Friday, 24 February 2012

Writing radio sketches: ten things I've learned

For the past month or so I've temporarily turned away from the business of writing novels (as opposed to promoting them) and returned to a new aspect of my former craft of writing for the radio. The new bit is comedy rather than drama, and specifically comedy sketches.

I've been involved with a group of other writers, stand-up comedians, performers and producers in putting together a one-off comedy sketch show for BBC North called 'Jesting About 2'. The first manifestation of 'Jesting About', which was broadcast last year, has been nominated for a Sony Radio Award, so we had to be on our toes for this one. I have to say that I was the grand-dad of the group, but the others were very tolerant towards me and hardly ever suggested I might like to go for a lie-down.

The writing and rehearsals culminated in a recording of the show last weekend in front of a packed audience at Live Theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne. The resulting programme, scrupulously edited no doubt by producer Ben Walker, will be broadcast courtesy of BBC Radio Tees and BBC Radio Newcastle on Good Friday and Easter Monday.

This was a lively and refreshing learning experience for me (as all writing projects are) and I want to share with you ten things I learned through it about writing comedy sketches for the radio.

1. Cut to the chase. In sketch comedy there is no time for establishing character or scene except for perhaps the briefest sound effect or 'atmos' suggestion. Characters have to establish themselves virtually instantly through words and tone, and the situation reveals itself simultaneously with the unfolding story of the sketch.

2. Don't stretch the sketch. There has to be a real economy about any sketch. Every word needs to be worth its weight. Short is a real virtue, and if you can make it even shorter it often works better.

3. Sketches obey Einstein's theory of relativity. A sketch short of jokes feels long even when it's short.

4. One laugh buys a few chuckles. A sketch doesn't have to be full of belly laughs but, just as kids need sweets, your audience has to be kept happy with at least one laugh-out-loud line per sketch (preferably two or three).

5. It matters where your best jokes are. A producer from a visiting BBC Newsjack team showed me how shifting the order of my sketch allowed me to keep my best joke for the punchline. So many sketches fail right at the death with a weak, unimaginative or lazy punchline; the quality of what's gone before will not save a sketch without a firm punchline.

6. Absurdity is prized in sketch comedy. I consider myself imaginative, but I quickly learned I had to reach further out of the box at times to please comedy producers and script editors. The younger writers were generally more comfortable with sheer absurdity than me, even if I was brought up on Monty Python. But there has to be a discipline even to the surreal - each sketch must have its own internal logic, and its own unity, otherwise it's just a mess. (My view is, absurdity piled upon absurdity can degenerate into a daft 'listing' game.)

7. A sketch can read well and play badly. Mostly, a sketch that seems to lift off the page in reading does well in peformance; occasionally a sketch that seems good on paper simply doesn't fly from a performer's mouth, and that's not always the performer's fault - sometimes a sketch may enter the mind more smoothly than it does the ear.

8. A sketch can read badly and play well. Nothing can save a rank bad sketch, but there have been several occasions in 'Jesting About 2' when a script that none of us has been quite sure about on paper seems to take on a new life when performed - sometimes a particular sketch and a certain kind of actor seem to be made for each other. The joint lesson of 7 and 8 is that sketches always need a good work-out both on paper and in performance.

9. A sketch can always be improved, and destroyed. Many of our scripts went through quite radical changes during what I would call the testing process - reading and rehearsal. In my case, a few that I initially thought unimprovable were greatly improved. Occasionally, with mine and others, the original spark was lost somewhere in the redrafting. And some just died on the operating table.

10. A sketch is never safe until it's aired. What a ruthless process a sketch show can be when the eleventh and twelfth hours are upon us. The final rehearsals of 'Jesting About 2', and the period immediately before recording, even as the auditorium was filling, were punctuated by the sounds of  pens scoring through lines, sheets being ripped out, whole sketches dropped, not always for qualitative reasons. During the performance, the same sounds reverberated in our heads whenever a sketch didn't quite work its magic on the audience - another one to be cut in the edit. And all this before Ben Walker finds he still has forty-five minutes of good material for a thirty-minute show. Rip, snip and clip. The only saving grace to all this artistic pain and heartache will be if the final programme sings as we hope it will - and makes you laugh.

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