Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #013 Andrew Dawson.
Andrew was one of the first writers I got to know back when I was starting out. He was always very patient and willing to pass on advice about the industry. So of course I had to include him in this series! The importance of sketch comedy, writing for entertainment shows, collaborating with David Walliams, what to look for in an agent, going full-time, some gentle trolling… it’s all here.
As 1/3 of the prolific writing trio, The Dawson Bros. Andrew’s got a whole lotta experience. Did you know he once got script notes from Stephen Hawking?
When did you start writing and why?
When we were kids, my brother Steve and our friend Tim Inman (the other two Dawson Bros.) used to make kind of short parody films in the school holidays on a camcorder. To start with, we didn’t actually write anything down, we just made it up as we went along. As the videos got (very marginally) more sophisticated, we started to write scripts, although in the loosest possible sense. So while we weren’t technically writing comedy to begin with, we were making it. 2020 marks 30 years since the first “film” we made together. It was called “Canyon”. The credits were longer than the “film”.
The “why?” is a good question. I’m still not sure if I can totally put it onto words, which isn’t a good thing for a writer really, is it?
We grew up obsessed with not just comedy but also with the making of movies, so the two passions sort of combined. Creating stuff always did, and still does, give us such a buzz. Everything we do starts with trying to make each other laugh or impress each other. We didn’t really have any comedy ambitions back then, it was just sort of something we did. If we weren’t writing professionally now, I’m pretty sure we’d still be making stupid videos, even if we were the only three who watched them (and we would be).
How does writing as a trio work and what are the benefits of working this way?
It is unusual to be in a writing trio. It’s certainly pretty rare in the UK. Especially for plain writers as opposed to writer/performers. It’s special to have the experiences I’ve had alongside two people who appreciate and understand their significance as much as I do. Money can’t buy that. Which is good because we have to split our earnings three ways. And to come full circle, that’s why writing trios are rare.
We’ve always stuck to a philosophy of writing together, never splitting off to do solo projects. But as we started in the same place and have had the same journey, thankfully our ambitions are mostly shared. Creatively, it can be harder to agree on which of our own projects we want to put time into. We all have our own individual ideas. But then when the three of us land on something that we’re all passionate about, we know it’s worth pursuing.
Having three brains across everything is a big benefit – be it for pitching ideas and jokes, script editing, punching-up, interpreting notes or coming up with fixes. It’s essentially a mini writing room. The downside to that is we get invited into fewer actual writing rooms because we take up so many seats.
Above all though, I think being part of a writing trio is good for our sanity. When we get knock backs, we just have a grumble together about how wrong the decision was, then quickly pick each other up and move on. Likewise if good things happen, we make sure none of us get too carried away.
What was your first credit and how did you land it?
It was in 2001 for a sketch/stand-up programme called BBC New Comedy Awards on BBC Choice (which became BBC3). By that time we’d made our short comedy videos for over a decade, so we had gotten a lot of rubbish out of our systems and unwittingly learnt a lot. Until then, it hadn’t ever occurred to us to send our stuff anywhere, let alone into TV.
We didn’t know anyone in the industry, or how it worked, or that comedy writing was a job. The internet wasn’t much use for research at that point. No screenwriting podcasts. No twitter to follow industry people on. No YouTube to screen your work, for which we are thankful – the comments would have finished us before we started. But when the BBC New Talent scheme was announced that year, we somehow heard about it – perhaps it was advertised on BBC Choice? Anyway, we wrote and filmed some sketches and were lucky enough to make the finals, meaning that they were re-filmed professionally by the BBC. We didn’t win, but that was the toe in the door.
Through that we met TV people who were kind enough to advise us on how to break in, although first they had to explain what we were breaking into because we didn’t know anything about the business. The producer of that show was Shane Allen (now Head of Comedy at the BBC) and one of the judges was Phil Clarke (now boss of Various Artists Limited (VAL), formerly head of Channel 4 Comedy). We kept in touch in the months after filming and they helped us navigate through the industry in our early days, for which we are forever grateful. Strangely enough we are currently working with both of them right now! We are writing an original script for VAL that Phil commissioned, and just last week another script we wrote was rejected by Shane. Never mind though, because as Shane himself advised us back in 2001 “Persistence is key”. It’s great advice. Advice he must now wish he’d never given us. So we will persist, we will bounce back and before you know it, Shane will be reading another one of our scripts, and rejecting it.
At what point were you able to transition to being a full-time writer and how did you know it was time?
I went full-time at the start of 2007. That’s quite a long time after our first credit really – six years. In the couple of years after BBC Talent, we had a few other smaller breaks. We got a video on Adam & Joe’s Takeover TV in 2002. That was huge for us. The way we’d come into comedy – making videos, rather than the more usual routes of writing spec scripts or radio or stand-up – was relatively rare. So Adam and Joe’s pathway was the one we could relate to most. We have always loved them, and our video making it onto their show gave us some real self-belief. I think we’d probably have stopped without that. We went on to pick up some gag-writing jobs and also wrote sketches for quite a few shows, some shows that got made, some that didn’t, but all great experience.
Back when you worked a day job alongside writing, how did you balance things?
To fit these writing projects in around our day jobs, we were working most evenings and using up our annual leave for writing days where we had to be in studio. There came a point where we were having to turn writing work down because we had no annual leave left. I was fortunate that my company (big up the Nielsen market research massive) allowed me to cut down to a 3-day week.
Up until I requested to go part-time, they didn’t know I was moonlighting in comedy. On finding out about my sideline comedy career, my colleague Glenn remarked that I wasn’t even the funniest person in the office – he was right. Thursdays and Fridays became my comedy-writing days. That made the leap less risky. I could just about cover my basic bills with the part-time day job and any comedy earnings topped that up.
Going full-time was a much more difficult decision to make. I was hoping someone in the TV industry would just say to me convincingly: “Right! Now is the time!”. But the truth is, no one knows your circumstances better than you, so it’s a decision you have to make yourself. I’m naturally quite risk averse so I still don’t really understand what possessed me to go full-time self-employed, let alone in such an unpredictable industry. But I suppose that by that point, I had a reasonable knowledge of the industry, so it was a relatively informed decision. Above all, what drove me most was the thought that I’d regret NOT trying to make a career in comedy writing much more than I would regret trying and failing.
I’d put aside enough money from the comedy work we’d done to cover bills for about six months. If it hadn’t worked out in that time, I’d probably have stopped – but at least with the knowledge I’d have given it a go.
The first couple of months of full-time were tough. I started in January 2007, and TV often takes a few weeks of the new year to warm up after the Christmas break – so work was thin. But things picked up and by the middle of the year we were filling our diary more. However, I’ve never got complacent, and I still have all my Nielsen CD-ROMs in a drawer in case I need to go back. In typing this, I realise that I’m flattering myself by thinking they’d take me back after all this time away, and even if by some miracle they did, they’re not going to have anything to play my CD-ROMs on, are they?
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
Without looking it up, I can’t remember 100%, but I think it was around 2004 or 2005? By this point we probably had about half a dozen TV credits, and also had done a fair bit of work with production companies on shows that didn’t make it to screen. We asked for agent recommendations from producers we trusted and were put in touch with three agencies. We met them all, and ultimately opted for Curtis Brown. Two pieces of advice helped us make our decision. One was from Phil Clarke who said your agent “should be a bastard, but not too much of a bastard”. They need to negotiate hard for you, but be approachable enough that producers aren’t afraid to call them. Thankfully, our agent Lily is firmly in that bastard sweet spot.
The other bit of advice we were given was to look at established writers’ who have the kind of career paths you admire, and see who they’re with. To this day, we are still full of admiration for (and highly envious of) the writing careers of then Curtis Brown clients Kevin Cecil & Andy Riley, Bert Tyler-Moore & George Jeffrie and Tony Roche, so that sealed it for us.
We met at a time when I was just starting out as a writer – writing for Funny or Die UK and the Impressions Show. If it wasn’t for sketch opportunities like these, I honestly have no idea how I would have made it into the industry.
With even fewer sketch shows these days – how can new writers catch a break?
Sketch is the lifeblood of comedy. I could write an essay on why it’s so important and why the lack of it on British TV is bad not only for the future of comedy, but also the future of television. Pick any successful writer or performer in comedy, and chances are they started in sketch, be it in the UK or America.
There is no better way to cut your teeth – writing sketch is a key step on the way to writing narrative. Without it, some very talented writers will never get that all important first break. It brings through new writers without putting too much pressure or expectation on them too early in their career. It gives writers a chance to learn and find their voice in short form. I understand that broadcasters see sketch shows as risky – they’re not seen as safe bet commissions as comedy-dramas. But this short term thinking will (and has) narrowed the pool of experienced comedy writing talent. Whereas a series of sitcom or comedy-drama tend to have one person getting the chance to write three hours of TV, a sketch series allows dozens of people to gain writing experience and credits. To me, commissioning more sketch shows is the best way for broadcasters to accelerate the addressing of the gender and diversity imbalance in UK comedy.
Sketch show popularity has been cyclical in the past, but while US sketch is (relatively) thriving, UK sketch is taking a long time to come back into favour. My hope is that there will soon be a UK sketch show that breaks through and gets big audiences – inspiring a glut of sketch show commissions, like we saw in the 2000s.
Catching a break in short/long form writing is probably harder than ever without it.
But what is easier now than it used to be is the ability to make and showcase your own sketches. A great example from lockdown is the brilliant work The Pin have done. Simple Zoom sketches on the surface, but written with absolute precision, packed with jokes and delivered with note-perfect performances. So make your own stuff. If it’s a big hit, producers will come to you. But if it’s not (which is more likely!), you definitely have something to show people in the industry, and at the very least it will sharpen your writing. Also, apply to competitions and schemes like BBC Writers Room. It was that 2001 BBC Talent scheme that first gave us our break.
What are the ingredients for a good comedy sketch?
For me, it starts with a fresh and relatable premise. Then it’s about getting into the ‘game’ of the sketch as clearly and quickly as possible. Establish a pattern, change direction in unexpected ways, try to stay ahead of the audience. And ideally, end on a killer punchline or beat that gets your biggest laugh – the moment it feels perfect to end on.
What are the most common mistakes that you see new writers making?
By far the biggest mistake is asking other writers to do interviews for their comedy blogs. Aside from that career-ender, I don’t know really?
I suppose one mistake I see sometimes is writers pinning everything on a single idea or script. If you’re going to make a career out of writing, you’re going to need more than one good concept. It’s so much more about you, your sense of humour, how you write.
What advice do you have for writers when they’re reaching out to industry people? How long should you leave it before sending a friendly follow-up email?
My advice would be to look at credits, find producers and production companies whose work you like and think might get your stuff. Reach out to them however you can – twitter, guess their email, go to Q&A panels they’re on (in non COVID times).
How long to leave it before a follow-up is probably down to the individual case – but I don’t know, maybe leave it 3/4 weeks and if you get no response to that, better to move on. TV is weird and operates like no other business on earth. If things aren’t urgent, it can take a long time to get a response, even if it’s a “no”. It’s quite a rude industry like that, and for some reason that’s accepted as the norm. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, but it’s something you mustn’t take personally. So often luck is required to get the right thing to the right person at the right time – and that may take a few attempts to achieve. “Persistence is key…”
Are there any particular books or scripts which you suggest new writers check out?
With screenwriting books, for me it’s about finding the ones that click with the way you think. Some screenwriting books felt like a foreign language to me while I instantly tuned into others. Even in the ones that didn’t click, there are usually elements that resonate and I hold onto. For what it’s worth, I have probably gotten the most from Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, Writing Movies For Fun And Profit by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon and Dan Harmon’s Channel101 online guide to writing sitcom. I wish Joe Toplyn’s Comedy Writing For Late-Night TV had been around when we started out gag-writing as it would have saved us a few years of trial-and-error teaching ourselves on the job.
I would also suggest reading scripts of shows or films you like – you can find most scripts online now. The BBC Writers Room site has lots. Analyse the scripts, pick them apart, see if you can deconstruct them to identify the plot beats, what each character’s motivations and series arcs and episode drives are, what the purpose of each scene is, which jokes work the best for you and why. That way you’ll figure out your own systems to complement what you’ve read in the books.
You’ve worked on a number of entertainment shows such as I’m a Celeb… Saturday Night Takeaway, The Jonathan Ross Show and The Brits.
I think writers often ignore these kinds of shows as opportunities. Can you explain a bit about the role of a writer on these programmes and how you first got involved?
It depends on the show, but broadly on comedy entertainment shows our job is to write jokes and links – as well as sometimes doing more sketch type writing. We first started out writing gags on Distraction in 2003. Talkback were looking for new writers to provide additional material, so we wrote some sample jokes and were invited in to work on the series.
We’ve always tried to balance entertainment work with narrative. The former is guaranteed income by the day but usually with no residuals – whereas the latter is higher risk but with higher reward. You have less authorship in entertainment writing, but being part of some of those shows and having our writing and ideas reach so many people has been a real privilege. The lessons we’ve learnt on entertainment shows – writing to a brief, being succinct, covertly conveying information, working to a tight deadline, all while hopefully being funny – have hugely benefited our sketch and narrative writing.
You’re right that it’s a side of comedy writing that often goes unnoticed. The sign of a good comedy-ent writer is that nobody really knows who you are. Although I suppose that’s also the sign of a bad one.
As well as Ant & Dec, you’ve also worked frequently with David Walliams. A high point of this collaboration must have been co-writing the BBC sitcom Big School.
What was the experience like working with David on the series?
It was relentless because David spent most writing days constantly begging to join the Dawson Bros, even proposing that he changed his surname to ‘Dawson’ (and his first name to ‘Dawson’ too?) and offering us a briefcase of cash (rubles?), but we always said ‘No, you have to be an actual Dawson to be in the Dawson Bros. Except for Tim Inman’.
Big School was probably the closest thing we’ve ever had to a proper writing room – virtually everything we’ve done with David has been the four of us in a room writing together, with the scripts up on the screen. Collaborating with a British comedy heavyweight who has created so many well-loved characters and children’s stories has really sharpened our writing. It also really helps to have a performer in the room when it comes to reading back what we’ve written – we immediately get a sense of how it will sound, especially as David can do everyone else’s voices (he does a great Frances De La Tour…).
Getting to pitch an original series is the dream for a lot of writers. It’s also terrifying. What advice do you have?
We’ve pitched in various ways over the years, from very loose chatty UK pitches to carefully orchestrated US pitches where we even had pre-written ad-libs. We always try to interrogate our show idea from all angles, trying to anticipate what questions might come up or which doubts may arise – and then have answers for them or re-work the idea to plug any leaks.
We try to be as succinct as we can in getting across what the idea is, why it’s excited us, why we think it’s a fertile area for comedy, why it’s relevant now and why it’s us that should write it . We do try to be funny in the pitch to give a taste of the comedic tone – be it with examples of lines, or scenes, or related anecdotes. Whether we succeed in being funny is a question for the people we’ve pitched to.
Don’t be terrified of pitching though! It is daunting, but you must remember that no one knows your show better than you. And while people might not go for it for a million different reasons beyond your control – you only need one person to get it. All you can control is getting your idea across as best you can, and you are the best person to do that.
Don’t put too much pressure on any one pitch or meeting either – there will be others. It may just be that the timing isn’t right, so months or even years later, when the idea is suddenly more relevant or your star is on the rise, industry people will be interested. One of our sitcom scripts lay dormant for ten years and then was picked up again by a commissioner who’d originally loved it in a previous role. Nothing ever really dies. Mind you, that script still hasn’t been actually made, but then as I’ve mentioned “Persistence is key…”
How did you get involved working on Comic Relief and what’s the process like of writing content for the show. Do the guests come first or the concepts?
We were brought in to write some show scripts on Sport Relief in 2008 but the first big sketch we did was with David Walliams – Simon Cowell’s Wedding.
The process works both ways actually. Sometimes the guests come first, so for example Comic Relief are told that the James Bond cast are interested in doing a sketch. And sometimes, like with the Comic Relief National Treasures sketch, the concept comes first and guests are asked subsequently. Those charity sketches are so challenging to work on, but highly rewarding – and the production teams do absolutely incredible work to make them happen often in near impossible circumstances.
There are always so many restrictions to work around and the sketches require dozens of rewrites over a period of months. One of the more enjoyable examples of this happened when we were several drafts into the Frank Spencer “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” sketch for Sport Relief. We were suddenly told that Paul McCartney (nb. from the band The Beatles) was keen to be in it. So we had to very quickly write something that could be filmed on a driveway in a very short amount of time, that still made sense within the narrative of the sketch. It can be very chicken and egg like that, but it’s always such a thrill.
What was your favourite sketch to work on?
Sorry, I can’t pick a favourite, for fear of alienating people I’ve loved working with and writing for.
Comic Relief is about as close as a British writer will get for working with the level of star that SNL writers get to work with in the States. Do you have any stories of writing for big celebrities?
I’ll share a story from the Stephen Hawking Little Britain sketch.
We wrote a few drafts with David Walliams, and we were then sent two sets of notes. The first set was from Richard Curtis. I googled him and yeah, fair enough, he’s written on a few bits and pieces so we’ll take them.
The second set of notes was from Professor Stephen Hawking himself. You what? Since when was he a comedy writer? Brief History Of Time is not exactly laugh-a-minute. So we outright refused to action them.
(Okay, so actually Stephen Hawking was a huge comedy nerd and had a great sense of humour and so obviously we actioned the note immediately. Especially as it was about reinstating a joke from a previous draft that he really liked – so this anecdote is actually just a very drawn out humblebrag).
SNL was a big influence for us when we started sketch writing and we’ve always been both fascinated by the way that show is put together and envious of the talent their writers get to work with. The charity sketches do have a lot of similarities with SNL. But I’d say Walliams & Friend was probably the closest to the SNL experience. It has an ensemble cast, a studio audience, a mix of recurring characters and one-off sketches, all with a different guest star to write for each week. That said there were no overnight writing sessions, no last minute cue-card rewriting, and perhaps most significantly it was neither on a Saturday night nor live.
Where did the idea for Walliams & Friend come from and is it a series you’d like to revisit?
In 2014 we watched the Monty Python shows at the O2 together with David, and were reminded of how much we all loved and missed writing sketch comedy. We developed the hook of a different co-star alongside David for every show, with a cast of regular performers. The initial plan was to try a Christmas one-off with Joanna Lumley to see how it worked.
Mainstream sketch with an audience hadn’t been on TV for a while, so we didn’t know how it would be received – but thankfully 6 million watched it and we had some lovely reviews. So it became a series. We got to work with some really wonderful performers – rehearsals went on for the week before filming, so it was a special experience. Doing six shows with 6 co-stars was logistically very tough and it ate ideas, but it was so much fun to make and a thrill to be a part of sketch comedy reaching big TV audiences.
The show was recommissioned for a second series and a Christmas special but unfortunately, for a myriad of reasons, those didn’t end up happening. I do miss writing sketch, and would love to revisit the show, probably in the form of those one-off Christmas specials. However, I suspect too much time has passed and too much momentum lost for that to happen now.
I imagine that was a similar experience with The One Ronnie. Am I right I’m thinking that started with the Blackberry sketch? What was the process like of writing that original sketch, knowing that it would be watched and scrutinised by such a large audience?
Do you remember much about the evolution of the idea and waiting to see how the public reacted? It’s a pretty ballsy move to make and was executed brilliantly.
We got involved on The One Ronnie through producer Gareth Edwards who we’d worked with on That Mitchell & Webb Look. The Brain Surgeon sketch (which we co-wrote with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong) from that show had a bit of an old school Two Ronnies feel, so we were asked by Gareth to pitch ideas for The One Ronnie.
We set ourselves the aim of coming up with sketch ideas that felt very Two Ronnies, but were contemporary enough that they couldn’t have been done in the 70s/80s. We pitched loads of ideas, of which were asked to write up four or five, and two made it onto the show (our less remembered one was about an optician who’d opened a restaurant – didn’t quite capture the zeitgeist, that one).
The Blackberry Sketch, or “Grocery Tech Support” as we initially titled it, started with an observation from Steve about blackberry and apple being tech names and fruits. That was it. It didn’t seem like much, but for some reason we kept riffing on it, and came up with loads more fruit/tech puns that tickled us, some of which were extremely stretched. The first draft of the sketch was six pages – way too long and drawn out. Rewrites followed, and thankfully it was very well script-edited by, I believe, a mix of Gareth and Matt Lucas & David Walliams who executive produced the show.
We were thrilled when it made the cut for the show recording. Ronnie Corbett was not only a comedy icon to us, but also to our parents and even late grandparents. He always reminded me of mine and Steve’s Grandpa – both of them were short, bespectacled and very funny. Harry Enfield and Ronnie elevated what was on the page and the production design helped tremendously too – evocative of the Fork Handles set.
The sketch went down really well on the night and while that doesn’t always mean it comes across on TV, thankfully it did in this case. The BBC put it on youtube as the teaser for the show and did big numbers (nb. for 2010!).
So coming back round to your actual question; we never really considered it would be seen by such a big audience. We didn’t even know if it would be seen by Ronnie Corbett. It was such an impossible sequence of events – the idea getting picked to be written up, the sketch being chosen for the recording, the rewrites that improved it, the casting, the performance, the set, the reaction on the night, the choice to make it the trailer clip, the sketch going viral and then it being liked and remembered by TV audiences.
Jeffrey Aidoo mentioned the Dawson Bros’ involvement in Andy Riley’s mentor scheme. How did you guys get involved and can you explain a bit about what’s on offer to those who apply?
It’s such a brilliant initiative. Just as we benefited from advice from those in the industry in our early days, we were keen to help out new talent. While most writers don’t have the power to commission or produce scripts, what we can offer is an inside view of the industry and advice. So we asked Andy last year if he would mind if we lazily piggy-backed on all his hard work and became additional mentors. He kindly agreed and so after reading lots of scripts, we now have our first mentee.
What’s on offer is a year’s mentoring – we’ll be sounding boards, readers, note-givers and also try to offer guidance about the pragmatic side of comedy writing as a profession. The scheme tends to open in June and close in early July – keep an eye on Andy’s Twitter for details.
If you could reboot any TV show or movie, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
I would reboot Cobra Kai. I’d bring it into late 2020 (more antibac spray on crash mats).
You find a time machine BUT it only travels back to the day that you first decided to become a writer. Do you murder your past self or give them a piece of advice (and if so, what’s the advice)?
I’d give my past self a piece of advice, and that advice would be “Watch out! There’s a 50-50 chance your future self will come back to murder you!” Although now I’ve thought it through, there is a glaring hole in this time travel logic. Too late now though. (Or too soon?)
But the real answer is I would advise myself to enjoy the journey.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
The big obvious one is when my brain reminds me “The roof over your head is paid for by you making up jokes”. But aside from that concern, which I suspect underpins most writers’ insecurities, I think the worst thing is not being able to enjoy comedy quite as much as I used to.
It’s less to do with professional jealousy (although there is sometimes a bit of that…) but mostly because I find myself deconstructing shows as I watch them, or thinking about their behind-the-scenes processes and politics – so much that I don’t fully engage as a fan. I think that’s why UK writers often overlook UK shows and cite US shows as their favourites – American shows are distant enough that us Brits can watch them without any of our own industry baggage.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
I love every single American comedy show and hate all British comedy.
But here’s a selection of things that have made me laugh a lot… Stath Lets Flats. The Lonely Island (especially Hot Rod and We’re Back!). Kristen Wiig sketches (especially The Lawrence Welk Show, Judy Grimes and Garth & Kat). Key & Peele (especially East/West College Bowl and Gremlins 2).
… Would I Lie To You? Meg Stalter videos. The 2014 Catchphrase Christmas Special with Warwick Davies, Katie Price and Christopher Biggins. 30 Rock. The Pin. Brian Butterfield. Phil Wang. Car Share (especially Reece Shearsmith singing Ini Kamoze). Clerks. Adam and Joe. Nathan For You. The internet comedy of Archie Henderson & Adrian Gray. Mitch Hedberg. The Cash Register Sketch from That Mitchell & Webb Sound (written by Toby Davies).
… Chris Brass’ own goal for Bury against Darlington. Richard Madeley’s I’m A Celebrity Get Out Of Me Ear. Will Ferrell in anything. My kids.
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