EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT STARTING OUT IN THE WORLD OF COMEDY

(BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK)

WFTV Comedy Session with C4’s Comedy Commissioning Team: a collaborative event between WFTV (UK) and Funny Women

Funny Women’s Lynne Parker met Channel 4 comedy commissioners, Fiona McDermott and Laura Risearm

 

Here are our top 10 tips for getting your work in front of commissioners:

 

Watch other people’s work – You need to know the current entertainment climate, check out what commissioners are looking for and what their target audiences like. We recommend watching C4 Blaps: http://comedyblaps.channel4.com

 

Don’t think! Just write – A lot of people get put off by the thought of writing; blank page panic is an actual affliction! So pull your finger out and get your idea on paper. It’s no good keeping it in your head.

 

Make contact – write or call production companies and tell them that you like what they do and ask them questions about their commissioning process.

 

Practise what you preach – If you think that your script or sit com is worth making, then why not make it yourself? Watching a short scene or clip of your idea takes a lot less time and will be truer to your creative vision because you have been involved in the creative process.

 

Back it up – When you send in your submission, back it up with evidence that you know what you’re talking about whether it be work you’ve done in the past, a list of your past experience or a short clip of something you’ve created.

 

STAND OUT – Commissioners receive 100’s of pitches everyday. Make yours stand out and grab the commissioner’s attention. We work in media – send your media in and tell commissioners what sets you apart from other people.

 

Get your foot in the door – It helps if you work or have previous experience working for established production companies. Or…start your own! Not only does this show initiative it also shows determination and that you are serious about what you do.

 

Enter everything! – Now that you’ve written your script or produced a short film, enter it into as many competitions as possible. This will not only give you an idea of how entertaining your project is, but it will also increase your profile. Funny Women is still accepting submissions for their Comedy Writing competition!

 

Don’t give up – keep sending in submissions for programme ideas, sit coms, etc and eventually something will hit. Or if not at least you’ll be on their radar.

 

Network – Joining groups like WFTV will put you in the same room as people already active in the commissioning process so try to get to as many networking evenings as you can and make contact.

For whatever reason, there are nights when the crowd just won’t bite.  They may be distracted by their own scintillating company (which does beg the question why are they at a comedy club in the first place) or a little worse for wear on the booze. Or you may be performing to an almost empty room where everybody is so self-conscious that they are too afraid to laugh.

 

Whatever scenario, a rowdy bear pit or the frozen north, seize the opportunity to perform. Here are a few handy hints to have in your armoury as the proverbial tumbleweed rolls steadily through the audience:

 

Don’t blame yourself

Every comedian has bad experiences. Treat the gig as a rehearsal for all the great ones to come. It is all good character-building experience and one bad gig has never killed a comedy career (er, we don’t think, anyway).

 

Don’t quit

Unless you’re getting physically pelted with tomatoes, try to finish your set. Even if that means reciting all of your remaining material to dead silence, get it over with. It’s okay to talk a little quicker than usual, but try to keep your confidence up and finish.

 

If you corpse on stage, take a deep breath and try a smooth (ish) recovery…

The audience don’t know your material, so just move on and pick up where you can. Maybe you got off to a shaky start and the middle of your act is more their cup of tea. That’s okay. Some crowds need a little time to warm up.

 

Walk, don’t run

As tempting as it is to chuck yourself off the stage and hot foot it to the nearest exit when you’ve finished your set, try to get off calmly. Be polite, pop the mic back on the stand and walk off with your dignity (hopefully) intact.

 

Talk it out

Ask a group of comedians about their worst gig and you’ll likely hear a list of horror stories as long as your arm. Chat it out with your fellow performers- it’s always therapeutic.

 

You can also read a whole host of books about dealing nightmare performances. We highly recommend ‘I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life’ by Viv Groskop (Funny Women Awards Finalist 2013).

 

It’s all about perspective

As with so many things in life, it’s often the difficult experiences that teach us more than the good ones. So try to look at the bright side, and embrace the learning. You’ll look back at this and laugh…and hopefully the next audience will too.

A lot of performers choose to get on stage as a character when they first start out in comedy. From overblown clowning at the extreme end of characterisation spectrum to a simple enhanced version of their true selves – like the one that comes out to play after a few drinks!

 

Here are a few tips on how to break down your inhibitions and develop your alter ego character:

 

Develop your ideas for a sketch…

…and build characters into this. From here you can decide which role you are best suited to portray and develop the character accordingly. You might also unearth that award winning sitcom script that has been lurking in your brain for years!

 

Try different voices

This will set the tone for your persona and character. Experiment with accents, volume and delivery to bring your creation to life.

 

Don’t be afraid to play around

As with the voice, have a play around with the levels of characterisation. Start at 50% – heighten and lower the character’s status and try him/her out on your friends and family to get feedback. Testing the limits will help with your performance when the character is stage-ready.

 

Really think about who your character is

Create a strong back story and don’t hold back! Even if the character is dark and grotesque your audience will need to believe in him/her to buy into your performance. In comedy you can push the boundaries and the madder the better! Funny Women favourites include ‘Barbara Nice’ as played by Janice Connolly and Gabby Best’s ‘Marijana’ which won her the Funny Women Awards in 2013.

 

Get the right costume

The right costume will help with your characterisation – choose clothes that are too small or too big to change your physical appearance, affect how you move and feel as that character.

 

First impressions

Think about how your character would arrive on stage and keep the illusion alive for the audience.

 

People watch

Become an amateur anthropologist and study humankind. Look at how people move, study their body language, walks and habits. Take any opportunity to do this when you are on public transport, on the streets and in your office. And listen – some of the best and funniest lines can be heard when eavesdropping.

Creating your first piece of stand-up or writing a script can be challenging. Either the words tumble out faster than your fingers can type them, or the sight of a blank piece of paper or white screen sends you into a creative vortex of blind panic.

 

The brain reacts to stimuli and the more you panic, the less likely you will be able to write anything. What happened to that funny idea you had two hours ago? What were the details of that hilarious incident you witnessed on the train yesterday? It is all there somewhere – you just have to be able to mine it as and when you need it.

 

Overloading your brain into one magic deliverable moment doesn’t work for most people (unfortunately) so here are a few simple tips to kick start your writing project:

 

Keep a notebook

Write everything down, however small the detail may be as it may be useful later on. Go for descriptions of people, incidents, advertising slogans or graffiti you see on public toilet walls… anything that sparks an idea or makes you laugh. Handwriting them down is always best because it aids recall but recording notes into your mobile or tablet will also help.

 

Write little and often

If you find yourself working right up to a deadline, there are a few ways of honing your craft along the way that will help ease the pressure. Try and spend a few sessions with your notebook in the run up. A little time spent incorporating your ideas and stuff you’ve jotted down can help you gather everything together.

 

Warm up your brain before you start work

Getting your creative juices flowing can be tricky sometimes, but there are a ton of exercises at your disposal when your brain is stuck on mute.

Our favourite exercise to use in the Funny Women workshops is writing under three headings: Love, Hate and Wish. Write under each heading for five minutes, or until you run out of steam (it’s also a good excuse to have a good old rant, too). Although you may not use any of these ideas specifically, accessing this kind of information could help you kick start some ideas. When you listen to a comedian you will often hear her say, ‘don’t you just love it when…’ ‘You know what I really hate…’ or ‘I wish I could be monkey swinging from a tree full of bananas…’ Well…possibly not the last one, but you get the idea.

 

The brain is a wondrous thing

Your brain has the ability to store all sorts of random information, and is continually adding to this too. We all know that when you’re tired or run- down, your brain is sluggish and ideas take longer to access. Take a break and give it a chance to reboot and a rest once in a while. The material is all there, somewhere, so be kind to your brain and it will serve you well!

Ever thought about writing a comedy script, but not sure where to start? We got some advice from award-winning production company, The Comedy Unit (responsible for Limmy’s Show, Rab C Nesbitt, and Badults, to name but a few).

 

So may we present, The Comedy Unit’s Tips for writing a comedy script!

 

Have an original idea

Sounds daft, but don’t write a comedy script around an idea that’s already been made. Love in different cities – Gavin and Stacey! Young couple, first house – Him and Her! Market traders who live in a high rise – Only Fools!  This is the hardest bit. But when you’ve got that spark the rest is easy.

 

Actually have an idea

Sounds even dafter but if you can’t distil the idea of your comedy show in to an interesting short, one line billing that would sit nicely in the Radio Times then you don’t actually have a clear enough idea.

 

Have an idea people want

Not as daft as the above, but the web is full of BBC’s commissioning guidelines, press articles about what the comedy commissioner at Sky wants, websites dedicated to announcing new comedy series being green lit on radio… there’s comedy trends and wish lists out there and with a bit of research online you can get a feel for what people are after.

 

Write what you know / what you believe in

That said, don’t write about something you don’t know. You have to be passionate about what you’re writing. I’ve never written a comedy about a Zoo because I don’t ever go to the Zoo and I’ve never worked at one. Don’t start me on Zoos!

 

Don’t overwrite stage directions

We don’t need to wonder what that strange scent of autumn that hangs in the air is as we focus on a boutique red table lamp that the camera sweeps past to settle on a recently polished brown leather couch. You’re in a nice living room… get on with it… write jokes!

 

Don’t overwrite in general

A lot of scripts fall down because the writer doesn’t edit down big monologues as they feel they are packed with laughs. More often than not there are a couple of gags that could go and plotting that could be more easily explained. Always look to tighten.

 

Characters should be clearly identifiable

It’s amazing how many characters in scripts I read speak the same as the other characters and have the same voice. An old test is to cover the character name in the script and just read the line… you should know who said it.

 

No long character descriptions

Short pen portraits are fine, and a bit about their arc is okay, but essentially a character should sing by themselves in the script (not literally unless they are musically inclined).  Essentially the script shouldn’t need a handbook to explain it. Audiences don’t get one so why should the reader.

 

Number pages

Common sense but makes it easier for readers to discuss.

 

Try it out

Your pals and your family are your harshest critics. Get them over, buy some booze, read it out in the living room, laugh at everyone’s bad acting and then get them to tear it to shreds. Whether you take it all on board or just one wee thing that your brother said… open yourself to criticism, evaluate the points, change some, stick to your guns on others… and it will be submitted in a stronger state.

So, you want to get up on that stage and make people laugh. But where do you start?

 

Have a gander at our top tips for new performers, helping you get a start on that stage!

 

Experience

Nothing can take the place of experience. It’s ‘learn-by-doing’ art form, and you won’t know what works until you are on stage in front of an audience. The more chances you have to perform, the more you’ll learn. If you are a newcomer, practice in front of the mirror, your friends and family (including the dog).

 

Finding your material

Mine your own personal experience. Find your funny stories and embellish them, play with them. They will be human stories that people can relate to. Even if you have a story about aliens- these aliens will have human-like foibles. Aim to structure a 3 minute set with a beginning, middle and end. This can be one whole story with some tangents or 2 or 3 subjects. Try to put 3 laughs per minute.

 

Carry a notebook with you

Inspiration can strike at any moment so always have a method to hand of writing those gems down. Before you know it those ideas can be turned into an act.

 

Fear is a powerful motivator

In the beginning you are not going to get laughs every time, but you will quickly learn how you react. You will see that you don’t die and recovery is possible. The experience may be unpleasant but if you’ve been brave enough to get on that stage it will give you an enjoyable rush and encourage you to work harder for next time.

 

Always room for improvement

Once you have your set written, try it out then return to it. It can always be punched up with more gags and punch-lines, but don’t obsess over it too much: if you over-evaluate, you may lose a sense of spontaneity.

 

Don’t steal

Don’t steal. It’s just not cool (see number 10)

 

Stick to your time

Always try to stick to your allocated time (5 minutes in the Awards). That goes for over and under. It’s unprofessional and can lead to a bad habit later down the line, and affect the freshness and spontaneity of your act.

 

Watch live comedy

If you can’t get out to see live comedy, watch it on TV or online. You can learn something from every comedian. Carefully study the ones you like and learn from the mistakes of the ones you don’t. Comedy is a community. You’ll find a wealth of tips, comments on the huge number of comedy and social media websites.

 

Keep the audience onside

Just because you’ve seen other comics insult their audience doesn’t mean you should. At least not in the beginning. It may be tempting, particularly if someone is heckling you. You should (of course) respond, but watch how far you take it. You want most of them on your side.

 

Be yourself

Watch live comedy but don’t imitate (unless you are an impressionist). You are the original ingredient in your act. Emphasize, exaggerate, adopt a persona, create a character if you like but be true to yourself.

You’ve written a killer comedy sketch and the only thing missing is a piece of music to enhance the storyline. Before you download Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, beware. There is a price to pay. The public performance of a piece of music, played live or recorded, is subject to a licence fee. Here are the facts:

 

Understand the set up

Any music released commercially is in ‘copyright’ which quite literally means that the composer is protected from anybody copying it. Remember that composers and musicians earn their living by way of royalties every time their music is played or used in exactly the same way that you would expect to be rewarded for writing a joke or a script. For example, they get paid a royalty every time their track is played on the radio so exactly the same rule applies to usage in theatrical performance.

 

Copyright and the collection of royalties are managed by the Performing Rights Society (PRS) – visit prsformusic.com for more information. Comedy venues, promoters and festival organisers are also subjected to paying a PRS licence for music usage and you will often receive a questionnaire asking you to state if your show or act includes copyrighted music.

 

They may even ask you to pay towards the cost of their licence. Don’t think you can get away with it as the PRS inspects venues for irregular use of music and there is a price to pay if you get caught out. You will be fined for misuse.

 

Apply for the right license

In order to use a piece of music you need to apply for either a ‘sync ‘ licence, which enables you to use the composition, or a ‘master’ licence to use the actual recording. Both of these options can be very costly, especially the master licence.

 

Search for ‘cleared music’

A safe and less expensive option if you want to use music with your live performance or as a video soundtrack, is to conduct an online search for ‘cleared music’, which has literally been cleared for any kind of usage by the originator. There are a number of suppliers like audionetwork.com where you can listen to, download and pay a very reasonable licence fee for the rights to use a piece of music.

 

Create your own music

Conversely if you create a piece of music yourself, you can register and copyright the composition with PRS to prevent anybody else from stealing your material or, if you are writing for somebody else, to receive a royalty for your efforts.

The relationship between a performer and management can be the difference between success and failure. A good all round manager will take an overview of your career and help you develop as a performer, writer or director. An agent or ‘booker’ might only handle your affairs and bookings administratively and some acts prefer to do this themselves in agreement with their manager. Some companies will offer both services as part of the package. Here are a few tips to help you make the right choice in getting represented:

 

Research

Find out who represents different styles of performers so that you don’t waste your time and energy. Visit websites of management companies and agencies that best represent your kind of act – if you are an actor as well as a comic, you will want representation that has similar acts so that they can send you to appropriate castings or put you forward to producers and directors for the right roles.

 

Listen

Once you have been signed to an agent or manager you trust, listen to their advice. You are buying into their ethos and they are successful on behalf of their artists for good reason. You are paying them a commission which is taken out of your fees, so don’t waste your money or their time by ignoring their advice.

 

Invite them down to your gigs

It is just as much your choice as it is theirs as to who manages your career or handles your bookings. Let the various companies court you and don’t sign with anybody who hasn’t been along to see you perform live. The more times they come and see you, the better. They clearly want you on their books and are doing their homework. Somebody who has only ever seen you on YouTube is not going to do the business.

 

Know when to call it quits

If the relationship isn’t working, get out. A manager or agent who isn’t getting you in front of the right people isn’t right for you.

 

Know what you want

A good manager will advise you on all aspects of your performance, introduce you to other promoters and producers, and encourage you to network with the right people at industry events and comedy venues. They should also be able to guide you on the use of marketing tools and social media to advance your comedy career.

 

Relationships change

Expect that these relationships may change over time either down to the chemistry between you, or the direction your career takes. For example, if you start to appear on television more frequently, you would do well to move to a management company that has experience of negotiating contracts and dealing with producers. Remember that good representation should be a happy and productive ‘partnership’ that suits both your needs.

You’re up on stage. You’ve remembered your material. The mic is firmly in hand, and people are laughing (thank goodness). It’s all good. You’ve got this comedy thing down, my friend. But then, of the corner of your eye, you spot that audience member who’s been drunkenly swaying all night. They cup their hand to their mouth, and you just know a heckle is imminent.

 

Being interrupted mid-flow is annoying for sure, but learning how to respond to a heckler in a funny and disarming way is an important part of your arsenal as a comedian.

 

Don’t let that heckler win! Here’s what to do:

 

Keep your cool

Audiences are a perceptive lot – as soon as they’ve seen you lose control of the situation, you’ve lost them. As hard as it can be, try not to show any fear or hesitation (even if you have to feign confidence when you’re smarting inside).

Take some advice from 2014 Funny Women Awards Winner, Jayde Adams…

“When someone heckles you, try to kerb your emotions, stay in control and don’t get upset. Take whatever they do with humour, and attack them with your humour. Sure it’s annoying to be interrupted halfway through your favourite joke, but remember that your job, first and foremost, is to entertain the audience. Sometimes it’s those spontaneous reactions that make the most memorable comedy moments on stage, so just enjoy it.”

 

Preparation

Ah, the beautiful art of a put down. While you may not know when a heckle is coming, you can prepare a few stock comebacks in advance. Come up with some standard witty retorts and recite until they roll off the tongue with the ease of your own jokes.

 

Be quick

Don’t wait for more interruptions, cut the heckler off at the pass. Don’t give ‘em an inch!

 

Be specific

Most hecklers are pretty generic with their comments. Usually something along the lines of “you’re rubbish” or “get off the stage.” Hit them in the specifics. “You know what’s rubbish? Your dress sense. Is… is that paisley?!”

 

But don’t be too nasty

Keep the tone light hearted, and don’t stoop to heckler’s level by being spiteful for the sake of it. Bringing up a poor choice of tie is fair game, but retorts about the heckler’s weight, looks or gender are unlikely to go well and may not keep the audience on side. You’re trying to embarrass them into keeping quiet and letting you carry on, not ruin their life.

 

Learn from the best

Watching as much live comedy as you can is always a good bit of advice for any comic, but it can be especially useful to learn how other comedians handle hecklers.

 

Check out Andi Osho deftly dealing with hecklers on stage at the Funny Women Awards Final here. Inspiring stuff!

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