COMEDY / Feeding the habit: Unlike many comedians Jasper Carrott writes a lot of his own material. But no one writer can feed the massive appetite of a regular television series. Own Slot meets some of the other men behind the mouth

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Mike Whitehill

together with partner Steve Knight, is now Carrott's prime contributor having written for him since 1989. Other credits: Ken Dodd, Frankie Howerd and Hale and Pace: 'Writing for anybody we find a question of imagining the voice in your head and imagining what they would say and what they wouldn't say. With Japer it's ruminative, he likes wherever possible to think laterally.

Ken Dodd was hard work because of the old story of him having about 50,000 jokes in his brain - there's nothing new for him and the way he performs material tends to be just a rapid fire sequence of jokes; he was expecting page after page of jokes with proper punchlines. Hale and Pace wasn't one of our great triumphs, but they are great blokes and we had a lot in common because they like beer and football. Writing for them was a bit of a release because what Jasper doesn't like is swearing to get a laugh or lavatorial humour or bawdiness, whereas Hale and Pace love bawdiness and it's the kind of thing Steve and I like doing. I think almost any writer at some stage has written for Frankie Howerd. It was an entirely different experience: experimental, different, strange and odd. You didn't know what he was going to select and he was very difficult to persuade to do new things. What he did say is that you can't pad out your page with all the 'Oohs', 'Aahs' and 'No Missuses' and expect to get paid for it. He was aware of that trick already.

No one else we've written for is as rigorous as Jasper is with his material, he's constantly changing it up till the last minute and 99 per cent of the time it is vastly improved. There can't be any writer who doesn't think that their beautiful words get mangled along the way; but he often says that he cannot stand up on stage and deliver lines that he doesn't feel confident about.

Ian Hislop

editor of Private Eye and regular on 'Have I Got News For You'. Had written for radio before he was rung up in 1983 by Paul Jackson, then Carrott's producer, now managing director of Carlton: 'That was the first job I had in telly. I was hired with Duncan Campbell of The New Statesman, we were meant to provide topical input, it was good fun, but not something that features very highly on my CV these days. I did the first BBC series (1982/3) when they turned him from a folkie into a street-wise commentator. I was there with people like Grant and Naylor (Red Dwarf, Spitting Image) and there was Emma Thompson and Chris Barrie as support actors.

Writing for comedians is a specialised game. I did Jasper once and I did Harry (Enfield) because, well, I've known him forever and you can write one character then he's yours (in this case, Time Nice But Dim).

With Jasper, we basically wrote whatever we felt like because he wasn't known then, he was still establishing his voice. He'd done LWT before, but this was really 'Jasper Goes Legit'. Jasper was very open to suggestion, I think he'd seen Alexei Sayle and all these other acts suddenly get with it and thought 'I'm becoming a dinosaur'. I remember we got a show on election night, and that was pre-Spitting Image, and you actually felt 'Goodness, there's some topical comedy geting on the telly'.

Dr Rob Buckman

a cancer specialist working in Canada, last seen on British TV in June presenting Channel 4's series 'Magic or Medecine'. Former Punch contributor, and, in his junior doctor days, writer on the 1970s TV shows 'Doctor On the Go' and 'The Pink Medecine Show': 'I only did one script-writing job for Jasper: I did the introduction to a live show he did at Drury Lane (1979) and although the introduction was probably brilliantly funny, a rather subtle parody of a cod-biography, it was completely outside what the audience was expecting and it went down like the proverbial lead-filled sock over Grand Canyon. I sat in the audience and I could feel the total bafflement in waves of apathy and indifference and when my acquaintances asked me who'd written the introduction, I have to admit a cock crowed three times and I said it wasn't me. Jasper was very nice about it, but that was not my shining hour. My immediate thought was 'I wish this was like space invaders so I can do it again', but it was a live show. I pitied Jasper, but the audience so adored him, they didn't mnd what went before. At that stage it was absolutely clear that Jasper was well on the way to the big time.

At the time I didn't write more because I was a junior hospital doctor and simply didn't have the time. I don't really think I could write material for other comedians, though, I don't really write my own material, I sort of invent it when I'm standing up. When I was writing in Punch it was basically my own thoughts, the idea of writing words for someone else's voice is really quite terrifying. I don't think I was a particularly gifted sitcom writer (Doctor on the Go), it was less inventive. I'm much better at revue-style short sketches, like on The Pink Medecine Show, inventing our characters from the boots upwards.

Neil Shand

former Daily Mail and Daily Express reporter, described by as having written for 'everyone in the world'. Television work dates back to the 1960s; among the many: David Frost, Spike Milligan, 'The Two Ronnies' and, most recently, Des O'Connor's 'Pot of Gold': 'The people I write for are all very different. Where Jasper is distinctive is he is as much a writer as a comedian, he's not a man who deals in jokes, not a gag comic like someone like Ken Dodd or Bob Monkhouse who is the superb, ultimate, consummate, professional gag-machine comic. There are brilliant joke comedians, Jasper is a monloguist.

Spike (Milligan) is marvellous, he's extraordinary. There's a moment that most comedy writers know which comes at about 3.3pm when hysteria sets in and if one person says 'hello' the other person falls over. And I remember Spike saying in one such moment: 'Can you imagine that people are paying us to sit in a room and make each other laugh'. He's one of those people who enabled those who came after to do things we wouldn't have been able to do, by the nature of the comedy he did, that quasi-anarchical thing.

I was script editor of Jasper's show; what you do is to encourage people to write as they write themselves because they will hopefully bring a bit of their own personnality to the material. Surprisingly enough, only to a degree do you write jokes differently for different people, it is extraordinary how similar a lot of material is. I've never had to tailor my writing to whoever I'm writing for, I'd just sit down and write what made me laugh. If there were elements of my view of life that slotted into Milligan's view of life, then that's what it was. Maybe there's one side of me that wants to write the mother-in-law jokes and another that wants to write the off-the-wall lunacy. Maybe there's a kind of schizophrenic mind at work here. The main difference is the topics they cover. with Jasper we did anything relevant to the human condition that week, we didn't do Aids or cancer because they're not particularly funny, we were fairly politically correct without being boring, we didn't do too many mother-in-law jokes.

I don't really want to perform myself. I do a bit of after-dinner stuff which gets it out of my system and also I do warm-ups, but I suspect that underneath it all, there's an element of fear and I'm just not that ego-driven.

Steve Punt

one half of the 'The Mary Whitehouse Experience' which started in on the alternative club scene after he had finished at Cambridge University. Other credits include Spitting Image and Rory Bremner and radio work: 'Week Endng' and 'Loose Ends'. Wrote for Carrott from late 1980s to 1991: 'When he did his first series in 1977 I was at school and he was a bit of a cult figure, I had the record of Drury Lane and knew certain bits of it off by heart. So when writing for him, I could hear his voice, I could kind of test things to myself and think: 'Can I hear Jasper saying this'. However, the thing he impressed on the writers was that he didn't want them to copy him, he wanted ideas that he would rewrite in his style. He was immensely hard-working; sometimes with comedians you can hear that its not their voice, they're obviously doing a script. The last thing he wanted was Robin Reliant jokes because he already had those, he knew if he wanted an easy laugh he could drag in Birmingham City or Reliant Robins, what he really wanted was the topical stuff.

The main difference writing for Rory Bremner was that he's more part of my age group and it was his first series; Jasper was very famous and it was more nerve-wracking. Also, if you know that the voices are going to be good, it's actually quite easy to write for impressionists. With Spitting Image you're working for a producer and a script editor, there's no performer to say: 'It's funny but it's not in my style' which Jasper and Rory, increasingly, would do.

It's very good education writing for others: if you only write for yourself, it's easy to only write for one audience. On the alternative club circuit, you get used to performing for one particular type of audience, but if you want to do TV you've got to stop writing material that a lot of the country won't understand. It was odd going from writing for the Comedy Store to writing for Jasper and 10 million people. Sometimes you'd want to keep some material back for yourself, but when an audience is watching a big name, they are much more inclined to laugh than if it's an unknown who they are, to a certain extent, judging. The better known you are, the more people are prepared to laugh.

Simon Fanshawe

started stand-up in late 1970s and won Edinburgh Festival Perrier award in 1989. Has had numerous TV appearances including a run in 'That's Life'. Presents Radio5's 'Fanshawe on Five' and 'Meridien', the BBC World Service Arts Programme. Wrote for Carrott in 1988 and '89.' The brilliant things were working with Barry Cryer, a man with a joke for every season, and Dick Hills, part of the legendary Hills and Green partnership who wrote the original Morecambe and Wise script. He was a bitter little walnut whom I adore, one of the most shrewest men I've ever met and terribly funny and a complete sweetheart.

Each week Jasper would say what the monologue would be about and we'd all have a go. Steve Punt was always top of the class, the rest of us would get our exercise books back with 'Good try. Off the subject'. What was interesting was watching Jasper adapt it all together; technically, he's very clever. And he really knows how to sell a gag. I remember one week there was a monologue which we all agreed was a bit shitty and what was astonishing was watching Jasper go out and just sell it. And the audience bought the whole thing.

Some of us found it quite hard to get in the more political stuff because Jasper's actually not as political as you think. But has held that mainstream spot for a very long while - so he is nothing if not perceptive about what's happening around him. I remember saying a classic Jasper phrase: 'I shall use one fart during this series' - I think it was a fart though there again it may have been a shit. That shows his understanding of television, he knows who his audience is.

I look back on it with some trepidation because I don't think I was very good. I did get asked to do another series, though, so it can't have been that bad.

Duncan Campbell

campaigning, investigative journalist. Best known for journalism for 'The New Statesman and Society' and controversial BBC2 documentary series in 1987 'The Secret Society'. Wrote in Carrott's first BBC series in 1982: 'The person who was marshalling was Paul Jackson (now managing editor of Carlton); Paul seemed to have a mission to innovate that displayed an imagination well beyond most other people in Light Entertainment. He had this notion of drawing on a very non-traditional field: he recruited me to try and throw up ideas. I submitted some material which was about the absurdity and futility of civil defence in the early Eighties and which duly turned into material for a sketch. I was never very near to final scripts - I was producing material in the first stage. Paul kept up the pressure for adoption of that kind of material but the impression I got was that the pendulum swung back to the more conventional.

I was new to television comedy, but I was already performing myself in a sense. I've done an enormous amount of public speaking and I tend to use the devices of comedy in a determined way to make a point. Some of the stuff I was batting over for Carrott was similar in content to what I was doing in speeches for campaigns for nuclear disarmament or a range of other topics about civil liberties. I tended to develop a routine for myself to deal with some very serious subjects like nuclear war. You knew when you were getting it right, there's consummate skill in voice and timing so in effect the devices of joke-telling to audiences was something I was doing anyway.

Kim Fuller

started career submitting to 'Not the Nine O'Clock News', has since added Robbie Coltrane, Lennie Henry, Jimmy Tarbuck and others to his CV. Now writes sitcoms, notably Carlton's recent 'Complete Guide to Relationships'; presently working on a new project, 'House of Windsor', for Granada. Wrote for Carrott in late 1980s. 'A lot of performers don't like to admit that they have writers - but for whole a series it's extremely hard to turn out all your own stuff. Carrott writes a lot himself, but any television performer of the older generation will use writers; I think Ben Elton writes all his own stuff. I used to perform myself but you've got to make a decision some time about what you think you are. Also it's a difficult conflict for writer-performers to write for other people; I've worked with them and you feel that the best stuff they keep so you get the second best stuff and you can't really sustain a television writing career unless you really sell them your best stuff. It's hard enough to find jokes anyway, let alone if you're running a two-tier system.

With Jasper, he'd always give you a subject. He was particularly keen on cars, he always thought cars were funny. We'd talk about it - why Cavalier drivers are really bad and aggressive, things like that - and we'd go away think around it and talk around it. You'd try and write in his style which is a kind of building, monologue style rather individual gags. This suits me more than, say, Tarby. That was a fairly dismal experience, his writers churn out a hundred jokes a week and I simply can't generate one-liners like that.

I write sitcoms now which is better because you're not writing for a star. Writing for individual performers is difficult because they're voracious, you can never generate enough, it's a lot of pressure and also it's fairly one-dimensional; I'm more interested in dramatic narrative comedy. I find it more satisfying to create a world than to create a routine.