Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #017 with Christopher Stanners.
Christopher Stanners is a joke-writing machine. With success not only for his topical comedy writing but also his narrative work, he’s a great example of someone who REALLY puts the work in. Anyone with an interest in submitting jokes to shows such as Newsjack or Breaking The News might want to grab a notebook now…
When did you start writing?
When I was a kid, I was always writing stuff. In my 20s, I had stopped for various reasons and was a bit adrift. Then I saw a Sci-Fi Channel competition looking for a short film script so I had a crack at writing one. Although my effort didn’t go anywhere in the competition, it got me back into writing, and I’ve been plugging away ever since.
Are you a full-time writer or do you balance alongside a day job?
As well as writing, I’m also a copy-editor and proofreader. I think it’s safe to say that I’m a words person! I had an in-house editorial job for years and then went freelance when I was made redundant three years ago. The upside is that I can more or less set my own hours to work around writing deadlines. The downside is that I now have a terrible boss (me) who makes me work evenings and weekends to get everything done.
What was your first credit as a writer?
I think it was on the first series of Newsjack way back when Miles Jupp was the presenter and it was all fields round here.
We’re both represented by Nick Turner Management. At what point did you sign and how did it happen?
One of my sitcom scripts did well in the BBC Comedy Room, just before they started having their full development programme, I think – my timing seems to be awful! That still snagged me a meeting with Henry Swindell, who was the development producer at BBC Writersroom North at the time. He asked me why I didn’t have an agent, and I didn’t have a good answer. Nick was one of the agents he suggested I contact. When we had a chat, Nick clearly got what I was trying to do so I signed up. Since then, Nick’s provided invaluable advice and feedback on my spec scripts.
You’ve got a really good track record writing for Breaking the News. What’s your secret?
To some extent, I think it’s a numbers game. I submit as many gags as I can manage. My aim is always to submit something in response to every brief including jokes for every round. My target is for each submission to be in double figures so that amounts to at least 30 jokes every week. It helps that I love to write jokes, I suppose! Also, I enjoy listening to the show every week so I’ve developed a decent idea of what works.
Obviously, you never know what other writers are submitting in any given week so I have to acknowledge that there’s an element of luck in hitting on an angle that stands out from everybody else’s treatment of the same news story.
You’ve been lead writer for a couple episodes of BTN. The role is a bit of a mystery to many writers, can you explain how you were approached and talk us through your week at the top?
The producers just asked me if I would be up for doing it so I jumped at the chance each time. By then, I’d been submitting jokes every week as described, with varying amounts of success, over several series, so they knew I would at least supply quantity!
As lead writer, the usual limit on the numbers of jokes you can submit is removed. I just kept to my normal rhythm of submitting in response to each of the week’s briefs but made sure I had more time to devote to writing gags. That way, I could think about different angles and related stories to open up even more avenues for jokes. As lead writer, you also have to be available up till recording time on the big day in case the team need pick-ups on any topics, but I don’t think there have been any on my weeks.
What’s your number one tip for crafting a one liner?
Never forget that a joke (of this kind anyway) is a set-up and a punchline. The news story itself is the set-up. You might need another line to expand on a certain aspect of the story to give the audience all the necessary information or to get them focused on the relevant part. Then you just have the simple task of writing a pay-off line with the surprising and funny bit as near to the end as possible. I know that’s basic and you’ve probably heard it before, but I think that’s why it’s easy to forget it sometimes.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
I think everybody has to try things and find out what works for them. For longer, narrative stuff like sitcom scripts, what works for me is John Yorke’s five-act structure, which is laid out in his book Into The Woods. Breaking down a story in such a systematic way really unlocked something for me. Once that structure’s down, you can concentrate on making it funny.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
I’m not mad on the idea of rebooting things I love, though of course I do enjoy reboots if they’re as good as Doctor Who. I’d love to do something in the Star Wars universe, but that wouldn’t count as a reboot. For some reason, I sometimes idly think about how the sitcom Brush Strokes would be given the obligatory ‘gritty’ reboot, with Jacko probably somehow being required to have therapy for his intimacy issues and sex addiction. And I’d love to see a version of Batman with Aubrey Plaza as the Joker. It’s about time we had a reboot of Batman, isn’t it?
What are your current writing goals?
Right now, I’d like to not come over as too much of a pompous git in this Q&A!
But seriously, what are your writing goals at the moment?
So much is out of our hands as writers that I only really like to set myself goals that are within my control. At the moment, I’m aiming to come up with the bones of a batch of new ideas when there’s no real external time pressure. Then I’ll at least have a few fresh things to draw on as and when I need them,to shape to particular briefs or hit deadlines.
I find that topical writing can be a bit of a drain on my mental health after a while. The mix of horrific/depressing stories, tight deadlines, and frequent rejection is a recipe for disaster.
How do you manage to stay sane and deal with the negative aspects of the job?
Clearly, the most important thing is to look after your mental health. Fortunately for me, I don’t think topical writing affects me in that way. Maybe it’s because I read and listen to quite a lot of news every day even when I’m not writing jokes about it so the abject horrors of the world are just a constant background hum anyway. Rejection is horrible, but it’s such an intrinsic and inevitable part of what we do that we all have to be able to deal with it somehow.
I suppose I just compartmentalise it: let myself feel pissed off for a bit and then move on because I don’t know what else I would do. I do think to myself, even say to myself sometimes, “We go again.” I think I might have trained myself to start again fresh from that point.
Do you have a process that you go through when you write jokes?
If I have a detailed brief, I print it out and take it away from my desk, usually to the dining table. I write a batch of jokes on the brief itself in red pen. If time allows, I’ll go away and come back to that a few times. Then I’ll type the jokes up, editing as I go to make everything snappier. If I still have time, I’ll go back to the printed brief and write more gags in black pen so I know which batch is which. Then I’ll type those up and edit everything as I read over it.
I definitely spend much more time writing than editing because I think it becomes habit to write gags to fit the format of the show so it’s usually more of a process of tweaking. Ideally, I aim towrite more jokes across a spread of stories or ideas rather than lots of variations on a single one. I think that helps to maximise your chances by not putting all your gags in one basket, if that make sense.
If there’s no detailed brief for topical gags, it’s trickier because you basically have all the news stories in the world to pick from. In that case, I try to mix it up by trawling websites and looking at a physical newspaper. My main aim is to avoid spending too much time reading interesting news stories that don’t result in any jokes! I also find listening to the news on the radio while doing other stuff is a good way to trick mybrain into ‘writing’ jokes without the pressure of sitting in front of a blank screen with that flashing cursor taunting me.
I suppose all these approaches are basically about making my brain work in different ways to come up with gags.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Filling the time while you’re waiting to hear from somebody by convincing yourself of the worst.
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
Jeez, how can I choose just one thing?! The League of Gentlemen are probably my all-time favourites. Of current stuff, I’ve really enjoyed Lenny Henry’s recent Radio Four show, and Code 404 was right up my street with its mix of high concept and everyday relationships. And then there’s Fags, Mags and Bags. And everything that Sharon Horgan writes. And… And… And…
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