Yesterday, I posted the following thought on Twitter, seconds after it had crossed my mind:
God, writing comedy is hard
The reason I wrote it is because I am currently writing comedy, and it is hard. Without going into specifics, which would surely jinx the project, I have been commissioned to write my first ever solo sitcom for radio: four 30-minute episodes, for Radio 4. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this one before, as I originally pitched it – via a production company – for TV, specifically, BBC2. It went into development at BBC Comedy at the beginning of 2009. This means that I got paid to write a single pilot script. (This is a jackpot of sorts, as the self-employed writer spends a demoralising percentage of his life in meetings that pay nothing, and writing pitch documents, proposals and even scripts “on spec” that also pay nothing.) After I’d delivered the sixth draft of this script, honed and refined over the course of many script meetings and copious notes exchanged between me, the production company and our potential exec at BBC Comedy, they passed on it.
The production company, a tenacious outfit who are very good to have on your team, did not shelve it. They pitched it to Radio 4, who, last year, commissioned it. Give or take an Edinburgh Fringe, an attempted holiday and an unexpected windfall of 6 Music cover, I have been writing it ever since. I have not finished yet. My first deadline was before Christmas. We record it in the first week of March. The studio is booked.
The process is hard. Even the deceptively simple task of converting the existing pilot script from TV to radio was trickier than I’d expected. Also, the “story arc”, such that it is, was originally mapped out across six episodes and now we have four. Result: I foolishly crammed all six episodes’ worth of story into four and it quickly became overloaded. I thought I’d finished episodes 2 and 3 but, after some soul-searching and brutal but necessary script editing, it was agreed that the whole thing needed a reboot. I went back to basics, stripping out entire plotlines, and rebuilding the eps I thought I’d finished. This took time. It is ongoing.
So for me, right now, writing comedy is hard. A privilege, yes, but hard-won. I learned my trade writing solo, on Family Affairs and EastEnders, but both had an existing “bible” and ongoing storylines, so my job was not to create, it was to maintain. The sitcoms I have worked on that went to air, Grass and Not Going Out, were both collaborative. The entirety of Grass was written in a series of airless rooms with Simon Day. The first series of Not Going Out was written in an airless office with Lee. (Subsequent series have been built around collaborative story conferences and solo writing, exchanged via email with Lee.) I have never written a series on my own before. I’m learning the whole time.
That said, the first comedy series I ever wrote, or co-wrote, for the original Radio Five in 1993, was Fantastic Voyage, a wacky, six-part spoof of youth TV designed and commissioned as a vehicle for me and Stuart Maconie. We wrote it together, although it was ultimately a series of linked sketches, so story arcs and plotlines were not required on that particular voyage. The point remains: my first ever scripts were radio scripts. So it’s a homecoming of sorts.
Anyway, I’m not angling for sympathy. It’s my job. Or at least, writing and talking are the services I offer as a self-employed business, and writing a comedy for Radio 4 exists within that brief. Don’t get me wrong: I’m thoroughly enjoying it when the words come naturally and the characters come alive, or when I think of a funny joke; I’m thrilled to be writing something for Radio 4; and it is head-spinning to be in discussion with such fine actors and performers as we nail down the casting. (Again, no names, for fear of the jinx.)
In the same way that book covers are usually designed before you have delivered the manuscript, we have already commissioned the theme tune from a musician I greatly admire and it sounds fantastic. (All will be revealed.) I call it my “sitcom” but it won’t be recorded in front of the usual Radio 4 studio audience, as it’s not that kind of comedy. It’s closer to a comedy drama – eek! – although the current rewrites are dragging it back towards comedy. To quote a superb line from my Radio 4 Comedy Guidelines, “the absence of a studio audience does not give you permission to be unfunny’! Lessons: being learned.
Unfortunately, after Tweeting that writing comedy is hard, a gentleman using a pseudonymous Twittername in Manchester was moved to respond thus:
No. Being a miner, teacher, police officer etc. is hard.
He is correct, although the implication was that I was not entitled to find my own job hard, as some other jobs are harder. This reminded me of some of the undeserved flak Richard Herring drew when he was self-deprecatingly complaining on Twitter from his lonely dressing room about low audiences at the Leicester Square Theatre – again, as if complaining about his job was disallowed because it was not a hard enough job.
Firstly: being a miner and being a writer are hard in their own, quite different ways. One is physically hard, the other is mentally hard. One involves danger, both short term and – medically – long term, the other categorically doesn’t, outside of repetitive strain injury. But it is romantic in the extreme to imbue one with a sort of nobility of difficulty that cancels out any strife experienced elsewhere. I spent an inspiring hour talking to Ken Loach this week, and, old fashioned lefty that he is, he’s all about representation of the working man. The writer he worked with the most in the early days was Jim Allen, a man who’d been a miner, and a soldier, a factory worker and a fireman, as well as in prison, before he turned to writing. His writing reflected those things. Presumably, if he’d Tweeted that writing was hard, that would be OK? (He is one of my favourite screenwriters. Check out Land And Freedom, Raining Stones or Hidden Agenda.)
I do not have access to a miner, but my brother has been a police officer for some years. I know full well what his job has entailed at the various levels he’s worked at. I could not do it. I would find it “harder” than writing comedy in the sense that I do not have the required mindset to impose authority on strangers, nor to wear a uniform. I’m sure I could learn the things you have to learn to be a police officer, but that’s only a fraction of the job. I know plenty of teachers and although I have lectured students, I would be unsuited to teaching a classroom of children. Thankfully, we are all suited to different things, and I admire my friends who are teachers, in the same way that I admire anyone who does something that I can’t do.
I can write and talk to a standard that seems to be sufficient for these two basic skills to support me, financially. (And not support me financially when the work isn’t coming in.) I am grateful for the anonymous Mancunian Twitterer for giving me pause for thought – Am I being an outrageous bourgeois twat for daring to complain in less than 140 characters about my job? – but his objection is without useful foundation. We all do what we can, and we all do what we have to in order to eat. We should respect everyone around us, whatever their pay scale, and we should allow everybody to have a bad day and a moan.
Oh, and by the way, if you feel I am putting way too much time and effort into defending myself against the Tweet of a man who does not have a name, it’s because writing comedy is hard, and I needed to write something that is not comedy before I get back to my job.