Tips: Comedy Sketch Writing

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Ahead of his Comedy Writing Weekend at Filmbase (8 – 9 April), award-winning comedy writer Stephen Shields gives us his top ten tips for Comedy Sketch Writing. 

 

  • BE OBSERVANT AND KEEP NOTES

The world in day to day life can be full of comedy gold. Most hilarity comes from noticing the obtuse in what is normal to others. Comedy has always had an anchor in what people see and take for granted being presented to them in an alternate light. Always be observant into what you find funny in the world and note it down. Even if you do not know why you think it’s funny at that moment, it’s always best to have a written reminder that you can call upon later on a future piece of work.

 

  • READ AND WATCH AS MUCH AS YOU CAN ABOUT CURRENT EVENTS

The news from at home and around the world can be a great source of content for a comedy piece. With so much happening in the world from politics, sport, celebrity news etc. It’s hard not to absorb something funny from either current events or current pop culture trends and incorporating them into a sketch or a joke.

 

  • DON’T BE AFRAID TO TRY A JOKE

The word “taboo” is the name of Tom Hardy’s TV show on the BBC that I only watched the first episode of and thought it was just okay. In day to day usage it means “restricted” or “prohibited”. But in comedy, no one will know what works until you try it and it’s been evaluated either by a producer, executive or the audience. But above all else, be respectful. But try a joke, if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t and try again.

 

  • WATCH AS MUCH COMEDY AS YOU CAN (PAST AND PRESENT)

There have been funny people before you and there will be funny people after you. If you don’t know where you’ve been how can you know where you’re going? Watch comedy. Past and present. Absorb comedy like a vitamin you sponge through your eyes. Anything and everything, from Monty Python to SNL. From The Fast Show to Seinfeld. Watch stuff. Study it. What makes it funny? And how can you learn from it.

 

FIND WHAT YOU’RE SUITED FOR

Some people find their humour from the crazy world of politics, home and abroad (Donald Trump). Others find humour in the day to day lives of ordinary people. Others think that cats are funny. Cats think humans are funny. It’s a win win situation.  Find out what you’re interested in talking about and make it funny. You may even surprise yourself.


  • TRY BE DIFFERENT

A lot subjects have been touched by the comedy greats gone before us. Always look for the new and improved hook. Has this been done before? If not, why? And how can I make it my own comedy gem? Most comedy works when people think outside of the box or rip the box up completely. Do your thing. Make it your own and stand out from the pack.

 

  • WRITE, WRITE, WRITE

 
Comedy writing is a tool and like all tools, it should be locked in the shed and forgot about until the moment a few years down the road when you think “I have a tool for that job”. Sorry I mean, it needs to be sharpened. Try write something every day. A thought, a line of funny dialogue, a whole sketch, a sitcom, a three hour art film about paint drying on a wall somewhere in eastern Europe. Anything. Just write.
 

 

 

  • MAKE SOMETHING AND GET IT OUT THERE

YouTube. We have cameras on our phones. You think you’re funny. Make something and put it online. Think how lucky we are that we now have the means to broadcast for free. YouTube is a great training ground and means to get your comedy out to the masses. And if you’re lucky and the right person sees it you could go on to bigger and better platforms. If you don’t swing the bat, you won’t hit the ball.  If you don’t try, you’ll never know. If you feed rice to pigeons they will explode. Sorry, I ran out of positive messages you read on Facebook set in a nice font with the background picture almost always a sunset at twilight hour.
 

 

 

  • 3 ACT STRUCTURE

Basic story telling rules. Beginning, middle and end. Setup, confrontation, resolution. Not all sketches apply to this format but these are still good rules to follow. I will explain more during the comedy weekend, when you attend *COUGHS* plugs comedy weekend that he’s teaching. Check details on Fimbase here
 

 

 

  • ABOVE ALL ELSE, BE FUNNY

“Some people are born funny, some have funny thrust upon them and some people are just not funny, let’s face facts, they think they are but really, they’re not. There are funny people though, really funny people”

  • William Shakespeare. (May not be original quote)

If you think you’re funny, give it a go. But above all else be funny.
 

 

 

Stephen is an award-winning comedy writer who has worked on some of the most popular comedy series broadcast on national TV, with some of the funniest comic talent the country has to offer. Since winning RTE Storyland 2010 with his web series Zombie Bashers he has gone on to work on numerous comedy shows on RTE including Callan’s Kicks, Foul Play, This is Ireland with Des Bishop and is the longest serving sketch writer on RTE’s The Republic of Telly.

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Tips: 10 Tips For Young Directors

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1. Every Project is Practice

Don’t be afraid to just pick up a camera and start shooting. It’s all practice, and the more you get, the better. My first projects were a few short sketches with some friends, which eventually turned into a shoestring-budget feature film. None of us had any technical expertise whatsoever in filmmaking, let alone been to film school — But between us, we’d seen a lot of movies, and that awareness, just through osmosis, helped us to craft a basic sense of structure and pacing. Technically, the film leaves a lot to be desired, but that’s to be expected. By the next project, I had a much better idea of shooting, editing and fixing any technical issues I was likely to encounter.

 

 

2. Be Brutal with the Script

Get rid of anything that’s extraneous or just for show. A line might be a great kiss-off or a scene may be super-smart, but unless it makes sense in the context of the story, it won’t sit right. I work with a brilliant writer, Tadhg Hickey, and we have established a work process whereby we are both ruthless with every draft of the script. The goal is always to work it out as economically and cinematically as possible. And remember: the shorter your script is, the smaller the budget and schedule will be, too.

This was myself and Tadhg’s first short film from 2010, called Tearing Strips:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhkhSl6rtR8

 

 

3. Plan the shoot and over-schedule

Plan out all aspects of the shoot to the best of your ability. The more organized you are, the more you’ll be able to deal with the inevitable problems and necessary improvisations that will arise on the day. Also, where possible, allow plenty of scheduling leeway. The time needed to set up, address minor issues etc., will inevitably accumulate throughout the day, and you need to allow for that. It’s much better to tell your actors and crew that you need them until 8 and send them home at 6, than it is to tell them they’re needed until 6 and have to keep them on set for an extra two hours.

 

4. Learn how to work with a crew

One of the benefits of working with DSLRs and home editing software is that it allows for a huge amount of individual control. In theory, you can create an entire film project on your own. But if you want to pursue filmmaking seriously, you’ll need to work with a crew at some point (and remember that no film funding body will give you cash unless they know you can manage people and money properly).

The first time I worked with a crew was on a music video for the band Echogram. It was initially quite daunting, but once you remember that everyone just wants make something that best represents them creatively and technically, it’s just a matter of asking for what you want and letting people do their job.

https://vimeo.com/24836158

Note: Regardless of the scale of the crew, make sure you have a good DoP and sound recordist. The less you have to worry about how a scene is going to look and sound, the more you’ll be able to direct what’s happening within it.

 

 

5. You can learn from anywhere

You don’t have to have gone to film school to make movies. In fact, there’s almost nothing that you could want to achieve visually that someone else hasn’t done in some way or another — and made a YouTube tutorial on how to do it. There are endless free tutorials online that will help you to get the best out of both your camera and software.

The Vimeo Video School has some great general filmmaking advice for all aspects of production:

https://vimeo.com/videoschool

For After Effects users, the tutorial section of the Video Co-Pilot website is a fantastic resource:

http://www.videocopilot.net/tutorials/

I consulted these extensively when making the music video for ‘Summertime’ by Toy Soldier, and was able to set up a basic greenscreen post-production pipeline on my PC.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNyndJPjTM

 

 

6. Festival Submissions

I recently attended a seminar where a group of film festival programmers spoke at length about their experiences. One said, ‘If you finish your film and just send it off to the top ten festivals in the world, forget about it.’ You need to research your audience and pick your festivals carefully. For example, when we were sending out our film Uisce Beatha, we looked up festivals that would have large Irish contingencies; i.e., the Boston Film Festival, the Chicago Irish Film Festival, etc. Play to the strengths of the film and find your audience. It might be an extra day’s work, but it will benefit your film immeasurably and save you a small fortune in submission fees.

UB_Cliffs_300DPI Tadhg Hickey as ‘Tom’, in a scene from Uisce Beatha, which recently won the ‘Filmmakers’ Choice’ award at DC Shorts, the biggest short film festival on the East Coast of the US.

 

 

7. Attend Film Festivals

Go to as many film festivals as you can (whether your film is in it or not). Check out what the standard is like, see what type of films are getting funded and do plenty of networking with other filmmakers. Get business cards made and hand them out. And make sure to follow up with people via email / Facebook / Twitter etc, as you never know what creative projects might emerge from the contacts you make.

 

8. Make your film a genre that you’re passionate about

If you love horrors, make a horror. If you’re into gritty social dramas, make a gritty social drama. Spielberg once said something along the lines of, ‘I make films that I would want to go and see’. If you’re making something that you’re really looking forward to seeing on the big screen someday, you’ll have all the creative drive you need to deal with the pressures of making a short film.

 

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 James Browne as The Man In Black in a scene from Shaun’s new short horror-comedy, Rest My Bones.

 

9. Watch new films, read new stories, get new ideas

Get inspiration: Watch lots of good movies, and seek out stuff that you may not normally encounter. For example, check out the foreign film selection on Netflix, which is very extensive.

Also, read lots of books. Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes) once said that in order to stay creative, you should read one short story, one poem and one essay every night before sleep. That might be a bit much for most, but even one short story per evening will keep the creative juices simmering.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Wr7ABrMYU

And read ‘The War Of Art’ by Steven Pressfield. It’s a small, succinct book about the creative process, and contains the best advice on the topic that you will ever read.

 

10. Remember that it’s a collaborative effort

In his book Catching The Big Fish, David Lynch outlines one of the main reasons he got into filmmaking: ‘Because it seemed like a lot of fun’. And that’s exactly what it should be. There’s a lot of pressure, granted, but at the end of the day, it’s a creative process, and to participate in that in any capacity is a rare, amazing thing.

Don’t be fooled by the stereotype of the shouty, angry director. If you’re not happy with something or somebody, you can usually sort it out with a quiet word. Listen to your cast and crew. Their ideas are just as viable as yours, and their collective technical expertise is probably way better than yours. If the atmosphere on set is tense and dictatorial, you won’t encourage a sense of collaboration and fun. And if it’s not fun and collaborative, what’s the point?

 

Shaun O Connor’s short film work has won awards at various festivals, including the Corona Cork Film Festival, Chicago Irish Film Festival, the Fastnet Short Film Festival, the Kerry Film Festival, and the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival. Shaun has also directed numerous music videos, and his video for ‘Conspiracy’ by Echogram won an award at the 2011 Irish Music Television Awards. Shaun has also directed work for corporate clients such as Concern and Lidl.

 

Most recently, Shaun’s short film Uisce Beatha won the ‘Filmmakers’ Choice’ award at DC Shorts in Washington DC, the biggest short film festival on the East Coast of the US. It was also selected to screen at the Raindance festival in London, Europe’s biggest independent film festival.

 

Shaun’s collected work can be seen at www.shaunoconnor.com

twitter.com/shaunoconnor1

facebook.com/shaun.oconnor.988

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Taking Stock As a Writer – With Some Help From My Nemesis

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Screenwriter Caroline Farrell on the challenge of embracing her nemesis – procrastination

Writing, for all of us scribblers, is a necessary pain in the arse. Thinking about writing, as opposed to doing it, is the big, weeping boil that sits on top of that pain in the arse, throbbing away until action is taken and the lancing begins. Thinking about why we write, and what we choose to write about, is…well, think of the most pain-filled analogy you can imagine and place it firmly on the top of that weeping boil…

Of late, my nemesis, that little bastard aka procrastination, has come to visit again, and has not been kind, cruelly and mischievously pushing me, unawares at first, through the gawd-awful door of reflective thinking. Once there, I am finding it nigh impossible to break away from analysing almost every thought and action, and not just my own.

Bewares, people, I is watching yiz!

Seriously though, it’s uncomfortable, painful even, and at times, probably akin to the navel-gazing that I generally abhor so much, but it is all helping me to finally ‘get it’. To understand stuff, personally, historically and socially; and to fully realise that through this reflective, and mostly silent, journey, I can finally accept where my personal, creative and social vision is rooted.

Taking stock of my own experience, from where I have come to where I am now, I am also forced to examine the why.  In realizing the why, I can make meaning of it all; the way I look at the world, my every action and reaction, and my sometimes frustratingly innate sense of responsibility that is relational, though built around a strictly selective connectedness that can be at once liberating, but also, an invisibly lethal thread of confinement and inertia.

In her book, The Heroine’s Journey, written from the view of a feminist in response to Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Maureen Murdock wrote on the difficulties of our life path as women.

“It has no well-defined guideposts nor recognizable tour guides. There is no map, no navigational chart, no chronological age when the journey begins. It follows no straight lines”.

Yes, of course, this sentiment applies to men also, and is an appropriate description of the pathways towards transformation and self-realization for all of us. In response to Murdock’s book, Campbell said,

“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

Yikes!

Whatever you believe, the truth is that very few of us come out into the world as adults, unscathed and perfectly intact, but by God, we learn from the experiential!

I cannot imagine a way of expressing my visions without understanding a life journey that so far has run the gamut of experiences and emotions that have offered me unimaginable joy. But there have also been the far from positive aspects. And in looking back, there is fear, there is disappointment, there is anger and there is regret, though I firmly believe that out of every dark place comes a glimmer of light.  The best we can hope for is that we, as scribblers, can look back on these sequences of our personal journeys and know intuitively that these learning processes have helped us to rise to the challenge of becoming critically reflective writers; authentic voices, and at the very least, empathic ones.

Sincerity and intention are not enough.  So thanks for that, I say begrudgingly, to my Nemesis.

Featured Quote from:  Neil GaimanThe Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

 

Caroline Farrell is an author and screenwriter:

In Ribbons, written by Caroline and directed by Marie-Valerie Jeantelot, is currently in post-production.The film is produced by Caitriona Costello, Marie-Valerie Jeantelot and Caroline Farrell and has just been selected for the Kildare County Arts Film Bursary Award 2013.

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