'You have to be really funny'

Mark Simpson joins a radio comedy workshop and discovers the secret of how to make people laugh
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The Independent Culture

'Successful comedy writing," explains the woman running the radio comedy writing workshop I'm attending, "depends heavily upon flaws and personality defects which continually force people into ridiculous situations." I think she means the characters rather than the people who write them, but I'm not sure.

'Successful comedy writing," explains the woman running the radio comedy writing workshop I'm attending, "depends heavily upon flaws and personality defects which continually force people into ridiculous situations." I think she means the characters rather than the people who write them, but I'm not sure.

Everyone knows comedians are not very popular people. Or rather, that they are unpopular people who have hit on a way to turn their unpopularity into fame. Having learnt how to exploit their abnormality and dislocation to make people laugh, someone chronically lacking in social skills can become rich beyond their wildest deserts, and on everyone's lips at Edinburgh.

But what about comedy writers? You know, those shucks whose names appear in the credits for a second or two when you're plumping the sofa cushions or putting the kettle on. Most don't perform their own material so they are never going to be offered millions to advertise widgets, or even a free pint from the landlord down the pub. Comedy writing isn't going to get you a shag, either. Unless it's from a penniless performer desperate for some new material, or from someone who is just desperate (ie another comedy writer).

Worst of all, you spend your time wondering whether something is funny or not. Which may or may not be the shortest route to madness, but will very quickly ensure that nothing will ever be funny again.

But to a non-comedy writer like me, the notion of being a comedy writer has a curious appeal. Ever since the age of 10, when I realised with horror that Morecambe and Wise didn't write their own material, I have pondered where comedy came from - and whether it could be from someone sitting in front of their typewriter unshaven and still in their pyjamas. If writing is a lonely business, comedy writing sounds positively social; a barrel of laughs.

Mind, spending as I did one of the hottest days of the year in a tiny unventilated room in the bowels of BBC Radio in Central London with 10 aspiring comedy writers, one or two of whom appeared to have failed their CSE in personal hygiene, seems a little bit too social. This workshop, organised by the BBC's Light Entertainment Department (a title which makes you wonder if there's a Heavy Entertainment Department) to cultivate new talent, is definitely a boon to comedy writers. For no charge it offers encouragement and useful advice on what kind of material BBC radio is looking for - and radio is where countless comedy writing careers have been launched, and where hit TV shows such as Knowing Me Knowing You, Goodness Gracious Me and The League of Gentlemen began.

Everyone at my workshop is in their 30s or early 40s, and one or two - though none more than me - look as if they might be running out of options. (As one woman put it, in what was by far the best line all day: "I hope being mad and menopausal is an advantage in this business.") Diversity seems to have reached the world of comedy writing: nearly half the group of hopefuls is female; two of the men are Northern, two are Asian, two are declared lesbians. But then, this is the era of Goodness Gracious Me and Rhona.

Funnily enough, Maria, the affable dark-haired, side-parted Beeb woman in trousers and a floral T-shirt taking the workshop, looks a little like Rhona Cameron, star of the TV series. She also speaks the way you imagine Rhona does when the camera is off her - talking about how to get a sitcom or sketch show into the much-coveted radio prime-time slot of 6.30pm she explains, "You have to be really f---ing funny".

The man on my left thinks he is already, and keeps cracking f---ing unfunny lines which no one laughs at. Maybe this is why he laughs so loudly himself after every dumbcrack. When a proposal for a sketch involving adults playing kids is discussed, he offers, "Well, it would be worth it just to see the ladies in school uniforms, wouldn't it?" He guffaws extra loudly, covering an extra loud silence.

Most here have already had sketches accepted, some for Radio 2's long-running, non-com material-hungry News Huddlines; others for TV sketch shows. Ronnie, likeable enough, in a pale, unfed way, has had material accepted by Channel 4's hit show Smack the Pony. "Oh really?" I say. "I liked the first series a lot. But not the second; I thought that was rubbish." An embarrassed pause. "Erm," I ask gingerly, "which one did you write for?"

"The second."

After lunch, Maria has a surprise for us. A couple of hot-shot, thrusting lads from the production team of Dead Ringers - Radio 4's slick and highly successful impressions sketch show - squeeze into our BBC broom-cupboard and play us some examples of the kinds of sketches they're after: Thora Hird in The Terminator, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson in Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch. That kind of thing.

Now we have to pitch some ideas to them. Someone suggests Michael Parkinson interviewing Mickey Mouse. The comedy lads frown, and explain patiently why this isn't funny. The suggestee shuts up. Someone else tentatively suggests Jeremy Paxman as an agony aunt. The comedy lads weigh it up, unsmiling. "Yeah. That might work. But we need more." The suggestee does not offer more.

Now it's my turn. My brain freezes. I feel like someone who has just woken up in the middle of an ad agency meeting and can't remember who the client is. "Er," I stutter, "um, how about Davina McCall from Big Brother explaining that after the eviction of the other members of the group we're now down to two contestants: Noel and Liam. Cue the Gallagher brothers bitching about one another." Silence.

"Everyone knows that Liam and Noel aren't in Big Brother," says one.

"Yes, I know, but that's the point isn't it?" I protest. "Thora Hird isn't in The Terminator, is she? It's the 'oh yes!' unlikeness of it that works." But I don't say that. Instead I just cringe and pray that someone else will say something even unfunnier very soon. There's no point arguing. This is comedy. The bottom line is: is it funny? And you're not the judge of that. Everyone else is.

As Maria, wrapping up the workshop, puts it: "A thick skin is the key to success in this f---ing business." Or as the Writers' Guidelines pamphlet she hands to us says: "There is a simple formula for success: make the producer laugh, then the cast and then the audience".

My advice is this: if you can make your friends laugh, even if it takes a few pints, forget about the producers, the cast, the audience or the business itself. If, on the other hand, you don't have any friends, then become a comedy writer.

Some names have been changed. The Radio Comedy Writers' Workshop is free, but its 12 monthly places are for published writers only. Details from: BBC Light Entertainment Radio, Room 1071, Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London, W1A 1AA/ www.comedyzone.beeb.com