Watching comedy on TV, and witnessing the procession of tight-jeaned fresh-faced youthful chaps wandering from panel show via stand-up showcase to all reality progs in-between, you’d be forgiven for thinking the quickest route to working full-time in comedy is to become a stand-up. But for a long time, probably most of the time I’ve been doing it, the fastest route in has come from the ability to write topical comedy.
The BBC, naturally, remains the best point of entry. A new series of Newsjack starts on Radio 4 Extra this week, and they take unsolicited material from new writers. Dan Tetsell was script editor for a number of series and he blogs some tips here. To which I would add, don’t be put off if you send something and it doesn’t get used. Each week more people give up, and as long as you keep sending, your odds of getting work broadcast shorten.
Also, don’t be put off by the phrase ‘topical comedy’. Newsjack isn’t so much a show about the news as one that takes the news as its starting point, and jumps off in all directions. When I started out, in 1983, an intimate knowledge of the week’s news was required for Radio 4’s Week Ending, and sketches often began with sentences like: ‘So President Gorbachev’ (said in a dodgy Russian accent by one of the performers, who included a young David Jason), ‘about that nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl...’ before making several valid and worthy points about Russia’s nuclear policy, and ending with a silly punchline about it being cold in Moscow.
Radio 2’s Huddlines, starring Roy Hudd, of course, was less fussy than Radio 4 about making serious points. Sketches were principally a collection of puns and double entendres wrapped around a topical comedy premise, although for a show that was supposed to be played solely for laughs, it could be as sharp as anything delivered by its more cerebral chum. Sketches had to be funnier because it was recorded in front of an audience, albeit one of very old ladies, many of whom were only there to get out of the cold.
In the era before topical and alternative comedy, jokes that formed the staple of live shows were usually thought of first by Britain’s Funniest Man, otherwise known as ‘the bloke in the pub’. Over a period of months or years these jokes found their way into the sets of stand-up comedians. Nobody bothered passing on the bloke in the pub’s topical jokes, because by the time they were heard by professional comics they were already out of date.
Topical comedy was, apparently, invented in 1962 by David Frost, according to David Frost anyway, and called ‘satire’. All of us who thought satire meant ‘holding up vices and follies to ridicule using sarcasm’ and ‘irony, usually in verse form’, as practised by Aristophanes in Ancient Greece 2500 years ago, were wrong. As Frost and countless others will tell you, satire now means ‘jokes about the Prime Minister’.
I continue my lone campaign to dispute this. However much you dress it up as deflating the powerful or exposing the corrupt, ‘making jokes about stuff you’ve seen or heard in the news today’ is not satire. That’s topical comedy.
There have been broadly three stages of topical comedy since then, best defined as PMT (Pre Margaret Thatcher), F (Fatcha) and PM (Post Maggie). The PMT years were dominated by Oxbridge graduates, Frost and co creating and producing dozens of TV and radio shows, and reputations were built on the revolutionary notion that Oxbridge graduates could be rude about Oxbridge graduates who went into politics - but not the Royal Family, yet.
The Fatcha era began in the same month that the Comedy Store opened, May 1979. There was still no shortage of Oxbridge input, but the beginnings of alternative comedy saw a much broader intake of comedy undergraduates, some of whom hadn’t even been to university! Whatever anyone tells you, alternative comedy was not all about slagging off Maggie, but it’s remembered that way because of Ben Elton’s Fatcha-bashing TV rants, which came quite late in the Eighties.
Something about topical comedy definitely changed Post Maggie, when Thatcher was removed from office in November 1990. As one who had so painstakingly crafted her image as enemy of huge swathes of the population – doctors, teachers, miners, local councils, NHS users, Argentinians, the entire north of England and all the other countries in the UK - her departure left a vacuum. Suddenly, there was less visceral hatred about.
This was an interesting time in the world, the Cold War against the Russians ended and the war against the Middle East began.
When Maggie went, so did the edge - ironically just weeks after the Comedy Store Cutting Edge show had come into being. Her successor, John Major, was easy enough to mock, but his permanent air of bemused self-deprecation was hard to dislike. It didn’t help that he hated the remaining Thatcherite rump more than we did.
Similarly, on TV the vicious lampooning of Spitting Image gave way to Have I Got News For You, a show that never shied from anger and controversy – and still doesn’t – but even so became as well known for Paul Merton’s surreal flights of fancy as for its topicality or anti-government jokes.
Over the next 15 years or so, BBC radio scaled back its topical comedy output. From having around 60 shows a year that were partly written by new and starting-out comedy writers, by 2001 that figure had dropped to zero. It took a loud campaign by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain to persuade BBC Radio to reintroduce shows like Newsjack that would take jokes and sketches from non-commissioned writers.
It’s difficult to complain about the BBC’s approach – they were, after all, reflecting a general decline in interest in national and international affairs among audiences. I’d noticed it in the early 1990s when I was still performing stand-up, and later as a writer on Radio 4’s News Quiz for four years, when Royal stories and Spice Girl revelations gradually crept higher up the rounds.
As a new performer, you may struggle as a stand-up if topical comedy is your primary skill. The Cutting Edge is still going strong, and there are a number of shows picking up on the growing anti-coalition anger and getting audiences, including No Pressure To Be Funny, Chris Coltrane’s Lolitics and Andy Zaltzman’s Political Animal. But these are mainly monthly shows, and the kind of audiences who attend regular comedy clubs are less likely to be up on the latest news, Papal resignations and horsemeat notwithstanding.
One novel way to make it in topical comedy as a performer is to be, or become, right-wing. Another myth about comedy and politics is that the BBC is a hotbed of Trotskyist-leaning comedy types who only allow jokes against the Tory elite. The reality could not be further from the truth. The BBC is DESPERATE to find funny right-wingers, in order to satisfy their famed obsession with balance. With Boris Johnson unavailable, Clarkson too expensive, and Doug Stanhope believing that auditioning for Have I Got News is beneath him, Bob Mills remains the only available topical panel show guest in town.
Which brings us to the internet. Comedy has stood up better to the online onslaught than, say, music and book publishing, mainly because of the continued growth of the live scene, plus the fact that until recently nearly all radio and TV comedy was made by the relatively financially-protected BBC.
Recently though I’ve noticed a change. Now, if you’re a fan of topical comedy and want jokes about what’s in the news, instead of having to wait until the end of the week for The Now Show or 8 Out Of 10 Cats, you can go straight to Twitter and read the best jokes as soon as the story happens, or watch them on The Poke, Huffington Post’s Topicalol, read Daily Mash, Newsbiscuit the good old US Onion, and a million others.
By the way, if you post topical jokes on Twitter, then you can’t hope to use them again. Twitter is, among other things, a free joke service, and if your joke is good it will be retweeted, and stolen. Apart from a few solidly decent Twitter police, the only people who care about stolen material and make a stand about it are usually those of us who have made a living writing it.
And yet people like me are stupid enough to keep posting topical gags for free, even as we can see the path this is obviously taking us down: the one that stopped others earning money making music or writing books. On Twitter we see a lot of people who don’t make a living at it, posting funny topical jokes, and we can’t resist joining in.
Everything happens faster on the internet, every joke is done at the time the story comes out. Combine this with topical comedy – the sooner you make the joke the better – and it could make you worry that there’ll no longer be a need for topical shows on radio and TV. For the moment I think we’re safe. But by the time this article appears, at least a day or so after I’ve written it, who knows how much the internet will have changed?
I think we should be fine, as long as we continue to find different ways of doing topical comedy live - like the shows mentioned - and on TV, as programmes like The Thick Of It, and The Revolution Will Be Televised are already doing.
I can’t really tell you how to make your topical material funny, but in this high-speed super-broadband instant comedy era, if you want to write topical jokes – or indeed if you want to do anything remotely creative - my advice is take a deep breath... and stop. Switch off your computer. And your phone. Go for a walk. Look at the sky. Look at the trees. Then come back and write some ideas down - on a piece of paper. Switching off the background noise every now and then is a great help – and if someone wants to rip you off now, they’ll have to be in the same room, staring over your shoulder.
- Dave Cohen tweets at @cohendave.