Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #019 with Sean Fee.
Sean writes jokes. It’s as simple as that. His writing and commitment to capturing the things that make him laugh has earned him an impressive CV of topical and sketch writing credits and competition wins, including the David Nobbs Memorial Trust. He’s currently writing a screenplay that I REALLY hope to see one day…
When did you start writing?
I just started writing sketches with some friends at school. The great thing about sketches is that they’re so short and you don’t really have to worry about boring things like arcs or character development. In that way, it’s a nice low stakes entry level hobby to get you used to writing comedy and if people don’t like them, just tell them that they’re the ‘real joke’ and then end the relationship as soon as possible.
What was your first credit as a writer?
My first credit was a Newsjack joke, way back when they had a parody listings part at the end of the show. It was something about ‘Location, Location, Location’ being on channel 4 +1 but being called ‘Location, Location, Location, Location’. It was pretty dumb but I think they were quite interested in maths-based jokes in that series for some reason.
It’s been said a thousand times before but Newsjack is an amazing place to start submitting to. If you listen to the show week to week, you can usually pick up on the things they like to put on air and I guess the trick is to keep it short and to try and write in their style.
Do you write full time or do you balance with a day job?
I teach English most of the time but have been trying to break into comedy writing for a while. It’s like that old joke, when you tell people you’re a writer, and they say ‘Great, what else do you do?’
So many writers who I’ve reached out to for this series have come back saying they’ve not done anything to justify being interviewed. You were one of these people and it’s a complete lie.
What’s the deal with writers and their imposter syndrome?
I think it has a lot to do about the competitive / ridiculous nature of the profession we’re all trying to break into. It’s like if you say you’re a builder people don’t necessarily say ‘Oh yeah, what did you build you prick? Go on, point to the building as we pass it!’ but I think a lot of people who write have this feeling that they need to have a lot of credits under their belt and this prestige before they can even call themselves a writer with a straight face.
Also comedy writing is so subjective that it comes with a heavy dose of rejection, humiliation and existential despair. Sorry these answers are getting quite dark quite quickly.
You were the winner of the David Nobbs Memorial Trust in 2017. What was your submission?
I submitted three sketches and then I really didn’t think much about it. Even on the night itself, I was just happy to be shortlisted and have a weird day trip to Llandudno with my girlfriend where we spent the time trying to pronounce the town we were in. During the dinner, I was sure I wouldn’t make the top three as mine was the only sketch-based entry but the next thing I knew I was out of my seat, holding a large novelty check and struggling to shake hands with Marcus Brigstock.
It was an amazing, somewhat surreal night and a great opportunity for new writers coming forward. After the awards evening I kept in touch with a few people like Lucy Lumsden and we tried our best to get a sitcom script off the ground, but unfortunately it didn’t work out at that time.
You also did well with the Sitcom Trails. Can you explain how the event works and what lessons you took away from it?
The Sitcom Trials was a different script called Adam and Eve and Steve, which was a short biblical sitcom about complicated relationships. I remember the cast at the Manchester Sitcom trials were amazing and had a lot of input and freedom with the script from the start. The night is the brain child of Kevin Sutherland and it’s essentially a few different heats in different regions of the UK, set up to find new comedy voices across the country.
I think it’s important to actively search for drama groups and scratch theatre nights in your area. It’s really useful to get real actors performing your scripts so you can see what works and what really doesn’t.
You’ve had loads of success with topical shows such as Newsjack and Breaking the News. What does it take to write a good joke and/or sketch?
I think the most important thing to do is to keep it as short as possible and don’t rely too heavily on puns. If you’re writing for a topical show, try and stay away from the major headlines that dominate the week but don’t stray too far off into the wild west of ridiculous news stories of the week as a lot of them already sound like jokes to begin with.
Any tips on coping with rejection and lonely Thursday evenings refreshing the inbox for a golden ticket from Newsjack?
I’d say number one for me is try and not look at your phone for as long as possible. There’s no shame in hiding in a coat pocket or a bush until around 7pm.
Also it’s another cliché but you really do get used to those kinds of emails, there are a thousand different reasons why your joke or sketch didn’t make the cut that week and you have to almost learn to embrace the rejection. Soon your brain will be quite good at unconsciously skimming emails for words like ‘unfortunately’ or ‘I’m afraid’ or ‘please stop trying to contact us Sean’.
What’s the best joke you’ve ever written?
I don’t think I have a best joke at all, but like most people I have a lot of underrated tweets that I’m totally fine with everyone ignoring, like this one… ‘You should never trust a Victorian, they invented gaslighting’. It’s more of a history lesson than a joke.
I also have a pretty good punchline that I don’t know what to do with – it’s a game called ‘France, France, Revolution’. That’s the whole thing. Hopefully someone reading this can do something with that…
Do you have a process for writing jokes?
I always try and keep a notebook or use my phone to write down random things I find funny. I’ve also recently been trying to write jokes for the British Comedy Guide competitions which is a great way to hone your one liner skills every week.
Although I’ve only had a tiny bit of luck with it, I’ve found that a good exercise is to write down key words, expressions and idioms loosely connected to the theme. Then it’s all about making stupid connections and things that make you laugh.
Sorry, that’s a very long-winded way of saying ‘Write down things that make you laugh’. That’s my whole process.
What else are you up to at the moment? (As in writing stuff. Not what you’re having for tea or anything).
I’m working on a few short film/sketch things with some people I’ve met through BCG (again, it’s an amazing resource!) and I’m currently finishing a screenplay based on an elderly Godzilla who just wanders around, that literally no one has asked me write.
I think that it’s important to spend some time on insane things that will probably never see the light of day but make you happy.
What are your current writing goals?
I had my first television credit last year on Breaking the News which was amazing, so my writing goals this year is to definitely get something longer broadcast on television. I also want to hopefully sell a script somehow, like to a friend or a passing neighbour.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
Reformatting scripts and not being able to look your father in the eye.
Since this is going out on Valentine’s Day… what do you LOVE about writing?
The thing I love most about writing is creating something small but self-contained if that makes sense. If you do it well you can create these little worlds where all the parts fit together and then you sometimes get a letter from the BBC that shows you a small amount of money that you’ve already spent. Any sort of mail is always fun.
Go to date night movie?
Evil Dead 2, the first love story between a man and a chainsaw.
You find a time machine but it only travels back to the day you first decided to become a comedy writer. Do you murder your past self or give them a piece of advice?
What makes you laugh more than anything?
There’s so much good stuff out there. I’m a big fan of Tom Basden’s Party and the classics like Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. However – and this might be a bit controversial for comedy writer people – but I’ve been recently getting into some improvised comedy groups on YouTube. I know that ninety percent of improv is quite difficult to watch, but Neil Casey and Zack Woods are just so good and there’s very little writing involved.
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