Distraction is the mother of invention

Keith Farnan shares his writing techniques...

Martin Amis once said that only amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work. But then again, he wasn’t a comedian. Well, some people find him funny, but that’s another day’s work.

There’s a mathematical theory correlating the length of time between deciding to bring a show to Edinburgh and the moment where you’ve finally finished writing the show. Pressure x Time = A Blank Page That Will Not Fill Itself / Scribbling Something.

Inspiration for shows, themed or otherwise, seems to live entirely in the peripheral. You can stare straight ahead at the wall over your desk for hours and you will see nothing. You turn your head, ever so slightly, and if you’re lucky, a truck of an idea will slam right into you.

The following ideas for inviting inspiration are not unique to me, or to comedy, or may not be inspiring, but even as I write this, I’m looking sideways at the page, hoping the next sentence will make sense.

This really is just an instruction manual to alleviate guilt for only writing for approximately one per cent of daylight hours and justifying what we do with the rest of the day.

1. Random reading: There is no logical way to understand how a newspaper story about the collapse of an Icelandic bank can lead you to link up a thought about the Muppets’ Swedish chef, a pole dancer and genocide. But it can happen. (see show for detail) The devil is always in the detail. All my shows have had some slant against inequities, injustice, and imbalance. My first, about working against the death penalty was the most difficult to write as you have to spiral down into the details of something truly awful until you find a detail that can and will make people laugh, when even you don’t expect them to.

2. Feed/distract the eyes: Films and box sets (not TV. Random TV can derail any creative thoughts that might be going on up there, and more than likely, it will probably depress you) Most comedians are film buffs, which might explain why so many shows aspire to the structure of Godfather II but end up more like Memento.  I only mention box sets as I still imagine if Aaron Sorkin (writer and creator of the West Wing) had been a stand-up, I would spend most of my time buying him whiskey trying to figure out how he came up with the writing…which brings me nicely to….

3. Intoxicants: Drink, drugs, sex, food, anger, joy –  sometimes all at the same time. Regarded by many as the key to comedic inspiration. It cannot be denied that some fine moments come from any combination of some or all the above, the problem is if there is excess of any of the above, you tend to forget what was inspired by the time you go to write it down.

4. People.  They are your audience, and ultimately should be your inspiration. Watch them. Listen to them. Take motes. But don’t go too far. That’s called stalking.  Just always be ready to be outflanked by a crafty audience, who prefer to sit in silence rather than laugh. Remember, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. They put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue. They refuse to laugh at the best set-up/punchline of the show, you resort to picking on the nearest audience member with visible peculiarity. That’s the Chicago way…

  • Keith Farnan: Money, Money, Money is on at Underbelly at 18:20 throughout the Fringe.

Published: 26 Jul 2011

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