Addison]. Also known as ‘stripping the car.’ [Joel Morris]

Bucket – strong, simple idea to contain all the nonsense you want to put in. ‘Parody of air disaster film’ is a great bucket. [Joel Morris]. Not related to ‘fun bucket.’

Oxbow Lake – the rewriting process produces these. A bit in a script which used to have some plot/character importance, but as the story has changed around it, no longer has a purpose. You have to remove it on the next draft. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong use this term. Me and Kevin Cecil call them ‘hangovers.’

Rabbit hole – a fact you check on the Internet and that’s the rest of the morning gone. [John Finnemore]

Joke Impression – a line that sounds like a joke, and has the rhythms of a joke, but isn’t actually a joke. Also known as ‘hit and run’, ‘joke-like substance’ or ‘Jokoid’ [John Vorhaus, from his very good primer ‘The Comic Toolbox’]. A joke impression has its uses. When you are thundering down a first draft, and are more concerned about the overall structure than individual jokes, you can slot in a few joke impressions at spots in the script where a good joke is hard, in the full knowledge you can come back later and fix them. I’ve been told of a more aggressive use for them too. I was told that when Jim Davidson knows one of his writers will be in the audience, he picks out one joke which is clearly a dud, a joke impression, and tells the writer he’s going to deliver it anyway and make the audience laugh – even though it doesn’t make any sense. The subtext: Jim is saying “I’m the one who brings the magic, not you.”

Fridge joke AKA ‘Refridgerator Logic’ – related to the joke impression. The audience realise they laughed at something that didn’t actually make sense, but much later, when they are (for example) getting something from the fridge. [via David Tyler]

On The Nose – very widely used, this one. A line which is on the nose is just too clumsily obvious, too direct, and lacks subtext.

Gerbeau – a joke that literally nobody but you is going to get, but it does no damage, so it stays in. Derived from “please yourself,” which shortens to ‘P .Y.’, Which then becomes Gerbeau after P.Y. Gerbeau, the guy who ran the millennium dome. The term Gerbeau is itself a nice example of a Gerbeau. [Via Joel Morris]

Two Percenter – similar to the Gerbeau. Only two percent of your audience will get it. [via Jane Espenson and Dave Cohen]

Plotential – and the idea or situation which has the potential to be developed into a full-blown plot. As in “does this idea have plotential?” [via Sam Bain – though he does stress that he and Jesse Armstrong are mostly taking the piss when they say this in conversation]

Nakamura – The most nightmarish of writer’s problems. It’s when there’s a huge issue with a script which effectively means that the whole thing is holed below the waterline. This derives from the writing team for The Odd Couple, who once hinged a storyline on the highly doubtful premise that the name ‘Doctor Nakamura’ was intrinsically hilarious. Come the day of the record, the studio audience sat silently through all the Nakamura material.

Nunya – a work at an embarrassingly unready stage. If anybody asks about it, you say “nunya business.”

Cut and Shut – a term borrowed from the motor trade (welding two halves of two cars together). This refers to a conceit which is essentially two normally incompatible ideas, bolted together. An example: Big Train‘s cattle auction, where they are not cattle, they are new romantics. (via Jason Hazeley)

Frankenstein Draft – a script that suffers over time from bolting on too many slavishly implemented notes.

Frankenstein (verb) – Joining already-written scenes together in a highly inelegant way. You know it’s not pretty, but it’s a temporary tool which might give you some idea how the completed sequence might work. Frankensteining is very common when writing animated movies, in which the scripting is often done alongside storyboarding. [Andy Riley]

Pitcheroo – anything which reads well in a pitch document or story outline, which you know won’t quite hold water when you are writing the actual script. But very handy if you’re up against it time wise, and you need to convey what it is you’re intending to write, but you haven’t got the hours to crack every single story beat. An example might be “They escape from the party, and then…” How do they escape from the party? Won’t they need an excuse, or will they climb out the window? Who knows? You know you’ll need to cover that in the end, but so long as it’s followed up with a funny idea in the second half of that sentence, you can get away with it for now. Because most people read pitches and story outlines much too fast, effective pitcheroos are never spotted. [Andy Riley/Kevin Cecil]

Gooberfruit – when you’re a British writer, and you’re writing a script set in America with American characters, some words need to change. Some of them everybody knows; lift becomes elevator, pavement becomes sidewalk. But sometimes you’ll realise, as you’re scripting, that a British word probably has a different American word which you can’t quite recall. You might not want to interrupt your writing flow by diving into google at that moment, so best write the British word, pin it as a ‘gooberfruit’ – a word needing US translation – and carry on. You can come back to it later. Derived from the tendency of fresh groceries to go under different names in America; eggplant for aubergine, zucchini for courgette, etc. [via Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil]

Bull – coined by Sid Caesar. A line which diminishes the speaker’s status, against their intent. Example: “I don’t need anybody to help me look stupid.” (Via Paul Foxcroft)

Laying Pipe – this one’s commonly used in America. It means planting the exposition which is necessary for the audience to understand what’s going on. This can be done elegantly; like in Monsters Inc, where the first 15 minutes of the movie lays out a mass of exposition about how the monster world works, but all with scenes which also advance the story and have jokes in. Or it can be done bluntly; like in Looper, where the complex rules of the world are explicitly laid out in voice-over.

Shoe leather – similar to laying pipe.

Crossword clue – a joke based on a brilliant verbal trick or pun… At which nobody laughs. [via David Tyler]

CBA – Meaning “could be anything.” [via Graham Linehan] A joke where a key component is interchangeable with many other options. An example of this is in the ‘Party’ episode of Black Books, where Bernard asks Manny what he managed to talk about at the party with Rowena, the girl he fancies. ‘Offshore wind farms,’ says Manny. We could have written in any boring-sounding subject there, so a vast number of potential choices, but offshore wind farms sounded right.

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.

Please note: 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, the act of 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 little self-perpetuating scenes. That’s how we got the Goodies, the Pythons, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Not The Nine O’Clock News, 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 Peter Kays, your Arthur Mathewses. 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. And they make it really hard for the reader to guess how long your scenes are and get a true sense of the pacing. 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 until you can justify the cost right now, there are free alternatives. Radio formatting is different again: it works like this.

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.

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 a couple of 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 a broadcast 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. Honest feedback to a writer can be painful. You have to be willing to be told what you did wrong. That can be painful. I understand that; I’ve been through it literally thousands of times over twenty five years. It’s part of the process. Sometimes I’ve been sent a bad script, have given it some honest but generous criticism, and been rewarded for my unpaid hours of work for a stranger with a lengthy, terse, defensive email explaining why I’m wrong on every point. That person has refused to learn anything. But I’ve learned two things; that they will 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 (louisecoats224@gmail.com) 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 fear among 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 probably 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 to talk to 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 nine years earlier.” That is, to put it mildly, the long way round.

What it’s like for people who take a more normal route, it’s hard for me to say. I’ve never pitched a cartoon to Private Eye, The Oldie or The Spectator. I have no experience in the comics industry (as opposed to the book trade), so can’t give you any steers in that area. 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?

Sorry but I can’t help you with that 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 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 two editors, and that’s about 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?

Sorry, but no.

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 at times, I’m going to say a polite ‘no’ to viewing any cartoons in this way. I hope you understand.

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.

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 luckyheathercomic@gmail.com. Ta!

How To Talk Comedy Writer – Updated!

reagan_chimp

A couple of years ago, I put together a list of weird little bits of terminology that comedy writers use. Only a few of these can be found in books about writing – most are terms that have grown out of writers’ rooms, email exchanges, and talking shop in the pub. Some are in wide use: others used by literally only a couple of people. I’ve just been told a lot more of them so the list has grown, a lot. Please enjoy.

Langdon - a joke construction named after the writer John Langdon, who loves to write them. The stages of a Langdon are: (i) two elements are introduced. (ii) It appears that we’re continuing to talk about one of those elements in particular… (iii) but then it turns out we were talking about the other one. A 1980s-style example should make it clear. “Ronald Reagan met a chimpanzee today. The simple, gibbering creature… was delighted to meet a chimp.” Pete Sinclair tells me he’s been using that example to explain Langdons since it was current. And he likes to get at least one Langdon a week into Have I Got News For You.

The Yes (No) – via Ian Martin. A dialogue trick he picked up from Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong while writing for The Thick Of It. The character says yes but the in-parenthesis says no. So we know that they know they’re lying. A: “You didn’t lose those figures, did you?” B: (yes) “No.”

Send that through to Wording – When you’re writing in a room and you’ve collectively got the shape and structure and comic idea of a gag or scene in place, but it needs writing up/rewriting. Via Simon Blackwell, used while on the Have I Got News For You team. Simon likes the idea of there being a separate Wording department, probably paid less than the writers.

Lightning Rod – a joke put into a script which is deliberately controversial, tasteless or offensive, and designed to attract discussion and worry from producers, executives and (in the US) the Standards and Practices department. The lightning rod will be fretted over and eventually dropped, which is fine… because its true purpose was to deflect attention from another, only slightly less offensive joke which you really want to make it through. Jason Hazeley calls the same thing a ‘Queen Mum’, derived from a joke about the Queen Mother being pregnant which Chris Morris put in a Brasseye script as a hostage to fortune. [via Ed Morrish]

The Tesbury Rule – don’t confect an unconvincing commercial brand name in a script when you mean, for example, Tesco or Sainsbury; it weakens the gag. [via Jason Hazeley]

Gags Beasley – a useful name to invoke when a script needs some solid boffo old-school punchlines. As in “Paging Gags Beasley” or “Can we get a Gags Beasley pass?” It’s derived from the name of Fozzie Bear’s joke writer, who was occasionally mentioned, but never seen, in the Muppet Show. [via Sarah Morgan]

Fish Business – a quick set up, so the story hits the ground running. Invented by Laurel & Hardy. They begin Towed in the Hole, 1932, with the line ‘For the first time in our lives we’re a success – nice little fish business, and making money.’ Hollywood seized on this and throughout the 30’s and 40’s producers would throw first drafts across their desks at writers snarling ‘needs better fish business.’ [via Julian Dutton]

Eating The Sandwich – an expression used by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, inspired by a memorably bad scene they read in a script once: a character drugged a sandwich with some sleeping pills and while on the way to deliver it, forgot, took an absent-minded bite, and passed out. Any time a character seems to be directly causing their own problems in a rather contrived way, they’re ‘eating the sandwich.’ More external pressure is needed to make them do something funny.

Gorilla – a plot point or joke which the audience will remember after the show is finished. Any given show would benefit from one of these. Derived (it’s thought) from a theatre piece where a gorilla appeared at a very pleasing point, so everyone went home talking about the gorilla. For writers, it’s worth bearing in mind that some of the greatest gorillas in British sitcom – Brent’s dance, Fawlty thrashing the car, Del falling through the bar and Granddad dropping the wrong chandelier – are primarily visual experiences, not dialogue-based. [via the Dawson Bros, Gareth Edwards and Stephen McCrum]

Factory Nudgers – what the great (sadly late) writer Laurie Rowley called memorable comedy moments. The principle being that if a bit in a show was sufficiently funny, people at work the next day would nudge each other to quote or re-enact it. So more or less like the gorilla, but harking back to a pre-video age where Britain watched the same shows at the same time, and there were a lot of factories. Laurie had a strong Yorkshire accent, so imagine how great it sounded when he said ‘factory nudgers.’ [via Alan Nixon]

Vomit Draft – AKA ‘Puke Draft’ AKA ‘Draft Zero’ – The very very first draft of a script, which is almost certainly not shown to anyone. It’s invariably full of typos, misfired jokes and logical flaws. Only when the writer has cleaned it up a bit can she/he bear to send it to the producer. This is in quite common use. But Katy Brand has a different meaning. Her Vomit Draft is the second one; based on the Biblical saying from Proverbs verse 26, ‘as a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.’ Not a bad description of the rewriting process.

Red Dot – named after Apple’s tamper-proofing. Adding a reference to someone – e.g. a minor character name – to check that person has really read the script. [via Jim Field Smith]

Detonator Word – the key word that reveals the joke – which should be as close to the end of the punchline as is linguistically possible. [via John O’Farrell]

Scales – the first hour or so on a writing session, when everyone’s flexing their muscles, usually with the most inappropriate and unbroadcastable material. [via Jason Hazeley]

Turd in a Slipper – a joke which feels good, but isn’t really any good. [via Judd Apatow]

Jazz Trumpetry – the extra, unneeded punchline that comes after the punchline you should’ve finished a sketch or scene on. It comes from the Brain Surgeon sketch which the Dawson Brothers wrote for Mitchell and Webb. The original draft was road-tested at (they think) London’s tiny Hen and Chickens theatre, where they had a joke where a rocket scientist comes in and says “Brain Surgery? Not exactly Rocket Science.” Big laugh. But they’d written an extra line after that, where a Jazz trumpeter comes in and finishes his line with “Rocket Science? That’s not exactly Jazz Trumpetry.” It tickled them to write it, but at the test out night, no laugh at all. So Jazz Trumpetry was cut from the final sketch that got on air – and ever since, has been the Dawson Bros’ shorthand for misjudged bonus punchlines. [via Andrew Dawson]

Bananas on Bananas – similar to Jazz Trumpetry. Trying to top a punchline with another punchline right after it, and another, and another. Sometimes this might be great – but when it’s not, and the result is just tiring to watch/read/listen to, then you’ve got Bananas on Bananas. [via James Bachman and Simon Blackwell]

Jengags – as in ‘Jenga gags’, i.e. too many gags piled on top of each other. Same thing, really, as Bananas on Bananas. [via Laurence Rickard]

Jenga Jokes – same meaning as Jengags. This version used by Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. [via Alice Lowe]

Load Bearing Pun – one word carrying the whole damn misunderstanding. [via Al Murray]

Character Gibbons – when writing for Green Wing, Oriane Messina and Fay Rusling talked about ‘character gibbons’, which are basically ‘givens’ but misheard early on in their careers as gibbons. They still refer to the gibbons when developing scenes, character, plot etc. [via Oriane Messina]

Malt Shop – when me and Kevin Cecil were starting out and didn’t know fancy words like ‘epilogue,’ this was how we talked about the short scene at the end of a story when the climax has passed, a couple of loose ends are tied up, there is a final joke, and then that’s the end. It’s from the first few series of Scooby Doo, when the gang typically ended up in the malt shop at the end of each episode. We still use this word all the time, in preference to epilogue.

Mururoa – a subject that you just can’t write a gag about because the word itself just won’t sit within the rhythm of a joke. This one’s from John O’Farrell. When he was writing comedy monologues in the 90s, there was an ongoing news story about the French doing nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll, but he discovered that the place name just has all the wrong letters to be used in a punchline (i.e. the opposite of Cockermouth).

Gag desert – the bit of comedy script which goes on for too long without a joke. [via John O’Farrell]

Group 4 – a subject that is held in such public ridicule that just mentioning it in a topical show can get you a big laugh. Group 4 Security used to get this reaction on Have I Got News For You in the 90s, as did the M25. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games, it was the G4S security firm (AKA the renamed Group 4). Going back to the early 90s, Ratners (the jewellery shop) was the comedy touchstone. Still further back in the late 70s/early 80s, it was British Rail, and even more specifically, the British Rail pork pie. Group Fours which never seem to go away: Pot Noodle, and Sting’s tantric sex. [via John O’Farrell]

Grand Maison – something you’ve made up for the sake of the punchline. In one sense, everything in a script is a Grand Maison; but the term is just used to describe the moments when it feels forced and contrived. From a sketch containing the following exchange:
BARISTA: And would you like that piccolo, medio, or Grand Maison?
CUSTOMER: Grand Maison? That sounds like a big French house!
This comes via Ed Morrish, heard from Jon Hunter. Dan Harmon has a similar term: Monopoly Guy. He derives this from the second Ace Ventura film, where Ace insults a man who just happens to look like the Monopoly guy by calling him ‘Monopoly guy.’

Logic Police – when there is a logical flaw in a script which is significant enough to cause problems, somebody – an actor, producer, director, script editor, or the writer him/herself – must appoint themselves the ‘logic police’ and point it out. It’s no fun, being logic police; your intervention might mean junking a joke, a scene, or even a whole storyline which people like. It’s an ugly but necessary job.

The F***ing Crowbar – cramming in an F-bomb before the final word(s) of a punchline for added pizzazz. Normally effective, but a soft indicator that the joke isn’t one of the best. [via @smilingherbert]

Garden Birds – denotes an unnecessary bit of explanation after the punchline has been delivered and everyone has got the gag. John O’Farrell’s grandfather had a pre-war joke book, with one tortuous tale about an outraged radio listener writing to the BBC after he’d heard the phrase ‘tits like coconuts.’ The BBC’s reply informed him that if he’d continued listening he would have heard ‘while sparrows like breadcrumbs for the talk had been of garden birds’. The laugh is on ‘breadcrumbs’, you don’t need to explain any further.

Baroqueney – pronounced ‘baroque-knee.’ A combination of ‘baroque’ and ‘cockney.’ This is a style of dialogue which came riding hard into British cinema at the end of the nineties, in the films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Gangster No.1 and Sexy Beast. Cockney villain talk, but full of as many interesting verbal images, surprising similes and inventive insults as you can cram in. Me and Kevin Cecil parodied it when writing the part of the East End Thug, a part played by Alan Ford in The Armando Iannucci Shows. The Fast Show did a great spoof of it too, called ‘It’s a Right Royal Cockney Barrel Of Monkeys.’

Ruffle – an aspect of a joke (a name, or reference) which is getting in the way and making things less clear. In the script editing process for the BBC2 chef comedy ‘Whites’, there was a reference to a character called Jamie, which made you think of Jamie Oliver. That was a ruffle, so it went. [Via Simon Blackwell]

Bicycle cut – aka the bicycle joke, or a ‘Last Of The Summer Wine.’ A character ends a scene by firmly stating that they will not do a certain thing – for example, riding a bike. The next scene begins with that character doing that thing. Roy Clarke wrote tons of these for Compo in Last of the Summer Wine. “You’re not getting me in that thing with wheels and no brakes!” Cut to Compo, poised to go downhill in that thing with wheels and no brakes. Dave Gorman calls the same thing the B.A. Baracus, as in “I ain’t gettin’ in no plane!”… cut to B.A. in a plane. [via Graham Linehan]

Gilligan Cut – a common American term for the bicycle cut. Derived from ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ The term Gilligan Cut is never used in the UK because Gilligan’s Island has only been shown very rarely, and even then not in all regions of the country.

Foggy Says He Knows The Way – a joke construction, something like the mirror image of the bicycle cut. In the nineties, when Kevin Cecil and I were writing for The Saturday Night Armistice (AKA the first series of The Friday Night Armistice), we spent a couple of days working in a room normally used by the production team of Last Of The Summer Wine. The best known story from that week has been related by Armando Iannucci in interviews from time to time. A large board was covered with cards detailing Summer Wine plots; Foggy does this, Compo does that. I began adding cards with scenes like ‘Compo bursts puppy with cock’ and ‘Compo finds the body of a child in a burned-out car.’ But I also remember two cards in particular (not ones I added); ‘Foggy says he knows the way,’ followed by the scene ‘Foggy gets lost.’ For me this encapsulated a very elemental comic building block. Character confidently says they can do something; character tries but fails to do that thing. Most scripts, somewhere in them, have a ‘Foggy says he knows the way’ bit.

The Deja Vu Closer - – referring to the subject of a joke earlier in the set within the final joke. A stand up tool, more than a scriptwriting one. [via @SmilingHerbert]

Chutney – stuff that characters are saying in the background, which you don’t normally add into the script until very late because it’s not material which needs jokes. Writing for Veep, chutney often takes the form of perfectly serviceable political speeches, while the real funny material is going on amongst other characters in the foreground. I don’t know if this term exists outside the Veep/Thick Of It writing team.

Scud – a joke that ends up getting the wrong target. E.g. “the energy companies have done some truly appalling things– one of them based itself in Newport.” The punchline is saying that Newport is shit, and not saying anything about the energy companies. Named after the outdated and inaccurate Soviet missile used by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war. [Via Pete Sinclair]

Lampshading – addressing a flaw, recurring trope or plot hole by having a character point it out. There’s a nice example of lampshading in the book of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Just after Violet Beauregarde has been maimed by Wonka’s chewing gum, and the oompa loompas have sung about what a terrible thing chewing gum is, one of the parents asks Wonka: if it’s so bad, why are you making it? Wonka gives a short evasive answer, then the story moves briskly on. [via David Simpkin]

Frampton Comes Alive – in a sitcom written by Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, the script editor wanted them to change a reference to Pete Frampton’s ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ (as an embarrassing album to have owned) to ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ So Steve and Hugh use it to mean a situation when a niche example will be really funny, but only to a small number of people, as opposed to a mainstream example which everyone will know, but which isn’t funny.

F.I.T.O. – stands for ‘Funny In The Office’ – a joke that gets a big laugh at the read-through in the production company, but only because of some in-joke or particular reference that won’t play outside the room. [via John O’Farrell]

Two Sock – when you find yourself using two jokes/motivations/expositions, when only one is necessary. [via Kieron Quirke]

Hat On A Hat – this is in very common use in the USA, and has a similar yet subtly different meaning to ‘Two Sock.’ A Hat On A Hat is an occasion where two funny things are happening at the same moment in the script, or immediately adjacent moments, and those two comic ideas are each distracting from the other. The solution is normally simple: remove one of them.

North by Northwest Gag – Prop introduced at beginning of scene, which stays in shot. Later used to pay off a joke after audience have accepted, then forgotten, its presence. [via @richardosmith1]

Fridge – the piece of paper, noticeboard, book or computer file where you put the jokes you cut for whatever reason, but which may work in another time and place. ‘Fridge’ came from Gareth Edwards, but lots of writers have different names for the same thing. Sarah Morgan has a ‘bottom drawer.’ Dave Cohen has a ‘shoebox.’ Greg Daniels calls it ‘the sweetie bag.’ When writing “In The Loop,” Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong called theirs ‘the fun bucket.”

Doofer – Paul Bassett Davies says his mother and her friends used this word in the second world war, to describe a saved half-smoked cigarette that will ‘do for later.’ For Paul, it’s a gag he’ll use later. So, a good example of the sort of thing you’d put in the Fridge (see above).

The Restaurant on the Corner – (American) – a bit in a script where no matter what joke you put there, its still never quite works. Also called a ‘Bono’, after a restaurant opened by Sonny Bono in West Hollywood. It shut quickly, as did every other restaurant which opened on the same spot. Writers working nearby decided the corner must be cursed. If you have a Bono in a script, it will be a gradual realisation, because it always feels like something SHOULD work there, and you might try a dozen or more things before the truth dawns. You can only deal with a Bono by taking apart and rebuilding a larger section around it – probably the whole scene, maybe even a bit more. [via Dave Cohen]

Killing Kittens – removing jokes which you really love, because they’re getting in the way of the story. [Chris Addison]. Also known as ‘stripping the car.’ [Joel Morris]

Bucket – strong, simple idea to contain all the nonsense you want to put in. ‘Parody of air disaster film’ is a great bucket. [Joel Morris]. Not related to ‘fun bucket.’

Oxbow Lake – the rewriting process produces these. A bit in a script which used to have some plot/character importance, but as the story has changed around it, no longer has a purpose. You have to remove it on the next draft. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong use this term. Me and Kevin Cecil call them ‘hangovers.’

Rabbit hole – a fact you check on the Internet and that’s the rest of the morning gone. [John Finnemore]

Joke Impression – a line that sounds like a joke, and has the rhythms of a joke, but isn’t actually a joke. Also known as ‘hit and run’, ‘joke-like substance’ or ‘Jokoid’ [John Vorhaus, from his very good primer ‘The Comic Toolbox’]. A joke impression has its uses. When you are thundering down a first draft, and are more concerned about the overall structure than individual jokes, you can slot in a few joke impressions at spots in the script where a good joke is hard, in the full knowledge you can come back later and fix them. I’ve been told of a more aggressive use for them too. I was told that when Jim Davidson knows one of his writers will be in the audience, he picks out one joke which is clearly a dud, a joke impression, and tells the writer he’s going to deliver it anyway and make the audience laugh – even though it doesn’t make any sense. The subtext: Jim is saying “I’m the one who brings the magic, not you.”

Fridge joke AKA ‘Refridgerator Logic’ – related to the joke impression. The audience realise they laughed at something that didn’t actually make sense, but much later, when they are (for example) getting something from the fridge. [via David Tyler]

On The Nose – very widely used, this one. A line which is on the nose is just too clumsily obvious, too direct, and lacks subtext.

Gerbeau – a joke that literally nobody but you is going to get, but it does no damage, so it stays in. Derived from “please yourself,” which shortens to ‘P .Y.’, Which then becomes Gerbeau after P.Y. Gerbeau, the guy who ran the millennium dome. The term Gerbeau is itself a nice example of a Gerbeau. [Via Joel Morris]

Two Percenter – similar to the Gerbeau. Only two percent of your audience will get it. [via Jane Espenson and Dave Cohen]

Plotential – and the idea or situation which has the potential to be developed into a full-blown plot. As in “does this idea have plotential?” [via Sam Bain – though he does stress that he and Jesse Armstrong are mostly taking the piss when they say this in conversation]

Nakamura – The most nightmarish of writer’s problems. It’s when there’s a huge issue with a script which effectively means that the whole thing is holed below the waterline. This derives from the writing team for The Odd Couple, who once hinged a storyline on the highly doubtful premise that the name ‘Doctor Nakamura’ was intrinsically hilarious. Come the day of the record, the studio audience sat silently through all the Nakamura material.

Nunya – a work at an embarrassingly unready stage. If anybody asks about it, you say “nunya business.”

Cut and Shut – a term borrowed from the motor trade (welding two halves of two cars together). This refers to a conceit which is essentially two normally incompatible ideas, bolted together. An example: Big Train’s cattle auction, where they are not cattle, they are new romantics. (via Jason Hazeley)

Frankenstein Draft – a script that suffers over time from bolting on too many slavishly implemented notes.

Frankenstein (verb) – Joining already-written scenes together in a highly inelegant way. You know it’s not pretty, but it’s a temporary tool which might give you some idea how the completed sequence might work. Frankensteining is very common when writing animated movies, in which the scripting is often done alongside storyboarding. [Andy Riley]

Pitcheroo – anything which reads well in a pitch document or story outline, which you know won’t quite hold water when you are writing the actual script. But very handy if you’re up against it time wise, and you need to convey what it is you’re intending to write, but you haven’t got the hours to crack every single story beat. An example might be “They escape from the party, and then…” How do they escape from the party? Won’t they need an excuse, or will they climb out the window? Who knows? You know you’ll need to cover that in the end, but so long as it’s followed up with a funny idea in the second half of that sentence, you can get away with it for now. Because most people read pitches and story outlines much too fast, effective pitcheroos are never spotted. [Andy Riley/Kevin Cecil]

Gooberfruit – when you’re a British writer, and you’re writing a script set in America with American characters, some words need to change. Some of them everybody knows; lift becomes elevator, pavement becomes sidewalk. But sometimes you’ll realise, as you’re scripting, that a British word probably has a different American word which you can’t quite recall. You might not want to interrupt your writing flow by diving into google at that moment, so best write the British word, pin it as a ‘gooberfruit’ – a word needing US translation – and carry on. You can come back to it later. Derived from the tendency of fresh groceries to go under different names in America; eggplant for aubergine, zucchini for courgette, etc. [via Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil]

Bull – coined by Sid Caesar. A line which diminishes the speaker’s status, against their intent. Example: “I don’t need anybody to help me look stupid.” (Via Paul Foxcroft)

Laying Pipe – this one’s commonly used in America. It means planting the exposition which is necessary for the audience to understand what’s going on. This can be done elegantly; like in Monsters Inc, where the first 15 minutes of the movie lays out a mass of exposition about how the monster world works, but all with scenes which also advance the story and have jokes in. Or it can be done bluntly; like in Looper, where the complex rules of the world are explicitly laid out in voice-over.

Shoe leather – similar to laying pipe.

Crossword clue – a joke based on a brilliant verbal trick or pun… At which nobody laughs. [via David Tyler]

CBA – Meaning “could be anything.” [via Graham Linehan] A joke where a key component is interchangeable with many other options. Many Victoria Wood jokes referencing brand names are CBAs.

Mentoring for a BAME comedy writer is happening again

***UPDATE TO THE BELOW – 31ST OCTOBER 2016 – Midnight tonight is the deadline for samples. I’ve read a lot of the scripts already, but there’s still lots more to go, so I reckon it will be about another week before I make my final selection. When I do, I will inform everybody who has submitted. Thank you!***

***UPDATE TO THE BELOW – 23RD OCTOBER 2016 – about a week left to go to submit a sample; then I’ll draw the shutters down at the end of this month, read everything, and make my decision about a week later.***

I first did this back in February, with the intention of it being a yearly cycle, but I’m starting up a new mentee/mentor cycle earlier than planned. here’s what I’m offering:

A year’s free mentoring, primarily by email, to one comedy writer (or writing partnership) from a BAME background who is/are either at the start of their career or very much wants to be.

I started doing this (an earlier post has the details on that) because the comedy writing business doesn’t represent the ethnic make-up of the UK nearly enough. The first cycle is going very well. I did a twitter-burst to try to gather in as many scripts as I could from people who liked the idea. I got over thirty in the end; some very strong contenders, from which I picked Christine Robertson. Since February, Christine’s been writing for CBBC’s The Dumping Ground, she’s got stuff into development, and she’s landed her first screen credit by writing for the forthcoming series of Walliams and Friend. She’s a very talented writer and it’s all her own work, but I’m proud to have helped her along. I like to think I’ve made a bit of difference.

What with Christine going great guns, I thought: let’s up the tempo. Let’s start a new yearly cycle a bit earlier than planned. I’ve been impatient about this ever since January this year. I’ll tell you precisely why in a moment after I’ve outlined what the scheme is.

It’s modelled on the mentoring programme run by the social mobility foundation, helping bright sixth formers from low-income backgrounds navigate their way into universities and careers. They pair you with a mentee for one year who is interested in getting into whatever area it is you work in. It involves no more than a couple of actual face-to-face meetings, and the rest is done by email. E-mentoring, that’s the clumsy term for it. I’ve been involved with that, and it can work very well, so I adapted that approach.

I’ll read any comedy stuff that the writer/writers send me over twelve month period, and offer notes and advice. I can also be a sounding board, to offer advice in a more general sense about any aspect of the profession. I’ve written comedy this for a couple of decades; I’ve experienced every aspect of the job, from creating sitcoms and films to writing links, sketches and the like. I’ve met with triumph and disaster. I’m a grizzled veteran. Hopefully that’s worth something.

It can only be one person (or a partnership). As well as being a scriptwriter, I’m a cartoonist and a children’s author. That’s obviously too many careers for anyone so I don’t have acres of time. One’s the limit.

Ideally I’d prefer to have at least one face-to-face meeting, as soon as possible, as I’ve found that really helps the mentoring process. I’m based in London, so it may not be practical, depending on where you live. Too much Londoniness is another aspect of the comedy business – I could go on for ages about that – but I’ll do my damnedest to keep this as regionally unbiased as I can.

It’s not an internship. You won’t be helping me with my own work. It’s not a course, with designated work to do, and accreditation at the end. No money will change hands in either direction. It’s all informal. But I think it would be a help to somebody starting off, and when you’re starting off, any help’s a good thing. Breaking into this field is hard – probably harder than it used to be. There’s more competition than ever.

So if you’ve read this far and you’re a BAME comedy writer who likes the sound of it, here’s how it works.

Use the email luckyheathercomic@googlemail.com to send me:

(i) a paragraph or two introducing yourself. You can include any credits or experience you’ve got if you like, or tell me about you’re into what comedy or what sort of thing you like to write, but really you can do this bit however you like. The real meat of it is part two…

(ii) a script sample of your comedy writing work, in PDF, Word, or Final Draft. This could be some sketches, a sitcom script, even something longer – I don’t really mind what or how long, so long as there’s enough to give me a good sense of what you write. But it must be a script or scripts written for TV, film, radio or the stage. I won’t consider anything in the form of blog posts, articles, journalism, or links to YouTube clips. You may well be a great blogger or journalist or performer, but this thing’s all about scriptwriting.

Please put your name and email on the script sample itself (use the headers or footers, or just stick it at the top of page one) so I have everything I need right there if I want to get back to you. Having to refer back to covering emails is fiddly when you’ve got to look at lots of them.

As and when I find something I’m sent that I really like, and makes me go yes, I’d love to read more from this person, I’ll be in touch. I won’t go ahead until I’ve got that feeling.

Some provisos – please read these before you send –

– You must be eighteen or over.

– You should live in the UK or Ireland.

– If you are one of the people sent me stuff in February for the first cycle, who I didn’t take on as a mentee that time, you are absolutely welcome to submit again. Some of the scripts were very good and it quite a finely balanced decision in the end. You can send an entirely new thing, a rewritten version of what you sent before, or the same script again. I’ll leave that up to you. I will read all submissions afresh. Note it’s a different email this time – I’m not using that Yandex one any more.

– I can’t commit to a time scale for the selection part, because I don’t know how many scripts I’ll get. If I get sent loads, that’s more reading, and reading takes time. I don’t have a budget to pay other people to read; it’s all just me. I’ve got to fit this around my own writing, cartooning, and life. So please no follow up emails. Unless your server pinged it back, assume I got the first one. My guess is that I will make my final choice at the start of November.

– I’ll announce on twitter (@andyrileyish) and on this blog when I don’t need any more script samples, and when I’ve found someone for the 12 months.

– Just to restate the key point: this is only open to people from a black/asian/minority ethnic background.

– It’s comedy – so please no drama!

A point I have to cover, because this does come up; when throwing the net wide like this, there’s a chance I’ll be sent something that’s in a similar setting to a project I’m currently developing. This sort of thing is much more common than most people think. In 2010, Kevin Cecil and me got a sitcom on BBC2 and BBC4 about a group of ramblers, called The Great Outdoors. But when we were first selling it a year or two before, the first thing we discovered was that somebody else was coincidentally developing a show from exactly the same premise. Luckily for us we won the rambler-com race and got ours on TV. More recently, we wrote a script called Crashing, then discovered C4 already had a show lined up called Crashing. Not the same premise, that time – but you get the idea. This stuff happens all the time. I’m not going to stop developing a thing I was already doing just because somebody happens to send me a script set in a similar situation. And I’m certainly not going to steal any of your material; professional writers don’t do that. Most likely I’ll stop reading your script as soon as I realise there’s a clash.

You don’t need to read beyond this point, but I’ll fill you in about what jolted me into this mentoring scheme.

Recently I’ve been lucky enough to write/produce for seasons three and four of HBO’s Veep – an absolute Rolls Royce of a sitcom. Last year we won the best sitcom Emmy. That was a terrific night, one of the best. Mel Brooks gave us the award, then he SQUEEZED MY ARM on stage, a moment I shan’t forget. Jan 23rd this year was the Producers’ Guild of America Awards, and I went along as another lovely expenses-paid trip.

It wasn’t nearly as much fun as the Emmys, and not just because we didn’t win (we didn’t). This was in the run-up to the ‘oscarssowhite’ Oscars. Lack of representation was the topic of the hour. Thankfully there were POCs nominated, and winning, too: Shonda Rhimes got the Norman Lear Achievement Award Winner in Television.

But as I looked around me at a huge hall of maybe a thousand fellow producers, something felt very wrong. Not everybody sat in the chairs was white… but it was a hell of a lot more than 63.7%. That’s the proportion of Americans who are non-latino white, according to the 2010 census. I’d put the white figure closer to the 95% mark. Everybody knew this was messed up, and that’s why there was an awkward atmosphere in the room all night. And this, fifty years after the victory of the civil rights movement.

On the plane home I mused that a similar room in the UK wouldn’t be much different. The BAME population of the UK is lower than in America – it’s about thirteen percent here – but you still don’t see that reflected in the film/TV trade. I’m just one freelance guy in the industry, so I don’t have clout like a channel controller or a head of a big prod company, but I realised I can do a little bit more than nothing. Hence all this.

SEND ME YOUR STUFF!

Andy

#comedywritingsowhite, and one thing I’m doing about it

***UPDATE, MARCH 9TH: OK – I now have a mentee for the year. I’ve already contacted everybody who sent something, but if for whatever reason the e-mail didn’t arrive, and you’re reading this to find out you’re the mentee… sorry but not this time. But, assuming the year goes well, I will be repeating the selection process in February 2017. Anyone who submitted this year will be more than welcome to have another crack. Cheers, Andy***

Here’s what I’m offering –

A year’s free mentoring, primarily by email, to one comedy writer (or writing partnership) from a BAME background who is either at the start of their career, or very much wants to be.

And here’s why. Lack of racial diversity in the media is a hot topic. And the media loves hot. Absolutely can’t get enough of the stuff. A thing can never be a big deal, it seems, until it’s a big deal at the Oscars.

I’ll narrow the focus to something I know a lot about, which is comedy writing. I’ve done it since the 1990s. Mostly in Britain, sometimes in America. In both countries, the number of non-white comedy writers doesn’t reflect the make-up of the population, that’s the no-shit-Sherlock headline.

Things are beginning to move a bit in the UK. The BBC have been running the Writers Room scheme for a while. Last year it sprouted the Comedy Room, a sixth month part-time training programme, and the non-white writers number comfortably above thirteen percent – which, says the 2011 census, is the BAME percentage of the UK population. Sky has pledged to have 20% of its writers (on team-written shows, anyway) from a BAME background. That’s a big deal. That’s money. Writers aren’t primarily motivated by money, on the whole; if we were we’d be estate agents. But we need to buy milk and bread like everybody else. The Sky thing will probably affect drama more than comedy, but it’s still important. So: there’s this problem I’ve been fully aware of for ages, and Rupert Murdoch’s been doing more about it than I have. Time to get off my arse.

For the last few years I’ve volunteered as part of a mentoring programme run by the social mobility foundation, helping bright sixth formers from low-income backgrounds navigate their way into universities and careers. You get paired with a mentee for one year, who is interested in getting into whatever area it is you work in. It involves no more than a couple of actual face-to-face meetings, and the rest is done by email. E-mentoring, that’s the clumsy term for it. But it works well. So I’m going to re-tool that approach.

I’ll read any comedy stuff that the writer sends me over twelve month period, and offer notes and advice. I can also be a sounding board, and offer advice in a more general sense about any aspect of the profession. I’ve got a couple of decades of professional experience; I’ve written sitcoms, films, more sketches than I could ever count, a lot of animation, and there’s Baftas and an Emmy on the CV. I’ve got to have some knowledge worth imparting. I hope.

It can only be one person (or a partnership). I’ve got my own scripts to write, books to write, cartoons to draw, so one is my limit. I’d prefer to have at least one face-to-face meeting if it’s practical for both of us – I’m London based – but if it’s not practical that’s fine. No regional bias on this.

It’s not an internship. I won’t be asking anyone to help me with my own work. It’s not any kind of course, with accreditation at the end. And no money will change hands in either direction. It’s all informal. But I think it would be a help to somebody starting off, and when you’re starting off, any help’s a good thing.

So if you’ve read this far and you’re a BAME comedy writer who likes the sound of it – I’ve devised this highly scientific selection process…

Use the email andyriley219@yandex.com to send me:

(i) a paragraph or two introducing yourself. Who you are, what sort of comedy you’re into, credits if you have them, anything else you want to say.

(ii) a script sample of your comedy writing work, in PDF, Word, or Final Draft. This could be some sketches, a sitcom script, even something longer – I don’t really mind what, so long as there’s enough to give me a good sense of what you write. But it must be a script written for TV, film or radio. I won’t consider anything in the form of blog posts, articles, journalism, or links to YouTube clips. You may well be a great blogger or journalist or performer, but the script’s the thing here.

Please put your name and email on the script sample itself, so I have everything I need right there if I want to get back to you.

As and when I find something I’m sent that I really like, and makes me go yes, I’d love to read more from this person, I’ll be in touch. I won’t go ahead until I’ve got that feeling.

Some provisos – please read these before you send –

– You MUST be eighteen or over.

– You should live in the UK or Ireland.

– I can’t commit to a time scale for the selection part, because I haven’t done this before and I have no idea how big or small the response is going to be. If I get sent loads, that’s more reading, and reading takes time. I’m not the BBC, with the budget to pay someone to read; I’m just one feller. I’ve got to fit all this around my own writing, cartooning, and life. So please no follow up emails. Unless your server pinged it back, assume I got the first one.

– I’ll announce on twitter (@andyrileyish) and on this blog when I don’t need any more script samples, and when I’ve found someone for the 12 months.

– A point I have to cover; when throwing the net wide like this, there’s a chance I’ll be sent something that’s in a similar setting to a project I’m currently developing, that may even be quite far along. 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 Gregg’s. Or a Wolf Of Wall Street-type financial office. Or an art gallery. I’m not working on any one of those four, but you get the idea. I’m not going to stop developing a thing I was already doing just because somebody happens to send me a script set in a similar situation. And I’m certainly not going to steal any of your material; professional writers don’t do that. Most likely I’ll stop reading your script as soon as I realise.

– People sometimes read blog posts very very fast and miss big things. So I’m going to restate the key point for anybody who hasn’t managed to take it in: this is only open to people from a black/asian/minority ethnic background…

– Comedy! Not drama!

So that’s it. Send me your stuff, and let’s see what happens. If this works, I’ll do it again.

What I’ve learned in 26 years as an Urban Cowboy

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In September 1989 I was hitching through the Rocky Mountains. I was 19. I was in Durango, Colorado: a town I travelled to for the well-thought-out reason that there was a Ramones instrumental I liked called Durango 95. I had a few spare dollars to burn, so I bought a cowboy hat. A proper one, made out of beaver and rabbit fur minced up and turned into felt, not one of your novelty hen night items.

It turned out to be a big style decision for me. When I got back to Britain a month later I kept on wearing the hat. As a teenager I was fascinated by Jon Voight’s character in Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck. Joe travels from Texas to New York and insists on walking Manhattan dressed for a rodeo. You’re supposed to see his character as hopelessly naive, even delusional. Not a state to aspire to. I got the wrong end of the stick entirely. I loved the romance of moving through one world, but wearing clothes from another.

As the years went by, western wear sprouted all over me; the shirts, the boots, hats and more hats, belt buckles big as a toaster, a fringed jacket which is a bit over the top even for me. I feel comfortable in this stuff, like it’s the way I was always meant to dress. I identify as cowboy, I’m trans-cowboy.

I don’t dress like this all the time. Just quite a lot. For a quarter of a century. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Twats in the street only ever shout one thing at you. Which is: ‘Yee-haa.’ That’s all they’ve got, ninety five percent of the time. You might walk past thousands of people and nobody says it, but then there’s one twat who does. And being a twat, he thinks he’s the first who ever did, and gets the hump if you don’t react to it. In his mind he’s sniped you up with his Jimmy Carr quip rifle. The other things people say are: ‘Where’s your horse’ (2.4% of the time) and the first bar of the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (2.4% of the time). Any other comments are so rare that decades later I can remember where and when they happened. A favourite was a guy ten years ago who shouted ‘Hey! Toy Story!’

There’s one section of the population who can most be relied on to shout Yee-haa. Rugby lads, city boys in suits. Who else was it going to be?

If you’re going to pick an affectation, make it a practical one. Cowboy hats cool you in the sun, and you don’t notice the rain when you’ve got an umbrella on your head made from beaver pubes.

Snakeskin boots need snakeskin polish. Reptan’s the stuff.

Blokes who want to wear your hat in a nightclub are nearly always arseholes. He’ll get shitty with you for refusing to be a clothes library. It’s a proper hat pal, it’s not from a fucking joke shop. The same arsehole has a worse arsehole friend who thinks it’ll be funny to steal it off your head when your back’s turned, so move away from that group fast.

Women asking to wear your hat - that’s more acceptable.

Cowboy hats always seems to look better on a woman than on me or any other man.

You live in fear of hipsters discovering your thing. There was a moment in 1999/2000 when western wear was a bubbling-under fashion trend. You saw the shirts around a lot more. I was dreading Stetsons mushrooming on skulls all over Hoxton. Madonna, always alert to this sort of thing, did a western-themed video for Don’t Tell Me in 2000. Then the trend blew over, before it reached critical mass. Since then I’ve been safe, what with the hipsters laboriously reworking every British pre-1940 look they could find. We’ve seen London bars full of Edwardian fops and Cyber-Ewan-McColls, but so far no cowpokes.

It’s a look you can wear at any age. It’ll still work when you’re 90. I’m in this for life.

You can take the outfit anywhere. Even the hardest pubs. You’ll be okay. It’s a look which disarms people. Except the city boy twats but enough on them.

You have to really learn to wear the hat. Hayley Campbell noticed that when it’s on, I strut; if I take it off, I’m all normal and shambly. And dancing with the hat and boots is just the best. You can really perform. There’s a whole repertoire of swivels, turns and flamenco stamps that wouldn’t make any sense in trainers and a beanie.

When you meet another man in a cowboy hat you repel each other like the north ends of two magnets. In Wyoming or Arizona, dressing cowboy is bang normal. But wearing the look in London, marking yourself out is the whole point. The last thing you want to see is a guy who had the same idea. He never wants to catch your eye either. But he’s probably going for that gothy-cowboy comic geek look anyway. Luckily it doesn’t happen more than once a year.

Britain’s got a whole lot more tolerant for looks outside the norm. In the early nineties, people gawped sometimes. Now they don’t so much.

Don’t you wear all this stuff. It’s mine, do you hear? All mine!

Andy R

We won at the Emmys

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An astonishing evening last Sunday. I went to the Emmy awards in Los Angeles, as part of the writing team for HBO’s Veep. It won Emmys in four categories: outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series, outstanding writing for a comedy series, and the really big one – outstanding comedy series. For that last one, I was one of the names on the citation so I got to jump on stage with the whole gang, experience the backstage whirlwind of interviews and pictures, and best of all get a shiny Emmy with my name on it to keep forever.

In TV, you can’t get bigger than the Emmys. Not many British people get to win one, but that night a whole load of us did. Although Veep is all about American politics, all the writers have been British (though that’s changing for season five). It was like our club winning the Champions League. It was all such a dizzying swirl I couldn’t give an account of it in order, but a few things stood out:

– When they announced that Mel Brooks was giving out the award, I felt a sudden surge of near-certainty that we would get it. Mel Brooks! It would just be too perfect to not happen.

– Professional reporters can ask pretty stupid questions. One asked Armando Iannucci, the show-running producer, how he felt about depriving Modern Family of what would have been a historic six Emmys in a row. What was he supposed to say? “I feel so guilty that five years of hard work on my show has resulted in this Emmy” or something? He answered this one pretty well, saying he preferred to think of it as the first time Veep had won. But really, come on.

– The trophies themselves have totemic power on the evening. At the HBO after party, there were about 13 statuettes on our table. Together they glowed like a camp fire. We gathered round, grinning and basking in the warmth.

– People love to grab your Emmy and pose with it. A few photographs is okay. But a group of four dicked around with one of Tony Roche’s Emmys for a full quarter of an hour. The urge to swoop in and gather the trophy back becomes strong. Hard-won is an Emmy: you want to keep it close.

– You really want your hand luggage to be searched at the airport, just to give you another excuse to pull the thing out and look at it.

I will calm down at some point and stop thinking about it. But not quite yet. Doesn’t happen every day.

Get a telly. Just get a telly.

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There was a man I was talking to in the pub and he wound me up. It wound me up that he wound me up because he was a lovely guy. Stood his round, thoughtful, conscientious, witty. All you things you want from a friend of a friend in a pub. I had to rein myself in so I didn’t become the bad guy. The problem was that he was occupying a position which is guaranteed to have me gnashing the table.

When he found out I worked in telly, he mused on the fact that he didn’t own one. He had a baby, and wondered if he should expose his kid to TV. If he didn’t, would he be depriving them of something? He was genuinely interested to hear my point of view. Me, I love the telly, because at its best it’s an exciting, enthralling window on the world. But if you don’t see it that way, that’s your personal taste and I won’t argue with it.

Then I discovered: he makes documentaries. For television.

I will not stand for this. No no no. No. I’ve worked in television for 23 years now. Over those years I’ve been astounded by the number of people I’ve met who are established TV professionals, but who feel so little love for the art form that they won’t actually watch any of it. Sometimes they hold it in contempt. Mark Kermode is a film reviewer I always enjoyed. Then in 2007 he wrote this piece explaining how he was watching TV for the first time in years. He’d stopped watching on principle, believing it to be intrinsically inferior to cinema. That’s okay in itself; my problem is that in those years I’d watched him many times as a TV pundit. Television was beneath him, yet he clearly thought it was about the right level for me and millions of others. The Times once printed a spluttering letter I sent concerning one of their writers who celebrated her TV non-ownership – despite sometimes making BBC TV shows funded by licence payers. She’d been told The Office was good; she claimed she never needed to watch it, because she’d heard enough about it to know everything. TV by osmosis.

No, no, no, no no no. Again no. This sort of attitude pops up in the TV industry all too often, and television must not put up with it. If you’re a practitioner, you must be a viewer too. It’s compulsory. No argument.

I have a standard method of reasoning with the TV makers who watch no TV, and I deployed it in the pub. You take the other guy’s position regarding telly, transpose it to another art form, and invite their comment. It doesn’t much matter which art form. They won’t have a leg to stand on.

Say you work in theatre. Would you work with with a playwright who told you he didn’t like plays and never watched them? No.

Would you watch a film by a director who told you she didn’t like movies? No. I bet Mark Kermode wouldn’t either.

You never find musicians who don’t like music, dancers who don’t watch dance, football managers who never see football, painters who never look at paintings. If I was hiring an architect, I wouldn’t pick the one who said “oh, I never look at buildings. I don’t really like them. And I’m not sure I should ever show my child a building in case it corrupts them.”

You don’t hear of people like that because they’d be run out of town. The one art form where they exist is TV. A minority, but there they are, and telly tolerates them. It shouldn’t. Not ever.

Give me telly by people who love it. They make the best stuff. Any interview with Richard Osman will show you his deep fascination with game and quiz shows. That’s why it’s him who brought us the sublime Pointless. When asked what the T stood for, Russell T Davies said the T is for Television. That’s the stuff!

The dedicated non-tv-watchers are compromised now, in a way they weren’t just a few years back. The man in the pub had Netflix, and loved one particular comedy show on it as much as I do. I pointed out that he effectively WAS watching telly, even if he didn’t count it as that. Yet he drew a distinction. That was a show he really wanted to watch, and had sought out. The idea of coming home, turning on the telly, and seeing what was on was utterly alien to him. I asked him what he’d think of an author who simply couldn’t understand the urge to wander into a bookshop and browse the shelves. To his credit, he took the point. He was a good guy. Just holding a ridiculous position. He promised to get a TV.

TV makers mustn’t be meek about this. Don’t let it slide. Have some pride in the art. If people we work with say they don’t watch telly, challenge them. Hold their feet to the flames. Let’s give them one week to start watching. And if they can’t manage that, they should get out of the way and leave it to those of us who do.

How to talk Comedy Writer

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All professions have their own terminology. Comedy writers love to create their own. I asked some writers I know what terms they like to use, and they were pretty eager to tell me. I compiled some of the results here, in a little glossary. Some of these are in common circulation; some are only used by one or two people. At the very least they should give some insight into what the hell it is writers do all day.

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Ruffle – an aspect of a joke (a name, or reference) which is getting in the way and making things less clear. In the script editing process for the BBC2 comedy ‘Whites’, there was a reference to a character called Jamie, which made you think of Jamie Oliver. That was a ruffle, so it went. [Via Simon Blackwell]

Bicycle cut – aka the bicycle joke, or a “Last Of The Summer Wine.” A character ends a scene by firmly stating that they will not do a certain thing. The next scene begins with that character doing that thing. Roy Clarke wrote tons of these for Compo in Last of the Summer Wine. “You’re not getting me in that thing with wheels and no brakes!” Cut to Compo, at the top of a Yorkshire hill, poised to go downhill in that thing with wheels and no brakes. [via Graham Linehan]

Gilligan cut – a common American term for the bicycle cut. Derived from ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ The term Gilligan cut is never used in the UK because Gilligan’s Island has never been shown there.

Chutney – stuff that characters are saying in the background, which you don’t normally add into the script until very late because it’s not material which needs jokes. Writing for Veep, chutney often takes the form of perfectly serviceable political speeches, while the real funny material is going on amongst other characters in the foreground. I don’t know if this term exists outside the Veep/Thick Of It writing team.

Scud – a joke that ends up getting the wrong target. E.g. “the energy companies have done some truly appalling things– one of them based itself in Newport.” The punchline is saying that Newport is shit, and not saying anything about the energy companies. Named after the outdated and inaccurate Soviet missile used by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war. [Via Pete Sinclair]

Two Sock – when you find yourself using two jokes/motivations/expositions, when only one is necessary. [via Kieron Quirke]

Fridge – the piece of paper, noticeboard, book or computer file where you put the jokes you cut for whatever reason, but which may work in another time and place. ‘Fridge’ came from Gareth Edwards, are lots of writers have different names for the same thing. Sarah Morgan has a ‘bottom drawer.’ Dave Cohen has a ‘shoebox.’ Greg Daniels calls it ‘the sweetie bag.’ When writing “In The Loop,” Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong called theirs ‘the fun bucket.”

The restaurant on the corner – (American) – a bit in a script where no matter what joke you put there, it’s still never quite works. I’ve also seen this called a ‘Bono’, after a restaurant opened by Sonny Bono in Burbank, California. It shut quickly, as did every other restaurant which opened on the same spot. Writers working nearby decided the corner must be cursed. If you have a Bono in a script, it will be a gradual realisation, because it always feels like something SHOULD work there, and you might try a dozen or more things before the truth dawns. You can only deal with a Bono by taking apart and rebuilding a larger section around it – probably the whole scene, maybe even a bit more. [via Dave Cohen]

Killing kittens – removing jokes which you really love, because they’re getting in the way of the story. [Chris Addison]. Also known as “stripping the car.” [Joel Morris]

Bucket – strong, simple idea to contain all the nonsense you want to put in. “Parody of air disaster film” is a great bucket. [Joel Morris]. Not related to ‘fun bucket.’

Oxbow Lake – the rewriting process produces these. A bit in a script which used to have some plot/character importance, but as the story has changed around it, no longer has a purpose. You have to remove it on the next draft. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong use this term. Me and Kevin Cecil call them ‘hangovers.’

Rabbit hole – a fact you check on the Internet and that’s the rest of the morning gone. [John Finnemore]

Joke impression – a line that sounds like a joke, and has the rhythms of a joke, but isn’t actually a joke. Also known as “hit and run” or “Jokoid [John Vorhaus, from his very good primer “The Comic Toolbox”]. A joke impression has its uses. When you are thundering down a first draft, and are more concerned about the overall structure than individual jokes, you can slot in a few joke impressions at spots in the script where a good joke is hard, in the full knowledge you can come back later and fix them. I’ve been told of a more aggressive use for them too. I was told that when Jim Davidson has one of his joke writers in the audience, he picks out one joke which is clearly a dud, a joke impression, and tells the writer he’s going to deliver it anyway and make the audience laugh – even though it doesn’t make any sense. The subtext: Jim is saying “I’m the one who brings the magic, not you.”

Fridge joke – related to joke impression. The audience realise they laughed at something that didn’t actually make sense, but 10 minutes after the event. (via David Tyler)

Gerbeau – a joke that literally nobody but you is going to get, but it does no damage, so it stays in. Derived from “please yourself,” which shortens to “P .Y.”, Which then becomes Gerbeau after PY Gerbeau, the guy who ran the millennium dome. The term Gerbeau is itself a nice example of a Gerbeau. [Via Joel Morris]

Plotential – and the idea or situation which has the potential to be developed into a full-blown plot. As in “does this idea have potential?” [via Sam Bain – though he doesn’t stress that he and Jesse Armstrong are mostly taking the piss when they say this in conversation]

Nokamura – I read this online once but haven’t been able to relocate the page. The most nightmarish of writer’s problems. It’s when there’s a huge issue with a script which effectively means that the whole thing is holed below the waterline, and should be junked. This derives from the Cheers writing team, who once hinged a storyline on the highly doubtful premise that the surname ‘Nokamura’ was intrinstically hilarious. Come the day of the record, the studio audience sat silently through all the Nokamura material. The writing team knew it was a dud. They had about 24 hours to rewrite the entire episode with a new central idea, in time for the second studio record the next day. This thing of having two studio records for one episode, giving the team a day to sharpen the jokes based on the audience reaction the day before, is well established in US studio audience comedy. It’s also a very expensive luxury unavailable to British shows with their smaller budgets. To my knowledge, the only British show to ever enjoy this perk was Victoria Wood’s dinnerladies.

Nunya – a work at an embarrassingly unready stage. If anybody asks about it, you say “nunya business.”

Cut and Shut – a term borrowed from the motor trade (welding two halves of two cars together). This refers to a conceit which is essentially to normally incompatible ideas, bolted together. An example: Big Train’s cattle auction, where they are not cattle, they are new romantics. (via Jason Hazeley)

Frankenstein draft – a script that suffers over time from bolting on too many slavishly implemented notes.

Frankenstein (verb) – Joining already-written scenes together in a highly inelegant way. You know it’s not pretty, but it’s a temporary tool which might give you some idea how the completed sequence might work. Frankensteining is very common when writing animated movies, in which the scripting is often done alongside storyboarding. [Andy Riley]

Pitcheroo – anything which reads well in a pitch document or story outline, which you know won’t quite hold water when you are writing the actual script. But very handy if you’re up against it time wise, and you need to convey what it is you’re intending to write, but you haven’t got the hours to crack every single story beat. An example might be “They escape from the party, and then…” How do they escape from the party? Won’t they need an excuse, or will they climb out the window? Who knows? You know you’ll need to cover that in the end, but so long as it’s followed up with a funny idea in the second half of that sentence, you can get away with it for now. Because most people read pitches and story outlines much too fast, effective pitcheroos are never spotted. [Andy Riley/Kevin Cecil]

Bull – coined by Sid Caesar. A line which diminishes the speaker’s status, against their intent. Example: “I don’t need anybody to help me look stupid.” (Via Paul Foxcroft)

Laying pipe – this one’s commonly used in America. It means planting the exposition which is necessary for the audience to understand what’s going on. This can be done elegantly; like in Monsters Inc, where the first 15 minutes of the movie lays out a mass of exposition about how the monster world works, but all with scenes which also advance the story and have jokes in. Or it can be done bluntly; like in Looper, where the complex rules of the world are explicitly laid out in voice-over.

Shoe leather – similar to laying pipe.

Crossword clue – a joke based on a brilliant verbal trick or pun… At which nobody laughs. (via David Tyler)

CBA – Meaning “could be anything.” [via Graham Linehan] A joke where a key component is interchangeable with many other options. “I was kissing him but all I could think of was which pocket my tic tacs were in.” The tic tacs are a CBA, as is the pocket. Many Victoria Wood jokes referencing brand names are CBAs.

M.G.I.C.B.T.M.T. or how I got someone to make me a ten foot monolith

Me and my Monolith

One of the best things about being a scriptwriter is walking on to the set. For so long, you’re visualising a place in three dimensions as you spend months shuffling around characters, plots, ideas. You get so used to it being an imaginary place, existing only in your head, that it’s a tremendous psychic jolt when it actually gets built and you step into it for the first time. Your mind goes: My God! I Can’t Believe They Made That!

I’ve done this job for quite a few years, so arranging a few sofas and chairs in a living room set doesn’t quite shock me any more. Now that I’m writing for Veep I’m seeing the American budgets make big American things and the MGICBTMT effect is stunning again. Last year on season three on show, Kevin Cecil and me co-wrote an episode called ‘Clovis,’ named after the imaginary silicon valley company that Selina Meyer and her team visit. I worked out the entire rationale of what it would be called that. It’s named after the Clovis point, kind of flint spear tip found over much of North America, dating from about 15,000 years ago. Clovis the company would themselves say: “just as those early settlers of America designed a universal tool for their civilisation, we are designing the new universal tools for ours.” I knew this would never make it into the show because it didn’t have jokes it. But I was enjoying being intellectually rigourous about the whole thing. I passed these thoughts on to the director to pass onto the art department.

When I got on the set, I was imagining there might be a couple of posters stuck to the wall featuring a Clovis point on them somewhere. What I was NOT expecting was a huge clovis-shaped megalith for the characters to walk past. I was beside myself with glee. You’ve never seen someone get so excited by a big assembly of wood, wire, plastic and paint.

The monolith barely features in episode itself.  And an even madder thing didn’t feature in the episode at all. It was set in San Francisco, but filmed in Maryland, so to make the whole thing look more Californian, four palm trees were uprooted from a much warmer east coast (somebody told me South Carolina), loaded on a truck, driven up the coast, and inserted into the ground for just one day. I’ve never seen full size trees moving for television before. The trees didn’t make the edit.

I love big sets. It’s such a treat. And in more reflective moments I consider the carbon footprint. But it’s such a fun way to destroy the world.