Friday, 10 August 2012

Top Tips from a Comedy Writing Masterclass

At the heaving heart of the Edinburgh Fringe, snuggled up between the gleaming white towers of The University of Edinburgh's Informatics Forum sits the BBC's Fringe Festival base camp, a happy haven of table football, gin and tonics and people with big fluffy microphones. 

This was Thursday and the lovely Rachel of funny and whimsical Rachel About Town blog had secured free tickets for the BBC's comedy writing masterclass.  In the star sprinkled darkness of the BBC studio we shuffled down aisles to watch Jon Holmes and a panel of comedy writers tell us all about the dark art of comedy. 

They covered various topics.

"Which word is funnier: chicken or hen?"

(there's more to that, honest)

"Where's the best place to write?"

"How did you get into writing for the BBC?"

The topic which interested me most was "Which comes first: the 'sit' or the 'com'?" 

The answer was unanimous.  The situation is irrelevant: it's the characters that make a comedy.  All a situation should ever be is a thing which traps the characters together.  It doesn't matter what the situation is: a prison (Porridge), a space ship (Red Dwarf), a flat share (New Girl) or a  family (Arrested Development) - in fact often, the simpler the better. 

Comedian and writer Humphrey Ker highlighted that the classic beginner's mistake was to focus on a high end concept: to get side tracked by the situation, by coming up with something dazzlingly original.  Time travelling nuns go back to Victorian London and hunt vampires.  That kind of thing. 

Humphrey Ker - he's one smart cookie

Sound familiar?

I made that mistake.  It isn't restricted to comedy writers.  It applies to all writers, or at least it did to me.  My head would split trying to come up with The Unique Plot Concept when what I needed to be doing was thinking about characters. 

Characters are key.

As the panel said - put Basil Fawlty on an oil rig and he would still be funny.  It isn't the hotel that's funny, it's the way that Basil Fawlty reacts to anything that crosses his path.

Humphrey described Red Dwarf as "Porridge in space."   Apply that to novels - you could probably describe Harry Potter as Star Wars in a school for wizards.  

I write historical romance.  Or I did.  Not today.  Today I'm writing a contemporary paranormal and it's liberating.  I'm thinking less about curious situations and getting the historical detail right and thinking more about the character and what they need to have happen to grow and develop.  The story is built around that.  

So, here's the thing. 

The next time someone says:

"I've got a great idea for a book"

Don't ask "What?" ask "Who?" 

Because when it comes down to it, it's the C that's important - the character and the comedy.  Get your characters right and the rest will come. 


Lisa Shambrook said...

Fantastic advice...and one I'm slowly getting better at! Thanks for posting Meg!

Anonymous said...

One of my brother's once wrote comedy for the BBC. A small claim to fame ;o)

And time travelling nuns actually sounds pretty cool...

Sophie Moss said...

Sounds like a fun event! Enjoyed hearing about the experience. :) Am impatiently awaiting your next flash fiction piece. Ahem...