Things I Learnt This Weekend – London Comedy Writers Festival 2011

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that I went along to the London Comedy Writers’ Festival on the weekend to review the event for Step2InspireTV. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, this weekend I went along to the London Comedy Writers’ Festival on the weekend to review the event for Step2InspireTV. I’m not going to rehash that post at all (click here if you’d like to read it though) as that’s a general overview of the entire festival with a couple of tips from each session I went to. Here, I wanted to go over the best points for me (a la the Southern Script Festival post here).

I’m just going to get into it.

Top Ten Things I Learnt At The London Comedy Writers’ Festival This Weekend:
(in no particular order)

1. Sessions aren’t always the most important thing.
‘What’s that?’ I hear you ask. They aren’t?’ I’m not saying that you should buy your ticket and go to no sessions, because listening to Jessica Hynes and Stephen Mangan take deliberately opposing viewpoints on a question to get a roaring laugh out of the audience is always worth it. But if I hadn’t (accidently) skipped the 2pm sessions on Sunday, I wouldn’t have ended up finding myself chatting to a bunch of fledgling producers, newly inspired by the American Independents Day session running alongside the Festival and swapping business cards with people looking for low-budget scripts. I have no doubt that I would’ve learnt something brilliant if I went, but there’s no point in being brilliant if no-one wants to make your films.

2. Speak to as many people as you can.
This is a hard skill to learn. As I said in my Southern Script Festival post, I had a huge crash-course in ‘networking’ last year at the London Screenwriters’ Festival (running again in October this year and it will be phenomenal). This year, the sun was out and I was in a fantastic mood to see a bunch of familiar faces so it was incredibly easy to talk to new ones. I skipped around, joining circles, gently interrupting conversations, talking to strangers who were trying to eat their lunch in silence. There were all kinds of writers/directors/producers who were working in television/film/web/radio – it just opens your eyes to all the possibilities that are out there. For instance, I met a fellow Aussie who used to write gags and jokes for Rove: Live when it was on television. In that instant, I realised that there are all sorts of comedy ‘live’ shows like that on Aussie television that I hadn’t even considered I might be able to write for when I get home.

3. Actors can tell in the first 5 pages if your work is rubbish.
That’s coming straight from the mouths of Jessica Hynes and Stephen Mangan. To get good actors interested in your work, the key is clarity: of character, of location, of what’s going on. The most important part of luring actors in is your characters. I thought of it this way: write a character who you would like to play. Even if you’re not an actor, would you secretly want to play this on screen? If you were the best actor in the world, is this a character you would want to have on your IMDB page? If not, perhaps you should figure out why.

4. The funniest characters are deluded.
Not in a negative way. What this means is that the characters honestly believe that everything they do is for the best. They aren’t hamming it up, there’s no cheeky wink to camera to try and heighten the joke – the character is played as straight as they come. That way the humour arises from the way that the slightly more ‘normal’ characters react to them. Think about it. The funniest characters live in their own worlds, completely oblivious to what’s going on around them and how people perceive them. Borat, Barney (‘How I Met Your Mother’), Sheldon (‘Big Bang Theory’) – there are heaps more, but those three are example enough, really. That gap between actual reality and a character’s reality gives an actor a chance to play. And that’s what actors like to do best. Play.

5. Write/Make what you’re passionate about.
Forget the zombies, the Vampires, the current trends in cinema. Chances are that by the time your film is finished, the fad will have finished and you’ll be behind the times. Write what you’re interested in, what you’re passionate about. If you do that, you’ll write something strong and compelling and that’ll be enough to get the ball rolling.

6. Work out your story before you work out your jokes.
This nugget comes from the fabulous Robert Popper. In his session, he talked about story and character being more important than the jokes. Work that stuff out first, then move into writing the humour into it. Most humour arises from setting and character, so figure out who and where before you try to make the audience laugh so hard they fall off their chairs. If you start off with a joke and try to build a premise around it, it’s much harder to sustain for any longer than a sketch.

7. The best pitches contain…
This was a piece of advice from Jonathan Newman which I found valuable because pitching is often one of the hardest things to do.

The best pitches contain:
+ context
+ character
+ location
+ a sense of irony (the ‘and/but’ twist at the end of the pitch)

If you cover these four points in your one-liner, that’ll be enough to keep a producer hooked to tell them a little more about the story.

8. Don’t be afraid to write likeable characters.
As much fun as it is to write characters who are dark and violent, it becomes risky if they aren’t likeable. The audience wants to care about the characters, so you can make them dark and violent but don’t alienate the audience from connecting with them. There’s nothing worse than killing off a character in your script and having no reaction from your audience. You want them to be bawling their eyes out! Which leads me on to…

9. Make the comedic moments HILARIOUS; the dramatic moments HEARTFELT.
These two points come from the minds of co-writers Jamie Minoprio and Jonathan Stern. I thought it was a great point in any kind of writing – not just comedy. Push the moments to the best that they can be to really get a reaction from your audience.

10. It is never about us. It’s always about the audience.
This gem was from none other than Chris Jones, who I’ve talked about in previous posts. But this is something that I always think about when I write. Not necessarily during the first draft, but when it starts shaping up, I try and look at it from an audience’s point of view and then really push the material to get the right reaction. If I want them to gasp in this spot, I need to heighten this tension. That joke’s just a giggle, how can I make it a roar? Think about your audience – after all without an audience, you have no film.

There’s my top ten(ish – there’s some great other tips on my Step2Inspire post) tips from the London Comedy Writers’ Festival. It was a great weekend in all – capped off by the announcement that I was going to come on board as deputy moderator for Euro Scriptchat (a weekly event on Twitter for writers and filmmakers). For now though, I’m going to sort through my business cards, catch up on my sleep and wonder why the chicken did cross the road. It’s a toughie.


London Comedy Writers’ Festival
Alli’s Step2Inspire Review

London Screenwriters’ Festival

Jessica Hynes
Stephen Mangan
Robert Popper
Jonathan Newman
Jamie Minoprio
Jonathan Stern
Chris Jones

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