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How to write radio comedy

If you want to write comedy, radio is the perfect place to start. That was one of the themes that came across clearly at the London Comedy Writers Festival 2011, and the session dedicated to writing comedy for radio was packed.

On the panel were Tilusha Ghelani, producer for BBC radio comedy, who works on Just a Minute and Newsjack among other shows; James Kettle, who writes for The Now Show; James Carey, who wrote for Think the Unthinkable, sketch show Concrete Cow and Another Case of Milton Jones; and Max Dickins, an Absolute Radio DJ, writer and stand-up performer.

Collage of my pass, handbook and agenda from London Comedy Writers Festival 2011

My pass, handbook and agenda from the London Comedy Writers Festival 2011

"Writing for radio is brilliant," said Kettle. "The money's not great, but it's not awful. Some think of it as the nursery slopes before doing scary stuff, but think of radio as an end in itself. It's a writer's medium. It's intimate, more like a novel than TV. You can get inside people's heads, go anywhere and do anything." He noted that many of the cultural masterpieces of our time are radio series such as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Goon Show or On the Hour. Some of the best radio programmes (such as Old Harry's Game and Hitchhikers) could only work on radio. Radio audiences tend to be smart and well-informed, like writers, he said, and "it's nice to write for people like you".

With three comedy slots a day, Radio 4 commissions more comedy writing than anyone else, and the writer has more control over the end product in radio. It costs £280,000 to make a TV show, Kettle said, so "they won't let you spend that without a lot of other adults in the room. On Radio, there's not enough money for others to come in and mess your ideas around. It's fun and you're in control, broadly speaking. Quite a few big name writers come back to radio."

There's also a big potential audience if you write comedy for radio. The 6.30 slot on Radio 4 gets between one million and one and a half million listeners, and the topical podcasts can get a further one million listeners.

Max Dickins stressed that the BBC isn't the only place to go with your comedy writing. He said that commercial breakfast shows are desperate for sketches and jokes, and that you might be able to get a break by approaching your local BBC show or your local commercial radio station.

Ghelani explained that BBC Radio Comedy works as a supplier to the broadcasters and has to sell its shows to Radio 4, Radio 4 Xtra, or Radio 2. (They try to sell to Radio 1, but it never buys). Good shows can be rejected internally because they need to satisfy a producer who initially champions the script, the programme development group which filters out what gets taken to the broadcaster, and the broadcaster who buys the programme.

Compared to TV, radio is a fast medium. Sketches can go on air the same week, and a sitcom can go on the air in a year. That sounds like a long time, but Carey said he had a TV show pilot that was made two and a half years ago and they've only just decided which channel it's for.

Here are some tips from the panel on writing radio comedy and breaking in:

  • Although they all stressed how little time they have to read unsolicited scripts, sending material to producers can help to build relationships, and they are on the lookout for good writers. Carey said: "If you can establish with a producer that you can deliver, you'll get work."
  • Work on the BBC's open door show Newsjack, which invites anybody to send material each week. If you have a couple of sketches that go straight in, editors might call on you to write something if they have a gap.
  • If you've submitted good stuff before, you're more likely to rise to the top of a producer's inbox.
  • Keep sketches to under three pages long and make sure sketches have a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • You can easily record your own radio pilot as a way to announce yourself. Dickins recommended Soundsnap as a source of cheap sound effects. You still need a script, though: producers prefer to read a script and imagine how they will produce it.
  • If you're pitching a show, Kettle said you should try to write a whole episode. You can then see whether it works, work out whether you want to write a whole series of it, and you'll be able to defend it if producers raise any tricky questions about it.
  • Think of a punchline. Carey said: "I won't do a sketch without a punchline, so either you or I need to write one, or I'll use another sketch. I don't get paid for your punchlines. It might feel a bit like the Two Ronnies, but audiences love it."
  • Build your sketch around one, key central idea. In a separate writing workshop, Paul Bassett Davies emphasised that satirical sketches need to choose one target and focus on it. If you have two, you risk hitting neither, although it's okay to bring in a different angle with secondary gags.
  • Make sure you establish your setup clearly from the beginning, Paul Bassett Davies added. It's okay to tease the listener, but you must not confuse them. Make sure they know where the sketch is taking place and preferably "the kind of game you're playing", such as using a deep voice if you're using a movie trailer joke format.
  • Pitch joke formats too, said Bassett Davies. Formats for jokes might include spoofs of kids shows, nature documentaries, reality TV, chat shows, makeover shows, history documentaries, local news, Desert Island Discs, sci-fi films, movie trailers, and advertisements. During the workshop, new formats were suggested including Facebook status updates and product recall notices. Producers love new formats that represent the zeitgeist so if you can write something good in a new format, you could get repeat business writing for that format.
  • When you finish (and assuming it's not topical material), let it rest for two weeks and then delete anything that doesn't quite work. Every line should either be a set up, a joke or moving the story on.
  • Make characters and their dialogue strong enough that you can tell who's talking purely from the words they say. Use accents creatively to differentiate characters.
  • Read it out loud to get a sense of the rhythm and check it works.
  • Don't get caught up on the first idea. Kettle said that over 10 people submitted Gadaffi Duck sketches after the unrest in Libya began. Avoid the obvious, and use something that will be fresh and interesting, compared to other submissions.
  • If you're pitching a show idea, the BBC prefers shows that can be recorded before a studio audience.
  • Aim for three laugh-out-loud jokes per page.
  • When you're starting out, you might have to write a lot on spec (i.e., unpaid). You won't be commissioned on the basis of an idea without a track record. Make sure there's a reasonable expectation that there will be money at the end of the process, though. Kettle said there are a lot of production companies now, but not all of them are going anywhere.
  • Use the templates provided in the BBC's Writers Room. Kettle said: "If you've got 800 sketches to read, a little bit of breath goes out if they're all in different formats." While no sketches get thrown out on format alone, it doesn't hurt to make the editor's life easy.
  • Learn how to use Word, including spacing correctly. Editors don't want to have to delete tabs or spaces when they're editing your work. (For tips on using Word see my book Microsoft Office for the Older and Wiser).
  • Send your best material. "A lot of people say it's not very good but they sent it anyway," said Kettle. "Make it good. If the first thing a producer reads is not good, they won't be excited about the other stuff you write."

Find more advice on writing comedy here.

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