Fellow writers, comedy fans and people prone to going "I could do that" - Radio 4 Extra's Newsjack is about to start a new series. As well as being very funny, it has an open door policy. You can write for it. In fact, if you're interested in getting in to writing comedy for radio, I'm going to go as far as saying that you really, really should write for it, because it can turn a comedy enthusiast sitting at home in front of their computer into a freelance comedy writer still mostly sitting at home in front of their computer with all contacts and credits and payment and fancy stuff like that. I know this, because it's what happened to me.
I had my first Newsjack sketch - my first ever professional writing credit - broadcast just under a year ago, since when, fabulous secret powers were revealed to me... well. A commission, at least, and several jobs as a result of that commission. Also, one time when I was at a writing session for the show I made eye contact with Dawn French as she was coming out of the ladies' loo and she smiled at me, which practically makes me qualified to go on Celebrity Big Brother now.
Obviously I can't promise that you too will have the opportunity to make awkward eye contact with the Grand Dame of Comedy, or even see Professor Brian Cox standing next to some roadworks during a fire drill, but, considering the huge amount of competition to get material into the show, here are my tips for writing a sketch to make the ridiculous number of cuts into the final edit:
- Don't just do the big stories of the week. You'd better believe that plenty of people are going to be sending in material covering the biggies, and unless it's a really massive story, chances are they'll only use one or two sketches to cover each event. If you are doing a sketch about a big story, try thinking of a really unusual angle. You might find more joy looking for smaller, more specialist news stories to have fun with, though.
- Keep it short. Three pages or under. I usually find that about two and a half pages is right for a two or three person sketch, and under a page for a monologue. As part of my work as a commissioned writer, I help edit possible sketches by others, and the first thing I usually have to do is to brutally chop out all the superfluous lines, which tends to be about a quarter of the word count. Yes, you get paid by the minute of air time, but a one minute sketch that packs a quick punch and moves on to make room for more material is more likely to make it through than a five minute one.
- Keep it snappy and simple. Try to fit a joke in every line at least. If the sketch needs exposition, write a brief, funny intro for the host, setting the scene. Make sure you know what the drive of the sketch is, and what message you're putting across. Don't do what I sometimes do and end up writing half a sketch about one thing, then getting side tracked and ending up with a second half of a sketch about something completely different. It's actually really easy to do when you're just going with the flow of what makes you laugh, but when I write sketches like that, they bring down Script Editors shaking their heads and saying 'what even is this?'
- You need a punchline. A good one. Preferably the aural equivalent of a flashing sign up in the audience's head going 'APPLAUSE APPLAUSE', albeit without actually having a character shout 'do clapping now' at them. Ideally you should know what punchline you're leading towards as you're writing the sketch. The alternative is to spend half an hour frowning at your computer going 'errrrrm', which ends up being my usual method.
- Don't forget that half the cast is going to be female. Two men, two women. A lot of sketches sent in don't take this into consideration. The world being the way it is, chances are that the majority of the public figures there'll be in the week's news stories to lampoon will be male, so write female or gender neutral characters whenever the character doesn't specifically have to be a man - and give them as many jokes as the male characters. I've edited sketches where two male characters get all the gags and the actresses are really just put there for decoration. Those sketches tend not to make the cut, because the show has great female talent and isn't going to put them to waste by making them a string of dull characters feeding lines to the chaps.
- Try some sketches with three characters. They like those. And I am AWFUL at them, more than two characters and my sketch ends up really long and rambling, so if you do find a good way to do them and keep them snappy, please let me know of the sorcery you used to pull that one off.
- Listen to the show. The first episode doesn't air until the 19 September, but there are clips here where you can get a feel of the style, if you've never heard it before.
- Keep trying. Send in lots of different stuff - different stories, different types of sketch... I spent an entire series sending in sketches to no avail, and even as a commissioned writer, the majority of my work won't get through all the cuts to the final edit. My approach is usually to submit a couple of very different sketches each week and hope that one of them will be unique yet complimentary of the other sketches enough to fit the bill.
- Don't just take my advice. I'm just a writer who fares quite well on Newsjack - I don't actually make any of the decisions. The Newsjack webpage has its own tips for writers here and former Newsjack producer Ed Morrish has written his own guide to writing for the show here Read those ones. They know more about it than I do.
- If you do well and get a commission, bring Jaffa Cakes. Or crisps. We're often low on crisps. That's less a tip, more a request. I'll be the one in the corner, frowning at a computer, going 'errrrrm'.
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