London Screenwriters' Festival

Comedy Writing: The More The Merrier

Posted on: March 17th, 2011 by Anton No Comments

by Hayley McKenzie

Here’s why networking at the Comedy Writers’ Festival is what it’s all about…

When your script isn’t quite up to scratch it’s easy (and understandable) to get defensive about other people ‘interfering’ in it. Indeed, in UK television drama series there’s a default position that if the script isn’t working, the writer can be fired and another writer brought in to take ownership and rewrite as necessary.

What’s great about comedy series is that there is much more willingness to bring other writers on board when the script needs ‘gagging up’ or the story needs fixing. If you can learn to collaborate, you might just get yourself a long career in the industry.

Everyone knows that American comedy series almost all use writing teams with a large number of writers all contributing to multiple episodes.  It’s a system we’ve tried only rarely here, most notably with ‘My Family’. Some argue that it leads to ‘lowest common denominator’ material and that more authored series are better. For me the jury’s still out on this one.

Comedy writing partnerships are a long-established and hugely successful formula in the UK with the likes of Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong (‘Peep Show’), Graham Linehan & Arthur Mathews (‘Father Ted’), Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran (‘Birds of a Feather’, ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’), Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (‘Porridge’, ‘The Likely Lads’).

What’s emerged in recent years is a system that sits somewhere between these two. Both ‘Not Going Out’ and ‘Miranda’ are successful comedy shows that have nominally single-author episodes but in fact have a number of brilliant writers contributing to them at various stages of the script development process. For example, the regular writing contributors on ‘Miranda’ for just 12 episodes are James Cary, Paul Kerensa, Paul Powell, Richard Hurst and Simon Dean.  All brilliant in their own way, all bringing something valuable to the process.

No system is without its flaws and difficulties and no series gets on air without some degree of tension among those working hard to make it as good as it can be. But when brilliant writers work together there is the potential to create something better than any of them could have produced working in isolation.

The Comedy Writers’ Festival is about networking and forming exciting, fruitful working relationships, just as much as it is about listening to our brilliant speakers. Writers who not only respect the skills of their peers but who can actually embrace them can really benefit from that ability to collaborate.

If you can see other people’s comedy writing skills not as a threat to you and your career, but as a great opportunity to improve your writing and your project, you can go a long way. After all, isn’t it better to make your project better by using the talent of others or, as a contributor, to jump on the back of someone else’s brilliant idea, than to sit struggling on your own?

Get meeting, get chatting, get collaborating and you might just create the next hit comedy!

Hayley McKenzie is an independent Script Editor who has developed scripts with the likes of Paul Mendelson (‘My Hero’,’ So Haunt Me’,’ May to December’) and Keith Lindsay (‘The Green Green Grass of Home’) and script edited on shows such as ‘Casualty’ (BBC1) and ‘Blue Murder’ (ITV1). Hayley runs script consultancy ‘Script Angel’ www.scriptangel.co.uk.

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