Writing Comedy, by John Byrne

Book review by Steve Bennett

John Byrne must be doing something right, as this is the fourth edition of his guidebook Writing Comedy since its original 1999 publication. But while there's some reasonable information here about the mundane practicalities of the job, it has neither clear career focus nor useful exercises for generating material.

What tips he does offer in that department are depressingly formulaic - always a pitfall of a tome such as this; but in his case, he makes few excuses for it. Byrne used to churn out bland topical gags for local radio presenters, and sometimes that seems to be as lofty as his ambitions get when it comes to creativity: mining the same old reusable, interchangeable stereotypes of politicians and celebrities and using ailing formats such as the 'pull back and reveal'.

But I guess you've got to start somewhere. Even the wilfully contrary Stewart Lee started out knocking out gags to order for Radio 4's now defunct topical show Week Ending. Byrne's argument is that even the most avant garde jazz musician starts by learning the basics of how music should actually sound.

It means that sometimes the advice is downright bland. ‘Being able to produce high-quality work to order is still very important,’ he says at one point - but name a job where that isn't true - or ‘you may or may not want to work with a writing partner’. Thanks.

Sometimes he has a sense of humour failure. At one point he jokingly suggests sleeping your way to the top, then po-facedly adds a couple of sentences of caveats that it is not a credible option. More crucially the jokes he offers for analysis are creakingly unfunny - and would any self-respecting creative comedy writer really type: ‘Characters like Basil Fawlty and Homer Simpson are larger-than-life creations (literally so when it comes to Homer's waistline!)’ and think it's worth printing.

Byrne, though, is more keen on pragmatism than creativity. In his eyes, getting paid to write after-dinner speeches for other people is as valid a career as penning a genre-busting sitcom - after all, either route makes you a pro. However, with no TV credits to his name, the tips on getting into this field – the holy grail for many aspiring writers – can only be second-hand.

There are some other glaring omissions, though. The Edinburgh Fringe and the live sketch circuit - probably the biggest route into mainstream writing gigs – isn't mentioned; nor is the discipline of writing for Twitter, and how that could earn you a reputation that could, possibly, be a way into writing gags for cash. Oddly enough, writing car-bumper stickers DOES get a mention, perhaps giving away the book's original publication date.

On the other hand he grossly overstates how much new and circuit-level comics will want external writers to contribute to their set. This is unusual because what Byrne generally is good on is how the entertainment world works - unsurprisingly since he's the resident industry 'careers advisor' on The Stage newspaper and has previously written books called A Singer’s Guide to Getting Work and a Dancer’s Guide to Getting Work.

So he will answer many of the questions a novice might have, from protecting ideas to getting agents, even if the answer to both is, at the start of your career, just concentrate on writing funny stuff.

This is definitely a rookie's guide, starting with the most basic of breakdowns of what a joke is. But I fear if you need such things as double entendres explained (and over a rather humourless three pages at that), comedy writing's probably not for you. Although Byrne mentions the old frog-dissecting quote that every book about comedy seems duty-bound to mention, this does pick apart the humble joke in patronising detail, and little insight.

Jimmy Carr's The Naked Jape is stronger at explaining how jokes work; while recent tomes from Logan Murray and Sally Holloway are better at practical exercises to get those gags flowing - even if the application of those techniques inevitably tend to lead a certain type of cookie-cutter joke.

Byrne's book is only really for those just starting to think about being a comedy scribe - and even then you'd probably be better doing some writing, rather than reading.

Published: 3 Apr 2012

Today's comedy-on demand picks


It's the sort of content comedians have been pumping out from their spare rooms since lockdown began, now being given a wider audience (and hopefully some £££s) thanks to E4, which commissioned this compilation series.

Four episodes will air online at 9pm Tuesday nights, starting with this one, which features Stath Lets Flats star Jamie Demetriou, Lolly Adefope, Rosie Jones, and Australian award-winner Sam Campbell

Click for more suggestions

... including a new, free stand-up special from Funmbi Omotayo plus Standing Up For Sunny, an indie romcom about a loner with cerebral palsy who is roped into helping a comedian overcome her shyness.

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.