Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #021 with Rebecca Bain and Alex Garrick-Wright.
Rebecca and Alex are a Scotland-based comedy partnership currently making a name for themselves with regular credits for various topical comedy shows. Spread between Edinburgh and Shetland, they were already working remotely when the pandemic hit, so whilst other’s were adapting new ways of working – they pushed forward. Also, one of them is a pirate and the other is a robot…
How did you two meet and what made you decide to write together?
Becca: We first met at a workshop at the 2019 Edinburgh International Improv Festival. The last time I answered that question; I got the year wrong because it feels like we’ve known each other a lot longer than we actually have.
We had to do a scene together and we were… gazelles?
Alex: Yeah, I think we were amorous gazelles.
Becca: Well I was. You didn’t fancy me so much.
Alex: You were a gazelle trying to mate with me at a watering hole.
Becca: And after that we became friends. We got chatting, then I came to see your show and we just kept in touch. You were the only person who spoke to me up until that point during the festival. I think if you weren’t in a troupe or if you weren’t performing, there was an element of being a bit on the fringes. I came in as a bit on an outsider and you actually spoke to me so that was nice.
Alex: I spoke to you because you were the only person there who was clearly not a member of a group and that was unusual.
Becca: Coming in as an outsider was intimidating but by the end of that weekend, we’d been African animals together, I’d seen your show and we’d danced in a Cèilidh. It was a very weird weekend in hindsight.
Alex: It was months before we even thought about writing together. We showed each other sketches we’d written, which weren’t quite there. I distinctly remember showing you a number of sketches that I’d written that I couldn’t work out how to finish and you were like, “Here’s the punch line, here’s how that ends, here’s the visual gag!” and you just finished all of them. I looked at a couple that you had done and it was the same. We just polished off each other’s work. That’s when we decided to try writing stuff from scratch.
What were your creative backgrounds before you worked together?
Alex: I’d written stuff with the intention to film it and never really got around to it. In terms of performing, my only comedy performance had been improv. I think I’d been doing it for a couple of years, maybe three years when we met.
When we met, it was my first show not in Shetland. So it was the first time where half the audience wasn’t blood related to the other members of my group and instead were people who were going to give us an honest opinion. But yeah, improv was my only kinda comedy performance and I’d never done anything serious with sketch writing.
Becca: I’ve been writing in some way or another for a long time. Like, a long time.
My first memory of it is being in a drama club when I was 10 or 11 and we were invited to rewrite fairytales and then perform them. I remember really enjoying doing that. Even though it was repurposing something that already existed, we were getting to be creative and it was just so awesome to not only see it get performed but be part of the performance as well. I think as long as I was in drama clubs after that, which was for the majority of my teen years, we’d always try and look for opportunities to write as well.
After I graduated university, that was when I started writing sketches. I entered a spec script competition for Nickelodeon and I was a semi-finalist for that. I just started writing sketches because after university, I lived at home for a while and had a lot of free time. And Inever really stopped. Even when I tried my hand at stand up, did a couple of open mic nights… it was just a bit too nerve wracking for me.
I knew that writing was where I felt most fulfilled. The satisfaction of seeing something go from page to reality. Just having that creative process… there’s nothing like it really. Being able to create something from scratch and see it grow. Even ideas, before it gets written down. The whole process of it is so satisfying.
The Nickelodeon Writing Program is very competitive. What was your spec script submission (the program requires a script for an existing show) and what advice do you have for anyone who’s looking to enter?
Becca: I did a spec for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I think a big tip is to pick a show you love almost obsessively and then know it inside out. I had a whole folder of character bios and running jokes and plots that had been explored. Then you can apply that thinking to your own full script.
How has your improv work helped you with your writing? And also, have you ever seen the movie Don’t Think Twice? If so, is it accurate?
Alex: Improv is really good for helping you create stuff. It teaches you the fundamental basics of comedy – comedy comes from conflict. Comedy comes from different characters interacting with each other and clashing. You walk out and make that up on the spot. Somebody says something, you create a world and characters and then something happens to make them clash. That’s it, that’s all comedy is boiled down. You’re pushed onto a stage in front of a couple hundred people you haven’t met and it just happens. It’s great. That creative process makes writing a lot easier but it isn’t for everyone. I’d recommend for everyone to try but if you’re not enjoying, fine.
I did see the movie Don’t Think Twice and I didn’t really like it. It’s not representative of my experience of the improv scene, certainly the Scottish improv scene. I do improv in Shetland. Anyone on these islands who is remotely interested in improv is in our group. We are really isolated anyway but going to the Edinburgh Internal Improv Festival, they are so much warmer, more supportive and better friends than the group in Don’t Think Twice. It really is such a more warmer, nurturing and supportive scene to be a part of than the movie makes out.
What are the benefits of working collaboratively?
Alex: It’s so hard to judge your own ideas and judge your own stuff. A lot of the time, what you think is the best or the funniest thing, isn’t quite there and you just can’t see it. Having someone else on your wavelength showing you what to tweak or change helps to make it’s perfect. You need that collaboration. You need that other pair of eyes to make it better.
Becca: Even at the ideas stage. By being able to bounce ideas off someone and develop it that way there’s rarely a halt in the creative process. The odds of you both having a mental block or a lack of creativity at the same time… it’s just better odds if you’ve two people. If one person’s feeling creative, they can bolster that other person.
Alex: It helps the fun if one of you is a pirate and one of you is a robot as well.
Becca: Oh yeah, when are we bringing that up?
Becca: Yeah, do it.
Alex: So there’s a book on improv theory called Pirate Robot Ninja by Will Hines and Billy Merrit. The theory is, in improv, there are two natural kinds of performers. One of them is a pirate who just bursts onto the stage and immediately creates a world, sets everything up, and has an idea. They make that world for everyone to play in but they’re not so hot at setting up the rules and the mechanics of how that world works, how the funny works, and where the game is.
Then you have robots, who aren’t great at initiating. They aren’t great at setting things up but if you give them a world, you give them a setting; they make it work. They make it funny. They make the game happen.
Alex: Improv aside, we have found that we have fallen into that in writing terms. I‘m the pirate. It’s so much easier for me to go, “Right, here’s the setting, here’s a premise, here’s some interesting characters,” and then I struggle with what to do with them. But if I create that, then Becca comes in and goes, “Let’s do this with them!” and makes that funny. She makes proper, structured funninessout of it. As opposed to me coming in with a funny premise and then going –
Becca: Now what?
Alex: Yeah, “Now what?” is exactly what it’s like. Becca comes in and introduces the rule of three and callbacks and suddenly it’s not just a silly idea… It’s good. It’s actually good.
Becca: I think that writing alone is the bit I always struggled with. I would struggle to get started if I didn’t meticulously… and I still do this sometimes if I don’t meticulously plan where a sketch or a scene is going, I will really struggle with a creative flow. But if I look at something that has already been started or created, and it’s just missing those things, that’s where I come in.
We fill each other’s creative gaps and coming into it from an improv perspective and being able to apply it to the writing is why we’re a good partnership.
Flip-side of that – What are the challenges and negative aspects of working as a duo?
Becca: That’s tough. I think the most challenging bit is always the kill your darlings aspect of it. If you have a really good idea, something you have laughed out loud at, something you feel would be fundamentally wrong to leave out and your partner says, “This isn’t funny,” or “This is distasteful,” or “This is not what this character would do.” If you get really invested in an idea before you share it, that can be quite difficult.
Alex: We’ve learned to trust each other’s judgment. If I come with an idea and I think it’s funny and Becca says, “I absolutely guarantee this is not funny. I hate it,” I will resent dropping it but it will get dropped. Sometimes it happens the other way around where you’re like, “No, I guarantee this is funny. I guarantee this is going to work,” and you trust them and you go with them even if you don’t think it’s funny.
Becca: It definitely works both ways and I think even though that’s a big challenge, it’s something that we’ve learned to overcome a lot of the time. Don’t get us wrong, we still have those moments where it creates a little bit of tension or one of us will end up feeling deflated but you accept it and move on. It’s one joke or one line out of hundreds that we’ll write. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter.
What kind of process do you go through when you write together? How good are you at editing each other?
Becca: We started just by editing each other, rather than writing collaboratively. A key thing is to have that kind of working relationship where you do trust each other and you’re at a level where you can be brutally honest with the other person and they don’t take it personally.
I think with edits, because we have our own strengths, we know a lot of the time if we’re presenting a piece of work that we’re looking for a specific area that might need editing. It can be quite difficult working so far away that the vast majority of the time, what we’ll end up doing is editing each other’s work.
Alex: The only stuff that we sit down together and write from scratch is the bigger projects. With sketches, if Becca’s got an idea for a sketch, she will write it and then I will edit it and vice-versa. One liners it’s exactly the same thing. We use a collaborative working program called Slack and we’ve got like 20 different channels on it for various different projects and things. We just post what we’re working on and the other person edits it and it just goes back and forth until it’s right. The only thing that we would sit down with a blank she and go, “Right, what’s the first word?” would be like, a big script.
You two are obviously used to working long distance. What advice would you have for writing teams who have been forced to work remotely due to the pandemic?
Becca: Alex is Shetland based and I live in Edinburgh. When lockdown happened and a lot of people were saying they weren’t going to have the same opportunities to write and were going to have to adapt their processes for writing and recording… it didn’t affect Alex and I all that much. Especially in terms of writing. For creating content it did impose restrictions on us but our writing process didn’t change at all.
A big recommendation is a collaborative working platform. A lot of different ones have sprung up so you just have to explore to see which one suits you best. For us it’s Slack and we separate the different things we’re writing into channels so we don’t get confused. That’s really great for editing notes. You can post an idea or a one liner on the main channel and then create a thread based on that, and you can rework the idea directly on there before it’s even written down on a page. That’s been really helpful for us.
We’ve both got other jobs and Alex has got kids but we set time two days a week to have calls and collaborative works that way. That’s how we’ve always done it and hopefully there’s something in there that other people can apply if they’ve not been in this situation before.
Alex: It’s just contact. We have been using video calls and Slack to collaborate and just constantly picking away at different projects and doing different things and it didn’t stop when lockdown happened. It didn’t affect us. To be honest, we probably got more done.
Becca: When opportunities went online, it proved to be weirdly beneficial for us. We weren’t working in a different style, it was just other people were starting to work in the style we were used to. Writers rooms were now all going online but we’d been doing writing sessions between the two of us over Facebook video for over a year by that point.
Do you write everything together or do you sometimes tackle projects solo? If you do sometimes go solo, how do you decide to do so?
Becca: For me, I’ve done a couple of things with Funny Women. That’s very easy as Alex’s is not allowed to participate in those. I did a couple of virtual stand up gigs and I think again, because Alex’s background wasn’t really in stand up, there’s less of an issue there. Obviously Alex had been performing with his improv troupe up until lockdown happened so we continued in similar veins to what we were doing before we met.
We also had a couple of BBC things that we decided to submit separately on such as Newsjack and the staff writer job. For those we set a harder boundary that we wouldn’t edit each other’s work. I know even if I’mtackling something solo, I will sometimes think, “What would Alex do?” So even when we do work solo, if it’s something that we do normally work on together we still bear each other in mind.
Alex: Yeah, same. Improv aside, which obviously has no writing component to it, if I was going to write something separately, I would either bear Becca in mind or I’d ask her to look it over anyway because I really trust her judgment. But there’s not really been a lot that’s interested me in writing that way because I genuinely do find it a lot less fun writing on my own.
Becca: Even though we’ve got a lot to show for it, we’ve not been writing together that long. It’s been less than 18 months and we’ve explored the vast majority of opportunities that have come our way together. And obviously some opportunities lead to others. So just because of the stage of where we’re at in our partnership, exploring other things solo isn’t high on our priority list.
What’s your biggest achievement to date?
Alex: Lead writers on Breaking the News?
Becca: Definitely. That felt like a massive achievement considering that was only the second full series that we’d written for. We joined the writers list halfway through one series and two series later we were asked to be joint lead writers.
It was a fantastic opportunity and we loved it. We took a week off work to make sure we could maximize our output as we were told we had no limit on the joke content we could write. Normally it’s two pages per brief limit for Breaking The News. Being able to churn out all those jokes and dedicate that full-time to it, it was kindaa glimpse of… what could be.
Alex: It was a vote of confidence in our work. The first series we came in halfway through and didn’t get anything on at all. We got a few things in our second series and then our third series we were getting things on like consistently every week and then we were lead writers. It was such a lovely vote of confidence in what we’d been doing.
My God the amount of stuff we wrote. Taking that time to say, “This week we are writers. We’re proper writers and that’s all we’re doing.” The amount we got done and the quality of stuff, I was really, really proud of what we did. It was fantastic. It was a culmination of a measurable amount of progress so it was really satisfying.
You have had a really strong run on Breaking the News recently. What’s your secret to writing a good gag?
Alex: Yeah, I can’t think of anything better than that. Just keep writing them and remember that your first idea is rarely your best one.
Becca: It is like a muscle. We found that if you don’t practice between each series, you get rusty again. Consistency is something we had to work on and will still be working on going forward.
Look at what works elsewhere. Listen to the other topical news programmes as well as the ones you’re writing for but especially listen to the one’s you’re writing for. Gaging the tone and the audience.
Be snappy and don’t have too many words. Really refine what you’re trying to say and get to that end punch as quickly as possible.
You also perform in your own comedy videos. Is this something you’d recommend to all writers?
Alex: If you’re comfortable doing it?
Becca: That is exactly what I was about to say.
Alex: It’s good to try it. It’s good to push yourself out of your comfort zone but if you’re not comfortable doing it, you’re not going to be funny. You have to be enjoying it to do it well. If you’re loathing it and trying to be funny, it’s going to fall flat. If you really don’t like it, you can just write, but I think you should try it.
Becca: I would agree. There are definitely merits to performing, especially if it’s your own writing because it’s a good way of getting your work showcased. A lot of people in the industry will advise you to create your content in order to be seen, especially with the internet and all the challenges that brings to writing sketches, production, things like that. So it is definitely an avenue that you can explore but only if you enjoy it. It’s not the be-all and end-all of getting your writing discovered. It’s just a fun addition.
For us creating our own work is just really fun and really silly and we can end up editing scripts on the spot and make them even stronger. Getting the viewership and the feedback is always fantastic. But we also get a satisfaction in writing sketches for other people to perform, people who have the capabilities that we never will. We haven’t had that many videos that we perform in because of the restrictions of living so far away from each other so as fun as performing is for us, it’s not something that we have ever relied on.
You’ve recently been writing for the Treason Show. Can you explain a bit about what the show is and how you became involved?
Becca: The Treason Show started up as a live show down in Brighton and it’s been running for over twenty years. But when lockdown happened, that obviously put a pause on live theatre and the Treason Show was included in that. But they got a lifeline in local TV. So they started the Treason TV Show and the third series will have started by the time this is published.
Alex: We came across it on Twitter and thought, “Oh TV, that’s cool. We’ve never done TV writing, let’s give it a shot.” We sent in a handful of topical scripts that we had written and they liked them. We immediately adapted one or two of them and then we went straight into the show. They’ve been fantastic to work with. It’s been a wonderful experience and we’ve learned an awful lot and it’s been really brilliant to see stuff we’d written broadcast on actual TV.
Becca: We’d had the practice of writing topical sketches submitting to Newsjack and things like that, but the Treason Show was completely different in that… Obviously it’s not that Newsjack is uninviting but because it’s open submission, it’s not a community. It’s kind of a cold submission and if you get something on, it’s obviously very exciting. But with the Treason Show, the writers room is really welcoming, and you get really positive feedback on successful sketches, and you do feel really valued as a contributor. They’re advertising at the moment for more writers so we recommend submitting a sketch or some wrong liners. They’re also interested in parody songs, that’s a really key part of the Treason Show. Even if it’s not all that topical, if you enjoy writing parody songs send one of them in. The worst thing that can happen is you get a ‘No.’
It’s been a fantastic opportunity for us and it’s been a really supportive environment as newer writers. Getting those credits week after week was really rewarding.
This required you to send a single scene from an original sitcom script for judging. What project did you take the extract from and how did you decide which scene?
Alex: The sitcom is Coconut Republic, the first big project we’ve tried to write together. It’s about a Caribbean tinpot dictatorship that’s been trapped in the 60s opening up to the world, and three British characters going there to try and exploit it.
Becca: It was an idea that Alex had years before we met but when he told me about it, it ticked a lot of boxes for what I enjoy writing about. Eccentric characters, and using my History background to inform the writing too. As with any project, I think it will look a lot different from how Alex first imagined it, and it will look very different again later down the line once we have gone through redrafts.
Alex: It’s got a lot of stuff we both love; strong satire, Cold War vibes, fun characters, silly jokes, and very dark humour. The scene we picked is quite late in the pilot episode, where the three main characters get held hostage by a revolutionary group. It’s mostly them chained to a radiator trying to keep cool. It stood out because the stakes are high, we learn a lot about the characters and the setting, it’s got some great jokes, and the scene ends with a nice resolution and reveal.
Becca: It was amazing that this one scene was chosen, though, so maybe we don’t have to redraft a couple of pages! I pushed for that particular scene because for me it was the crux of the episode. It also had good character work and lots of comedy. It ticked all the boxes.
What are the ingredients for a good scene?
Alex: Momentum? A scene has to feel like it’s going somewhere, that it’s advancing something – whether it’s characterisation or plot – while making you laugh.
Something has to happen in the scene, no matter how funny it is; it has to build on the momentum of the previous scene and set you up for the next. Surprise is pretty important too – it doesn’t have to have a big twist but the audience shouldn’t be able to predict exactly how it’s going to go. Surprise is funny, interesting, and keeps the audience wanting more. And if they’re laughing and wanting more you’re probably doing a good job.
What’s your best advice for creating characters?
Alex: I find creating characters easy because of doing improv and 90% of that is just coming up with characters to fit situations really quickly and making them quite distinctive.
Becca: There’s been a lot of really good advice and resources available. Talks being held online with advice and things like that since the first lockdown happened. Something that really stuck with me is that if you’re creating multiple characters, give them all one situation and make sure they’re all reacting differently. That reaction can sum up their character. It’s really w apply that thinking to the comedy you love, because you start thinking of the characters from a writer’s perspective.
For me it’s not just coming up with a character and writing down loads of detail and creating a bible. It’s being able to see everything from their perspective. Watching Derry Girls after watching that seminar, I noticed the distinctive characters and their attitudes. You could cut any clip from Derry Girls and the lines they all said would summarise their characters. That’s one of the many things that makes Derry Girls so fantastic. The character work is impeccable. I think being able to apply the things you learn in stuff you are seeing and then in things you are creating, is really important.
What are your current writing goals?
Alex: In addition to the stuff we would be doing regularly, like submitting to topical shows; working on our own projects, concepts for series, treatments, and pitches. Just trying our hardest to get something that we’ve conceived taken to a further stage.
Are there any books you’d recommend to other writers?
Becca: As we mentioned earlier – Pirate Robot Ninja by Billy and Will. Also Comedy Writing Secrets by Melvin Helitzer. The only issue with that one is it’s quite American. But when it comes to the fundamentals of joke writing, so the earlier chapters of that one are very good. Especially when you’re looking at the key elements of wordplay. How to Write Comedy by Tony Kirwood is another.
Alex: That’s very British orientated.
Becca: Also for me as well, for inspiration I like reading biographies of comedians I admire and seeing their journeys. It does put into perspective how every journey in comedy is different. Even though I’m not really an improviser, I am a big fan of a lot of them so I have Amy Poehler’s autobiography, Tina Fey ’s autobiography… Looking at books about the people you look up to won’t directly help you write comedy but it’s always good for the inspiration and helping you think about where you want to go and is the path that they took one that you necessarily want to take?
What’s the worst part of being writers?
Becca: Not hearing back.
Alex: I was going to say rejection but that’s not true because rejection is learning. Not hearing back is worse than something being rejected because then there’s just nothing. That’s the only time it feels like it’s kinda in vain. If someone says, “I don’t like this because of X, Y, and Z.” Fine. Cool. That was valuable. That was worth the time. But hearing nothing just winds up with a shrug and knocks you down a wee bit.
Becca: It’s always the most frustrating part, not hearing back. Even after chasing, which you really do have to do. You have to be on it. It’s difficult to learn from silence but what we’re learning is that’s a big part of being a writer. More often than not, you will get nothing back. So as frustrating as it is you do have to accept it’s a necessary evil of the field.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Becca: Kiss arse. I feel very obligated to say you… but that would be a lie… Um…
Alex: And yet you can’t think of anything else.
Becca: I can’t but that doesn’t mean you win by default.
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