If you’ve ever laughed while watching TV in the U.K., its likely Jesse Armstrong had something to do with it. Creator of the national treasure that is Peep Show and the student sit-com Fresh Meat, Armstrong started writing on some of our favourite children’s TV shows like My Parents Are Aliens, Tracy Beaker and The Queens Nose. And after adapting the screenplay for In The Loop won him an Oscar nomination he worked alongside Chris Morris on Four Lions, the sympathetic comedy about suicide bombers (he said getting funding was a nightmare). If you are a budding writer unsure of how to break into the TV comedy world, Armstrong kindly shared his advice on how to be consistently funny for over a decade.
All advice taken from a talk organised by RIFE magazine.
- YOU DON’T NEED COMEDY THEORY.
Whatever works, goes. A tonally quiet piece can be brilliant and you don’t need a murder on page six. Use the theory to help you think.
2. WHAT YOU WRITE WON’T ALWAYS LOOK LIKE WHAT YOU SEE… GET OVER IT.
If you imagine a scene taking place in a small red cinema, but then the set is really a big blue cinema, it doesn’t really matter. Instead of fixating on appearance, focus on what’s happening, the action and what’s being said – if the scene works that way it’s more important than what jumper a character is wearing.
3. PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE.
In the U.K. there are loads of opportunities. If you can, get an agent to send things off for you, rather than just sending things to studio bosses to get lost in a pile.
Radio is also full of opportunity. Though it’s low-paid, you can get a better response and it will be closer to your vision.
4. HAVE CHARACTERS THAT YOU LIKE, LIKE THEIR APPROACH TO THE WORLD
Even if you put them in an awful situation and make them do things that are morally reprehensible (for a laugh, of course), you still have to be rooting for them, you still have to like them so you don’t get bored of them, and then neither will your audience. As the old saying goes, “put them up a tree and throw rocks at them”. If they have a funny perspective it helps to change situations around.
5. RE-CREATE YOUR MATES
Don’t just go “Dave’s a dick, let’s use him”, just take little parts of people you know and then re-work how their traits. See how they would be on other people or think how they would function in other situations.
6. DON’T PUT ON YOUR WELLIES AND STOMP OVER OTHER PEOPLE LIVES
You can write across gender and race, although you may not know people from the demographic you are writing from, we are all people and share the same experiences and emotions. Even if writing for an amoeba on mars… well fuck they probably feel lonely like I was at my last birthday party…
However don’t put on your wellies and stomp all over other people’s voices and lives. Also remember certain things can be misunderstood. If you can always justify where you are coming from, and don’t feel morally dubious it will be ok. While people will always be offended
7. BUT REMEMBER CHARACTERS CAN BE MISUNDERSTOOD
While you are not responsible for your characters actions (e.g. if you wrote something like American Psycho you obviously aren’t writing from your own life/thoughts), a bigoted character can always be misunderstood. If you are uncomfortable with the thought of people mistaking satire for racism then it may be time to re think the tone.
8. YOU CAN LEARN TO BE FUNNY
Don’t listen to that be-yourself-bullshit. It takes hard work. If you can write a script at all you have an aptitude, and if you can finish one at all that’s a good test. If you make even yourself laugh you’ve got something.
9. BE BRUTAL
It can be easy to let all the brilliant jokes you’re making as you work side track you, but be tough. Save some things for later, keep true to what is happening and don’t just put in laughs for the sake of laughs. Also listen to other people’s brutality and think about where they are coming from, before you say “you’re a cretin fuck off”.
10. LOVE YOUR WORK
Because you’re going to have to stick with it for the long run.
By Reba Martin
Reba Martin is an 18 year old from Bristol. She’s been obsessed with the Simpsons since before she could walk, and watches it religiously to this day. Her hobbies include planning to go to the cinema, and going to the cinema. A few favourite films are Eraserhead, Ghost World, and Clerks. You look at her movie diary here and she tweets @rebaxmartin
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