Noel Edmonds spouted some usual nonsensical rubbish about a magic box that tackles cancer, so I wrote a little ditty about it…
You don’t have to be mad to write comedy, but it helps. I should get some mugs and t-towels made for my merch page and become a millionaire. I recently had an email with the subject line ‘Catch 22?’ and there does seem to be an impossible and conflicting dilemma for aspiring writers. While not quite as life-threatening as a Captain Yossarian situation it can drive people to the brink. Still, I thought I would answer the query while probably failing to answer the query.
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So, you’ve written something; a sitcom pilot script, short film, web series, brilliant comic feature film. You nervously send it out into the world to anyone and everyone who might just take a look at it. Chances are you won’t get many replies, but maybe one or two people respond and say nice things. If you show some promise, great potential or even generate genuine interest in your work then this is just the start of what could be a great ride. But, unless you are brilliant and lucky, it will be a bumpy one, like a comedy writer’s version of World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Ice Road Truckers or if you’re a partnership, Touching the Void.
My recent correspondent had written a web series which received some interest and nice comments from industry professionals. And you know what? That is great; it’s encouraging, someone has actually given you feedback and you feel like you’re making progress. And you are. But then… nothing. Back to square one like the worst game of Snakes and Ladders you’ve ever played and you scream and cry like a child while your competitive dad laughs smugly while he whizzes up another ladder. Then I shout, ‘It’s not fair!’ and he replies, ‘Life’s not fair.’ And I think, well okay maybe life isn’t fair but if people were less of a dick about it then maybe life would be a bit nicer. And now that I’m just as bad as my dad when I play board games, my girlfriend refuses to play Scrabble with me. It’s the circle of life.
Sorry about that tangent, but sometimes it’s good to get these things out. So, you feel there are barriers in the way of your writing moving forward, such as the fact that you haven’t got an agent when you can’t get an agent because you haven’t had anything produced. I know what that feels like, but while having an agent is great, it shouldn’t and doesn’t stop you pursuing your writing. In fact, you can waste precious time trying to get an agent when an agent isn’t going to be interested in signing you.
If producers are reading your work, enjoying it and giving you good feedback and even asking you in to meetings, but not pursuing projects further then, frustrating as that is, you just have to see it as step forward. Most industry folk do try and take time to encourage talent and even if nothing comes of those contacts now, they may do in the future. They have to look at your work and decide whether or not they have a chance of selling it and if they think that’s unlikely then they can’t afford to spend more time on it. This is particularly true if your first projects are sketches or web series. The ideas and scripts might be great, but there’s not a lot you can do with them, so you have to pursue them yourself. There are a few outlets on radio for sketches and gags but whether it’s a sketch, an online series or short film, the only way forward might be to make it yourself. And, yes, there’s probably a whole other post on this, but the only real answer to, ‘how do I do that?’ is, ‘by going out and doing it, learning from your mistakes and doing it again.’
As a new writer without an agent it is difficult to get people to read your work, but some people do and if they really love it, have time to pursue it and believe they have a chance of getting it made then they will. Those three things coming together is rare, but the issue of whether or not someone has an agent has never been an issue in my experience. In fact there are writers and performers whose scripts I have developed who have gone on to get an agent and develop a career and most of them had been through exactly this process. So, dust yourself down if you’re feeling dusty, get up again if you’re feeling Chumabwumba-y and make stuff, write more, write what you want but try and write something someone might want too. Be aware of what’s out there. Watch shows, read scripts. And one day you could be writing a blog and considering merch with snappy slogans in a foolhardy attempt to monetise it.
Just a footnote; David Quantick’s book How to Write Everything is well worth a read and will help anyone in this situation, I think.
Hello. As you may have read on such illustrious platforms as Chortle or televisual industry websites I have a new job working for Comedy Central. The articles were accompanied by either an old picture of me holding a guitar or a recent hurriedly taken self-portrait. In both I have the cold dead-eyed stare of a killer. When I took the new pictures I rejected one where I was smiling because my girlfriend said I looked like too much of a pushover. It seems I now have to strike fear into anyone who is pitching to me. I bet you’re quaking in your fashionable boots.
A friend texted me this picture from the print edition of Broadcast, which I never actually saw. Now I have a proper job it seems I’ve gone fully Partridge…
In the full quote I make a self-deprecating joke, obviously. But they’ve edited it down, as is their right, to bring out the full media tosser.
It’s a really interesting, exciting and challenging role which I’m very lucky to have and I am throwing myself into with gusto (obvs, but also just in case my new employers are reading this). One of the big issues for me to deal with now is how I respond to people who contact me through the website. I’ve enjoyed being open, receiving ideas and I do try to respond – I generally can’t give detailed feedback on projects, but I’ve read every message and, apart from a recent backlog due to being a bit busy, what with the new job ‘n that, have responded to pretty much all of them. I only ignore those who make no effort to be courteous and only slightly prioritise those who heap praise on my vain little head.
From now on, however, I probably won’t look at your script or idea. I don’t want to close my email, because I think it’s useful all round for people to be able to contact me. A question might inspire a blog post that can then help more of you, for example. But for reasons of both practicality, legality and all round retention of sanity I’ll have to stop reading unsolicited scripts.
I know it’s disappointing, because it’s hard to get anyone to look at your work. That’s why the people who make progress are those who display brilliantly bloody minded ambition mixed with politeness, a thick skin and openness. Do have a read of my blogs and hopefully there is some useful advice.
I have considered charging people for a script reading service, but while I am in gainful employment that doesn’t feel right and I don’t really have the time to dedicate to it. James Cary – a very experienced sitcom script writer and editor – has just opened a window of opportunity to get him to read your work in return for backing one of his projects. I think this is very fair and something I have considered and may yet do in the future. You may be forced to buy my music in return for me reading your work. Well, not forced, but you get what I mean. I think these kind of deals are a fair trade. As James writes in his blog, a considerable amount of time really is needed to give proper notes on a script – three or four hours – and even to give something a quick read and general thoughts on whether or not it’s any good takes a good chunk of time.
If you want to get in touch with offers of a multi-million pound record deal for my music or similar amounts to turn the blog into a book, then that’s, like, totally cool. Drop me an email. If you do then I’ll read your script in return – yep, I am that shallow. Soz everyone and good luck.
Several years ago I pitched the idea of a documentary about Steve Davis and his love of alternative music. If you don’t know, he likes extremely alternative music, not the stuff on Radio X masquerading as alternative but tunes you might find on Stuart Maconie’s Freak, or indeed Freakier, Zone. I always thought it would be fun to get fellow match room mob players and Barry Hearn to listen to the likes of Magma, the French prog rock band that Davis brought over to play in London in the eighties.
In a meeting a Channel 4 commissioning editor said, ‘Are you seriously pitching me Steve Davis on Avant Garde Rock?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, kinda.’ And he laughed me out of the room. Well, who’s laughing now someone else has made this, a lovely short documentary?
My connection with this tale is through the brilliant musician, Kavus Torabi (that’s him on the right), whose current outfit Knifeworld creates incredible music – they’ve just released a new album, Bottled Out of Eden. I went to school with Kavus and aged around nine or ten managed his first band, Unarmed Combat, a beat combo that sadly never recorded a thing or played any gigs. My stint in management proved that I was never going to make a great svengali figure as I gave the three members 5p each for turning up to a rehearsal, instantly clearing out my pocket money for a week. The management is supposed to screw over the artists not fund their profligate lifestyles before they’ve even got a record deal and had a hit.
Anyhow, the whole Steve Davis and his love of interesting music thing has been covered in the press a bit recently and I’m delighted someone picked up on it to make this short, which also features Kavus.
Have a watch, it’s sweet.
Most great ideas start with a great idea (I’m amazing at this, I should do a workshop and charge one million dollars). But they also start with an absolute bucketload of terrible ideas. Or average ideas. Let’s call them meh-deas and that could become another brilliant media term for tossers like me and you to use. What may come as a surprise is that there are some very commonly pitched meh-deas.
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I had an email from someone recently with their idea for a sitcom. I won’t say what it is or who it came from as that would be unfair and just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of brilliance. You should see my folder ‘Awful Pitches of Yesteryear,’ it makes for terrifying reading.
What I don’t want to do is tell people is they’re wasting their time and not to darken my door again. Working on the characters, story and script can be a useful exercise, but to get any interest in an idea it has to have something unique about it. Does it generate a genuine reaction of interest when you mention it to someone? If so, that’s a good sign. You have to be a good reader of facial expressions or learn which friends or family members actually give you an honest opinion.
So here are a few concepts or settings that seem to occur regularly…
- An amateur dramatics society.
- Struggling actors in some way shape or form. I have a lot of sympathy for actors, it’s incredibly hard, the constant rejection is possibly even worse than it is for writers. Still, write about something else. No one cares. Except me. I care.
- A struggling indie band (or other genre, but indie bands seem to be a common one. Maybe that’s because the writer was once a songwriter in an indie band who wrote moderately amusing lyrics in a sub-Jarvis Cocker style. That was the kind of band I was in, anyhow) or a once successful band whose members are now living ordinary lives.
- The open mic comedy circuit. Loads of wannabe comedians are also wannabe writers, so it makes sense that they’d come up with this idea and there are loads of crazy characters on the open mic circuit, but… no one cares. I’m happy to admit that when I was a factual television producer and doing open mic stand up in London I thought it would be a good idea for a documentary series. It was not a good idea. It was quite dull and I quickly gave up on it.
- Two guys in their late twenties or early thirties who are getting nowhere in life. They probably share a flat and one of them has an ex-girlfriend who has moved on, but is still around. Or there’s a girl they’ve known for years they both fancy.
- A bar or pub. This is one where, of course, several comedies of various quality have been made. I really liked Early Doors, for example, and I have vague fond memories of World of Pub, which I should refresh. I also remember getting a script set in a bar which had something different in the writing — funny, weird and slightly surreal. I did develop and pitch it and it did pique the interest of a commissioning editor, but ultimately didn’t get through.
- A hotel or guest house. The legacy of Fawlty towers over this one (see what I did there, I should work in comedy). The really annoying thing about this setting is that, like the pub, it does frequently reoccur — there was Heartburn Hotel in the late nineties and more recently the children’s comedy All At Sea and comedy drama Edge of Heaven. Even more annoying for me is that I’ve got one. Yes, commissioners, I’ve got a guest house comedy and it’s, like, totally brilliant and I grew up in a guest house and then a small hotel, so it’s authentic and everything. I think mine is an interesting take on the situation (of course I do), but I’ve held back on pitching it at times because of all the above. Anyhow, you can see that I feel your pain.
There are probably many more and if anyone can think of any then do let me know. It’s not surprising that many of the ideas above get pitched frequently. Several involve links to other creative fields; so an actor, comedian or songwriter is probably more likely to want to create a sitcom than someone else. Others are simply recognisable, everyday places.
It can be a tricky conversation to have, because the writer might wonder why they haven’t seen the idea on screen. I think it’s a kind of self-fulfilling vortex of doom; because that concept has been pitched before and rejected, it’s more likely to be rejected when it comes through the door again. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t and won’t happen, but (and I know this is vague) it has to have something amazing about it. Eddie Redmayne has decided he wants to star in a sitcom set in a Plymouth guest house? Yes! (‘Oh, hang on, mine has a female lead character. No, it’s okay, we can change it. Or you can wear a dress, Eddie, it’ll be fine. Oh, you want to? That’s great Eddie, it’ll work perfectly.’).
As well as my list, often there are concepts that seem to be ‘in the zeitgeist’ (apologies for using the word and the quote marks, but it seemed the only way). So, you’ll be pitching an idea to a commissioning editor only to find there’s already something similar in development or there are other similar scripts floating around. For example, a few years ago there seemed to be quite a few stories involving young people moving back in with their parents – Hebburn was one of those of course, but a combination of a brilliant pilot script, the North East setting and a couple of other elements, such as the young couple having already married in secret, helped set it apart.
Others can be surprising. There was a period when I talked to a couple of writers who had really good scripts set in an arctic station or a moon base — it turned out there were a few similar scripts floating around and I don’t think any got made. A while ago I had an idea for a comedy set on a submarine. I was thinking about female personnel being allowed on board Naval vessels and how that would be interesting if it was the enclosed space of a submarine. Maybe I’m wrong, but I never pitched it because I started to think that a submarine is probably one of those settings. And I realised I didn’t really care that much about submarines and submariners — screw them and their hilarious life-threatening undersea shenanigans. Maybe I should just go back to the Plymouth guest house thing. Shit.
My advice is to either look outside what’s close to you or examine what’s around you more closely.
And does anyone have a number for Eddie Redmayne? Or an email would be fine.
We’re In This Together, my song about kidnapping George Osborne is out now. Here’s the video…
You can buy the song on iTunes.
Or you can listen to it here…
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Last week I played MJ Hibbett’s lovely Totally Acoustic gig. I’ve done a few of them and they’ve all been fun, but this was probably the most fun. Here’s the podcast…
In a bid to build excitement in the multi-pronged release of We’re In This Together as a song and a short story I have made a trailer. The story is available for pre-order (scroll down a bit and there’s a link on the right hand side) and they’ll both be unleashed on 29th Jan to a suspecting public. Here’s the vid…
Some of you may recognise this from a show I did a while back (okay, it was four years ago, but I’ve been busy). I’ve been playing the song live recently and it always goes down a treat, so I’ve recorded it properly with the brilliant Augustin Bousfield of the mighty Gurgles. And turned the show into a short and eminently digestible story.
Huge thanks to the incredibly talented John Griffiths of LUA Design for the brilliant artwork.
Happy New Media Year.
It’s a new year and a new you. And a new me. This year we’re all really gonna make it. I absolutely guarantee it. Money back. Although, I am still largely working in old media. Except here, that is. Here is where, unlike all you millennials out there, I am a digital immigrant, culturally enhancing the online space with my grey matter (hair).
I thought I’d post a couple of things I’ve helped out with and like.
Here’s a rather brilliant short film I had the pleasure of being involved with a small bit. I’ve been really impressed by Meat Bingo’s shorts and project CS911346d, written by and starring Sanjeev Kohli, is no exception. They’re based in Devon, from whence I hail, and I had the pleasure of meeting up with the director John Panton and some of his talented collaborators in an Exeter pub just before Christmas. That’s the power of Twitter, which is how we first got in contact. I’m looking forward to seeing more from them, hopefully a feature sometime soon.
I first became aware of Meat Bingo through their collaboration with Michael Spicer who’s output online continues to be brilliant, original and funny. His latest work Rec 601. is ace. Here’s a preview clip – it’s one of my favourite sketches from the series. There are three short episodes on YouTube, so do check them out.
Why isn’t he on the telly yet? Maybe I’ll do a blog about that, but I hope his work finds it’s way on to the small screen soon and, yes, I am trying to help make that happen.
I hope those bits inspire you to do stuff. Write, shoot or whatever you want to produce. They inspire me. I’m releasing some stuff later this month, mostly music based as I’ve been working on some tunes which I’m really happy with. At the end of January I’ll be releasing We’re In This Together – my song about the (sadly) fictional kidnapping of George Osborne along with a video and ludicrous short story.
Please do contact me. I like hearing from people especially if they at least pretend that they’ve read, watched and listened to everything I’ve ever done. Many get in touch asking for advice on where to send their script or how to contact production companies. Here are a few blog posts that should help with that.
May the force awaken for you in 2016.
Yes, I watched the Star Wars film over Christmas. I quite enjoyed it.
Sometimes a boss asks you to do something you know will be impossible and you feel like turning round, dropping your trousers and showing them your arse while shouting, ‘You asked for the moon, but you’ll just have to have the sun shining out of my arse.’ That approach very rarely works, I’ve found.
And I was reading an excellent book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine; Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by the brilliant writer John Higgs, and in it I came across a reference that reminded me of one of my darkest hours in television. Although it was quite funny.
In his chapter on growth, Higgs writes:
Consumers were made to keep spending through ideas like planned obsolescence, where products were designed to break early and need replacing. An example of this was the light bulb, whose life expectancy was reduced from around 2,500 hours to less than 1,000 by an illegal organisation known as the Phoebus Cartel, whose members included General Electric, Philips and Osram.
The phrase planned obsolescence sent shivers down my spine as I recalled the time I was asked to research an item on what my exec called ‘built-in obsolescence,’ which is the same thing, for the late nineties ITV Westcountry show Mad About Shopping. Remember it? A ten part series on retail in the region. Heady stuff, but ten episodes? I think we were getting pretty desperate for ideas after episode two. Also, I think it would have been a bigger success if they’d used the theme tune I proposed. Imagine a jaunty tune in your head and sing, ‘We’re just hopping, BONKERS, Mad about shopping.’ This was before Dizzy Rascal existed, so, maybe I’ve got a copyright case against him?
Anyhow, this exec had spotted a series in the Western Morning News, a regional paper, about household appliances that were still in use decades after they were first purchased; toasters from the fifties, pre-war kettles, vintage irons and an old lady with a fifty year old vacuum cleaner. Cue sharp intake of breath. The item was pictured with its elderly owner along with a bit of background and a quote that usually included them saying, ‘they don’t make them like they used to.’ And that’s what the exec said to me. Something along the lines of, ‘we know they don’t make them like they used to, it’s built in obsolescence, let’s do an item about it, Matt.’
Unfortunately I could find scant proof. John hadn’t written his book, Wikipedia didn’t exist and being based in Plymouth and working on a low budget multi-item show, I couldn’t hop on a train to visit the British Library. I struggled to remove this obsolete albatross from around my neck. The Phoebus Cartel, if I had found out about it, was consigned to history and in the white heat of nineties technological development, new and improved gadgets were constantly being launched. Does progress depend on obsolescence? I don’t know, although my budget hi-fi separates purchased around the same time from Richer Sounds are still going, while the De Longhi coffee machine bought only a few years ago has already gone for a burton, so who knows what the truth is?
I did find an academic who had done some research, but I recall it skirting around the area and with no hard figures relating specifically to obsolescence. Also he wanted payment and expenses well beyond the Mad About Shopping budget to come down to Plymouth to appear. Meanwhile I spent a great deal of time talking to Peter Carver, then Director General of AMDEA (The Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances) who grew increasingly exasperated at my phone calls, telling me (and this may not be a direct quote), ‘all manufacturers are ace and yes they do make them like they used to, in fact we build them better than they used to, there’s loads of really cool gadgets that do loads of things better than they used to, so stop moaning.’ Essentially I struggled to make the subject work as a feature for an early evening regional television programme, but at least Peter took my ill thought out plans in his stride and with good humour.
The whole affair ended like a Phil Collins marriage… by fax. It’s my number one favourite fax ever. Faxes used to be exciting but now they’re, for me and most people, a thing of the past — there’s built in obsolescence for you. The age of the fax machine may be over, but I kept that fax and still enjoy reading Peter’s brilliantly sarcastic missive.
Peter refers to the academic, whose name I have redacted lest it cause embarrassment. There’s no point redacting Peter’s. For a start he comes out of this pretty well and also it would be fairly easy to identify him. I love his quoting of my pitiful attempts to persuade him to come on the show.
I can’t remember how my bosses reacted to my failure to find the evidence that would shake the corporate world to its roots. Having worked at the production company, Two Four, for a while at that point, I think I’d maybe earned a small failure. In the end I think I was able to bin the item while perhaps suggesting a load of other impressive yet deliverable ideas for this fun packed television show. Mad About Shopping ran for a total of one series. Peter was right, we didn’t have another fifty years.
I’ve always enjoyed reading this fax as reminds me of the sometimes thankless task of the factual television researcher and how when you try and twist things to work in a TV format, sometimes they break in your hands.
The only advice I can offer from this experience is that when you are asked for the moon, don’t do a moon (unless that’s the kind of moon they asked for, in which case it’s industrial tribunal time) simply promise that you will build a rocket, pop off to space and bring the moon back. And then return some time later with something different, but equally impressive. Saturn, Jupiter or a Milky Way, for example.