Radio Ha Ha

Ever fancied writing comedy for the wireless? Give Gabby Hutchinson Crouch a Jelly Baby and she’ll tell you how.

Illustration by Louise Boulter

After more than seven years as an at home mum, I have a new job. Technically, it’s an entry level office based job, but to me it’s like winning a very quiet, niche version of The X Factor – with just over a year of freelance writing in the bag, I’ve been given one of this year’s BBC Radio comedy staff writer posts, which means a regular salary to sit with very funny people and write jokes four days a week. Writing radio comedy has been a life-long fantasy. In my 30s, with two kids, no agent, and neither the means nor the guts to do standup, it seemed a dream that could never come true.

With YouTube, podcasts and the massive world of social media, new comedy talents always have the option of reaching audiences, growing followers and fanbases and honing their skills with a DIY approach, online. I’ve done bits and bobs of writing online – stories, articles, jokes and videos (albeit very much behind the scenes, since I’d rather run naked through a wasp-infested nettle patch than upload a video of my stupid face). What helped to turn an occasionally paid hobby into a career was the open door radio shows.

A couple of years ago, a friend suggested I send some material into Newsjack – BBC Radio 4 Extra’s twice-yearly open door topical comedy show. The show accepts one-liner gags and sketches, so I sent some of both. And got nowhere. For a whole series. About a dozen sketches and scores of quick gags down the drain. I sulked. Considerably. Another series came around and I decided to try again. After all, even if nothing ever got through, it’s good practice to write to a brief and a tight deadline.

An email came that week. A short sketch had made it into the show. I was overjoyed: a writing credit, on radio and iPlayer, and a fee. I tried my luck again the next week. Again, something got through. Once on a roll, it became easier to get a feel for what would work for the show and what wouldn’t. At the end of the series came an invite to a writer’s meeting, followed by commissions, work on other shows, a couple of Christmas parties in which I made a complete drunken arse of myself in front of several comedy heroes and finally, enough credits and knowledge of how the BBC radio topical shows work to make a decent play for my new job.

Though many female comedy writers find this a very open and encouraging environment, we’re still largely underrepresented. As more and more women go in for it, this is changing, but still isn’t anywhere near the representative mix of men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life that it would be great to see writing comedy – about what affects them, what delights them, what enrages them, what they have to laugh at or else they’d cry.

No disrespect to the Middle Class Straight White Able-Bodied Male demographic that is overwhelmingly served in comedy and comedy writing, but it starts getting a bit stale if we only ever hear things from their point of view. This is another reason why the open door shows are so exciting – all anybody really needs in order to submit is access to a computer and a couple of free hours, so it opens things up to a diverse range of voices.

My advice for anybody who is interested in getting into writing comedy for radio is this:

Follow @bbcwritersroom and @newsjackbbc on Twitter, or check regularly if you’re interested in getting a foot in the door with BBC Radio’s open door shows, competitions and other opportunities. Obviously these days there are also other means of broadcasting audio comedy – there are a lot of great podcasts about, or you could start your own.

Go for broke with programmes you want to work on, and keep trying. You may crash and burn one series then really start picking up the next. Listen to the shows you’re writing for – or shows like them. You might just need to tweak your style a bit to fit the format better.

Keep sketches short (under three pages, double spaced, for multiple voices, up to a page for a monologue) and to the point. Make sure there’s a decent gag in every other line at least. Get a good punchline. This is harder than it sounds; I regularly struggle with these. One way could be to think of a strong punchline first then work backwards.

Write what you’re passionate about. The first sketch I got on Newsjack was about paparazzi creep shots of women being considered ‘public interest’ and used in magazines and papers. Apparently it caught the script editors’ eyes because it was so angry. Anger and enthusiasm can really work for you.

Write parts for women. FUNNY parts – not just the sensible one who feeds jokes to the guys. A lot of radio sketch shows have an equal gender split in their cast. It’s amazing how many writers appear to forget this.

The BBC itself has recently produced a thorough guide to writing radio comedy, available on its website here or, if you have iBooks, as a more in-depth free e-book here
These have lots of advice, from writers, script editors and producers.

So there you have it. If you choose to try these opportunities, good luck. And if you end up being brought in as a commissioned writer within the year, I’ll be the one frowning over a punchline in a corner. Bring Jelly Babies.

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Written by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

Gabby Hutchinson Crouch is a comedy writer, mum & nerd. She writes for BBC Radio Comedy and Huffington Post UK, and once saw Dawn French coming out of a toilet.