London Screenwriters' Festival

Practical tips about writing comedy by Paul Bassett Davies

Posted on: March 28th, 2011 by Anton 1 Comment

Today’s blog is about never giving up on your dream. Except the one about the giant panda and the peanut butter. Or the one where you’re naked at a funeral. Or the one where you’re just about to play the bassoon in front of Michelle Obama and you remember that you don’t know what a bassoon is. In fact, give up on all of your dreams. Dreams suck. Wake up and get down to some work that’s going to make a difference to you.

Now, I could write about how wonderful the festival is going to be, and all the great guests, and how you’ll get a lot of vital information and advice, and learn valuable skills, and enhance your social life, and improve your upper body tone, and meet the man, woman or giant panda of your dreams. All of these things are true, probably. But they’re not specific enough when it’s Monday morning and the festival is in two week’s time. So I’m going to give you some specific, practical tips about writing comedy.


Simply Funny.
Most of the best comedy ideas are simple. “A very rude man runs a hotel.” Or “a likeable rogue in prison always gets the better of the authorities.” Sometimes the idea is so strong and simple that the title says it all, like “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” Here’s a test: if you can’t describe your comedy idea in 15 words or less, it’s probably too complicated.

Simple set-up, complex development.
This doesn’t mean characters and stories can’t be complex. But the SET-UP is simple. The plots of many restoration comedies are fiendishly convoluted, but are based on a simple proposition. In ‘The Country Wife’, a notorious rake convinces other men he’s impotent so they trust him with their wives -  a simple idea – but the plot that develops is labyrinthine.

And some of the most interesting characters in TV sitcom are found in set-ups that can be summed up in a few words. “A warring father and son run a scrap business.” Sometimes it’s even simpler. “Two very different people have to live together,” which could describe any number of sitcoms from “The Odd Couple” to “Peep Show.” But although the set-ups are simple, the writing, especially of character, can be very sophisticated.


SITCOM WRITING TIP:  How to create and use ‘B’ Characters.
Think of some great sitcoms. Fawlty Towers. Absolutely Fabulous. Peep Show. All based around great characters: Basil Fawlty, Patsy and Edina, Mark and Jeremy.

Now think of Basil without Manuel, Patsy and Edina without Saffron, Mark and Jeremy without Super Hans. What would happen? Those sitcoms would lose more than just a secondary character, they’d lose a vital part of what makes them special.

The right B character can make a sitcom a classic.
B characters aren’t as complex as the main characters, in fact they’re usually stereotypes, but they play a vital role in the way they interact with the main characters.

Why are B characters so important?
When the B characters show up in a sitcom something changes. B characters always behave the same way – but they change the way the main characters behave.

How do B characters change the behaviour of the main characters?
The B characters are often like cartoon versions of the A characters. They’re like an exaggerated offspring of one quality in a main character. They can represent exactly what the A characters don’t like - about themselves. They reflect them in a distorting mirror.

In ‘Will and Grace’ Jack is exactly the kind of flamboyantly camp gay man that Will would dread to be seen as. Yet Will knows there’s a side of him that could be like that. And Karen is the type of crazy, raddled New York fashionista that Grace suspects she could become if she just let things slip a bit and let one aspect of herself out of the cage.

Sid James was the perfect side-kick for Tony Hancock, the lower-middle class snob, because he showed Hancock everything he was trying not to be, and often lured him into betraying himself – or taking such pains not to betray himself that he became ludicrous.

How to create a B character.
Pinpoint the quality that the A character most hates about themselves. Create a B character who embodies this quality. Write some dialogue in which the B character offers advice – like the A character’s bad angel, luring them to betray themselves or to react against the B character’s attitude so strongly that comic tension or conflict is created.

Now you’ve got the makings of  a B character – and now you can start to play, because

B Characters are a lot of fun.


Comedy is simple. But it’s not easy.
Writing comedy involves some very specific skills. It helps if you have a passion for the work, and a natural flair is a great gift. But the most important thing is to practice the craft. And keep practicing. The first step is to identify and become familiar with the skills you need. The Comedy Writers festival can help you do that.


Paul Bassett Davies is a comedy writer who can be found here on Twitter or here, via his blog.

One Response

  1. Beth says:

    Were you ‘dreamdropping’ last night? You missed the bit about Davy Jones and a real baby elephant that I won in a raffle…the elephant I think not Davy Jones, although I can’t be sure as the ticket got stolen by a giant panda, typical.

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