Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #010 with Kat Butterfield.
It’s almost Halloween so this week we’re blending comedy and horror with the Co-Creator of Comedy Central’s Modern Horror Stories. A graduate of NFTS and holder of one of the most impressive first credits you’ll ever hear, Kat talks writing partnerships, pitching, going viral, and… a fear of clustered circles?
When did you start writing?
Growing up I watched a tonne of comedy and loved writing scripts and filming my own spoofs and funny videos. I never even considered comedy as a career for a long time though. Arts and media jobs weren’t something that teachers or careers advisors ever suggested, and the world of telly production felt like a million miles away from my small northern home town. I loved being creative and loved writing but without knowing what to do with that, I ended up in marketing and charity fundraising.
When I was 25, I applied for a job at Comic Relief and moved to London. I continued writing sketches and scripts in my spare time for my own amusement, but I only really saw it as a serious career possibility when I enrolled in the NFTS comedy course and learnt about the industry.
You’re a graduate of the National Film and Television School Writing and Producing Comedy course. What was the experience like and is it a path you’d recommend for new writers?
Although I’d already written a bunch of scripts for my own amusement, I had very little awareness of how the industry worked or how to get my writing seen, before starting the course, so although I’m now aware of other routes in (submitting to NewsJack, making and filming your own stuff etc) at the time I was pretty clueless of the ways of the comedy world.
I learned a lot, and wrote a lot of stuff, on the course, so I personally found it very useful – and I don’t know if I’d have had the confidence to pursue opportunities at Comic Relief and other places, if I hadn’t been on that course.
One thing I will say though is it’s a big investment, so you need to be 100% sure that you want to do that job and are willing to put in the time and effort in working hard and hustling opportunities, as it isn’t an automatic way in.
What was your first credit as a writer?
My first online credit was a sketch called ‘The Designers’ for Comic Relief, and my first telly credit was ‘Stephen Hawking’s New Voice’ which aired on the BBC One live show and on NBC in America too. Comic Relief is where I properly started out, and where I met my writing partner (Daniel Audritt) too, so I owe it a lot. I grew up watching Red Nose Day, so I feel very lucky to have such a cool first credit.
How did you make the jump from the marketing team to writing sketches and hat was it like writing for such ridiculously famous people?
I had been working for about 4 years at Comic Relief, doing marketing and PR, when I heard that they were starting to make a bunch of online-only sketches, in-house. I came up with a bunch of ideas that I pitched to Jon Aird who was leading the project, and kept sending him ideas until he asked my opinion on a first draft sketch that Daniel had written which they didn’t feel was working yet. I met them both and told them my (fairly drastic) ideas for how to improve it and I was basically part of the team from then on, writing sketches and script editing the series.
I was spending almost every waking moment in that building, as I was still doing my PR job at the same time. It was fun. Writing for famous people is lovely, but you never get to meet them. It feels a bit surreal to know that people like Stephen Fry and Rebel Wilson spoke the words I wrote, and it’s also a source of pride that I try to remind myself of when I’m going through a tough project.
Are you a full time writer or do you balance with a day job?
I do write full time now but I did a lot of juggling with day jobs before that. I used to work in marketing and PR and wrote on the side in my spare time, then went down to part time hours for a while before making the jump. I officially quit doing ‘proper jobs’ when I got my commission from Comedy Central to make Modern Horror Stories.
Working as a freelancer has meant having lots of freedom to take whatever opportunities come up but obviously it comes with no job security and a tonne of other insecurity. A danger is taking on more jobs than you can physically do, because you’re so grateful for any opportunity and you need to build up your credits (and also to afford to eat, cos at first you’ll do a lot of stuff for free or next to no pay) – so there’s a balancing act there which can lead to burn out quite easily.
When starting out there’s definitely the temptation to work all hours of the day but you eventually go mad, if you do. It helps to treat it like a 9-5 job as much as you can, prioritise down-time to let your brain recharge, and think of it as your profession rather than your hobby.
At what point did you sign with an agent and how did it happen?
I signed with an agent fairly soon after graduating NFTS, mainly because the final sitcom project I wrote and produced a live performance of was optioned by Citrus TV. Having an option offer was the way I got my agent’s attention, and I was also writing sketches for Comic Relief at the time, and had a couple of spec 30 minute sitcom scripts to show her too. I think the best way to get an agents attention is to already have a bit of success that you’ve got for yourself. Most will be willing to chat to you if you write a really nice email to them, telling them what writing credits you’ve got, what competitions you’ve been shortlisted for etc. It’s best to have a really good script to send them as well.
How does the partnership with Daniel work and what tips do you have for people who want to write as a duo/group?
Having a partner means you have someone to share the ups and downs with, you can bounce ideas off each other, and keep each other motivated. It also makes your work twice as good as it otherwise would have been. Usually we’ll talk through an idea, get excited about it, start with the characters, speak them out loud, and have fun with it. Then we get super organised and map out the plot with post-its on the walls, then write a pretty detailed beat sheet and scene by scene before we start writing anything. Usually one of us does the ‘vomit draft’ then together we do our re-drafting, editing and interrogating each line, over and over again until we’re happy and/or dead inside. We usually have a rule where if only one of us likes a gag, it doesn’t go in the script.
I think you need the same overall goals and sense of humour as your partner, but also have slightly different strengths and skills that complement each other. We have fun writing together, and massively respect and admire each others different abilities. When choosing who to write with, just remember you’re going to spend a lot of time with this person and go through a lot of tough times together so try to choose someone you don’t want to murder at the first sign of any disagreement.
I first became aware of you and Daniel when I appeared alongside you on the shortlist for the David Nobbs Memorial Trust (with my partner, James Bishop). You‘ve also has success with BAFTA Rocliffe, WriterSlam and the BBC‘s Caroline Aherne Bursary.
What tips do you have for standing out from the crowd when submitting to competitions?
Competitions are definitely good for getting noticed when you’re starting out and are often judged by influential people working in the industry, so it’s always good to have your name seen. Make sure you’re submitting your best work. It’s best to spend more time on it and enter in into next years competition than to send in something you’ve rushed to get in for a deadline.
If it’s a sitcom contest, then make sure the first 10 pages are really funny and leave them on a bit of a cliffhanger so they want to keep reading. Introduce your characters in distinct ways, have an original idea that hasn’t been done before, and format the script professionally. If its a competition like the Caroline Aherne Bursary where it’s question and answer based, or video based, spend a good amount of time on the application, and sell yourself – try and think what is unique about you and highlight why your perspective and ideas are what the industry needs right now.
Many people are turning to the web as a way of getting their work out into the world. What does it take to make a successful online comedy video in 2020 (and how can people get over 150 million views)?
Putting your stuff on the internet is probably the best way to get yourself noticed nowadays so I do recommend this. We seemed to hit a wave with ‘Modern Dating Horror Story’ where the timing was perfect and the new Facebook algorithms hadn’t come in yet so random comedy videos could share a lot easier. I don’t think you could get 250 million views on a Facebook video today, unfortunately.
The things we’ve learnt from making online sketches is that being ‘relatable’ is key. This usually means an attention grabbing caption, subtitles on it so they can watch it with the sound off, and you need to hook them in the first few seconds. Another thing that I think we managed with that video, completely accidentally, is that we found a theme – our obsession with social media – that was relatable around the world – so if you have a topic that’s quite universal to everyone, then you could be onto a winner. But also, just try things out, make lots, and have fun with it!
You’re a member of the sketch group ‘Northern Power Blouse’. Do you recommend that all writers try their hand at performing?
Being in a group is great because you learn to collaborate with people and find out what your comedy style is, and doing stand up helps you become a better writer because you learn to craft a joke and get instant feedback. And from a ‘getting noticed as a writer’ standpoint, performing is a good way to get seen by the industry, and there’s Edinburgh fest and various competitions to enter where industry are on the lookout.
If you enjoy performing, then definitely go do it, and then figure out where to go from there. Eventually you may discover you prefer just writing, or you may discover you want to be a writer/performer. When you’re starting out, it can only help to try these things out and see what kind of comedy writer you want to be.
For many writers, the idea of pitching is terrifying. What advice do you have?
It’s less scary if you think of it as a chat to see if you click with a producer, rather than ‘pitching’.
I’d say the main thing when you’re chatting through an idea is to keep it simple. You should be able to sum up the idea in a sentence or two, and hopefully that sentence will leave them leaning in wanting to hear more. Make sure character is at the front and centre of the idea and don’t let the concept or the setting be the main selling point.
Go in with some idea of why it would suit that particular producer and do your homework beforehand, so you know their output and how your idea might be up their street. I’d usually have about 3 suitable ideas to pitch to them, and then follow up the meeting straight after with one pager treatments for the ideas they were interested in.
It’s definitely a two way street, so you need to find someone you get along with and who gets excited about your idea – if one producer doesn’t love it, then another producer might, so don’t lose hope, but do listen to their feedback and take it on board so you can learn from it for next time.
Since Halloween is approaching, we have to talk about Comedy Central’s Modern Horror Stories. What are the origins of the series and are anymore coming?
When we went viral with ‘Modern Dating Horror Story’ for Comic Relief we reached out to some channels and were able to get a meeting with Comedy Central. We pitched them a series of sketches about the horrors of modern day life, which they soon after commissioned for their online platforms. We were very excited after this meeting and came up with about 50+ sketch ideas which we then whittled down to the final 11 with help from the execs.
We used our own experiences, fears and observations around dating, technology, and life as a millennial as our inspiration for what topics to cover. The aim of the commission was to make a writer-led online series which was also a TV quality pilot, so it could air on TV in other countries. The timing of it all was spectacularly lucky for us, as it’s very rare for a channel to want to take a chance on a writer-led sketch show from new writers.
It was a great experience for us and we got to write, produce and direct the series ourselves so we had a lot of creative control in its production. The following year we then did 4 charity specials, ’Modern Horror Stories does Comic Relief’ which was really fun, and nice to come full circle from where we started. It’s also been a great calling card for us to show what we can do, when applying for jobs.
No more series are on the horizon unfortunately, but we’re now focussing on longer narrative projects as that’s the ultimate direction we want to go in.
What’s the secret for blending comedy and horror?
There are a lot of similarities with comedy and horror, like suspense, heightening and exaggeration. The funny thing and the scary thing are often the same. Comedy and horror are the same in that they both provoke visceral responses – and those responses usually come from a release of tension.
I don’t usually class my style of comedy as dark but I guess with this series, the tone came from the subject matter. With Modern Horror Stories, we tried to take a fear that we all have, for example meeting the parents, or being ghosted, and heightened it to comically exaggerated proportions. A few people have compared Modern Horror Stories with Black Mirror, in that we take the unsettling feelings of modern day life and twist them a bit for comic effect. In one of them we took the weird unsettling feeling of seeing targeted adverts all over your social media, and turned it into a scenario where a woman is being hounded by adverts everywhere she turns.
They’re not all outright ‘horror’, but they are all fear-based in some way. Usually the biggest fears we have (pre-pandemic that is) are quite silly ones. In another one, we took the feeling of being abandoned by your friends when they settle down in a relationship, and we did a spoof charity appeal film for abandoned single people. We do tend to gravitate towards finding the humour in our fears and insecurities. If you poke fun at the fear, it makes the fear less scary after all.
What’s your top tip for creating characters?
Usually the comedy in a character comes from the disparity between the way they present themselves to the world and the way they actually are. It’s important to give them a flaw that causes them to always ruin things for themselves but to also give them some redeemable quality that makes them human. People will follow a character in whatever stupid or weird decision they make as long as there are real, human reasons behind those decisions.
The main thing to pin down on any new character you’re creating is their ‘want’ – the underlying facet of their personality that drives their every action. You should also define what their ‘need’ is – the thing that could ultimately fix them and end all their problems – which is usually something they are oblivious to, while they’re busy in pursuit of their want.
What are your current writing goals?
I’m currently developing an original comedy series with a channel and co-writing a Radio 4 series as well as being a writer for hire on a few different shows. The aim this year has been to build up credits and experience by writing episodes of existing sitcoms and writing on various TV shows and I’ve learnt a lot from doing that, but we’d love to get to a position where we can make a sitcom or comedy drama series of our own. I never know what’s going to happen year to year, but the plan next year is to write up the original ideas we’ve had knocking around our heads for a while and start pitching them around.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?
I think I’d tell my former, more scared self to speak to as many producers, agents, directors, other writers as possible and make a load of connections. It took me a while to push myself in that regard and since doing so I’ve seen a tonne of rewards. The projects I’m working on today are a result of me getting out of my comfort zone and talking to producers at networking events. You just have to put your nerves to one side and go for it. They’re just people after all, who want to make great things, just like you.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
You have to develop a thick skin to deal with all the rejection, and it can be really heartbreaking when the ideas you love and have worked so hard on don’t go anywhere.
I’ve realised that a lot of what gets commissioned and made is largely down to timing and various other elements outside of your control. All you can do is stay positive, write your best work at all times and hope that the stars align at some point. That’s where having a partner can really help, as you’re going through it all together and can talk each other down from the ledge.
I think what I’ve learnt is to not take rejections personally (because they never are personal) and keep going, as you never know what’ll come up next. There’s been quite a few times I’ve said ‘wow, I’m glad that other thing fell through, cos if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have got to do this!’
I normally ask what makes people laugh more than anything but in the spirit of Halloween – what’s your most irrational fear? (I’m genuinely terrified of being caught up in a Godzilla attack).
I have that weird fear of clustered circles, which I believe was triggered by an episode of Animal Hospital I watched as a child (a hedgehog had ticks all over its belly which clearly traumatised me.) Now I can barely look at bubbles.
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