Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #022 with Conor O’Grady.
Conor is building a CV of credits that should be grabbing the attention of comedy producers and agents. With a background in stand-up and a day job with an international media company, he’s putting in the work big time. He understands the importance of networking and puts himself out there to support his career.
When did you start writing?
As an angsty 15-year-old, liking Charlie Brooker and knowing every Green Day song were the two key pillars of my personality and I remember writing some humorous Brooker-style ‘rants’ down in my notebook that I passed around to friends. The two that spring to mind were on Hollister shops and Joey Barton.
Aside from this analogue form of blogging, my friends and I would play a different panel game each week at the back of our Chemistry lessons; QI, WILTY, NMTB. I was always the host. Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I wasn’t in with the cool kids…
What was your first credit as a writer?
Cast your mind back to 2013; the UK was still in the EU, MAGA was where you went on holiday after your a-levels and I was in my first year of studying English at the University of Southampton.
Rather than reading any of the course materials I spent most of my time researching sitcoms on Google and while browsing I managed to stumble across the BCG forums. After a few months of lurking in the message board shadows I saw a call for submissions to The Football Special, an animated topical Football show going out weekly on YouTube and iTunes. I spent the next week writing loads of sketches, mainly about how terrible my beloved Arsenal were. I remember writing a Dogs Trust parody advert calling for rival clubs to give a home to rejected former-Arsenal players. Anyway, I sent in loads of stuff and they decided to go with a very short surreal skit entitled Alan Hansen’s Corridor of Uncertainty.
You also perform stand-up. How did you get started and how did the first time go?
I’d always thought about giving it a go but was fairly happy with the hypothesis that I’d probably be half-decent at it if only there was a way in. That was until someone at my day job had the audacity to encourage me and give me all the details on how to sign-up for an open spot. After doing a recce with my buddy Giles Evans, who also wanted to get into stand-up, I decided to bite the bullet. I knew I had to book the spot before having any idea what to say, otherwise I’d never actually come up with any material. Sure enough, I managed to flesh out some half-decent ideas the night before and learnt the main set-ups and punchlines.
The first gig went surprisingly well! I did cheat a bit though in playing the ‘it’s my first time’ card to get the crowd on side early doors. I managed to get some laughs with material about Harry Potter in the first minute which helped relax me and it’s been onwards and upwards since that moment really.
Back in January 2020, you were a semi-finalist for a stand-up competition. What was it and can you talk a bit about the experience?
That’s right. The stand-up set was on a nice steady upward trajectory in the pre-apocalyptic era and one of the landmarks along the way was doing relatively well in the Max Turner Prize, ran by the lovely folk at The Cavendish Arms. I had 5 minutes to impress an audience who were marking me on a 1-5 scorecard and I managed to progress to the semi-finals with material about goths, exam papers and that trusty Harry Potter bit from my first gig.
I had a fair few gigs booked in when the lockdown hit including more Funny Feckers nights and a somewhat daunting night called The Blackout at Up the Creek comedy club in Greenwich. I also entered the So You Think You’re Funny? heats with the hope of performing in the finals at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s been a shame to be forced into my first performance hiatus without having the chance to build up a showbiz opiate addiction, but I’m keen to get back on the horse.
Would you recommend all writers try stand-up?
For me, one of the most appealing things about stand-up is that it can act as an outlet for your original writing without the need for a commission.
I’m still not 100% sure that stand-up is where I’m destined to end up in the world of comedy, but it gives me an opportunity to get immediate feedback on my writing and has helped me find my most authentic comedic voice, which is something that can be difficult to discover when trying to match the tone of a radio show that you’re contributing to.
Having said that, I wouldn’t say that all writers need to try stand-up. While it can be a great outlet for your writing, the truth is that writing is just one element of a discipline that comprises of multiple success factors. In fact, as a writer first and foremost, my heart does break every time I see a performer die with some decent material that they haven’t found how best to deliver. However, if you’re willing to work on the performance side of things it can be great for your writing and at the very least arms you with a thick skin for dealing with rejection. Also, it can make you sound interesting at parties…
Your day job sounds pretty cool. You’re a Digital Producer for Cartoon Network and Boomerang. How did you land that gig and what’s an average day like?
I started at WarnerMedia (then Turner) as a trainee back in 2017 having spent a year-and-a-half at a PR agency immediately after graduating.
Since then, I’ve managed to progress through the ranks a bit and a lot of my current job involves producing and commissioning digital content for YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. It’s great fun as my job is essentially to get people laughing and interacting with our digital content. Some of the best parts of my job are kicking around video ideas with our creative teams, editing funny videos, listening to agency pitches, writing jokes into social media copy and just generally collaborating on creative projects. There are also some numbers to be looked at and reports to be made but that bit ruins the romantic picture I’m painting, so let’s just pretend I never mentioned it…
Would you recommend similar jobs for people looking to become a professional writer? Are you able to sneak your scripts into the hands of bigwigs?
That’s always been my masterplan and thanks to an internal mentoring scheme I’ve managed to gain some incredible insights and advice from my mentor and our VP Original Productions EMEA, Anke Greifeneder. In fact, Anke has even read my pilot script and, as well as being very complimentary (which meant a lot!), she’s also given me so many useful notes. Not only that but I’ve also had the chance to meet the writers of the German hit show 4 Blocks (notable fans include Ricky Gervais) and they’ve read and given me some super-useful feedback on the pilot.
I would definitely recommend similar jobs for people looking to become a professional writer. If you’re willing to be proactive you can meet, collaborate with and learn from some amazing producers and creatives.
You’ve had success with Newsjack. What does it take to write a good joke and/or sketch?
I personally feel that half the battle with creating great jokes and sketches for Newsjack is to find an original angle on a story. I can spend hours dropping various figures from the cabinet into various amusing predicaments, but I always feel slightly underwhelmed if I haven’t found that fresh angle or point to be made. Trying to find the hot take on a story is the main thing I try to keep at the fore of my thoughts when sieving through the news.
Any tips on coping with rejection and lonely Thursday evenings refreshing the inbox for a golden ticket from Newsjack?
That’s a tough one! The good thing about Newsjack is that it doesn’t look to be stopping anytime soon, so the best way I console myself is with the same line I use when Arsenal or my amateur football team lose; ‘there’s always next week’. That works until episode six, when the line morphs into ‘there’s always next series.’
Another tip – keep busy on Thursday evenings.
You started submitting to Breaking the News last year and landed a credit on your first attempt! What are the main differences you’ve noticed to Newsjack?
They’re both excellent shows but are deceptively different in both tone and production process. I’ve noticed that BTN openers and closers can have longer set-ups, probably because they don’t have the opening monologue that Newsjack has to establish the topics they will be covering in the episode. I’ve also noticed that the BTN brand of humour focuses a lot on dragging big topics down to the mundanity of everyday life. Here’s a few examples of lines I’ve landed on the show to demonstrate what I mean:
“Priti Patel refused to deny that the Home Office made plans to install a wave machine in the English Channel to deter migrants. Reports have also emerged of officials failing to enforce the ‘one-at-a-time’ rule on the Dover to Calais log flume.”
“MSPs are to debate and vote on Scotland’s new five-level system of local restrictions. The new system would see areas categorised under either: Lockdown, Very High, High, Medium or Lemon & Herb.”
What else are you up to at the moment… as in writing stuff. Not what you’re having for tea or anything.
I’m juggling a few passion projects at the moment while the stand-up is on hold. I’m trying to push the sitcom pilot I mentioned earlier to anyone who will read it (it’s called TRADE OFF and explores the concoction of testosterone, ego and money on a London trading floor – but with jokes in-between all the drugs and cruelty). I’m also working on a separate pilot with my writing partner, Phil Rudd, about an amateur football team in suburban London.
Aside from that I’m also helping to punch-up the jokes in a truly incredible graphic novel for kids which my pals Luca Minetti and Nicholas Belli have brought to life. I really can’t wait for the world to see the amazing universe that those guys have created!
What are your current writing goals?
There’s a bottle of champagne in the cupboard primed for the first TV credit. If you’re reading this far in the future, you can keep up to date as to whether I actually achieved that by checking here. (Now, if that’s not a smooth way to plug your credit list then I don’t know what is…)
I got to know you after you reached out to me for some advice. One thing I picked up was that you’re pretty good at networking. What tips do you have for people when they’re trying to build networks with industry folk?
Kind of you to say! I try my best, but the truth is that I go through phases of being good at networking and phases of being not so great. If you’re a writer with a Twitter account, you’ll know that competition is tough, and I often think if you’re a relatively down to earth person that can give you an advantage over some of your more *eccentric* competitors.
The best way to showcase that you’re an agreeable person is to reach out to people – as soon as you show you’re not only a competent writer but also not a psychopath (which isn’t a given in this game) then other writers and producers can see themselves working with you. That’s the theory anyway. I’ll let you know when Armando Iannucci replies to my bi-weekly goat sacrifices (now live-streamed on Twitch, thanks pandemic).
You describe yourself as a comedy geek. What are your big influences and what have you been watching recently?
At the age of about eight my uncle gave me a big stack of VHS tapes of Blackadder, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Young Ones, Father Ted, Only Fools and Horses, Red Dwarf, Porridge… the list goes on. That’s what got me hooked and as I went through my teens, I became obsessed with Peep Show, The Office, Extras, The Mighty Boosh, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, Alan Partridge, The Inbetweeners, The Thick of It and Phoneshop (which was tragically underrated if you ask me).
In terms of what I’ve been watching recently; for some reason I kicked off lockdown by re-watching Lead Balloon before returning to what I often cite as my favourite sitcom ever – Yes, Minister. I also watched Phoenix Nights for the first time ever and wished I hadn’t left it so late to join the party. I should also give a shout out to our transatlantic cousins; Arrested Development and Airplane both being big influences.
Outside of sitcom there’s loads of great comedy shows I could mention including QI, Taskmaster, WILTY and countless others.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
That’s an easy one – Twitter. I’m starting to learn a bit more about how to use it as a networking tool, but it really isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Plus, it can spark a bit of an inferiority complex when you look to everyone’s apparent success. All the virtue signalling can trigger me a bit too.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
Strangely enough I actually get the most value out of podcasts when it comes to writing theory. I usually whack on Sitcom Geeks by Dave Cohen and James Cary when I’m out walking, which really helps me to think about my scripts while also offering advice on how to navigate the industry.
I’m a huge Matt Morgan fan and his Funny How? Podcast is great, especially the episode where he breaks down Blake Schneider’s Save the Cat.
I’m also indebted to Richard Herring for his RHLSTP series, which has been the background noise to my life for the last 12 months. Just listening to the different ways that all of his guests have found their routes to success is enough to keep me inspired and plugging away.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Despite slagging off Twitter earlier in the interview, if I’m being honest with myself then it probably does have to be the memes you find on there. Some of the exchanges are hilarious, especially when someone is on the wind-up. Aside from that, I’m blessed to have a great group of quick-witted mates who throw up some gems from time-to-time. I suppose the real answer to the question is ‘truth’, but that sounds a bit wanky, so I’ll just go with memes and mates.
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