Radio comedy: sketches, sitcoms and silliness

by isabelrogers

Last week I went to a radio comedy writing workshop. To say I was excited is an understatement: I’m a bit of a fan of our tutors, Dave Cohen and James Cary.

The workshop was in north London. I am in Hampshire, and have two children. Logistics were complex. I chucked my nine-year-old at a school friend’s mum for wraparound care, my three-year-old at her child-minder for an extra day starting earlier than either might have liked, and ran for the train. Actually, I had plenty of time to relax, since it took an extra half an hour to crawl into Waterloo.

There’s nothing like arriving late to make you grin like Wallace enthusing to Gromit about a particularly fine cheese. I just about got away with it by curtseying and making a crack about not being able to sneak in round the back (the room was an intimate venue, with Dave standing between the sole door and EVERYBODY ELSE). They laughed! This is it, I thought, sinking into a spare chair on the front row. I can relax and wait for the script requests to roll in.

Actually, Dave was in the middle of telling us about the Three Act Sketch, which had been invented by Aristotle in about 330 BC in his book The Poetics. I got out my notebook and concentrated.

What followed was, quite simply, the most focused and revelatory few hours I’ve ever had discussing comedy. I know what I find funny, and up until last week I thought I’d analysed it deeply enough to work out why. What I didn’t know were the nuts and bolts of timing: in a two-minute sketch, you need your characters established in twenty seconds. Then it’s set up/joke/set up/joke for as long as you can juggle it without going mad, and then (much like a gymnast turning at the end of a beam for a double flick into a pike somersault with one-and-a-half twists dismount) you take a flying leap into your punchline. Probably without that diversion into a gymnastic metaphor: you simply don’t have the time. Back in the halcyon days of The Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, you could spend seven minutes riffing on one joke. These days, it’s brutal.

James was late. Even later than me. He too had encountered Trains. When he arrived we split into groups to invent our own sketches from nothing but blank paper and synapses. My group included Alex (a quiet man in glasses with the merest suggestion of fashionable scalp fuzz) and Sajeela (who had an infectious laugh and a wickedly funny array of character accents). What we produced in ten minutes wasn’t the best sketch in the world, but hearing James and Dave deconstruct and give notes afterwards taught me more about writing a sketch than reading a hundred blogs. (Sorry. You’ll have to do the course if you want their Magic Secrets.)

There was an interesting dynamic going on between Dave and James. Dave is a gorgeous smile of a man, standing there telling us all these gems, fiddling a bit with his shirt buttons and occasionally reminding us he was perfectly capable of scything straight through us with a razor wit. When James arrived it was as if he were walking into one of those infamous writing rooms, where if you want to be heard you have to talk (a) loudly, (b) with the projection of an operatic tenor pointing Verdi at the cheap seats, and (c) without pause until the person you interrupted tails off.

I lost count of how many times James interrupted Dave to tell a hilarious anecdote. Because they were hilarious. We all laughed. I did sometimes wonder what it was that Dave had been going to say, though. Sometimes we wandered back to it. Sometimes we didn’t. There was also a lot of fiddling with the front of James’ trousers. Only by James, I hasten to add. I got the impression he’d put his pants through a hot wash by mistake and things had got a bit too snug for comfort. But maybe that was only because I was on the front row. I have a trained eye: you notice this sort of thing with conductors if you sit on the front desk of the cello section.

Before lunch, James gave us a quick and dirty list of what to remember when editing a sketch, all of which were gold. One of them stood out for me: he told the blokes there – a majority, but not overwhelmingly so – not to assume a character is male by default. Times they are a-changin’. Interestingly, James didn’t remind us to include men in our sketches. I was tempted to heckle, but resisted.

After lunch, we turned from sketches to situation comedy.

The one bit of advice that – for me – defines the difference between a sketch and a sitcom was this: in a sketch, a character learns something. Has a catharsis (again, Aristotle’s term). In a sitcom, if your character grows in any meaningful way at the end of Episode 1, that’s the end of your sitcom.

BBC Radio 4 has three daily comedy slots: 11.30am, 6.30pm and 11.00pm. The first one is safe, the last one is edgy, the middle one is apparently for people too busy to listen properly and is therefore disproportionately skewed towards panel shows. I remember during my childhood the 6.30pm slot was the only thing allowing our family to eat supper in relative harmony. Nobody had to speak.

We had another go in our groups, this time to invent a sitcom from scratch in fifteen minutes, complete with title, characters, conflict and confinement. I marveled at Sajeela’s range of voices and one-liners. I was banned from giving it an awful pun title. We giggled a LOT.

If you’ve read my blog for a bit, you’ll know I love sitcoms (I talked about one glorious exchange in Cheers here). I’ve written a couple of pilots, one of which managed to get a whole page of feedback from the BBC Writersroom. Chatting to a lovely Radio 4 employee at this workshop, apparently I should pat myself on the back for getting that far and retrieve it immediately from a bottom drawer to polish. With what I’ve now learned I can edit both of those, and have enough tools to make anything I attempt from now on hugely better.

There’s no punchline to this blog. It’s not a sketch. Go and write your own.