#005 Alex MJ Smith

“I honestly think you can gauge how good a day is by how much of it you spend laughing.”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #005 with Alex MJ Smith.

He quit his day job and now lives THE dream as a full time writer. Topical comedy, sketch writing, action lines with style, and the power of an online hive mind… it’s Alex MJ Smith.

When did you start writing?

Are you sitting comfortably? It’s a cold night in November 1992, and Alex’s soon-to-be parents have some time to kill…

The short version is that after studying pop songwriting at uni (about as useful as it sounds, thanks for asking), I reluctantly accepted that I wasn’t going to be a rockstar. I needed a new goal, preferably one that was more realistic and financially stable, so I settled on trying to write TV comedy.

What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land the job?

I wrote an article for a Bristol culture site in 2017. The commission was a consolation prize for not getting a full-time job with them, I think, but they didn’t edit out the jokey bits and it definitely got me thinking about a writing career. I had my first one-liner on Newsjack later that year.

Newsjack is back and a lot of first-timers will be trying to get their submissions noticed. What tips do you have?

You’ve got to listen to the show and learn to mimic the tone. When I started, I listened to episodes from the previous series, typed out all the one-liners, and worked out the average word count. There’s more to tone than word count, but matching the rhythm is so key. Same goes for Breaking the News, which has a very different rhythm to Newsjack. Also, read your jokes out loud. If you can’t imagine the performers delivering it, the producers probably won’t either.

All that said, I’ve only had…*checks BCG profile*…three jokes on the show (and a handful in the script, only to be ruthlessly slaughtered in the edit), so you may also want to try the opposite.

A lot of writers get their foot in the door with an entry-level opportunity, such as BBC Writersroom or Newsjack but then struggle to find a way to move forward. What advice do you have on building a career?

I prefer the term ‘ramshackle assortment of projects’. I guess I just try to do that whole ‘work hard and be nice to people thing’. I don’t know. Come back to me with this one in ten years! In the meantime I’ll be reading others’ answers and taking notes.

“There’s more to tone than word count, but matching the rhythm is so key.”

You left your day job to pursue writing full-time. How did you come to that decision and how’s it working out for you?

Yes! I’m celebrating one year of full-time freelancing as of September 1st. I’d been doing lots of writing alongside boring warehouse jobs for a couple of years. Eventually I was getting enough regular work from White Label Comedy and a couple of other clients that I could just about afford to take the leap. Aside from the disruption caused by the you-know-what-avirus, it’s been fantastic. I love my work and the freedom to organise my own schedule, and I always factor in several hours a day for what’s most important: chatting to Chris Douch on Twitter.

I always think of White Label as the Avengers of comedy writing. You have all these really talented writers, each with strong solo careers but then they come together as a collective and create something even bigger.

Adam Hunt of White Label Comedy

For those who don’t know, what’s the deal with White Label and can people get involved (with or without a cape)?

I like that a lot. Can I be Thor? I used to have the hair for it. No, I don’t have the looks, but I am prepared to go and buy a hammer from B&Q.

White Label Comedy is a creative agency of comedy writers and copywriters who collaborate remotely to write scripts, copy and social media content for brands. It’s a fairly new agency, founded by Adam Hunt (who has years of experience producing TV at the Beeb) and it’s going from strength to strength — we’ve worked with lots of exciting new clients in recent months.

I would highly recommend it to any writer looking to flex their comedy muscles in a slightly different way. It’s a unique challenge to write jokes that also fulfil a marketing brief. Being part of the online ‘hive mind’ is a fun and flexible way of working, and the pay is way better than many other gag-writing opportunities out there. You can apply to join on the website.

I’m now going to send Adam an email and see if I can get myself a company cape…

What projects have you been working on recently?

I’m aiming to finish my first feature screenplay and a new sitcom pilot over the next two months. I’ve got some final polishes to do on my first commissioned play — a period comedy for young performers at The Minack Theatre — and fingers crossed I’ll get to see a socially distanced version of that in the near future.

I’m currently trying to write, direct, produce and edit an audio sketch show like some kind of psychopathic comedy dictator. It’s called The Folded Hawk, and it’s very silly and very ‘me’ (unsurprisingly).

Each episode will comprise three sketches, featuring performances from mates, internet friends and a couple of seasoned voice actors — with everyone recording remotely. I’m also acting in it, ignoring my better judgment and the pleas of my loved ones. We’ve got one sketch finished so far and the rest of the first episode is well underway, so fingers crossed it’ll be inside your ears in October!

If that’s not enough, Alex kept busy during lockdown by co-creating and co-writing ‘Virtually a Cult’ — a dark comedy YouTube series about an online cult run by a primary school teacher.

What’s your process when you approach a new project?

This is an annoying answer, I know, but it’s different every time. I’ve only been doing this for a couple of years, so I’m still trying out different ways of working — and I learn a hell of a lot with every new project.

What I will say is I’m a big believer in outlines. For anything longer than a couple of pages, I’ll crack out the whiteboard, corkboard and index cards, or Trello — and when I’ve got the story down, I’ll write up a prose outline. I also get lost in the woods a lot. I mean this both metaphorically and literally.

I think there are stages during each project when you need to glug coffee at your desk and bash the bastard into shape — but there are also stages when you just need to take a break, get out into the world and be receptive to new ideas. Living in Cornwall is good for that.

People often find it easy to come up with sketch concepts but struggle with the execution and delivering a satisfying ending. In your opinion, what makes a good sketch?

It’s got to escalate. The situation should get increasingly ridiculous, before ending on a gag that either perfectly encapsulates what the whole sketch was about, or flips it on its head with an unexpected twist. Super easy, then.

To me, The Pin and John Finnemore are the gold standards. I love that fast-paced, surreal style where if you stop paying attention for even a second, you’ll miss three jokes. That’s what I’m going for with The Folded Hawk (and the phrase ‘going for’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, because this is my first attempt at making sketch comedy and expectations should be tempered accordingly).

But yeah, the final line is absolutely the hardest bit. If you’ve escalated from the premise and delivered laughs throughout, I think the ending will feel satisfying. Whether or not you can end on the biggest laugh of the whole sketch is another matter, and I’m sure even the pros struggle with that.

For a better answer, I’d recommend attending the two-day sketch writing short course at the National Film and Television School. They’re not cheap, but ScreenSkills can provide training bursaries. I went last year, when it was taught by Ed Amsden and Tom Coles (The News Quiz, Dead Ringers) — I learned a lot and got a nice pen, which I still use.

“I get lost in the woods a lot. I mean this both metaphorically and literally.”

For many new writers the idea of going into a writers room is an exciting but terrifying prospect. What advice do you have for people who find themselves in a room for the first time?

I was very fortunate to work in one at the start of 2020. I’d listened to a thousand hours of podcasts about how rooms run in the US, so I was excited and prepared for something very intense. In reality, this specific room experience was just as enjoyable as I’d hoped but nowhere near as pressurised. Don’t get me wrong, I often get nervous, but my view was: somebody very qualified has decided to pay me to do this, so I’m probably ready to do it.

Whenever I didn’t know what to say, I just ate a biscuit and frowned as if I was deep in thought. I gather that all writers’ rooms are different, but the presence of biscuits is a constant so you should be fine.

What’s your number one tip writing action?

To my delight, I’ve often been told that my scripts are easy for readers to visualise — I think that comes down to a balance of specificity and brevity in the action lines. I hate big blocks of action. I’m all about that white space, and I tend to keep my action paragraphs to four lines at the absolute max. Ideally one or two. I also think that action can and should be stylishly written, in a tone that matches the story you’re trying to tell — particularly for comedy. Action lines can be just as funny as dialogue, and I love writing and tweaking them. Possibly too much.

Alex’s Australian penal colony sitcom ‘Botany Bay’, in which the lead character is seemingly eaten by a shark on page two, has not yet been commissioned — for reasons unknown.

Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?

When it comes to scripts, I reckon the best approach is to read everything. You’ll quickly work out what you do and don’t like, and there’s always something to learn. I try to read a variety of genres and forms, including stage plays. I recently laughed out loud to ‘A Very Expensive Poison’ by Lucy Prebble, and cried actual tears while reading ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ by Duncan Macmillan — so maybe check those out.

I haven’t read many books on writing, but I’m a religious listener to the triumvirate of screenwriting podcasts: Scriptnotes, Paper Team, and Sitcom Geeks.

What are your current writing goals?

I really want to land my first episode of kids’ animated TV. I’ve been working on an independent web series with a well-known voice actor from that world, and I’m looking forward to that coming out — A) because I think it’s ace, and B) because I hope it will help me demonstrate to producers that I can deliver the kind of scripts they’re after.

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

I would say the constant self-doubt, but I don’t know if that’s the right answer.

“Whenever I didn’t know what to say, I just ate a biscuit and frowned as if I was deep in thought.”

You recently got me into using LinkedIn. I became pretty addicted to it instantly and it led directly to me launching this series. Why should writers join LinkedIn and how should they go about reaching out to industry people?

Yes! I’ve been pushing LinkedIn for about a year. Now you’re hooked, I’ll try to sell you some of that sweet, sweet LinkedIn Premium.

There’s the perception that LinkedIn isn’t for creatives (that’s what I always thought, at least), but as long as you don’t go adding hundreds of random people for the sake of it, you can easily cultivate a feed full of relevant contacts. I get most of my industry news through people-in-the-know sharing it on LinkedIn. Plus, if you do other types of writing to pay the bills like I do, it’s a great place to look for work.

But most importantly, I’ve ‘met’ loads of producers and head writers on there — people who are probably far too busy to reply to unsolicited emails — by adding them and sending a polite introductory message. Many have then invited me to send my writing CV and samples. I haven’t landed a multi-million dollar deal with Netflix via LinkedIn yet, but I think it’s about slowly building relationships, just like you would out in the wild. And given that I don’t have an agent, the more professional/creative relationships I can build for myself, the better.

What makes you laugh more than anything else?

Babies dressed as Nazis.

That’s not my actual answer. I don’t really know the answer — I just love laughing. I honestly think you can gauge how good a day is by how much of it you spend laughing. Take it wherever you can get it.

You can follow Alex on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn and visit his fancy new website.

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