The Meteorological Secret of Comedy

The secret of comedy, they say, is timing. This is such a well-known truism, that it has, in its fame, become false.

The only remaining secret of comedy is the weather.

Like a meteorologist, comedians (by which I mean anyone attempting to make another person laugh, whether professionally or not) see the world around them in topographies of pressure.

They are constantly monitoring the world around them for areas of rising pressure that they can lance like cloudbursts with their wit.

The well-timed release of such pressure is what makes people laugh.

Ah – timing!

Yes, timing, although no longer much of a secret, is still important to comedy.

Lance too early and there is no pressure to release; lance too late and all kinds of things might go wrong. In stand-up, the audience might have got bored with the preamble; in conversation, they might have moved on to a different subject; in conflict, they might have got too wound up and become closed off to a comic intervention.

Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the atmosphere can turn pretty sour.

That’s why the BBC won’t let us have a plot-line about a missing stylist – even though she wasn’t missing at all, but on holiday. They don’t want to risk the atmosphere turning sour.

Part of reading the meteorological chart of conversation is knowing not only when and where pressure is building, but also whether to lance that pressure at all.

Not all human interaction is served by comedy. There is a reason why lawyer and stand-up are separate professions. It’s not that the lawyer can’t use comedy, nor the stand-up evidence and argument, but each will favour the discourse style of their field.

You may spot the perfect moment to lance the pressure in a tense negotiation over the custody of your children during divorce proceedings; that does not mean that the judge will look favourably upon a hilarious reference to his wig.

On the plus side, you will know almost instantaneously that you have misread the comic moment. If you are sensitive without being precious, you use this failure to calibrate your instruments.

What are your instruments? Simply: your eyes and your ears. But more on that next week.

Foiled nominated for Celtic Media Award!

SABRINA
Pay attention team because I’ve got some very important newses. We are salon of the year!

TANISHA
Wales’ least active salon of the year?

SABRINA
No, awards-wise: we are Clipadvisor’s Salon of the Year.

TANISHA
Really?! Us? How exciting! How?!

SABRINA
Oi! What do you mean how?

So we wrote way back in 2016 and now, just 3 short years later, Foiled has been nominated (Hold on, we haven’t won?) for best radio comedy at the highly prestigious Celtic Media Awards.

Proof.

Compared to theatre, writing for the radio is a strange experience. We write the scripts, have a laugh recording them, listen to the broadcast with butterflies in our stomachs and then – nothing.

No one reviews radio comedy. No one gives us the listener figures. We have no idea how the show’s gone down with our audience – or even if there was an audience. We have no idea which episodes – or even jokes – worked for our listeners, which didn’t, and why.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott paints a pretty picture of this eternal, gaping, yawning silence. She’s writing about book publishing, but it seems to me that the sense of emptiness and craving is the same for radio.

There will be a few book-signing parties and maybe some readings, at one of which your publisher will spring for a twenty-pound wheel of runny Brie, and the only person who will show has lived on the street since he was twelve and even he will leave, because he hates Brie.

So it’s wonderful for something, some acknowledgement and approbation, to come crawling out of the ether and say: YOU DID A THING AND WE LIKED IT.

The nomination cites my personal favourite episode from the last series, starring Miles Jupp as Richie’s dad. Sitting across from Miles as he read out words that I’d written was one of the most thrilling events of my life last year.

There is nothing more rewarding for a writer than to watch a talented actor rub your words together and make sparks fly until the whole thing catches fire.

But where do we go now, now we’ve been nommed by the Celtic Media Awards? Will the Celtic imprimatur spur us to write ever funnier scripts – or will we become complacent, crippled by our glory like Wet Wet Wet after Four Weddings came out?

I guess I can turn to Anne Lamott again:

The fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy. But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page.

Series 3.

For now, big love to everyone for supporting Foiled. I’ll get Beth to give you a shout out in her acceptance speech. (Hold on, we still haven’t won?)

The Foiled Diaries: Life as a Way of Writing

Foiled has been clipping along all week, with the usual ups and downs. Example: We thought we had a lovely opening episode until our producers said the BBC won’t countenance anything to do with people going missing. Spoil sports.

As I write this, Beth is out networking with potential famos for Series 3. She’s pulled in some wonderful guests over the past two years: Felicity Montagu (currently in This Time With Alan Partridge), John Culshaw (Dead Ringers), Ralf Little (The Royle Family) and Miles Jupp (News Quiz). Blows my mind to see them all written down like that.

When writing with someone else, you have a balancing act to perform between working alone and working in tandem. Too much of one and you fall into narcissistic solipsism; too much of the other and you die from caffeine poisoning.

I think my favourite, most productive moments of writing Foiled have come in two thankfully common situations:

  1. Beth pacing up and down in the kitchen, and me at the keyboard frantically trying to synthesise her comic stream of consciousness into grammar.
  2. Working in the same house, but in different rooms at our different tempos, with enough excuses to share snippets while re-boiling the kettle or filling a bowl with homemade soup, and occasionally, for a change of scenery, swapping scripts.

These shared moments are why I don’t think I could ever be a solitary novelist – or at least, not a contented one. For some people, writing is a way of life; for me, life must be a way of writing.

OK Foiled

People talk about the difficult second album, but what about the third?

Studious readers of this newsletter will know that Beth and I are in the throes of writing Series 3 of breakout hit BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled. (I’m pretty sure I can use the term ‘breakout hit’ thanks to our repeat on Radio 4 Extra last year.)

Over the past three years, we have developed enormously as writers of sitcomedy. Broadly one could sum up the progress as psychological, from scatterbrained panic in the first series, through sophomoric eustress in series two, right up to this year’s waaaaay too casual late start.

Fingers crossed that our trajectory as writers is following the course of everyone’s favourite emo-rockers, Radiohead.

Our first radio series was very much a Pablo Honey – an enjoyable collection with some terrific moments, but very much the sound of a group of people figuring out who they are and what on earth they’re supposed to be doing.

Extended Metaphor Tracks: Prove Yourself, swiftly followed by I Can’t.

Our second series was The Bends – emerging from the zeitgeist with a confident sound that draws attention from some of the industry’s biggest names.

Stretched Metaphor Tracks: Writing: Sulk. Recording: Nice Dream.

Third time around, we’d absolutely love to present for your listening pleasure the OK Computer of radio comedy – as rule-breaking as it is ground-breaking; as rabidly reviewed as it is devoured by an adoring public.

But, frankly, this analogy is growing thin, and we haven’t got two years to write the bloody thing.

Tortured Metaphor Tracks: Fitter, Happier – and almost certainly very soon Climbing Up The Walls.

Having said that, we’re feeling pretty Lucky about our ideas for episodes one and three, and if we get anywhere even half close to the artistic and commercial success of Radiohead’s third album then one day, maybe, just maybe, Beth and I can finally launch our own line of commemorative beach towels, RRP £35.00.

Tame the Mane

After last week’s missive on rejection, this week I’ve dabbled in a little rejection therapy. I can’t tell you the story of what I tried on Wednesday, but I can describe what happened when I took rejection out for a spin yesterday.

Picture the scene…

Drenched on the aptly named Fishponds Road, I walk out of the rain and into a hair salon. A lone woman sits in an armchair (I can already see that it’s a special kind of salon), footling with her phone.

‘Hi there. I’ve got a bit of a strange request.’
Oh god. That sounds like I’m going to ask for a lumbar massage.
‘Well, it’s not that strange. I’ll explain. I’m a comedy writer and – ‘
Confused looks. Legitimise, legitimise!
‘It’s for the BBC.’
Back on track.
‘It’s a sitcom set in a hair salon and I like to come into salons and, you know, soak up the atmosphere.’
What am I saying? Who, you know, knows that?
‘Would you mind if I sat here for fifteen minutes, if you’re not busy – or you can get on with what your doing, I can sit in the corner while you…’

This is a definite no.

She puts her phone down: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

I’ve caught Lara at a good moment. She’s got 15 minutes before her next client – an unusual occurrence at Tame The Mane, the only all-vegan, all-natural hair salon in the UK.

Teaching English to Libyan teenagers divided by Gaddafi’s Little Green Book, Lara dreamt of escaping that dead-end and running her own business. She spent 3 years writing up a business plan to set up a cafe, before her little brother had the temerity to suggest she open a salon.

Temerity because Lara hates hairdressers and, even more so, salons. She couldn’t sleep for three nights after her brother’s infuriating suggestion.

But the barb had lodged.

‘I’ve loved hairdressing since I was five or six. I used to beg my grandmother to do her hair. Every Sunday night: Can I do your hair, can I do your hair?’

As a teenager, Lara learnt hairdressing from an Italian woman and cutting hair became a great sideline for cash right through her English degree and even while she was teaching.

Then she realised that maybe her brother had a point: she couldn’t be the only one who hated your typical salons.

Sometimes we struggle to see what was right in front of us all along.

Tame The Mane looks more like a stylish living room than a styling salon. Potted plants crawl along any available surface. The walls are decorated with portraits of colourful women – not crass posed photographs, but original oils and pastels.

Lara wanted to create an anti-salon atmosphere and thought that her all-vegan, all-natural approach would draw in an exclusively (and quite possibly penniless) hippie clientele.

There’s a record player (‘Can’t play records, though, because of all the hair – didn’t think that one through’) and a bookcase where she does book swaps.

But she was far wrong about the hippies.

The mirrors are covered with scarfs, and Lara will only remove them if a client asks. So she gets a lot of clients who suffer from anxiety in other salons. ‘I get people who haven’t set foot in a salon for years.’

(Plus it’s weird, huh, having someone watch your every move while you do your job. I hate people looking over my shoulder when I write.)

Lara passes me what looks like a laminated menu. It’s a lucid explanation about why she only uses natural products, about how the salon business is so often built on convincing customers to put crap in their hair.

She offers suggestions about how we can reduce our reliance on products that aren’t all that different to Fairy Liquid, from diluting harsh shampoos to simply using a squeeze of lemon juice.

The back of the ‘menu’ has two recipes for Lara’s products: an oat conditioner and a flax gel. They sound delicious. There are more on her blog, free for you to create for yourself. If you don’t have the time, Lara’s got her own apothecary out the back.

With a mischievous smile she suggests that, if you want a protein-enriched wash, you should really just crack an egg on your head (although not in her vegan salon). It strengthens the hair, and gives a really nice shine, she says.

As an English graduate, Lara often dreams of writing her salon stories up. I’m lucky to have the chance to turn lives like hers into, well, this. And who knows what snippets from our conversation might turn up in Series 3 of Foiled…

I believe in Rejection!

It’s not every week that I read a book cover-to-cover in under 48 hours.

Admittedly, at only 200 pages Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang is a quick read, but I absolutely guttled those pages.

Why? Because Jiang offers a creative solution to a problem that I think almost every live human being struggles with: rejection.

This video is how I first heard about Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection experiment. It’s a good primer for what follows. Enjoy.

Dave’s Short History of Rejection

My history of rejection is short not because my life has been an endless cavalcade of glorious successes, but because, for the most part, I have gone to great lengths to avoid sticking my neck out and asking for anything, you know, worthwhile.

Example 1: Romantic Rejection

It took me until 2013 before I first told someone I really liked that I really liked them. Terrifying.

They did indeed reject my approach, but frankly by that point I didn’t care. The panic over saying anything to this person far outweighed the disappointment of the negative response by about a million to one.

This million-to-one ratio is about the same for ‘Love interests I longed to approach’ against ‘Love interests I actually approached’.

Combined with my everyday fear of social rejection, the number of missed opportunities for connection with other human beings is staggering, and all because of an egotistic, and unnecessary, fear of rejection.

Example 2: Book Rejection

For the most part, I have avoided professional rejection by not taking a profession. When I have held jobs, I have tended to do the work and then go home, not doing anything that would call attention to my work and thus invite rejection (or, indeed, approbation).

I have, however, written several books. Occasionally, I have sent the manuscripts to agents and publishers and have been rejected every single time.

I think I’ve received about 5 rejection letters in my life, ever, including the following unexpectedly expensive one.

Rejection Letter £1.11
Hilariously, this rejection letter was sent without the correct postage. I had to cycle to my local Royal Mail depot and pay £0.11 in excess postage, plus a £1.00 administration fee.

J.K. Rowling famously received 12 rejections for Harry Potter alone; William Golding got 20 for Lord of the Flies; Carrie by Stephen King garnered him 30 rejections before selling over a million copies in its first year and being turned into, not one, but three feature films, and, improbably enough, a musical.

It’s pretty easy to avoid rejection if you don’t put your work out there. I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t embraced professional rejection despite knowing full well that it is an essential part of the process.

Example 3: Rejection on the Road

Hitchhiking has taught me a lot about rejection. Standing on the side of a busy road with a smile and a sign, or walking up to strangers in service stations and begging for a lift: it’s a cold recipe for relentless rejection.

Even so, somehow I’ve always managed to get where I was going. Somehow, as Jiang says, ‘rejection has a number’ and persistence usually pays off if you’re willing to be flexible.

My least successful hitchhike involved about 3 hours of rejections – but I still got a ride (after changing my approach). How’s that for rejection? Pretty good, I’d say.

In most of the rest of my life, however, I give up after a single rejection (if I even get that far). Why is that?

Example 4: Critical Rejection

When me and Beth took Foiled to Edinburgh in 2016, we wanted to be judged. So much so that we actually paid a PR company to get critics in to review our show. We positively invited rejection.

The hefty weight of that judgement was shared between us, but it still wasn’t very nice when we got a stinking review from a well-respected critic.

I don’t think we ever seriously doubted our material, and it helped that the audiences didn’t seem to either, but the review was (and still is) there in black and white on the internet. A fulsome rejection of everything we’d worked so hard to create.

In this case, there was nothing we could do except rationalise what he had to say (it’s just one opinion, it was based on a preview, and we’d already addressed some of his criticisms) and use it as motivation to make the show the best it could be.

We didn’t shut down the PR company and tell them to invite no more critics. Thankfully, the critics kept coming and Foiled ended up with a couple of phenomenal reviews, which we could use to sell the show to producers and, ultimately, to the BBC.

Phew!

Example 5: Reader Rejection

My Friday newsletter is a weekly opportunity for people to reject me and my work. The unsubscribe button is right there at the bottom of every single email.

Even if people aren’t unsubscribing, I can still see who is opening the newsletter and reading to the end. It’s usually just under half.

After over 2 years of newsletters, I have become comfortable with the fact that some people will unsubscribe and no longer read my words of comfort and joy.

I have eventually come to see unsubscribes in a positive light. It’s not that I’ve failed them, or that they are repulsed by the very essence of my being; it’s just that we weren’t a good fit for whatever reason.

Indeed, with the unsubscribers gone, my reader percentage numbers should go up – and that’s a good thing. Seen this way, unsubscribes are a gradual honing of my audience to the shape of my work.

Notice that, unlike my approach to publishing, I have persisted at newsletter-writing, drilling through the prison walls of ‘rejection’ to the green pastures of unbounded creativity.

(Whereupon I abuse my freedom and write ridiculous sentences like the foregoing.)


The lesson is that avoiding rejection can be incredibly damaging – not in the short term, perhaps, but certainly and abundantly in the long term.

What opportunities have I passed up through fear of rejection? Could I be a published novelist by now? Could I have found the loves of my lives?

Fear of rejection is a crime of omission. If you give yourself no chance of rejection, then you also have very little chance of progress.

Tolerance of rejection is the difference between the approach and avoidant mentalities described by Carol Dweck, and these mindsets spread their influence through every domain of our lives.

If we follow the society status quo, it’s pretty easy to feel accepted. But is society perfect as it is? Is the world? Is life?

I don’t think so – as much as my gut screams at me to conform or die.

So, this year, I want to put myself into situations where I am rejected. And I want those rejections to really hurt.

Painful rejections will show me that I’m doing meaningful work, that I’m opening myself up and making myself vulnerable in the places that really matter, deep down.

And, if Jia Jiang’s experiment is anything to go by, this should be fun!

Foiled Diaries: Finito!

The Foiled recordings last weekend went down an absolute storm (see above cast photo). In the memorable words of one superfan: ‘That made Series 1 sound shit.’ And I couldn’t agree more fervently.

Probably my favourite moment of the whole weekend was the read through before what will become Episode 2. Sitting across from the exquisite Miles Jupp as he transformed my words into actual live comedy is something I will never forget – barring a governmental lobotomisation programme or degenerative brain disease. Continue reading Foiled Diaries: Finito!

Foiled Diaries: Writers Rooms

This is necessarily going to be a super short diary update: I’ve done more than enough typing for one week on Foiled and I haven’t slept in a bed for a few nights – the glamour!

One particular highlight of the last 7 days was realising on Wednesday that our producer wanted a rewrite of one episode by 9pm – at 8.40pm. I still don’t know how I managed to write 8 pages in 20 minutes – and only half of it was chucked out the next day! Continue reading Foiled Diaries: Writers Rooms

Foiled Series 2: A Sitcom Writer’s Diary

The half term holiday was the perfect opportunity for Beth and I to go down to Wales, breathe the comic airs and get started on series two of Foiled.

The temptation, of course, was to treat the half term holiday as, well, a holiday – and there were indeed blows along the respective proms of Barry and Penarth, as well as long cups of tea in the terrace sunshine. But sitcoms, even radio sitcoms, have to start somewhere. And ours, however leisurely, started here. Continue reading Foiled Series 2: A Sitcom Writer’s Diary

Foiled Episode 1: Everything’s Kings (BBC Radio)

This is mad, isn’t it? A year ago I was in the London Welsh Centre, watching rehearsals for a hair-based theatre comedy called ‘Foiled’. Being one of the writers, I loved every minute – but I never expected The Stage would call it ‘the perfect comedy’ in a 5-star review.

That was dreamy enough, but imagine being given a BBC Radio series! Insane. And it’s being broadcast TOMORROW.

YES – Saturday the 1st of July at 1pm. Continue reading Foiled Episode 1: Everything’s Kings (BBC Radio)

How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission

In January 2016, Beth Granville and I were commissioned to write four episodes of our sitcom Foiled for BBC Radio Wales. I still get goosebumps writing that sentence! Getting a comedy commission from the BBC really doesn’t happen very often in a writer’s life and I feel fantastically lucky.

Earlier this week, Beth and I were invited by London Comedy Writers to share our recipe for the secret sauce. This blog is more detail on how I reckon we got that BBC radio comedy commission. Continue reading How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission