Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #008 with Amber Phillips.
When Covid-19 disrupted her passion for stand-up, Amber dug into her archive and created her own sketch comedy podcast. She opens up about daydreaming at work, her love of physical comedy and the benefits of performing on stage.
When did you start writing?
I can’t really remember when I started writing. It was always my favourite thing to do at school, and in drama I seemed to gravitate towards saying silly things and pulling faces to make the class laugh. I wasn’t what you would call a ‘class clown’, though – I was definitely quiet and bookish, even a bit shy.
I had a huge stack of notebooks (I’ve always been a bit of a stationery nut) and I would write down random snippets of dialogue and punchlines to jokes that I hadn’t worked out yet. I never showed my work to anyone until I was at university, when I started submitting jokes to publications and radio shows.
Are you a full-time writer or do you balance alongside a day job?
I balance temping and language teaching with writing. A lot of it involves daydreaming at work because I want to write, and then when I do get the time to work on my sketches, I’ll find any excuse not to!
Having said that, my self-discipline has improved considerably by having a day job. When you know that you only have one or two days a week to work on your comedy, it does drive you to get more done in the window that you have. And I do enjoy keeping one foot in the real world by having a day job. It makes me get out of the house, and I do encounter some truly ridiculous people who find a way into my comedy.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?
I gained my first comedy writing credit on Newsjack, the open submissions show on BBC Radio 4 Extra. I’d listened to the show for a couple of years and always thought about submitting material, before bottling out at the last minute.
After much umming and ahhing over whether to submit anything for the upcoming series, I finally sent in two jokes just to see what would happen, and to my surprise one of them ended up being used. I couldn’t believe it when I got the email to say that my material had made it onto the show. It was a fantastic feeling when I tuned into the broadcast and heard an actual audience laughing! At my joke! On the BBC! That was when I caught the comedy writing bug good and proper. With that first credit, and that first laugh, I started to believe that people might find my ideas funny after all.
Shows like Newsjack receive hundreds of submissions each week. How can people stand out?
Don’t be afraid to look at local stories or items that could be considered ‘soft’ news. Everybody’s going to be doing jokes about Trump or Boris, so if you send in something about an angry swan in Nottingham, you’re immediately going to stand out from a lot of the submissions for that week.
And I know that everyone says this, but write what you find funny. Don’t try to joke about something you don’t understand or don’t find interesting, just because it’s trending. If you don’t have conviction in what you’re saying, it will come across to whoever is reading it. Go for that bonkers idea that makes you chuckle – it’s your original take that Newsjack is looking for, after all.
During lockdown you launched your own podcast. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The Amber Phillips Comedy Sketchbook is my sketch comedy podcast, all written and recorded myself. I perform my favourite sketches from my comedy files, with readers’ letters, observational stand-up and silly one-liners thrown in for good measure.
I really liked the idea of having a variety of sketches in each episode with no overarching theme – just random acts of absurdity (to pinch the Monty Python maxim, “And now for something completely different”).
Each episode is 15 to 20 minutes long, ideal for a quick listen, and I deal with topics ranging from angry wasps, the perils of living on the moon and the politics of sharing food. It’s fair to say that listeners won’t be bored!
It all started as a lockdown project to keep me sane. Before Covid-19 I regularly performed stand-up on the open mic circuit and as gigs came to a standstill, I knew that I had to find another outlet for my creativity. I went through my files and came across several sketches which were funny, but didn’t quite fit into either my stand-up or the other shows I was writing for.
I’d always liked the idea of creating my own podcast, and I realised that I had a wealth of material and now the time to do it. And so, the podcast was born! It’s been great fun recording the sketches and I’ve had some lovely feedback, too. I can’t wait to get back out on the stand-up circuit, but I’ll certainly continue to produce the podcast alongside my live comedy.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to start their own podcast? I’ve always thought of it but I can’t work out where to begin! Microphones confuse me.
If you’re planning on starting a podcast, make sure that you’re passionate about your chosen topic. It will come across in your voice and listeners will pick up on it, so they’ll enjoy your show more! Also, be sure to have a clear structure for each episode whether your podcast is scripted or not, to avoid any awkward silences or idle rambling. Even if it’s just a bullet-point list of notes about where you want the conversation to end up, it will help.
Another piece of advice I would give is to try to achieve the best sound quality that you can. As a podcast listener I’ve been put off certain shows in the past because the conversation was muffled or borderline inaudible, even if the content seemed promising.
You don’t have to have access to a professional recording studio for good sound. Sometimes it’s just a case of finding the room in your house with the best acoustics, or covering hard surfaces with soft fabrics to reduce the echo. Don’t get too hung up on being sound engineer of the year, though. As long as the sound quality is sufficiently decent to hear all of your lovely jokes, listeners will stick with it.
In terms of microphones, you can buy perfectly reasonable USB mics which plug into your laptop or PC for around £30 to £40. There are more expensive ones available depending on your budget and level of tech experience. I do all of my sound editing in Audacity, which is free, open-source software used by a lot of podcasters. There’s a wide range of equipment and software out there, so have a look and see what best suits your setup.
What’s your process when you sit down to write a sketch?
I tend to do a lot of people-watching when I’m out and about. You can pick up some very peculiar character traits and outrageous lines that way. When I hear something particularly funny, I’ll make a note of it on my phone for later, along with an idea for a related sketch. Once I’ve sat myself down for a writing session, I’ll pull out my notes and flick through to see whether any of them leap out at me, then I just start writing and see where it takes me. As you get going, the more ideas seem to materialise, until it runs away with you!
Would you suggest that anyone interested in comedy writing tries stand-up?
Yes, I’ve definitely found it helpful for my writing.
It’s very daunting, especially if you’re an introvert like me, but performing in front of an audience is a great editing tool. When the crowd laughs, it reassures you that you’re funny, and when they don’t, it shows you which parts of the routine need more work. Sometimes it’s just a case of tweaking the word order, or changing one word, and it will make a joke ten times better.
It’s also been really great to build up my skills on the performance side of things. Your use of space, a perfectly-timed facial expression or your tone of voice can really take your written material to the next level. In that sense, stand-up is a different discipline to writing comedy for other people. But there’s definitely a lot of crossover in terms of consistently generating and fine-tuning funny ideas, and that feeds into writing comedy more broadly.
What was your first stand-up set like and how did it go?
I attended an Introduction to Stand-Up class, where we spent the day learning basic technique and writing our own material, with a showcase to our family and friends at the end of the day.
My performance went well and off the back of that, the organiser offered me an open spot at his regular comedy night a couple of weeks later. That was my first gig proper, and I was terrified beforehand – I couldn’t stop pacing! Once I was on stage, though, everything fell into place, and I thought “this is quite fun, actually!”
I told a story about a disastrous holiday where I ended up stuck in my hotel room with food poisoning. The only way to pass the time was to watch the one English TV channel available, a sports channel which was showing snooker. And when you’re sick and hallucinating quite a bit, snooker becomes very weird indeed…
It was strange getting used to the practicalities of using a mic (I think I got my leg caught in the cable at one point!) but the set went down very well, and it was an amazing feeling to hear the audience laughing. After that, I was hooked.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
This isn’t a show that needs rebooting now, but I’d love to write for Doctor Who. If we’re talking about shows being brought up to date, it’s a great example of how to do a reboot. Russell T Davies and the production team did a stonking job of updating the show for a modern audience. They stripped away a lot of the complicated backstory and introduced the character development and emotional impact that the audiences of 2005 demanded. And they managed to do that while also retaining the core elements of the show that made Doctor Who unique (can you tell that I’m a fan?)
When it relaunched, I was the perfect age to appreciate it – the characters, the sense of adventure and that universe just grabbed me from the off. I’d love the chance to contribute to the show someday. I have many ideas. So many ideas…
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The nagging sense of self-doubt. This is especially true when I’m writing a sketch to record and haven’t got an audience’s reaction to help me edit my work. You just have to trust your instinct and hope that other people will find it as funny as you!
It can also be tough when you go through fallow periods, where it feels like anything and everything that you pitch is rejected. You just have to keep ploughing on. When your material is accepted and gets a laugh, it’s an amazing feeling, and all of those previous rejections are worth it.
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
I spent a bit of time thinking about all the things that have really made me laugh over the years, and realised that what makes me really laugh out loud is physical comedy done well.
Del Boy falling through the bar hatch, Geraldine Granger jumping in the enormous puddle in The Vicar of Dibley, Miranda Hart’s dress being ripped off by a taxi. All perfectly timed, all the gestures and facial expressions and angles perfectly calculated with an engineer’s precision. When it’s done right, you can’t beat it.
That and the Four Candles Sketch by The Two Ronnies. The O’s and the peas! It’s the absolute pinnacle of wordplay.
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