Some answers to the FAQs
(Latest update to this – June 2019)
There are some things which I’m asked quite often, as a cartoonist and a scriptwriter. Here I’ve tried to answer these questions at some length. We’ll start with the scriptwriting ones; scroll down for the cartoon stuff.
For the most part I’m talking about working in the UK. I’ve got some experience in the US, but I’ve always been based in Britain.
How can I break into comedy scriptwriting?
My own first steps were in 1991, and the broadcasting landscape has utterly changed since then. All the same, there are some things Kevin Cecil (my writing partner) and myself did then which would still work now.
Our way into comedy was writing shorter things – jokes, sketches and songs, rather than long-form pieces like sitcoms or feature length films. It could be that you want to go straight on to sitcom or film, and miss out the short stage. Now, this might work. People have done it. But you should be aware that it’s like walking into a gym for the first time and deciding to pick up one of the heaviest dumbbells. Maybe you’re naturally strong, and you can do it; but you might want to build your muscles by hefting some of the lighter weights first, which in this analogy are jokes and sketches. You’d be in good company. David Renwick, Andrew Marshall, Richard Curtis, and John Sullivan all wrote many sketches before they went on to write classic sitcoms.
When we started in 1991, there was a weekly topical news based comedy on Radio 4 called Week Ending. If you asked anybody in comedy where to begin writing, they pointed you there. It had an open door policy, and each week’s half hour show might have twenty-five names in the credits. Back then the open door was quite literal; you could walk in off the street, ask for a pass, get one, go to the non-commissioned writers meeting, and pitch directly to the producer. All very pre 9/11.
Although Week Ending is gone, the BBC does have a show with a similar policy on new writers: Newsjack on Radio 4 Extra. It’s a great place to get your first experience of writing. Even if you don’t get stuff on straight away, writing sketches to a deadline and submitting them to a professional, week after week, will hone your skills. Also there is Newsrevue, a weekly on-stage topical comedy show in London which takes sketch submissions.
So far so predictable. You may well have heard other people say go and write for Newsjack and Newsrevue. So I’ll try to dig a little deeper now.
One of the best things you can do is meet other people like yourself. Online certainly, but in the flesh is better still. Comedy loves company. Writing partnerships are much more common than they are in drama. All the comedy that gets made is filtered through producers, directors, performers, script editors. They all have input, and rightly so. The sooner you get used to your stuff being constructively critiqued the better. If you can find a couple of like-minded souls, meet up and read each other’s stuff and make suggestions for what’s good and what could be improved, you will learn much faster than you could alone.
Some history to illustrate the point. One of the greatest comedy training grounds ever created was the WW2-era concert party. People who cut their teeth that way went on to dominate comedy for decades afterwards. Off the top of my head – Jimmy Perry, Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Denis Norden, Eric Sykes, Tony Hancock, Benny Hill. Perry even co-wrote a sitcom all about the experience (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum). These were gang shows with a mixture of – as the IAHHM theme tune tells us – songs, and sketches, and jokes old and new. The revue format. And with the end of national service and the demise of variety theatre in the 1950s, that format all but vanished.
But not in Oxford and Cambridge universities. I can’t tell you why the revue show clung on there but not elsewhere; all I know is that it did. Other universities had revues, but only Oxford and Cambridge had strong self-perpetuating revue cultures. That’s how we got the Goodies, the Pythons, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Richard Curtis, Sandi Toksvig, Stewart Lee, Mel and Sue, Sarah Solemani, 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 to 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 them to almost nobody – you’ve just given yourself a taste of the Burma concert party/Cambridge Footlights experience. And if you’re not a performer – why not get to know the performers? Go to improv clubs and open mic nights. Tell the new acts they’re clever. They’ll like this – stand up is a nerve-wracking job and they need all the praise they can get. Say you’d like to write them something for YouTube. Or start a podcast and say you’d love to have them on as a guest. Make all the connections you can, and in a few years when they’re banging on the door of BBC3, maybe you’ll be on their team.
The internet makes it fairly easy to make contact with like-minded souls. Amongst other places you could try 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. A very notable success from this route is People Just Do Nothing, which went from YouTube project to BAFTA-winning sitcom.
There are more schemes and bursaries for new writers than ever before. Some good ones include; The BBC Writersroom comedy room, The Bafta Rocliffe comedy writing competition, and The David Nobbs Memorial Trust Comedy Writing Competition and the Felix Dexter Bursary. The NFTS comedy writing and producing diploma is a full eighteen month course; sometimes I do sessions there as a sort of visiting professor about sketches and sitcom. I also run a tiny informal mentoring scheme of my own – scroll down to find out more about that.
If you see a competition that asks for an entry fee to get your sketch considered – steer well clear.
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 just 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. Getting an agent will help a great deal; any producer or commissioner is MUCH more likely to read a script if it comes via an agent. Of course, getting an agent is another hurdle in itself, because you’ve got to send it to them and get them interested. A great resource for discovering just who to send things to is The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which is updated and republished every twelve months.
I have to say that comedy is skewed even more in favour of writer/performers (rather than somebody who just writes) than it was when I began. We’re all living in Lena Dunham’s world now, where the person whose big face you see on the trailer also being the writer is assumed to be the norm. Sitcoms made this way are easier for the commissioners to imagine in their heads, because they can see someone’s show at the Edinburgh Fringe, hear an audience laughing around them, and go ‘oh I see, it’ll be a bit like this.’ It’s also easier to sell to the world in many ways, because if a sitcom is autobiographical, it makes finding an angle very easy for interviewers. The show and the life story of the interviewee are (for journalistic purposes anyway) the same thing. Picturing a sitcom from just a script, without the lead actor attached, is harder. If you do eventually get a sitcom credit, it’s very possible you’ll be writing alongside the lead actor, rather than being the sole writer.
Any tips for new comedy 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. That’s because those people like the imagined lifestyle of being a writer (making your own hours, idly daydreaming in artisan coffee outlets, being on Desert Island Discs) rather than the actual process of writing. If you really do write stuff regularly, because it’s in you and it’s got to come out, 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 Graham Linehans, your Daisy and Charlie Coopers, your Peter Kays, for that broadcaster’s limited pot of money. Your first attempt at a brand-new sitcom is almost certain 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; soon they had her writing a full episode.
The early stages of a comedy writing career are as much a test of bloody-minded persistence as they are of creative talent. So are the middle stages. And the later stages.
Thirdly: when showing a TV or film script around, always use standard screenplay format. It’s very common for people going into scriptwriting for the first time to just lay it out however they feel. The result is countless weird home-grown variations of font, line spacing and margins. Many of them are just hard to read. They also suggest to the reader you haven’t been reading any scripts by other people, which you really should have been doing if you’re intent on cutting it in the professional environment. Most importantly of all, they make it hard for the reader to get a true sense of the pacing, plot density, scene length and gag rate. All of which are things that the reader will absolutely want to know. Give yourself the best chance, and lay it out right. You’ll lose points for doing it any other way. Here’s a summary of how to do it. Final Draft, the industry standard software, makes it all very easy. However Final Draft is expensive, so if you’re strapped and can’t yet afford it, there are free alternatives. But you should look to get it as soon as you can. Radio formatting is different again: it works like this. This may all seem didactic. But the less time the reader has to spend wrestling with your highly original but awkward bloody layout, the more time they can spend thinking about the actual content of what you’ve written – and that’s where you should be pouring all your originality.
Fourthly: see below in cartoon advice for the ‘look after your body’ section.
Fifthly: learn how to turn your internal editor off for a while. Give yourself the freedom to run away with an idea for a bit without worrying about whether it’s good or bad. Then have a few more ideas in the same way. Then put on your editing hat, look at your ideas and decide what’s good. Then repeat the process. It’s a bit like driving a car from your house to distant destination. There are times when you need to hit the gas, other times where you need to brake, but you don’t want to do both at once. If as soon as you have your first idea of the day you slip into thinking ‘but is it a good idea? Hmm, probably not,’ then you are pulling away with the handbrake on.
Sixthly: learn how to use punctuation and grammar. Most people can’t punctuate for toffee. They don’t put question marks at the end of questions. They either miss out commas or strew them around by the fistful. They don’t use dashes, semicolons or colons, and they spray the comma splice everywhere . And for most people, that’s absolutely fine. Quarterly sales reports and Facebook posts from the beach don’t need to be top-drawer writing. But you’re not most people – you’re setting out to be a comedy writer. You’ve got to show people that you’re uncommonly adept with the language. Scripts are always a reading experience before they’re ever performed. When they are performed, a single word in the wrong place can mess up any line, like a bum note can ruin a melody.
Now, I don’t mean that you must slavishly follow rules – and especially not when writing dialogue. Speech patterns don’t follow standard written English (unless you’re writing a deliberately weird character who talks like Jacob Rees-Mogg). But even if you’re writing characters who talk entirely in slang or patois, you’ve got to make sure it’s good and readable. Knowing your punctuation will help. When you’re writing things that aren’t dialogue, knowing your grammar and syntax becomes even more important. Every scriptwriter must be a prose writer too.
At the very least, make all sure your sentences have full stops at the end (unless they have a question mark or exclamation mark). I’ve been sent scripts where all the sentences just end without one, and it’s pretty distracting as I’ll show you at the end of this paragraph
If you’re reading this and thinking “none of that should matter! If my ideas are funny, that’s what counts!”… well, there are professionals who agree with you. But a lot don’t, and if those are the ones that have taken the time to read your script, don’t give them a reason to put it down. If you don’t compose sentences well, and I have to expend mental energy re-reading your lines to check what you actually meant, then when there’s a tie-break I’m likely to favour another writer whose stuff reads more smoothly. Though in a way it doesn’t matter what I think, because if your script gets some interest, this sort of problem come home to roost regardless. Say I’m a producer who says yep, this is great, and I don’t care about the punctuation and grammar and typos, let’s push this forward. Maybe I could organise a table read with actors, attended by an executive from a channel. A lot hangs on that read. Trust me on this – if an actor fluffs a joke you dearly love thanks to some preventable glitch, like you’re missing the word ‘when’ from the sentence or there’s a stray full stop, your heart will drop into your boots. Too many stumbled lines, and all the fluency of the script will drain away, and the comedy with it.
The good news is that getting this stuff right has never been easier; apps like Grammarly will flag up a lot of your problems. If you’re dyslexic, try getting a mate to read your stuff before you send it to people, and get them to spot what you’ve missed.
A few typos here and there are okay though. There’s always a couple you never catch.
Seventhly: get ready to write about things that aren’t you.
Currently, the world is mad for autobiography. Personal experience has always been really important for any kind of fiction; but in the last few years, many take it to be the only way to write. Recently someone pitched me a sketch by talking about his experiences growing up. And I was thinking; wow, even the sketches have to autobiographical now? The two other planks of creativity – (a) observing other people, and (b) plain old Making Stuff Up – are heavily undervalued right now, while Lived Experience is raised ever higher.
But if you want to be a career comedy writer you’ll need to write outside yourself a whole lot of the time. That autobiographical masterpiece of a sitcom will take years to get on telly, if it does get on at all. In the meantime you’ll need to hone your skills, and maybe make some money. Can you imagine yourself gagging up a voice-over script for Matt Lucas? Writing for The Reluctant Landlord or 8 Out Of 10 Cats or The Amazing World of Gumball? Turning out sketches for Horrible Histories? If you can, your chances of turning professional just got much, much higher. It’s not selling out. It’s comedy writing. If you do a good job, it often feels just as artistically rewarding as your dark personal opus. Plus you can pay some bills.
Russell T. Davies has written three big landmark dramas about gay life; Queer As Folk, Cucumber and It’s A Sin. All very personal and all from his life experience But he’s written all kinds of stuff in his time. Early on, he did a lot of children’s telly, including several episodes of Chucklevision. Is he a lesser writer for doing Chucklevision? Hell no! He’s a better one. He sharpened up the comedy part of his writing. He contributed to a great show that kids loved.
And consider all the great comedy which is non-autobiographical. Father Ted was not written by a middle-aged priest, but by two young music journalists. Archer isn’t scripted by actual spies. Brooklyn Nine-Nine was not created by cops. The Good Place was not written by dead people. John Sullivan never lived the life of Del Trotter. Neither Connie Booth nor John Cleese ever worked in a hotel as far as I know, but they gave us Fawlty Towers. The world is a much richer place for having all those shows.
Further reading/listening – you might want to check out the sitcomgeeks podcast and blog.
Eighthly: beware the passive protagonist.
I read a lot of scripts by new writers. Well, for one month of the year anyway, when I’m selecting a mentee. If I was pressed to name the biggest and most frequent problem with even the most promising scripts I get, it’s that the central character doesn’t do a whole lot.
When we’re navigating our way through the real world, we often think to ourselves; everyone else is mad, and I’m the only sane one. So when new writers write their first sitcom script, they often use that template. The script’s main character is the same age/gender as the writer. Over thirty or more pages, we meet that character’s crazy best friends, eccentric parents, love interest and weird work colleagues. Before you know it, half an hour has gone by and that main character has done very little. Their comic angle is to observe the strangenesses of the other characters. Sometimes they don’t even observe out loud; it only happens in voice-over.
The huge bear trap here is that you end up with a very underdeveloped main character. Things keep happening to them. They don’t make things happen. Because they’re reactive, not active, they have no memorable flaws. Other characters are making the running in all the scenes. When a script’s like this, it kind of doesn’t matter how much work you put into the funny lines, because you’ve fitted your car with a moped engine.
Having secondary and peripheral characters who are larger than life is great. Just make sure the main character measures up too, because it’s their flaws, delusions and drive which will power the show more than anything else. To take one massive example; Derek Trotter does not have a mild urge to get rich. He has an overpowering need to make it happen, fuelled by an insecure upbringing and plain old ego. Add to that his need to prove he’s clever, and to project a flashy lifestyle despite living in Nelson Mandela House, and his tendency to take short cuts, you’ve got a character that propels plots and stories like you wouldn’t believe. Del’s a tornado. Your character doesn’t need to be exactly like Del, but every main character could do with a bit of his energy.
Some more recent examples; Leslie Knope is driven by a ferocious need to be the best possible Parks and Recreation department boss, and this drops her in trouble all the time. If that drive was dialled down, the show wouldn’t work as well. Or how about Grinder in People Just Do Nothing? His ridiculous self-image as a garage MC superstar, despite all the evidence proving that he isn’t, is the beating heart of the show. If Grinder only saw the MCing as a hobby, and had a sensible perspective on how well it was going – then whatever else you’d have, you wouldn’t have People Just Do Nothing.
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’ve found I can’t just skim-read the script and send back one or two vague tips. If I’m going to do your script justice, I need to get right under the bonnet of the thing. There’s 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 forty minutes 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. I’ll keep referring back to the script when assembling this, reading key chunks several more times. Then I have to proof-read the email to get out all the typos and make sure my points are as clear as they can 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 terrific. But on occasion I’ve agreed to give feedback on a script, but when I read it my heart sinks because there’s no plot, no characterisation, and no jokes to speak of. 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 that I don’t come across as unnecessarily blunt or cruel. That involves some very careful writing, and a lot more time. I’m afraid that I can never tell by a perfectly polite covering email if it’s going to be one of those ones.
Unfortunately, some people weren’t looking for feedback at all, even when that’s what they’ve explicitly asked for. What they really want is a whole lot of praise and validation, and me saying “I’m going to show this to Armando Iannucci!” Honest feedback can be painful. You have to sit there and be told what you did wrong. If you did a lot wrong, it’ll sting. I understand that; I’ve had feedback on my material literally thousands of times over twenty five years, and although I find it much easier than I used to, it’s not my favourite part of the job. But that’s the process. Some don’t get that, or assume that their stuff is so good that on its first contact with the professional world it’ll just be waved through like a president’s car, then get on BBC2 next year. Sometimes I’ve been sent a duff script, have taken a lot of time over the notes, then been rewarded for my unpaid hours of work for a stranger with a lengthy and defensive email explaining how my notes are sorely mistaken. That person has refused to learn anything, and I’m left pissed off. Again… I can never tell from a polite covering email if it’s going to be one of those.
I can’t stress this enough; if someone who does this sort of thing for a living has spared a bit of time to give you some notes, do not send them notes on the notes. They don’t want them. They can’t use them. They probably won’t read them. Once they sent you their thoughts, that was – for them – the end of their involvement. All that’s going to happen is they glance at your nit-picky email and think, what a wanker, giving me a hard time after I’ve just done them a good turn.
All you really need to do, if you’ve received some professional advice/consultation for free, is say thanks. About 50% of the time, people don’t even bother to do this.
Another thing you need to know; if a professional DOES give you some free advice on a script, DO NOT keep sending them subsequent drafts of that script asking for still more advice. Their time is a valuable and finite asset. Those pointers they sent were a one-off favour. They were not starting an ongoing commitment. Don’t try to lever them into an obligation they weren’t looking for and don’t want; that’s counter-productive for everyone.
Giving feedback on a script is a skilled job; it’s script editing. Which is good news for you, because there are some terrific professionals who will do that job, and give notes on your script, for a fee. You could try Louise Coats (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Andrew Ellard or Dave Cohen.
How does your mentoring scheme work?
Every year or so, I take on one new PoC/BAME comedy writer as a mentee for a 12 month period. For that time I’ll read everything they send me, offer notes and advice, and watch out for any breaks I can give them. You’ll find a fuller explanation in this link. The next time it comes up, I’ll make as much noise as I can on social media.
I’ve got a script and I want to send it around. But what if someone rips off my idea?
This is a common dread amongst novice writers. First-timers’ scripts often come with a copyright symbol on the front page, so fearful is the writer that someone will run away with their precious ideas.
You need to stop worrying about this.
Those ideas of yours may not be as sensationally original as you think. There are, at any one time, dozens of people working on a sketch about a man arguing with a taxi driver. Or on a sitcom that’s based in a Greggs. Or a Wolf Of Wall Street-type financial office, or an art gallery, or a crazy flatshare, or a secret base full of alien artefacts. What’s going to mark you out is not what you’re writing about, but how you’re writing it.
So let’s say a producer is reading your script. It’s likely set in a situation which she’s seen in scripts before – but yours is somehow different. The characters are compelling, the jokes are singing, the story weaves and darts rather than plods, and it builds to a great payoff. She might rip off your great material, right? No. If what you’ve written is good enough to get her attention, she won’t be looking to purloin those few jokes in her hand – it’ll be you she wants, and the many more scripts that will come if she can get to work with you. She will be in touch. If your script really is the golden egg you hope it is, everyone will want a meet-and-greet with the goose.
In any case, the comedy business as a whole takes a very dim view of plagiarism. It’s a smallish industry where reputation matters. In twenty-five years, having worked on countless projects with a vast number of people, there’s only been one occasion where someone nicked an idea from Kevin and myself. And zero occasions when we’ve been asked to work on a nicked idea.
How do I break into cartooning?
My route into comedy writing was fairly orthodox. Many parts of my experience can be replicated. I can’t say either 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 the editor Katy Follain championing it at Hodder and Stoughton. It came out on 2003 and did very nicely.
So I’m afraid some of my key breaks are difficult for others to reproduce. I got an agent because I was already with the same agency for script writing. Even then, they weren’t (and still aren’t) an agency for visual artists, but rather for authors, actors, presenters and scriptwriters. As far as I know I’m the only cartoonist on their books. I got the Observer strip partly because of a TV show I wrote for. Also, my cartoons themselves benefited a great deal from my scriptwriting experience. I was able to cast aside my clever cross-hatching and really home in the joke, leading me to the blunter yet funnier style that I’ve mostly used since. But it’s hard to say to people, “if you want a break as a cartoonist, it helps to become a comedy writer ten years earlier.” That is, to put it mildly, the long way round.
What it’s like for people who take a more normal route, I can’t really tell you. I’ve never pitched a cartoon to Private Eye, The Oldie or The Spectator. I’ve got no experience in the comics industry (as distinct to the book trade). And because I’ve done a vanishingly small amount of illustration work on other people’s things – only two jobs ever, both from people who already knew me – I don’t know the right approach to get that sort of work either.
If I was starting off now I would probably begin a webcomic or a tumblr feed. These days it would be difficult for me to get interest from a publisher for a humour book in that same way I did in the early 2000s. Back then the world was still on dial-up internet. Viral memes were few, and seen by few. Publishers weren’t looking to them as a source of humour books. Now they love to find things that way, because it produces ideas that are road tested and that a chunk of the buying public might already recognize. One good recent example of this: Rubyetc whose very successful tumblr feed has spawned its own book.
Even if your webcomic doesn’t get much traffic, the discipline of writing and drawing it regularly, even when you may not be in the mood, will be good for you. Being able to produce work when you’re not in the mood is requisite for every creative professional. I’m certain that after a year, you’ll be a noticeably better cartoonist.
Can you help me get my cartoon book published?
I can’t because I’m like you, banging on the gate; I’m not one of the gatekeepers. It’s editors and publishers you want. If you can get an agent first that may help – anything coming from a known and respected agent will get looked at faster. If you’d like me to share a load of useful contacts with you, I’m afraid that’s a list I don’t have. In the book trade I deal with my one agent, my editor at Hodder & Stoughton, my other editor at Hodder Children’s, and that’s it. Your best resource for contacts is the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which comes out annually and is crammed full of useful information, including details on how to send your stuff to just about every agent and publisher in the UK. Whenever sending material to an editor or and agent, be sure to check their preferred method for submissions, which will doubtless be on their website.
Can I collaborate with you on a cartoon project?
Can I send you my cartoons for you to give me your thoughts on?
Possibly, BUT… please ask me first, before you send me files or a link. At any given time, I might be working on a new book project (I’m half way through one as I write this post). If your idea bears even a faint similarity to mine, and it might because people think of similar ideas way more frequently than many people think, that puts me in a problematic position. So I’m often going to say a polite ‘no’ to viewing any cartoons in this way. I hope you understand.
If you send me your cartoon opus without asking me first, I will delete the pictures without looking at them.
Do you have any advice for new cartoonists?
I cover the business (and my untypical route through it) above, but as far as the actual craft of cartooning goes…
Draw from life. Even if your style is very simple, you’ll need to know how a body sags when someone’s tired, how to make eyebrows twist in anguish or jump in delight, how to make a hand look like a hand and not a bunch of bananas. So draw from life. And I don’t mean copying photographs, which removes the tough work of really looking, and seeing not what your mind thinks should be there, but what’s really there. Cartooning is deceptively difficult. Even if it’s as simple as stick figures, you need a lot of drawing ability to make sure your stick figures have more expression, personality and humour than everyone else’s. That’s why people love David Shrigley and Modern Toss. Sure, their stuff looks like a few scrawls that anybody could fling on to a piece of paper. But there’s years of craft behind that, which enables them to fling precisely the right scrawls. And of course, you’ll need to write great material for your simple figures to perform on the page or screen. So writing is another thing you’ll need to practice, even if your cartoons are wordless like my Bunny Suicides. Composing those jokes, polishing them to their absolute best, I would certainly class as a form of writing.
Draw a lot – and without directly copying another artist. It’s the only way to find your unique rhythm. But, having said that…
Look after your body. Your body doesn’t know you’re a cartoonist. It’s not evolved for that. Your body thinks you’re a hunter/gatherer in east Africa 50,000 years ago. You are built to walk twelve miles a day, gather seeds, dig roots, knap flints, swim for shellfish, climb trees for fruit, maybe run down the odd antelope. Hunter-gatherers live varied lives and rarely do one endlessly repetitive physical action. Hunching your back for hours on end, head bent down, one shoulder thrust forward to draw, is a form of bodily misuse. Add to that the other daily strains – computers, games consoles, smartphones, tablets, driving a car. Be honest; how much of your day do you spend doing those things? If it’s a lot, you’re hammering the same few muscles over, and over, and over again. One day that’ll bite you. You’ll develop pain in your hand, arm, neck, shoulder, back, or the whole lot if you’re unlucky, and once it starts it’s hard to stop. So if you want to be a cartoonist, make a couple of investments. Learn how to give yourself trigger point massage using The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davies.* Then make an appointment to see a physiotherapist. Explain to them you’re a cartoonist and that although you’re not hurting now, prevention is better than cure. Draw in front of them for five minutes so they can see how your work, then ask them to prescribe exercises to offset the inevitable strains you’re causing it.** A lot of artists find swimming, pilates and yoga useful.
*Prediction one: you’ll need to loosen your scalenes, pectorals and anterior deltoids on your drawing side.
**Prediction two: you’ll need to strengthen your core, your rhomboids and your posterior deltoids.
Last and most strident point –
DRAW YOUR CHARACTERS FROM SCRATCH EVERY TIME THEY APPEAR. I can hardly believe I have to say this one, but I really do. Photoshop makes it very easy to draw a character once or twice, then use those few images as digital assets which can be re-used over and over. A lot of webcomics are made this way. It makes for an ugly style, with mismatched line weights and tediously repetitive panels. Yes, it’s quick to do. And it means you’re not developing as a cartoonist in any way. You’re de-skilling yourself. Don’t do it! Get drawing! Then your characters will start to come alive.
To show you what I mean – look at Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Many of the strips are just the two main characters talking, but each panel grabs your attention because the figures are so expressive and fun and amazingly well drawn. Calvin and Hobbes is a masterpiece. Now look at the anonymous webcomic Jesus and Mo. It’s been going since 2005, and in all that time the artist has only been bothered to draw each character twice. I’m not exaggerating. Every single frame has the same couple of tedious, dull, stiff pictures cut-and-pasted in. There is simply no reason to look at any given panel because they are all the same. No expression. No development as an artist. Ask yourself who want to be like – the Jesus and Mo artist, or Bill Watterson?
Will you be drawing any more Bunny Suicides?
I’ve done three books of rabbits killing themselves now… that’s about 350 pages of bunny death. I’ll never say never, but I’ve got no plans to do any more. There’s lots of other exciting things I’m getting on with. Not least this children’s book series.
There we go. Maybe your question was covered in there… if it wasn’t, please get in touch on email@example.com. Ta!