Huge thanks to Tees Valley Screen, Northern Film + Media and the BFI Network for funding this stupid film about Middlesbrough I wrote and directed. Here’s what filming it looked like. Pics by Jay Moussa-Mann.
I phoned the designer fire brigade this morning. They were very friendly, considering I was having to shout over the sound of the fire alarm. We arranged a meeting and I went in to discuss my fire-fighting needs.
We sat in a very nice little conference room, and Melvin, the head designer fire fighter, took me through the process of assembling a mood board. They gave me a pile of magazines, some scissors and a Pritt stick. First of all we concentrated on the colours and shapes that summed up my living space at the present moment: I found lots of warm colours, reds and golds, and carefully pasted them into a collage, along with some photographs of people looking sad. Melvin seemed very pleased when I had finished. “Oh, is it hot in here or is it just me?” he said, sort of fanning the air round his face with his hand.
Then I had to put together a second mood board to help me visualise how I might like my living space to look after the designer fire fighters had finished with it. Again I cut pictures out, the colours now cooler – lots of blues and greens, more oceanic. Pictures of kitchens and bedrooms not filled with acrid smoke. And I found some shots of people looking happy. One in particular, of Matthew McConaughey leaning against a chain fence in a sun-drenched Los Angeles alleyway, really seemed to sum up how I would feel if the designer fire brigade could effect the kind of transformations their brochures had promised. Again, Melvin nodded in approval.
He would take the boards, he said, and present them to his firefighting team, perhaps on Wednesday, and they would discuss strategies and solutions, and could they get back to me some time next week with a game plan and, a ha ha, a price plan?
Anyway, by the time I got home the urgency of the project had gone, really. I phoned the designer fire brigade and thanked them for their help and advice. They were very understanding. These things happen, they said, and the final bill, when it arrived, would reflect that, they said.
And as Melvin pointed out to me, charcoal is the new black.
The Designer Fire Brigade by Harris
more tiny tales
A bat flew through Bruce Wayne’s window. Superman was rocketed to Earth from a dying planet.
I was nine and tidying up the bookshelves in the corner of the classroom, because I was a good boy and I got asked to do things like that. The rest of the class were busy with a maths worksheet. I didn’t like maths. I liked being a good boy. I was quiet, I kept myself to myself. I liked tidying the shelves, putting everything in order.
The classroom door opened and in came Mrs Ramshaw; huge, hairy and angry, a furious grey-permed sunset of a face above a formless planet of a body. With her was a little girl who had obviously just been crying.
“Mrs Murphy, Shelley says that one of the big boys made her cry at dinner time. Shelley, can you see the boy who made you cry?”
Shelley scanned the class. Everybody, boys and girls, looked guilty. They fiddled with pencil cases, looked at the ceiling. I tidied the shelves.
It was me. It was me who had made Shelley cry. I wasn’t a good boy. I was a bad boy. I had done it and I was going to get told off. Mrs Ramshaw would shout at me in front of everybody. I might get the slipper. My stomach felt cold and empty as fear and guilt and more fear replaced the blood in my veins. Being told off was the worst thing in the world. The universe was looking at me, cold indifference had turned to icy interest. This was not an improvement.
“Can you see the boy, Shelley?”
I kept tidying. Putting the shelves in order.
“No,” said Shelley.
Shelley couldn’t see me because I was tidying the shelves because I was a good boy.
“Sorry to disturb you, Mrs Murphy. Come on, Shelley. We’ll try Class C.”
School is where you learn the most useful lessons. Everything was in order. I didn’t get told off. Good boys tidy the shelves during maths and good boys don’t get told off. The emptiness in my tummy turned to warmth. The best feeling in the world: relief. I had got away with it. And the shelves were neat and tidy and the universe was looking away from me again.
I would never be bad again. Honest. I’m a good boy.
I am very quiet and keep myself to myself.
Secret Origin by Harris
more tiny tales
A few handy hints and tips for the aspiring sketch writer, from an aspiring sketch writer.
A SINGLE CONTROLLING IDEA
The best sketches are generally those with a clear and simple purpose or idea behind them:
Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch: Cleese wants to return a parrot, Palin doesn’t want to let him.
Armstrong and Miller Fighter Pilots: Contrasting the stiff-upper-lip attitude of WW2 with the perceived lazy and entitled youth of the noughties.
Two Ronnies Fork Handles – Customer persistently asks for goods which sound like other good. Hilarity ensues. (For about the first two minutes of what is an eight minute sketch)
These sketches set out their controlling idea and stick to it, exploring the ramifications and never deviating. This is good.
Work out what your sketch is ABOUT, and if there’s bits of your sketch that aren’t about that, then maybe you’ve written two sketches which need surgically separating.
WHAT DO YOUR CHARACTERS WANT?
Unless you want your sketch to be a meandering bit of banter between two characters, you’re going to have to give those characters wants and/or needs. That’s what will drive your sketch, and how you’ll know you’ve got to the end, because your characters will either:
a) have what they want
or, more likely
b) have failed utterly.
With hilarious consequences, of course.
By which I mean, if the joke in your sketch does not arise from the character or the situation, and can stand alone, it probably doesn’t belong in there. Set it free.
AVOID CLICHED CHARACTERS. AND STEREOTYPES. AND CHAVS.
That last one is important. Comedy is too potent a weapon to be aimed at the powerless, no matter how annoying you might find them. Punch upwards! Fight the power! Don’t kick a social group when they’re down. If your sketch is about how stupid, evil and lazy chavs are, and look, they eat Greggs pasties and shop at Primark the idiots then well done. You just gave David Cameron an erection, and you know what he does when he has one of those. Your sketch just fucked a pig.
IMITATE LIFE, NOT OTHER SKETCHES
Keep your characterisations and references up to date. Shop workers don’t call customers “sir” any more. The police don’t say “ello ello ello”. Doctors don’t say “and what seems to be the problem?” any more. The great sketches reflect their times; yours should reflect our time.
HOMOSEXUALS ARE NOT INTRINSICALLY FUNNY
I don’t care how camp they are. This isn’t 1975. Gayness should no more be a defining character trait than straightness.
The punchline is in there, and it’s probably not a pun. Also avoid the following endings “I’ve heard of… but this is ridiculous”, “Get out!”, and “You’re fired!”. I’ve done two out of those three ad I still feel dirty.
AVOID SHOCK FOR SHOCK’S SAKE
Some of us have seen what happens when you stick a reference to a recent tragedy/atrocity into a sketch for shits and giggles, and it’s not pretty. Alienating an audience is easy. Getting them back onside is not, and if they feel you’re just pushing their buttons with no good reason they are going to hate you.
GET IT WRITTEN
This is really important. If you have an idea for a sketch, get it written. And then, and this is important, get it rewritten. This takes the pressure off the first draft. The first draft will most likely not be as funny as you thought it would be. And that’s fine! That’s normal. If you really want to take the pressure off, try to write the shittest version of your idea. Anything to get it down on paper. This will also allow the next few ideas to come bubbling to the surface of your mind. Then you can get them written too. And then rewritten. And so on…
A sneak peek at my new screenplay: InnerShark
Tagline: We’re gonna need a smaller boat.
Shock Exit For Sidney is a feature-length comedy screenplay I’ve been working on as part of NFM and Screen Yorkshire’s Triangle scheme. Through Triangle I’ve hooked up with producer Sarah Brocklehurst (who produced Black Pond) and director Duska Zagorac and together we’re pretty determined to make a big, silly comedy about a man and his kettle (kettle pictured not necessarily kettle from the film. Unless its agent stops playing hardball).
Here’s a news thing about the scheme…
‘Course, now I have to write the thing. That kettle isn’t going to write its own dialogue. Luckily I just bought some software that might help.
As part of my work for Writers’ Block I run 1-1 mentoring sessions for writers, many of whom are writing sketches. And they all want to know – where can I send them? Sadly, there don’t seem to be many places in the UK that accept unsolicited sketches, but there are one or two opportunities to keep your eye on.
Cofilmic Sketch in the City
What is it? A monthly live showcase of new sketch writing. Currently limited to writers in the North of England. Submit your 3 minute, three character sketch and maybe it’ll get performed.
Will it help my career?
The best of the crop, selected from each night, will be submitted for the COFILMIC Comedy Film Festival live sketchwriting competition on 29th October 2012. A panel of top industry experts (as
well as the audience) will vote for their favourite and the winner will have their sketch made into a short film for the following years competition!
You never know…
The Treason Show
What is it? A slick and irreverent satirical topical comedy sketch show, based on the news and current affairs. Written by a team of over 40 writers and performed by a team of multi-talented satirical sketch performers.
Will it help my career? Can’t hurt.
What is it? Newsrevue is a weekly, fast-paced show of hilarious sketches and songs based on absolutely anything in the news—politics, sport, celebrities—from The Lords to Lords, from the Middle East’s Jordan to the Sun’s Jordan.
Will it Help my career?
Over the years, the show has won the Fringe First Award and a Perrier nomination in Edinburgh, won rave reviews from the national press, recorded many TV & radio specials and helped begin the careers of Rory Bremner, Michelle Collins, Josie Lawrence & Bill Bailey.
Link: Newsrevue writers page.
Where Else Can I Find Out About Opportunities?
It’s as well to keep an eye out on the BBC Writersroom, in case a show like Newsjack is seeking sketches.
Also the Writing Opportunities section on the British Comedy Guide forums will often flag up interesting stuff.
Basically, though, if you can somehow take control of your own sketches, by joining or starting up a sketch group, doing live shows, making short films, anything that gets your writing off the page and into a form that can be experienced rather than read, you’ll find your own voice much quicker, and you’ll have sketches to show people, which is always a step up from having sketches for people to read.
Do it yourself! Punk rock! Revolution! Seize the means of production! Or write a funny song about how fat John Prescott is for NewsRevue. Whichever you’d prefer.
If, for example, you were writing a sitcom, and you were researching your favourite sitcoms to find nuggets of character-creating inspiration, this is the sort of stuff you might find. If you were doing that.
Write your pilot before you know everything about these people. Let the story establish little pieces of them, don’t fill your script with facts about fictional strangers, fill your script with things happening to fictional strangers. Bring the atoms into collision and let your audience get glimpses of their nuclei as they repulse, neutralize and bond with each other. If you are capable of knowing exactly who these people are by the end of your pilot, you are probably writing a bad TV show. The good news being, I predict much success for you.
But if your goal is to create a TV character with depth, it’s the same as if your goal were to create a tree with height: you’ll have to be patient and surrender a lion’s share of your control. God doesn’t make a tree with hammer and nails. He makes a seed. Likewise, actors and audiences and time are the things that are going to give your characters depth, the best you can do as the writer of a pilot is provide the reader with evidence of that potential.
Someone told me once about this paradigm that exists: matriarch, patriarch, craftsman, and clown. It’s this quartet that resonates through history and popular culture, and you can find it as a diagram in everything from The Beatles to ‘Leave It To Beaver’ to ‘Seinfeld’. In The Beatles, you can kind of see it the clearest. You know, Paul is the matriarch, John is the patriarch, the craftsman is George and the clown is Ringo. So I wanted to get that in there, and I thought, “Maybe that will be the four kids. I’ll do a show about four kids.” As it turns out, Michael and Lindsay would be the matriarch and patriarch. The craftsman, to me, is Buster, because he’s a scholar and he’s serious, and the clown is Gob, because he’s a magician, and clowns literally are magicians. [Laughs.] Oh, there are some magical clowns out there. But I don’t want to make this an advertisement for clowns.
There’s an interesting breakdown of archetypal sitcom characters over at TV Tropes.
It is important to note that, unlike the Five-Man Band, it isn’t strictly necessary for each show to have a representative member for each archetype. Keep in mind that, just as in Real Life, the world of Sit Coms is awash in many various and diverse personalities, of which this is hardly an exhaustive list; so there’s no need to shoehorn characters into these categories. Some shows will utilize certain archetypes and leave out others, or may have characters who don’t fit into any of the listed types.
Of course, even when dealing with archetypes, it’s important to remember, as Garry Shandling puts it (when describing a Hank Kingsley character moment)
Everybody’s stupid, everybody’s smart. Everybody’s bumbling, everybody’s intelligent… We’re all different things at different times.
And that’s when your characters become human, I suppose.
In which I present a list of different types of comedy sketch, because why not, and also because if you’re writing a sketch, maybe this will help.
(Note: this list is not exhaustive, although it exhausted me.)
Up is down, black is white, dogs and cats living together… Inversion sketches present a character or situation behaving the opposite to what we might expect. For characters, this will often be an inversion of status: a childish judge, an over-emotional nightclub bouncer, a Tory MP with a human heart (satire).
MISDIRECTION / PULL BACK AND REVEAL
This is the sketch equivalent of the “…and then I got off the bus” punchline. Best kept short. An example would be a CSI-type set up, with experts gathered around an unseen “corpse” talking about signs of burning, teeth marks, spatter patterns etc – THEY’RE ONLY LOOKING AT A PIZZA! LOL!
An exaggeration sketch will take a recognisable situation and distort it via exaggeration. Possibly I didn’t need to write that.
A sketch in which we take a character and put them in a completely inappropriate/unexpected environment. Prince Philip on Pointless, Bear Grylls on a perfume counter (ooh, that’s good, I might use that).
A sketch in which characters/situations shouldn’t be together as they belong in different eras – Henry VIII having to deal with a chugger, or Hitler signing on (don’t do this one). Or Armstrong and Miller’s WW2 Fighter Pilots – the look is one era, the dialogue is another. Random.
Escalator sketches start off sensible and then ramp up the absurdity until they end up being completely silly/surreal. See Python’s Four Yorkshiremen boasting who had the worst childhood, or the dirty knife sketch.
See Scary Movie. Or rather don’t. See French and Saunders’ movie parody sketches, or anything John Culshaw does. Or, again, don’t see those. Let’s avoid parody.
THE LIST / REPETITION SKETCH
Pick a topic, load up thesaurus.com or Wikipedia, you’re away.
I’M WITH STUPID
There’s this normal character, right, and then there’s this not-normal character. And the normal character reacts to the not-normal one. A classic sketch ensues.
A sketch which relocates an activity. General election in Narnia.
THE WORLD’S WORST
Think of a job or activity. Think of the very worst person who could be doing it. Write that.
X-RAY / HANG A LANTERN SKETCH
Highlighting the absurdity of a character or situation by having the characters point it all out. Can also include “meta sketches” – sketches which are about themselves. Clever.
That’s probably enough taxonomising of comedy for now. But if you can think of any other categories, or better examples than the ones I’ve got, let me know and I’ll see about updating the list.