Stephen is often asked questions about how to get into comedy and how to write sitcoms. Here are his replies to some
Frequently Asked Questions
QUESTION: People say I am funny. How do I get into comedy?
If you are interested in being involved with comedy you have to be very serious and very committed.
It is very competitive. No one is sat in an office somewhere waiting to give you a job. If you are not willing to face hard-work, low-pay, cruel rejections and endless frustration then you are better off staying a comedy fan.
Most of the people who are writing jokes for TV, appearing on panel shows or recording best-selling stand-up DVDs got there through talent, hard-work and being in the right place at the right time. There is no career ladder. No one automatically rewards you with your own project because you have done your apprenticeship.
I have been obsessed with comedy from a very young age, endlessly re-watching my favourite comedians and sitcoms, dissecting them to see how they work – and I am still learning, refining, figuring out how it's done.
Firstly, you have to decide what it is you think you are good at. Being a stand up comic is not necessarily the same as being a gag writer, which is not necessarily the same as being a sitcom writer.
If you are starting out, it is very hard to get your jokes and ideas to people who can use them – and more importantly pay you for them. Years ago there was a Radio 4 satire programme called Weekending that paid aspiring writers for unsolicited jokes but I cannot think of any modern radio or TV shows that take material from writers who aren't already established in some way.
So how do you become established?
The most direct route into the business is stand-up comedy. Most comedy clubs run open-mic nights, which allow beginners to have a go.
This is how almost every comedian gets started nowadays, but you have to be prepared to travel around, with long gaps between each booking, doing five minutes here and there. If you make a good impression you might get invited back and you might be allowed to do ten minutes the next time.
This way you slowly build up an act and a reputation.
Most would-be comics do this while holding down a day job, because they make no money from stand-up for years. Any comedian's autobiography will probably have long passages about how they trudged around the country, performing in tiny pubs for years and years, making no money, slowly learning their craft.
When I first moved to London I bought a copy of Time Out, the local entertainment guide and called up every comedy club listed, asking for an open spot.
Most didn't return my calls but a few did.
Once you have booked a few gigs, panic sets in and as you arrive at the venue with a few badly formulated ideas on a scrap of paper you quickly discover whether you have the determination and bowels for a career in comedy.
Even if you are not a natural performer and have no desire to be one, stand-up is still a good way to start out. It forces you to write material and teaches you whether something is funny or not. There is nothing like a room of silent faces to tell you that a joke is crap. And perhaps the joke is not crap, it just needs refining, or a better set-up, or a clearer punch line.
Many of the unknown people who work behind the scenes writing TV comedy started life dabbling in stand-up. Even though they may not have been great performers themselves, they probably had good ideas and good jokes and befriended other comedians on the circuit. When one of those other comedians got their big break and needed writers, whom do you suppose they turned to?
Why, those friendly faces from the circuit.
Right place, right time.
Stand up is a very tough road and there are other ways in.
Lots of people start out writing sketches for university revues, but that normally demands that you are at university. Some brave idiots just book a room at the Edinburgh comedy festival and turn up for a month and hope inspiration hits them. Very few succeed this way.
Some people win competitions organized by TV channels or magazines. Some people start out in a different media job and make a sideways move – from, say, advertising or local radio.
Some people do just sit at home and write a script and send it to a producer and get lucky – but that's almost never heard of.
The simple truth is that there is no clear-cut way into the business. If you are passionate and capable enough you will get there through hard work and good-luck, as long as you don't give up when the going gets tough.
The most important thing is keep on writing.
Sketches. Stand-up routines. One-liners. Plays. Film scripts. Whatever, just put pen to paper. Yes, most of it will be crap -- but so what? You don't have to show it to anyone. It's only by writing that you will learn the craft and discover what it is that interests you.
If you are good at sketches but bad at one-liners, concentrate on sketches. You'll probably start off by writing stuff that is derivative, stuff that rips off of your favourite comedy shows or comics. I wrote endless sketches that were inspired by Monty Python and Fry & Laurie. Very few people ever saw them.
Over time, you will discover your own style.
And don't obsess about making your stuff different. Too many people think being 'new' and 'innovative' is fresh and exciting. Who cares? Does it make you laugh?
Don't second-guess the audience, just amuse yourself.
If your ideas are very traditional, so what? If it's a sitcom, worry about characters and structure and dialogue, not reinventing the wheel.
QUESTION : When you and Ricky have an idea for a sitcom, how do you begin working on it?
It depends on what the nucleus of the idea is.
With The Office, the nucleus was the character of David Brent. He was such a strong character that we built everything else around him. It's hard to watch one man for half an hour every week. So we had to surround him with other characters that would work in tandem with him to help create laughs.
We spent months just talking about offices we had worked in and the sort of people that we had met. We discussed everything in great detail. Eventually we drew up a list of the types of people we had found in every office. We knew loads of smart, funny guys who were going nowhere so we created Tim. We'd met loads of pedantic and officious blokes who play by the rules and suck up to the boss (so along came Gareth) and so on.
Eventually we had this long list of types. Then we started slotting them into our sitcom world to see what happened. As Brent often acts like an idiot we needed someone who was not an idiot who could witness Brent's behaviour and be the voice of reason. Tim was perfect for that role because he was nice and normal and could be someone the audience would relate to. So he became a main character, he made the 1st team as it were.
Brent is funny if he has an accomplice, someone who can join him in his misadventures. Gareth is perfect for that. So he makes the 1st team as well.
Now that means we have to decide : how does Gareth relate to Tim? What is their relationship? Well, in the real world they would annoy each other. And it's funny if they antagonise each other because you need some conflict between characters to create a bit of drama. So we force them to sit next to each other and loads of new scenes and ideas flow from that.
We always wanted to add romance to the show because that is something we like in TV programmes, so we introduced Dawn as a love interest for Tim, and then she herself has to inter-relate to all the other characters – and so on...
We went back to the list. Some characters we really liked but they could not be in the 1st team because they were too overwhelming. We'd met loads of loud-mouthed business reps like Chris Finch and thought he would be a great character. It is instantly obvious to us that David Brent would be in awe of someone some so loud and self-confident so he becomes Brent's boisterous friend : a man so obnoxious he makes Brent seem likeable in comparison. But Finch is too much for the delicate ecosystem of The Office, he is too big a presence to have around all the time. So he joins the 2nd Team – we bring him when we need to shake things up.
Some characters that we really liked in the planning stage fell by the wayside. We had an idea for a funny old cleaning lady but once we got writing she seemed out of place, too 'sitcommy', she didn't seem to naturally interact with the other characters, it was all too forced. So we just left her to one side. Ultimately I think she was only in one scene.
QUESTION : I have an idea for a sitcom. Where do I start?
Figure out exactly what makes your characters tick. You need to know them inside out. You need to know how they would react and what their opinions would be any given situation. This is normally governed by what they want in life. What are their desires? What's at stake for them?
Think of a classic moment from a sitcom. For instance, Del Boy falling through the hatch in 'Only Fools And Horses'.
Now a man falling over is generally pretty funny if its done well. I think we respond instinctively to the sheer simple physicality of it. But what elevates that classic scene is the context.
Look at what's happening.
Del Boy is trying to look cool in front of some girls that he and Trigger are eyeing up across the room. In an effort to seem chilled-out and relaxed Del leans back on the hatch of the bar, which is no longer there, and falls out of view.
The fall is all the funnier because it is motivated by Del Boy's own hubris, his self-delusion that he can look sophisticated and sexy and woo these younger women. It's as if Del Boy is getting some kind of karmic comeuppance for trying to be something he is not. After all, he's an East End market trader, not James Bond.
What else adds to 'the funny?'
Well, the women that Del is trying to impress are witnessing the fall. So you can add sexual humiliation to the mix.
Plus, Del has being pompously teaching Trigger how to behave. So again, he is humbled for acting like an experienced pick-up artist who can teach another man the ways of the world. The scene becomes funnier and funnier because we clearly know what Del Boy's goal is (impress the girls) and we see how spectacularly unsuccessful he is in achieving that goal (he falls on his arse).
But it's all born out of who Del Boy is. That's what makes it really funny.
When we were writing 'Extras' we wanted Andy Millman to be a more normal, more self-aware, educated man than David Brent, a guy with a half-decent sense of humour. He would be more like us, often paralysed by convention and a conscience, capable of haplessly wandering into agonising social encounters because of a fear of upsetting someone or saying the wrong thing or misjudging a situation. Andy could voice our own frustrations with the world. He'd be an excuse for us to revel in our own neuroses and misanthropy and gripes and grievances. He could re-live some of our personal experiences.
We had this character in mind before we knew he would be a movie extra. He was just an ordinary, opinionated bloke, sometimes too honest with people, sometimes too polite. And although that seemed fun to us, it felt as if something was missing. It was like he didn't deserve to be our main character. We talked for ages, dreaming up scenarios, dropping him into them, seeing what worked and although he made us laugh we couldn't see this Andy character carrying the show.
Even when we put him into a Laurel and Hardy-style double act with Maggie, his best friend, something still seemed missing. We talked for ages, became frustrated, thought about abandoning the idea, talked some more. What was he lacking? What stopped him from being our main character?
Then it struck us.
Andy didn't want anything out of life.
He had no desires or goals. He was just a funny bloke with some strong opinions. So what could Andy want from life? In sitcoms of the past, a character's driving motivation was often social standing. Albert Steptoe, Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring – they were all social climbers with dreams of being respected members of the upper classes. Nowadays, class anxiety seems to have been replaced by a new anxiety.
If you ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, chances are they'll say "Famous". Celebrity seems to be the world's number one obsession. People's desire for, and fascination with, celebrity is itself fascinating. Being more recognisable than other people is a not a natural human state and the way it changes either the celebs themselves or the people they come into contact with seemed to us to be rich source of comedy.
If Andy had an overwhelming desire to be a successful actor - which in his mind would mark him out from the pack - then suddenly we had found his desire in life and the jeopardy in our show.
From there, it was a short step into making him an extra. A film set is a place with a very clear hierarchy : stars, directors, producers at the top; extras (or supporting artists as they prefer to be known) at the bottom. We loved the idea of taking this character that believes he should be at the top, sticking him right at the bottom and watching him struggle upwards. It gave us an excuse to play around with all our favourite comedy concerns - pomposity, pettiness, rivalry, ambition – and still drop in some observations about familiar everyday stuff like hiding a gollywog from your boyfriend or lying to a priest to sleep with a girl.
Generally, narrative comedy always involves conflict of some kind. Imagine a room of happy people quietly doing their work.
What's going to happen that will be funny?
A few people might say something witty once in a while but it's hard to write half an hour of witty remarks, all apropos of nothing. It's much easier to generate 'the funny' if there is some conflict, if people are bumping up against one another. If different personalities clash it's much easier to generate sparks. This seems very obvious in drama (cops chasing robbers = excitement) but it's just as essential in comedy.
The British Comedy Guide has some further advice and insight into all this stuff :
There are also various comedy workshops dotted around the place :
This is one that I was involved with years ago back in my hometown of Bristol :