Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #018 with Nathalie Antonia.
With a passion for stories about dysfunctional families, dark humour, and a commitment to only writing characters that she knows; Nathalie is a writer who has clearly found her voice. She loves jokes and her hard work and focus has secured her a place in the room for some of the biggest shows around. She’s the kind of person who will wake you up and remind you why you started out writing in the first place.
When did you start writing?
I started writing when I was a wee child. I started out with poetry. I remember I wrote a poem about a weird, lonely tree that couldn’t grow leaves. I had to convince people I had written it. So, I thought, “I might be okay at this… also how fun it is to write things from your brain”. It actually won a competition and a local artist had to… not had to… but they drew the tree from the poem.
I just love stories. I love storytelling. I love beginning, middle, and ends. I think that’s my favourite thing.
I’d like to add I’ve not written a poem since! So requests are not necessary??
What was your first credit as a writer?
I guess there are two types of credits as a writer. Both equally as important. One being something you make yourself and then the “professional” one.
My first professional credit in the UK was for Newsjack. But I lived in Los Angeles and I wrote short films that did well in festivals, as well as sketches, pilot presentations and stuff like that. Very close to a few deals… but alas. No cigar. So, yes, my first “pro” credit would be a Newsjack sketch that I did for Radio 4.
Are you a full time writer/performer or do you balance with a day job?
My situations a bit different now as I’m about to have a baby. So, I’m actually going to transition into a full-time Mum and a writer. As in, I will be writing as I breastfeed. And bathing her while I edit! What I mean is, I won’t be working odd freelance jobs. Just write and be a mumma and meet up with my writing partner when I can. I didn’t mean “just”. I mean, I will be limiting my focus to nappies and Final draft.
Before being a Mum, I did juggle lots of freelance jobs. Less and less over the years, but I’ve certainly paid my dues in terms of working a job and writing at night and in the morning, and so on. So you could say I’m switching waiting tables for giving milk to a hungry cute baby.
I act and do improv for fun. I’ve done it for many, many years but I’m not pursuing performing as a job. I will probably be in some of the things that… you know, if things get made but I don’t pursue it. I don’t consider that a part of who I am anymore (too insecure!).
I consider myself a comedy writer, specialising in sketch, jokes. With my narrative stuff I love to write about weirdand wonderful families (drawn from real life!).
The balance is tough. I’ve done it for many, many, many, many years (and am about to do it again)… I’ve never really been able to make it work. I just always say, have a deadline, have a project, or have a competition, or have something. Have goals. That’s the only way I make it work because I’m quite a goal-orientated person. If I have a goal, then I achieve it or at least I try to. Without a goal I get very little done.
At what point did you sign with an agent and how did it happen?
I got my agent last year (2020). Some stuff was happening. A TV option was on the table and I had started to get a few credits (on TV and Radio). I’d quit acting about a year prior to that as I just wanted to put all my eggs in the writing basket.
I submitted to lots of agents. Got lots of rejections and I had about four that were interested. Which is not bad odds, I guess? I met with a few of them and I just really liked the direction that the agent that I ended up signing with was going in, in terms of what we were going to pursue together.
It’s not easy to get an agent. I would say it’s just as easy to write a script as it is to get an agent. It’s one of those seemingly impossible things at first, unfortunately. But once you have your portfolio and you have a few things going for you and you’ve established your voice, I think… I think you get an agent at the right time in your career. So if it’s really impossible, it might not be the right time. That’s my theory.
I had obviously reached out to agents before in my time, but never had much success. So I think it’s all about timing and we were just on the same page. We both wanted to establish my joke writing and all of that good stuff.
Let’s be real. Hundreds said no to me when I got my agent this time around, and that was with a deal on the table and an TV job coming up. So if you’re not having luck, change your focus to getting your work out there. Timing. Trust it.
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?
Yeah! I am a graduate of the NFTS course. I say the same thing to everyone and that is it was the best thing that I could have done for myself and my career.
I am so happy that I did it. It was so influential in terms of what happened next. I met my writing partner. I learnt a lot about topical comedy. I learnt about jokes. I learnt that I love writing jokes. I learnt that I love writing sketches. I made some great friends. I was given some really good advice that helped me to focus on the fact that I just wanted to be a comedy writer. I didn’t want to be a drama writer, I didn’t want to be a soap writer.
It’s not cheap but I think one of the reasons why I got as much out of it as I did is because it was so expensive. I was like, “Well, I’m gonna get my money’s worth.” It was just brilliant for me. It’s where my career actually started. I learnt how to work with deadlines. I learnt how to take rejection. I would recommend it.
Inevitably you can do the same thing with another course. What I truly got out of it, is just having a partner, deadlines, and dedicating myself to one single thing, achieving that and moving onto another thing. You can get the same from another course, I think, but this particular course did introduce me to a lot of people and contacts so for me, it was wholeheartedly worth it.
You’ve had success with topical shows such as Newsjack and Breaking the News. What’s the secret to submitting jokes/sketches that stand out?
Thank you for saying I’ve had success… I guess that’s true I have had some success in terms of my stuff making it to air on these shows. Although I’m not currently submitting to those shows, due to focusing on my TV stuff and I’d like to build my credits on panel shows etc, which we’ll talk about more in a minute. I will also talk about how I don’t try to do it all at once! Though I have ADHD, so it is STILL something I battle with BIG TIME.
My secret is the same as most people’s secret and that’s just doing it. Maybe that’s not really a secret. It’s just writing a hundred jokes and just hoping one of them will be good. I think that through writing hundreds of jokes you really find your voice and your voice is inevitably what is more important than anything else. You will establish what kind of jokes you like. For me, I don’t know what the actual term is but I really like the rug pull style. I try to have an unexpected ending or I tend to make fun of things that I find really, really funny.
With Breaking The News, it’s very intense. It’s a big load of stuff in the brief, so I would just say pick a few stories to focus on and pick maybe 4 – 5 angles/jokes on each story. Try and find a different type of angle/joke within each story. So do the rug pull, do the double entendre, do a pun, you know, try and do one story and write 5 jokes brilliantly rather than a hundred mediocre (the doing a hundred is just for practice, that I do recommend, but you know upon submitting etc). Newsjack is brilliant for that; you can only do six I think.
Clarity is absolutely key with jokes they say. It can’t be confusing. I’m told confusion is comedy’s enemy? I learnt that in school because sometimes I’d write sketches that weren’t very clear. And thankfully I was told about that, which really helped me… still I’m not perfect. Clarity and honing my voice. That’s always the goal.
Anyone who can handle submitting to Newsjack clearly has a thick skin. What tips do you have for dealing with rejection and empty inboxes?
My only advice is that we’re all in the same boat, whether or not we’ve had a little bit more success or a little bit less success. There’s always somebody who’s dealing with the same problems as you are. We’re all in it together. There’s not one writer who doesn’t have to go through that process.
I think you come to terms with the fact that everybody is getting rejected, even the top writers are receiving news that their script isn’t going to work. So while they’re dealing with the heartbreak of that, you’re dealing with the heartbreak of no email from Newsjack. I think just knowing that we’re all in it together, yeah, it should be somewhat comforting to know that we’re all getting rejections every day. Even if you put out a tweet, in some way, if you don’t get the likes, you’re getting rejected. Which is excellent. Your tweets should be getting zero likes. It’s one step closer to the one that KILLS. So, yeah, we’re all going through that, even the top tweeters. One of their tweets might get 20k likes, one might get 1000, and they’re going to feel rejected.
Every single one of us is getting rejected baby. No matter where we are in our career. It’s part of the process; it’s like the food that you need to eat in order to be successful. There’s no doubt about it.
I don’t know that you can tell someone to have a thick skin. It’s an attitude more than anything. You do it because you love it not because you want to be crazy successful. Rejection, baby. It’s all part of it. If you’re not getting rejected then you’re not doing it.
You’ve now moved onto writing for The News Quiz. How did you get involved in the series and what’s the experience been like?
What advice do you have for working in writers rooms and how much has Covid impacted?
Yeah! I worked on News Quiz. Loved it. Absolutely loved it. It was a really great experience. The only advice that I have is to listen be patient in the writers room. Have fun, don’t take it too seriously, just do it – just have fun. These jobs will come and they will go but you will be there, figuring out every day how to be better and what your voice is ( I keep going on about your “voice” but man, I wholeheartedly believe it’s sort of all you’ve got). Anyway yes, HAVE FUN!
Covid, yeah, I’ve done some virtually. It hasn’t really affected me too much, other than you don’t get that personal contact (but I am awkward so maybe a good thing?!). I think I’ve been in six or seven writers rooms. I think the main advice is to have fun and be patient. That sounds so basic but it really is. You can put pressure on yourself, that’s okay. I think it’s fine to put a bit of pressure on yourself. Just remember to listen and enjoy it. In 20 years you will regret not being present. Remember contacts are imperative… so being a nice person is actually paramount. So yeah, be present and check you don’t have chocolate on your cheek, like I didn’t on my first ever writers’ room.
I read that you’re also going to be writing for Have I Got News for You. This is one of the biggest goals many topical writers have. What does it take to make it to the big leagues?
Yes! I wrote for HIGNFY last year. I wrote on a few episodes actually. It was an amazing experience and I look forward to doing it again this year.
It was very different to working on radio. It was very fast-paced and definitely a great experiment in terms of how many jokes you can get out in one day. I think it was something like over 200 (190 were rubbish!). But it was great, I worked on it a few times and the producer was awesome, really friendly, and really supportive. I learnt so much about the kind of joke writer that I am. I saw my weaknesses, I saw my strengths so I’m choosing to focus on my strengths but I certainly do have weaknesses as a topical comedy writer. I want to get better at that. Better and better. And that is my main focus as a writer really, just to be the best I can be.
HIGNFY really helped me to realise that my voice doesn’t fit every single story. I’m not particularly good at like, Gove and Matt Hancock jokes. There are people that are brilliant at those. I’m much better at channeling angles or stories that are maybe a bit more pop-culture focused or a bit more relative to daily life. And that works for HIGNFY so the jokes of mine that made were more relative to life rather than political.
So, how it works is; you get a story and you have to come up with a lot of jokes very quickly. Typically you collab with someone. Both your palms are sweating and you question your entire life as you try to write 25 gags about Prince Charles. Then before you know it, 50 other stories have come in and you’re behind. It’s exciting and scary. It’s how it goes. You have to submit things you know are so BAD! That’s tough. But necessary.
HIGNFY is a joke-pumping machine. There’s no time for anything else, it’s just joke, joke, joke, joke. Just so much fun. Can’t wait to do it again.
Panel shows are often highlighted for their lack of balance. As a female writer working in rooms for these shows, what has your experience been like and is the industry moving in the right direction?
It’s headed in the right direction. This is a big topic and not sure it is one I can do justice to… as I am pregnant, hormonal and have peed 5 times in the last 10 lines. It is hard to articulate it, and the backlash can be exhausting. For example men saying, “Well be just as funny as men and you’d get picked”.
The same works when there is no diversity on a panel show, people will say well there are more white men doing it so of course they’ll be more white people on the show. You have to ask why there are more young/middle aged white men in comedy than any other? They start a little bit further on in the race.
The problem is the system. It runs deep and it is one that’s been going for a long time. Lots of unconscious decisions are being made based on the current system… and if it is unconscious then well it is complicated. We need to unpick the system so we’re conscious of all of the talent and re-shuffle what it means to have a great set of people.
People can’t get better without exposure, so if you’re giving the same people exposure, they’re gonnabe better. My belief is, we all have to become more conscious of our decisions when it comes to women and diversity and so on. White men ARE funny. No one is taking away from that. But hey, balance is key and it is not one we’re familiar with… so time to change it.
But yes, it is headed in the right direction. We’ve got a long way to go… but changes are being made. Personally I have been welcomed with open arms and I must say that, with Newsquiz, HIGNFY and Newsjack, they’ve been lovely. Is it always half women half men? No. I will leave you with this. I think women are just as funny. Not one single doubt in my mind. But hey, it’s a process. In LA, I was the only woman in the room. So we’re making moves.
You’ve worked on various short films in a number of roles. What lessons have you learnt from your experience?
I’ve worked on a few short films as a writer and a performer. Hmmm. I say… show up and have a great attitude. Attitude is the key to life, a good attitude, I think is the key to being a happier writer, actually. Even though my shtick on Twitter is very much about how hard it is to be a writer, which is true… I do have a good attitude about it.
At the end of the day, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. Writing jokes, making people laugh, and telling stories – it’s just awesome. I love it so much. Also, I don’t have to do it. I choose to do it. I want to do it. I have to remind myself that, when I’m crying.
So I guess the main lessons to take from short films is just really enjoy getting to tell stories. No. My main lesson is. DO THEM. Carving out story and learning how to do beginning, middle and end. You’ll be better. Hey, if shorts are your jam. Then sketches. Lots of bloody sketches. Sketches are hard to get right. So it’s a good challenge.
Write it. Shoot it. Send it. Forget about it.
Not everything needs to be a TV show. What you learn from it is what will make the next one better. Oh, also, try not to put too much on it. This short film might not be the “ONE”… but the lesson you get may be the “ONE” lesson you need to make the next one great.
What advice do you have for anyone who’s interested in writing, producing and performing in their own projects?
Just do it and don’t find an excuse baby. Have a goal, find a date and shoot it. Then edit it. Put it out there and move on. Do another one.
Every single person that we love and look up to produces content and not all of them are winners (best advice I ever got!). The real win is doing it so that you get better.
My main thing is don’t find an excuse not to do it once you’ve created it. Even if it’s like a little idea in your head. Sometimes I find it’s best just to do it and then realise it’s not very good.
One of your shorts is now being developed into a pilot. Do you have a production company on board and what’s the process been like?
I have two pilots at the moment. One is my own personal story; it’s called Four Dads. It’s about the fact that I grew up at different stages of my life with four different men, who were essentially my father. If that makes sense? I think it makes sense.
The story is essentially about a woman who is dealing with a dark chapter in her life and reunites with her four dads and they come together to bring her up. This dark, weird hole that she’s in at the moment and they don’t really get along. That’s with a production company at the moment and then my writing partner, Alice and I have a short film called Push, which is being developed into a comedy pilot. It has been shortlisted for a couple of competitions. We are still looking for a home for it. I’m really excited about it. It’s about two sisters … basically it’s uh… a story about sisters. Right, I can’t really say too much more on that right now, but it’s original and it’s again based on some themes that have been occurring in our own lives.
The process for me was sending it out to producers and networking (when we were allowed). That’s how it’s happened for me. Twitter’s been a very useful tool. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me. I have these weird stories that I tell on Twitter and for some reason they appeal to certain production companies and so they often message and say, “Do you have anything?” I just so happened to have Four Dads because I’d developed it at the NFTS. With Push, we have the short film so we already have that and the pilot… I’m very proud of the pilot. It’s probably one of the best things that we have done. I think the writing speaks for itself. Really original, really crazy, but grounded. Bit like Covid.
OH yes SUBMIT TO COMPETITIONS. DO IT.
What’s it like writing in a partnership with Alice Etches?
Rubbish. In fact I’ve done this article in hopes that she sees it and realizes I am better off without her.
Juuuuust kidding. It’s great. We’re a funny pair. We have a similar sense of humour… we’re both as neurotic as hell, but above everything, we work extremely well together and leave our egos at the door. You can’t force partnerships. They happen or they don’t. We’ve had our ups and downs… coz you know, it is like a marriage – but we are sort of married now and sure we see other people, but sleep in the same bed most nights. Does that even make sense? I don’t think so. But yeah it is cool. We do our own things, we write with other people, but she is one of my main squeezes for sure.
You perform improv too. Do you think this helps you as a writer? And I ask everyone who does improv this… have you watched Mike Birbiglia’s movie ‘Don’t Think Twice’? And if so how accurate it it?
I love improv. Improv is my favourite thing in the world other than writing comedy (and my partner and obvi the baby in my womb!). I believe it helps you as a writer, absolutely. I encourage and implore every single person on the planet to do improv. It is a real game changer. It keeps you in the moment, it keeps you present, it helps you to listen. Listening is a huge part of being a good writer, I think. Watching and listening and reading. Improv is all about that and finding the game, which is the funny thing about the scene. The weird thing that is happening in the scene, which is often the joke for a sketch. Finding the clear angle. The thing that’s clearly funny. Improv helps you to really carve that out and you need that with writing scene in TV shows and you need that with sketches and especially with jokes. With one liners you need to be very clear on the thing you’re making fun of. Again, confusion is the enemy of comedy.
Yes, it’s very accurate. Improv can be very consumingbut it changed my life. I stand by it. I can’t wait to be able to do it again in the future. I won’t be able to do it for a while but yes, yes, yes I implore everyone to do it. But don’t let it be the only thing you do. That happens a lot.
You used to live in LA and occasionally share stories of you experiences out there on Twitter. What’s the most LA moment you’ve ever had?
I was there for nine years. Crazy. I’ve had many LA moments but the one I tell a lot, I guess is, Aaron Eckhart. A famous guy. I was waiting on him and his family. And I guess I got my elbow in his soup and I didn’t realise it, which is why I didn’t apologise. And then when he was leaving, he basically pulled me aside and yelled at me and told me I was the worst waitress he’d ever experienced, and that I was rude and my elbow had gone in his soup, which I was completely clueless about. I cried and tweeted.
LA was great. Loved LA. Worked as an improviser over there, worked as a sketch writer, a comedy writer. Sat in on some incredible writers rooms (unpaid) and I’d say that those are also some very LA moments.
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 a big fan of *Friends but I don’t know if I’d reboot it.
*though I have some fundamental issues with the show now (sexism and Ross? He was a controlling maniac), however, it was a part of me growing up. The gags helped me through some pretty bad anxiety when I was young.
What’s your top tip for creating characters?
Oh. I can only speak of what I do. But when I create characters, I really think about who these people are. How they sound. What they want. What they need. Try to make them original in your own way. For me characters are always based on people that I know. That helps me. That’s the launching point for me. I find who these people are and then I place them in a world that I know quite well.
I don’t tend to write characters that I don’t know anything about. So most of my scripts, every single person I have either met or I know a version of this person. And I do a lot of improv, so when I write with my writing partner, we improvise the dialogue and that helps. But it is like a baby. It is like creating a baby so it won’t happen overnight. You know, it takes nine months to build a baby in your womb; I think the same thing with a character. You have to go through the exact process of making a baby, which is building an arm, building a leg, building an eyeball. It’s exactly the same with character building.
So my launching off point is, who are they? Who is this person, what do they want? Why do they want it? I try to get an idea of the essence of who they are. What do they smell like? What do they look like? How do they sound? What would they say if the pub had run out of beer etc. I always think about characteristics, physicality, what they would wear, how they would wear it, and who are they like in my life?
I try and make the dialogue for the characters as authentic and as original as possible and I do that through improv. Even in my solo writing. In Four Dads, for one of the Dads I will improvise the scene to find that edgy, different word that he might say that another bloke might not say.
It’s very important for me that when you’re reading a character on page that they don’t sound like anyone else. I think you do that through diving into what they want, how they walk, and all of that stuff.
My top tip is use and write about what you know. Use people you know. Those funny people in your life. People say strange things, I say strange things and it makes sense to me. I think you can afford to be bold in your choices as long as they’re born out of what the character wants and now just being crazy for the sake of being crazy.
What are your current writing goals?
I mean look… one day I’d like to be a showrunner of a TV show that I’ve written. That’s what I want inevitably. That’s what I’ve always wanted. I’m in no true rush. It would be nice if it happens soon but I also believe that timing is everything when it comes to a being a writer. You have to be ready for certain opportunities. Life brings experiences, experiences bring wisdom. The more you know, the better you write. Whereas when I was an actor I wanted to be successful yesterday. Success for a writer is writing. Honestly. OK back to the question.
In the meantime, I’d love to continue writing on panel shows, jokes, and get better and better and better at that. Build my CV. I’ve got a couple of great jobs lined up this year. Hopefully they come through because of Covid but it seems like they are. That will involve me writing jokes for some people that I love.
My overall goal is to be a showrunner and write stories that really resonate with people. I love writing about dysfunctional families. That’s my thing so that’s what I aim to do. A bit like what Sharon Horgan’s done really. If I can be in it, great. If not, no worries.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?
Pick one thing and do it really, really well. Don’t try to do too many things at once.
I’m a big believer that you should master one thing and not try to be good at five different things. I do believe that comedy writing is that one thing. I don’t think you need to necessarily pick just joke writing, or sketch writing, or narrative. But I do believe that you need to dedicate certain times of your life to different mediums. Like, a goal of mine would be to get a couple of articles in the New Yorker in the next year or so, about pregnancy during Covid and the funny spin on that. I will have to dedicate some time to learn how to do essay writing. And I will take 3 months out for that. Then write the odd joke on twitter… and hope my TV show gets made. Lol.
So, yeah, the way I do it is I’ll do three months where I’ll really focus on my jokes and then I’ll focus on some sketches and then I’ll focus on some narrative. I split up my time. I try not to do narrative, sketch, and jokes all in one breath. I think that’s a recipe for disaster (for me at least). This is what I did this last year. I focused on jokes for the first six months of the year and the second six months, I developed my two TV shows.
That’s my advice. Do one thing and get really, really good at it. Then try something else. As long as you’re keeping in the realm of comedy. That’s the umbrella… focus on one section at a time, innit. But look, it isn’t always possible I get that – but it worked for me.
Are there any books or scripts that you’d recommend to other writers?
I’m going to go the other way with this question and say study the TV shows you like. Look em’ up and read/analyse them. See how they introduced the A, B, C plot. What did they do that was so good AND COPY them. (with your own plot and characters obviously).
Books are great. I would just say, this is how I got better.
I hope this helps. Again, I’m no master and I’m certainly not the best writer in the world – but just a few things that helped me build the old CV.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
I think the unpredictability of being a writer is really tough. Never knowing whether to give up and pursue a “real job”. That’s the hardest thing. The battle of whether or not you should continue to do it. That stays with you for most of your life. I think it gets less and less. Because being a writer takes up so much of your brain space that it isn’t just when you’re writing that you’re a writer. You’re a writer constantly.
I think sometimes we think if we did another job and not worry about being a writer, life would be easier. But I don’t know that it would. I know a lot of people that have given up and they think about it just as much. It’s a mental game as well; it’s not just sitting down writing. But it is okay if you pick another career. You can always write about that career at another time so my other advice is it’s also fine to be challenged by those thoughts and it’s also fine to take breaks.
Don’t take it too seriously. Honestly. It’s crazy. We’re not here for very long. Just have fun doing it. The main thing is to keep doing it and find out what your voice is. No one else has your voice and that is the main thing. No one has an Aunt Margaret like you. They might have a version of her, but they don’t have the Aunt Margaret that you do.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
I love when they’re really dark subjects and there’s light that’s brought to the situation.
For me, I love shows like Nighty Night, which is really dark, Julia Davis-esque. I love a bit of Julia Davis-esque type shows and even sketches, those which are really dark situations and then finding the funny. In real life, I think that’s what happens in tragic situations. I’ve been in many in my lifetime, more than I wish I had and I just think there’s always humour to be found in these really weird moments. Like a priest forgetting the dead person’s name. You know we’ve all been there.
Nothing makes me laugh more than when we are the root of the comedy and we do something and we laugh and we think, “Oh wow, that would never happen at a funeral” but it does. Things you just think wouldn’t happen always happen in the darkest of moments. When you’re drunk and crying because something funny happens.
I love finding the humour in the darkest of situations because I think that’s the most human thing. I love to see that and that’s what I tend to do with all of my work –here’s the dark situation. Here’s the light.
Oh, I’d like to end you with this:
If you’re a comedy writer. Tweet. Tweet and tweet. It is a great way to find you voice, meet like minded people and get rejected and actually it is sort of how I got HIGNFY and a TV optioned.
You can follow Nathalie on Twitter, visit her website and check out her CV on British Comedy Guide. She is represented by JFL Agency.
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