Holiday reading (or how I avoid writing at Christmas)

Like most writers – I try to avoid writing as much as possible.

I have shelves filled with books to keep me distracted.

I use the Christmas break each year to read a new book on writingand thought I’d share some of my favourites with you.

Consider this part study guide and part Amazon wish list…but mostly me blabbering on about my career whilst pretending to talk about books.

In 2010 my writing partner (James ‘Bish’ Bishop) and I had our first TV commission. We’d been producing our own YouTube content since 2007, performed on the London live circuit, took a show to Edinburgh and worked with the Funny or Die UK team on some exclusive sketches. All of this was part of our strategy to write for TV. Why be another script on a pile, when we could use the internet to get our material out there?

It worked!

We were commissioned to write sketches for The Impressions Show on BBC1! Over the next year and a bit, we were on the writing teams for two pilots that didn’t make it to air and two other sketch series that did.

We were pretty sure we’d “made it.”

Now we just needed to sign with an agent and wait to be approached by the BBC to write the next timeless sitcom. Hashtag boom.


Christmas 2016. No agent. No sitcom. No commissions. No new self-produced web content. No live shows.

No things at all.

A lot of our industry contacts had moved on, either to new careers or they’d levelled up and were now beyond our reach.

Things hadn’t worked out.

The UK Scriptwriter’s Survival Handbook

Tim Clague and Danny Stack

Determined to get back on track, I added this to my Amazon wish list. My brother bought it for me (cheers) and I read the whole thing between Christmas and New Year.

Now I can’t guarantee this will happen for everybody – but a few months later we had a new commission for CBBC’s Diddy TV. Since then, we’ve had a gentle but consistent drip of new work. We have more contacts than ever before, and each year has been more successful than the last.

As the book’s blurb will tell you, this isn’t so much a book about craft (although it is covered), but rather about attitude and approach.

It discusses all of those bits that come in-between the writing.

How do you live the life of a writer? Not in a pretentious way but genuinely, what does a modern working writer’s life look like?

It all comes down to the Three P’s – Practical, Proactive, Professional.

The UK Scriptwriters Handbook gives you ideas on how to make money as a writer, build a network, balance “normal work” and writing, pay your tax, and how to approach a production company.

I’ve been complimented by some very good writers on the quality of my introductory emails. This book taught me how to structure them. If you’re a new writer, being able to craft a strong intro message is just about as important as structuring a spec script.

Like I said, I can’t guarantee that reading this will land you an instant commission. But it will significantly increase your chances and it will professionalise the way you conduct yourself as a writer.

This book (and Tim & Danny’s podcast series) has helped shape my last three years as a working writer.

Creating Animated Cartoons with Character

Joe Murray

Ignore the words ‘Animated’ and ‘Cartoons’. These are a big part of the book, but the advice here works across any format.

When I was a kid, my grandparents had Sky TV. I would stay at their house and spend the entire day laying on the sofa watching Nickelodeon.

Doug, Hey Arnold, Kenan and Kel, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Clarissa Explains it All, and of course Rocko’sModern Life – they remain favourites of mine and inspire the work I create today.

I love everything about this book. It takes you step-by-step through the process of creating an original series.

As promised by the title, one of the many highlights here is the content on characters:

• What makes a good character?

• How do you give a character a hook?

• What are the essential ingredients for a main character?

• How do you create secondary main characters and inner/outer circle characters?

It’s all here.

You also get pitching, pilot script and series bible advice plus Q&A’s with others from across the industry.

This book is 100% a person who’s worked hard, had success and is passionate about passing on EVERYTHING he’s learnt.

It’s out of print and can sell for around £100. I paid £18 for it so keep an eye out for price drops.

Springfield Confidential

Mike Reiss

The Simpsons is the most joke dense TV programme ever.

Homer will walk into a shop and say something funny. The shop will have a funny name. There will be funny products and props on display. Another character will be stood in the background doing something funny. The person in the shop will say something funny back to Homer. Repeat.

Although this isn’t necessarily a how to book, it’s impossible to read it and not pick out lessons.

My biggest takeaway from reading (listening) to this hilarious book was – to push myself to find jokes and squeeze them into every available space. It’s not just about the dialogue. What else can be funny in the scene – Can you add a prop? Can there be something happening on a TV screen behind the action? Can somebody fall over?

As a comedy writer, The Simpsons is the type of show we all aspire to work on. Okay, maybe the quality has declined but it remains the big time. This book gives you a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into working on a sitcom that can run for three decades. Woo-Hoo!

Rocliffe Notes – A Professional Approach for Screenwriters & Writer-Directors

Farah Abushwesha

Earlier this year Bish and I entered our spec script into the BAFTA Rocliffe YA & Children’s competition. We ended up being shortlisted. Although it was disappointing not to make it to the big live final where professional actors perform the script for industry guests, it was a big boost.

Not only did it reassure us that we are going in the right direction but it’s also a nice badge to pin on the script when we send it to producers.

I read this book last Christmas and can say it definitely helped us get as far as we did in the competition. It’s literally a book of advice written by the people who will judge your script. Why wouldn’t you listen to them?

It’s way more than just a completion handbook. Farah Abushwesha expertly facilitates discussions on the craft and business of writing.

Writers, producers, agents, broadcasters – they all get involved and it’s fascinating to read.

One section I found particularly useful was the chapter on getting an agent. There’s a lot of false beliefs about agents out there (for example, like when I expected to get an agent after writing a handful of sketches for TV with no spec scripts) and this chapter sets the story straight:

• How (and how not) to approach agents

• Agents on what agent do

• Talent on agents
• Getting noticed

• Working relationship

• What to look for in an agent

• What an agent is looking for

• How not to approach an agent

• Meeting with a prospective agent

And guess what? I got an agent this year and they’ve just arranged a meeting for Bish and I to discuss the Rocliffe shortlisted script with a production company.

It’s all in this book. 

How to Write Everything

David Quantick

David Quantick’s handbook takes you on a journey through the various forms of writing and chucks a whole load of advice in your face. Here you’ll get a truly authentic look at the life of a writer.

“Writing comedy, though, is mostly this: sitting in small windowless, slightly smelly rooms, coming up with lines.”

David is a master of various forms and knows what he’s talkin’ about. To boost its impact further, he’s included interviews with renowned writers.

Everything you’d expect is included, from the formation of ideas to getting it out into the world.

Not only is it full of practical advice that will make you want to launch the book into your fireplace and run off to get started straight away – it’s also very funny.

On Editing

Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price

Although intended for helping authors self-edit their novels, the advice here translates to TV.

Structuring plot, refining characters, pacing – all useful.

It’s true that writing is rewriting. You get everything out in your vomit draft and then refine…endlessly.

This is a really useful book to pick up about a month after you’ve finished an initial draft. Read through it then grab your script and start the real work.

How to be Averagely Successful at Comedy / The Complete Comedy Writer

Dave Cohen

Dave Cohen’s two books are essential.

What sets these apart from the rest is they are specifically about comedy writing in the UK.

You’re probably familiar with Dave’s podcast series (which he co-hosts with James Cary, author of Writing That Sitcom) and blogs so you know what to expect.

In these two books he captures his many years of experience and gives new writers plenty of support for getting started.

Whether in podcast, web, classroom or book form, Dave’s guidance is always realistic and practical. Reading these will give you the grounding you need to improve your writing and seek out opportunities to showcase your work.

The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual

Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh

Okay, this one’s a little different.

Any comedy nerd worth their sort will know all about the UCB.

I first visited the UCB in New York in 2007. My girlfriend at the time (now wife!) and I called in on a few nights during a holiday to celebrate my 21st birthday.

On one night we saw Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Arj Barker (and I may be misremembering but I’m sure Zach Woods was doing a character piece where he had a neck brace on?) – for $5.

On another night we saw Steve Gutenberg interviewed by Carl Arnheiter as part of Inside Joke. A kind of live podcast for the pre-podcast generation. The show included a five-minute opening set from a comedian sipping a can of coke through a straw and reading diary excerpts about a hot dog guy. It was the first time I experienced Dave Hill. This also cost $5.

When I got back, I told Bish all about this UCB place and how amazing it was. It instantly became a dream of mine to perform there.

One year later, we headed over to New York for a holiday and decided to see if we can do some live shows while over there. For some reason they offered us a one-hour slot. We’d never performed live before, so enlisted the support of SNL writer Leo Allen, musician (and James Bishop lookalike) Andrew Thompson and Dave Hill. The idea of doing this now terrifies me. Back then, it felt like the logical way to begin a career as a live act.

As well as being a theatre space and a business that will let two nobodies from England perform on their stage for an hour, they’re also a world-famous comedy school. This manual is the bible for anyone looking to learn the UCB’s method of improv comedy. If you enrol on any of their classes, it is required reading.

You live in the UK and aren’t planning to fly out for any improv classes – so why buy a school textbook? My thinking is it helps you to generate ideas, create natural scenes, be playful and build on an idea/joke. You may also have aspirations to introduce elements of improv into your projects.

Sometimes as writers we can be our own worst critic and editor so the ‘Yes And’ approach is handy to stop binning ideas before we’ve fully explored them.

Hollywood Said No!

Bob Odenkirk & David Cross (with Brian Posehn)

In the early days of our writing, Mr Show with Bob and David was one of Bish and mine main influences.

(If you haven’t seen the show, add it to your list of Christmas viewing)

We still discuss it regularly when working on ideas. It gives us a shared reference point when trying to communicate our thinking.

Our Edinburgh show featured a scene which was our attempt at doing a Mr Show style long form sketch. This involved us eating an entire pizza and drinking a multipack of coke and the joke was basically “look at these two skinny boys struggling to repeatedly eat/drink”. One night we performed as part of a cabaret show and decided that this would be the most appropriate sketch from our hour long show to do for a drunk Edinburgh audience at 2am.

At least two entire rows got up and walked out. We didn’t even finish our set.

This book contains the full screenplays for two movies which didn’t make it to production. I’m not sure exactly what you’ll learn from it, maybe hot to format, but mostly it’s really fun – and the audio version is even better!

Funny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy Standup – TV – Improv – Writing – Directing – Business – and, Like, 23 More

Joe Randazzo

A year after blagging a one hour show at the UCB, we went back and did the whole thing again.

This time we were even less prepared and had a supporting cast including comedians Kristen Schaal, Kurt Braunohler, Tonight Show writer Patrick Borelli and musician Walter Schriefels. One day I might write a blog about how we managed to pull this stuff off.

This was 2008. Twitter was a different place. It felt like a community. People seemed to genuinely like each other. One of these people was The Onion editor, Joe Randazzo. Not only did he help spread the word about our show, but he and comic book genius Michael Kupperman came along, sat front row and went for drinks afterwards.

My point here is that Joe is a good person. He’s also had an impressive career in comedy. I’ve lost track of what he’s up to (man, Twitter’s changed!) but at some point, he was working for Adult Swim. He’s a pro.

In this book, Joe gives valuable advice on working in all kinds of funny mediums. He also interviews big names (seriously, he’s spoken to the best people) on subjects like:

• Writing with a partner
• Writing for the web

• Stand up comedy

• The Business of comedy

• Representation

The downside is this isn’t specifically targeted at the UK in the same way as Dave Cohen’s books. But so much of this translates and it’s a really slick looking book that’s worth your time.

Not convinced? Maybe this will prove that comedy writing is universal:

“The seven traits of highly successful comedy people:

1 Self-Doubt

2 Excellent Procrastination Skills

3 Fear of the Unknown

4 Laziness

5 Fear of Failure

6 Poor Planning

7 A Need to Express Something to the World”

And I don’t want to resort to just copying and pasting the entire text, but this bit just caught my eye and seems like a nice excerpt to close on:

“I will address these two main themes to show that (1) comedy is something you can make a career out of, and (2) you will not need a backup plan if you really want it.”

That sounds great Joe, let’s do this.

Born Standing Up

Steve Martin

There’s very little to say about this beyond:

1. It’s Steve Martin
2. You can plan a career in comedy

3. This stuff takes WORK

Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow is the original comedy nerd. I can’t think of anybody better to interview legendary comedians about their craft and careers.

I’ve hinted at my own background in getting very successful people to bring themselves down to my level. I spent years sitting on the shoulders of comedy giants – David Cross, John Mulaney, Kristen Schaal Sean Lock, Kay Cannon, Joel McHale…the list goes on (and also includes Andrew W.K.). In the early days of trying to get noticed, this not only legitimised the work Bish and I did, but it also got us face-to-face with people at the top of their game.

One of the many reasons why I love Judd Apatow is that he had a similar approach. Back in his school days, he managed to get the likes of Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld to agree to interviews. These now exist as time capsule treasures capturing legends in the making.

These interviews can be found in the book as well as LOADS of other discussions conducted by Judd throughout his career.

Adam Sandler, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Jon Stewart, Key & Peele, Lena Dunham, Mel Brooks, Michael Che, Sarah Silverman, Stephen Colbert and many many more all feature.

You also get an oral history of Freaks and Geeks, which is enough to justify the price alone.

Read this to learn from the masters, get inspired and understand what goes on behind the scnenes.

Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them

John Yorke

Look, this has gone on way longer than I expected. I’m pretty sure nobody is still reading.

If you are still reading (you’re my favourite) here is the last thing I have to say:

Buy Into the Woods and dig in.

Yorke provides the most in-depth breakdown on story structure that I’ve ever seen. It will give you the blueprint for all of the future stories you ever write. It’s fascinating.

Watch out though – you’ll never experience a piece of fiction in the same way again. 

This is basically a satnav with the directions for every story ever told.

My reading list

You may have noticed some obvious titles missing from my list.

Get off my back – they’re probably on my reading list:

Writing that Sitcom – James Cary

It’s Garry Shandling’s Book – Garry Shandling (and Judd Apatow)

How to Produce Comedy Bronze – Jon Plowman

Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade – William Goldman

Animation Development: From Pitch to Production – David B. Levy

The TV Writer’s Workbook – Ellen Sandler

Conversations with My Agent (and Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke) – Rob Long

Waiting for the Punch – Marc Maron and Brendan McDonald

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy – Kliph Nesteroff

Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything – Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Bossypants – Tina Fey

Just the Funny Parts – Nell Scovell

(And like a million more…)

Please note: I still don’t understand how to get paid for links to products so I’ll earn NOTHING from you clicking any of these links and buying the books. 
The Comedy Loser