Now That’s Funny!, by David Bradbury and Joe McGrath
Writers on Writing Comedy
Because you haven’t read it before, Happy 2022. Happy New Year! Now that’s out the way, here’s a change of pace for the year ahead.
Another book review.
And so I’m ahead of the crowd. Happy 2023, Happy 2024, Happy 2025, Happy 20…
Time to get on with it.
23 comedy writers are interviewed by David Bradbury and Joe McGrath. Who are they? I could tell you, but it involves reading the dust jacket, and I don’t have time for words.
Chapter one, and it’s straight to the first interview. It’s Denis Norden. Who is that?
Stop asking the same question.
Every interview replicates the format; a short introduction, then the questions and answers.
For Denis Norden, you get a bit about him and his kettle, then he throws a cup of tea and tells them to get out.
Seriously, you’ll find out about his working style, working partnerships, who he rates highly in the comedy scene. And with a book publication date of 1998, the relevance to today is outstanding.
As you read the book, you’ll see authors Bradbury and McGrath handle themselves properly; they ask questions, then step aside. They’re back when needed, but otherwise let things flow. The writers are allowed to speak, without any jarring interruptions.
And at one stage, Bradbury opens 50 peanut butters in one minute.
Ba dum, tish… Yep, first joke of ’22, and it’s another broken symbol. For next Christmas, I want a new drum kit.
The downside of letting the interviews run is that they sometimes go off on a tangent. The last one with Evans, Baker, and Macdonald shows this. It works well in other instances. The interview just before with John Morton is introspective. It also carries a snippet of his knowledge on plotting vs dialogue.
That said, now a return to complaining.
At one point, a question moves awkwardly to the next. There’s also an obvious bit of condensing. Paul Merton’s done with in only 5 ½ pages, yet the book says the meeting went on a fair while. Apart form those occasions, the text reads well and is edited to a high standard.
Then on the aspect of learning comedy, or learning anything to help you write better… there isn’t much here. In fact, there really is very little of it at all. It’s like millionaires in a local soup kitchen.
But… there’s sometimes a glimmer of something.
Hang on, let me clear up that generality. There’s…uh.. well, what I mean is… Here’s the next paragraph.
Spike Milligan recites a limerick and a four line poem. John Sullivan skims over character catch phrases and has some advice on them. Then Richard Curtis mentions a pattern in his work, and while talking Blackadder, has a tiny, yet somewhat provoking bit, about the rule of three.
Which means some leftovers for the analytical mind. It’s not much, but it’s there. Plus the book is entertaining in its own right, and there are laughs to be had.
When it was published in ’98, it was still during the switchover from typewriters to computers. So hearing that some of the older writers struggled with the transition is quite amusing.
What do you mean, that’s harsh? This isn’t installing batteries in a pacemaker. It’s more like your uncle received an iPhone for Christmas, which he can’t turn on. Yeah, exactly.. it’s becomes life or death when you can’t see the home screen.
Apart from cosy tales and the odd bit of knowledge, you’ll learn different writing approaches do work. The most specific comes from Barry Cryer. He wrote his first drafts quickly, then fixed things after. As such, he couldn’t work with John Cleese, who’d go methodically, line by line.
That’s why there are so few mistkes in my writng.
Another lesson is, provided writers keep grounded after success, a career can last a lifetime.
Then there are stories like Victoria Wood’s. She had it tough before she got regular work; she nearly never made it. It’s quite inspirational when she made her first script sale and sold her first pilot. Southwest still wants him back.
Back to the themes of the book.
One is working schedule. These may change as people get older, as working hours tend to get more office like. Work in comedy is also exhausting, and while some want out earlier, others have a job until they hit the slab.
It’s early in the year so I had to be respectful. Other things you’ll see…
There may be problems for UK sitcoms converted for the US audience, which can turn things awry. You’ll also note some differences between the BBC and ITV (as of ‘98). And while establishments vary, so do people.
Paul Merton could write a joke styled for Julian Clary. The type that wouldn’t work for Merton’s persona. Then in another partnership, Arabella Weir could craft lines for Alexei Sayle, which he would reject, and vice versa.
You’ll find minor battles took place between Monty Python members. Very minor battles. While spears and arrows were hinted at, love was in the air when they got to grenades and rockets.
Departing once more from fantasy…
The book shows that writers’ idiosyncrasies mean not everyone is able to work together. But most can team up, under suitable arrangements.
For example, one person can sit at a screen, while the other’s strapped into a strait jacket with a mouth full of sock.
Which means a conclusion.. keep some of your socks unwashed, so they taste worse.
The conclusion for this book. How can I say it? It’s somewhat like Seinfeld. It’s about nothing. Although that’s pretty much untrue, either directed at that show, or this book.
So why include it? Well, because the editing of this article went wrong.
Thoughtful style allows the interviews to run. It’s sometimes a downfall, but mostly works. The book’s a perfectly enjoyable read, and a pleasant look back at bits and pieces of successful comedy careers, with a number of laughs along the way.
Well chosen writers. A large selection of famous British/Irish writers, both past and present (at time of publication).
Don’t expect to learn any tricks from direct teaching. You might connect a few things, but there are no serious revelations.
It would have been nice to get some practical tips as well… still, it’s not the nature of the book. You pick up what you can.
About 3 ½ in Roman numerals. 191 listed. For the blank spacing, take off about 12, then another 8 for gaps between questions and answers. Make it about 170.
Quicker readers will charge through in a day or two.
Slower, dedicated readers, about a couple of weeks.