As an avid comedy-watcher for as long as I can remember, I was keen to attend an online talk on Writing Comedy For TV, hosted by Norfolk Screen Talks on September 22nd. Professor Brett Mills was fantastic chairing this down-to-earth panel of writers: Laurence Rickard (Actor, Co-Creator for Ghosts, Horrible Histories, Bill and Yonderland), Helen Serafinowicz (Co-Creator and Scriptwriter for Motherland), and Phoebe Walsh (Actress and Write for Ted Lasso and Four Weddings and a Funeral).
Being a third-year student who is uncertain of my future after graduation, it was comforting to hear the wins and losses of each writer in their career, as well as the turning points that kept them writing and creating. For Laurence, it was a few silly sketches he made with his friend one summer after graduating, catching his ‘big break’ sending his work over to Channel 4. Helen spoke of the personal writing she did when she had children, which she was able to pitch later to producers, creating Motherland. She emphasised the importance of writing everything down – even a small anecdote. Phoebe talked of how good university is for meeting like-minded people, but she also discussed how far you can go if you stop comparing yourself to others and concentrate on your own talent and skill.
It was fascinating to hear the challenges each writer has at the early stages of their writing. The content needs to be funny, but it must also have an interesting character development and arc throughout the series. All the writers spoke of the extensive group discussions they would have in preparation, throwing gags and quotes onto whiteboards and post-it notes. This is where their ideas would evolve and be tied together, allowing them to have fun later in the writing stage. Laurence expressed how there were benefits to writing independently, but he was grateful to have all the “eyes and minds”of his team to polish off his thoughts and make them a reality.
The panel also mused over what makes writing funny in the first place. Of course, there is some science and formulae to it, using well-known structures and techniques to make an audience laugh on demand, but they recognised that the best jokes were actually the irrational ones. Phoebe emphasised how following this ‘gut’ feeling is integral to comedic writing. In the editing stage, Laurence reflected on how easy it is to second guess the funniness of a joke when the screenplay has been read over and re-drafted multiple times. He assured his listeners to have faith in your past self as a writer. Helen added on saying it also takes great discipline to ‘let go’ of the bits that don’t sit well, even if you’re very attached to them.
Good comic writing is also intertwined with drama and emotion. The characters in these successful shows feel real because they have heart to them. Phoebe spoke beautifully of how her writing in Ted Lasso tries to emulate the truth of life – it includes the highs and lows and a balance between comedy and pathos. The sole aim of writing in general is to move your audience in one way or another.
I certainly felt moved and entertained listening to the wise words and wit of these talented writers. TV Comedy has always filled our screens with joy and delight for the comforts of our home – it was great for these creators to share the secrets of their scriptwriting and to keep on inspiring up-and-comers like myself.