If there was, I mean obviously and to my lasting regret there isn’t, but if there was a ‘How To Be A Successful Comedy Writer 101’, I am absolutely certain it would advocate getting out there and experiencing life. Sounds basic, I know, but endlessly reading and re-reading ‘Comedy Writing Secrets’ isn’t going to go anywhere to enrich your own personal comedy skills. It’s just make Mel Helitzer even more money. And who’s even actually heard of him anyway (!).
Because when it comes to finding your comedy ‘voice’, (and, if you haven’t yet, stop what you’re doing right now and find it), if it’s between studying at university for three years or working for a living, there’s only one winner. And it ain’t higher education.
My most successful comedy characters to date are the ones inspired by my nine years working on and off in pubs across the country. Comedy is ageless, and people from all walks of life, social backgrounds, cultures and economic standing like a drink. I still read back scripts now with characters that are clearly inspired by say, that old man in the pub in Nottingham that could never quite remember my name.
A meeting not so long ago with a BBC Comedy Producer had me all prepared to list my broadcast credits in chronological detail and ended up me explaining what happened when I travelled through Kenya and got attacked by a pregnant camel. The term ‘life experience’ is bandied about willy-nilly, but I am telling you now, have someone you love die, travel to a far away country and get lost, live on your own in the middle of London in a mouse-infested bedsit and all these adventures will inform not just who you are as a person but who you are as a comedy writer. They will make you a better writer.
My lifelong comedy hero, Victoria Wood, once said in an interview: “You have to have something to say.” Now granted, hardly the philosophical musing of Plato, but it’s just so true.
Going to university, whether you’re studying forensic science, the history of surrealism or carpentry, is fantastic if you know what you want to use it for and more specifically if you know that you’re going to use it. But it’s essentially pointless if you want to make other humans laugh and be paid for it. So think on. Because writing isn’t a job. If you’re a writer, it’s a vocation, it’s a way of life and frankly, if you’re aiming for the top you have to be strong, stand out and be funny. Simples.
Essentially – and without wanting to get too technical – comedy is, after all, truth. Real people, real situations, real laughter makes for great comedy ideas and comedic inspiration. I believe the more people you come into contact with, the better your writing is. And your comedy ‘voice’ (I can’t help putting it in quotation marks, lest I come across as pretentious), is directly influenced by the people you meet and the things that happen to you.
This year so far has seen a genuinely monumental assault on my life outlook which has obviously directly altered my comedy ‘voice’. I was, at best, a cynical realist with regular bouts of existential crises and an inability to ever be proud of myself. But this year, for reasons not necessary to explain here, I’ve got…well…ever so slightly softer.
But still, my own comedy voice can be summarised (and once was, just last week in a meeting to discuss a project that is now currently ‘on ice’ (and we all know what that means), as; Life is pretty tragic and ultimately pointless, so we might as well laugh. If you can’t laugh, you’ve had it.
A word about university.
University’s good for the people you meet, the passion you share and the ridiculously expensive comedy writing manuals that you can permanently borrow from the uni library. But you can get all of that down the local pub. Apart from the manuals, obviously. But I’m sure there’ll be an old copy of The Sun knocking about with the crossword filled in wrong. And who doesn’t love The Sun for a bit of accidental satire. But I digress.
The point is, you can get all that university gives you that is useful to you as a writer of comedy down the pub. And you can get all of it without the big loan and a 10,000 word writing requirement. So don’t go if you think it’s going to get you a writing job at the end of it. Because it won’t. And to anyone that’s ever lied about going to university; You, sir, will have more interesting, more unusual and more hilarious stories to tell from those three years than a student could ever possibly have, and I like you better for it, even if you did spend those three years down the pub.
Although granted, the beer is probably cheaper at university. But it also probably tastes ever so slightly more like piss.