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Griff Rhys Jones: What's the difference between a pizza and a comedy writer?

What's the difference between a pizza and a comedy writer? A pizza can feed a family of five. That was one of the key lessons in Griff Rhys Jones' keynote speech at this year's London Comedy Writers Festival. He spoke without notes for an hour about his experiences writing comedy, and gave some insight from his roles in producing, writing and acting.

Griff Rhys Jones at the London Comedy Writers Festival 2011

Griff Rhys Jones at the London Comedy Writers Festival 2011. Photo courtesy of Chris Jones

Jones was part of Cambridge Footlights and his first job was producing Frankie Howerd. Around 1970-5, Jones got a job in BBC comedy when a whole generation of ex-army BBC radio staff came up for retirement at the same time. "I doubt anyone else will get that lucky again," he said. He later starred in sketch shows Not the Nine O'Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones, both of which co-starred Mel Smith. In 1982, Jones and Smith co-founded independent production company Talkback, which went on to produce The Day Today and I'm Alan Partridge, among many other shows.

He described his career as "thirty years looking at a piece of paper and wondering what the fuck do I write?"

Here are the top lessons I picked up from his talk:

  • Learn to live with actors' edits. "It can be debilitating for a writer that the star might take your work and rewrite it." He said there was only one sketch he remembers performing without amendments, the Constable Savage sketch from Not the Nine O'Clock News, which incidentally was written by a forensic investigator and was the only thing he ever wrote.
  • Be a hack. "The process of starting for many writers is a hack job," said Jones. "A lot of writers are nursing a big project they can't get anyone to read. The truth is a large number of people who went on to write sitcoms and have their own shows started out as freelance hacks. Write jokes for shows." He said it's feasible to send jokes in to sketch shows to see if they can accept them, and said radio is a "voracious medium" in great need of freelance material. "If comedy writing is what you want to do, to get involved with a freelance show is as good an opening as I can think of." (Find out how to write radio comedy)
  • Send appropriate material. Know the ethos of the show you're writing for. Jones said writers often send material that implies the show could change its direction. If you're sending material to Hale and Pace, send them a Hale and Pace sketch.
  • Find a gang. He advised writers to find four friends, people who are as mad, crazy and obsessive as you are. He said he was a great believer in the gang and said one of the things that made Talkback a success is that they created a stimulating environment for people to hang out together, unlike the BBC which was a hard place to write comedy.
  • Edit yourself. Jones spent 20 years reading the slush pile of unsolicited scripts and would read 400 scripts and not find a single one funny. "You think there's something wrong with you!" he said, advising writers to "be aware that agents and producers have spent their lives reading shit. They will never read beyond the fifth page of a sketch if it's not funny in the first five pages." So make sure your material is funny and tightly written. Remember you're in it for the long game and throw stuff away when you should.
  • Use one joke once. "Don't show me four ways to do the joke. I only want to read it once. It doesn't matter if you think it's the funniest thing you wrote."
  • Respect the producer's judgement. Don't tell them to read it again if it's rejected. Send it to someone else. If six people hate it, perhaps it's time to just keep it to yourself.
  • Rewrite. "If you get an agent, there will come a moment where you've done five rewrites and the agent will say they [the production company] have to pay again. It's correct for the agent to do his job, but all good sitcoms are written for love and a desire to be funny. That's what drives Graham Linehan to spend his whole life rewriting. It doesn't matter if somebody else asks for a rewrite. He's always doing it." Jones said comedy writing was not an imaginative process. It's like mining 200 tonnes of rubbish to find a nugget of gold.
  • Be a team player. Remember that some people are employed because they're seen as helpful, useful and enthusiastic. Your idea might be rejected, but you might be given something else to work on.

Find more advice on writing comedy here.

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