Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #026 with Henrik Persson.
Henrik is the type of person who I could talk to for hours. He has a genuine love for everything about comedy. We discuss his experience writing for series such as The Skewer, Breaking the News, and Newsjack, his favourite sketch shows, his background in radio production, his self-doubt, and why he always makes a point to congratulate his peers.
When did you start writing and why?
When it comes to comedy, I remember vividly how I “woke up” to it. I was maybe 17 and we had some sort of perform-in-front-of-the-class thing in school. A couple of my mates did Python’s “Nudge, nudge” sketch. I’d never seen any Python at that point, except for maybe parts of “Life of Brian”, so I thought it was their own bit. I was so impressed.
Before that, I’d always been a horror and SFF kid (I still am). Which in turn might have come from heavy metal and hard rock music. I was always a big reader, good writer as far schoolwork was concerned. I always wanted to be a creative writer, but I never really kept at it because I hated being bad and inexperienced – when reading was the one thing I loved most.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?
We did comedy in college and had some stuff on regional and nationwide radio. Our hour-long sketch show pilot in 2002 would have been my first credit, I guess. But to the best of my knowledge, “credits” weren’t really a thing where I come from. At least I’d never heard anyone talk about writing in that way, like they got “credits” from here and there.
My first credit in English was a sketch on Newsjack and I only earned it about a year ago. It was my 4th series writing for Newsjack and I’d had a “close call” email the series before, and another one the week before I finally made it. The sketch was about covid and livestreamed weddings.
You’re based in Stockholm and you’re submitting to comedy shows in the UK… Why?
Let me answer in a roundabout, slightly philosophical way.
I used to live in the UK for an extended time. And before covid, I’d go there all the time, to hang out, go to shows etc. Mainly in London but I’ve been all over the place. So, I feel at home, have lots of friends there etc. This is nothing unique: Swedes in general love the UK. Almost as much as they love America.
But the main thing it this: I’m not young, but I’m young enough to have grown up with the sense that the world is borderless, limitless. Might seem like a strange thing to say these days, but that’s how it’s felt. And I come from a country that is physically huge, but there’s only 10 million of us. For that reason, I think Swedes have always had a pretty “global” mindset. You want to reach out, English is the way to go. I hate referencing ABBA, but there is a reason they wrote songs in English. If they’d have been French you’d be singing “Argent, argent, argent”.
I’ve long felt that if some footballer can go play in the Premier League, or if Max Martin can write songs for [insert name of current British pop artist I can’t be arsed to Google] why can’t I do the same in comedy?
Finally, as I’ve touched upon already, comedy is more formalised in the UK. You take comedy very seriously. There’s a way there to learn and hone your craft as a writer. There isn’t really where I come from, not in the same way at least. I was very attracted to that. And I’d done tons of comedy before of course, but always in that DIY kind of way, where I/we would do everything, including recording, mixing etc.
And while that’s cool, I would sometimes listen back to things and not like them from a script perspective. I eventually felt an urge to back to “just writing” for a while, to make sure I could master that first. Then I would gladly go back to self-producing whatever stuff I wanted to do. I just wanted to prove myself as a professional writer first, so I’d be more confident about my own stuff. You don’t want to spend time and money building a house, only to realise you’ve built it on a foundation of sand. Or whatever is the worst ground to erect a building on.
People often complain about gate keepers and I’m sure they have some excellent points. But I also think there is something to be said for proving yourself before you go off and do your own thing.
Comedy writing isn’t easy, so I imagine writing in a second language adds a whole new level of difficulty. What challenges have you faced and how has the experience been?
The experience has been great and I’m proud that I didn’t give up even though I got nowhere the first couple of years.
As far as challenges go, I grew up reading English and watching English-language movies and tv shows. So that was never an issue for me the way I imagine it would have been for someone from my parents’ generation. I used to write drafts in Swedish and then translate, but I no longer do that.
A bigger challenge is writing comedy about current events when you’re not as immersed in the culture as your peers. But as with any potential weakness, you must use it to your advantage. I like to think that I can spot the absurd more easily than others. I have more of a child’s eye view.
And on that topic: if you turn on the evening news, how many stories these days are purely British? Swedish? Dutch? Chinese? I think news in general is turning more global every year. Climate change, covid, the US election debacle… all global issues.
I remember speaking to you over email a while back and you saying about your love for comedy sketches. What is it about the format that you enjoy so much?
I don’t know why I like sketches so much, but I suspect it might be the same reason I love short stories. They’re a great in-between. Sketches are longer than jokes (or most poems) but short enough that they don’t take three years to write.
They’re called sketches for a reason. A sketch is a quick drawing, a suggestion, requiring you to fill in a lot of blanks. And you typically don’t return to it, so nothing will ever be explored further. There’s a great freedom in that.
I love watching and reading sketches because I can break them down into their component parts and try and understand how they work, and why. I can’t do that quite as easily with feature-length films, or even sitcom episodes. And for me, a huge part of why I got into comedy was that I wanted to understand the mechanics of it. I much prefer reading philosophical or historical arguments about comedy and laughter etc, to perusing one of those “how to write” type of books. It’s probably two-way thing: I write because I want to understand, and I need to understand to write well.
What are your favourite sketches?
1. All-time fave is a toss-up between “Four Yorkshiremen” and “Constable Savage” from Not the Nine O’Clock News. With a gun to my head, I’d pick Savage. It’s just perfectly written and sadly timeless as far as the subject matter is concerned. Not that I think point making is particularly important in sketches but still. Sketch perfection.
2. I’m a huge fan of Small Scenes on Radio 4, to the point where I wrote Simon Mayhew-Archer a love letter about it. It’s one of those shows where if I could write one thing for it, I’d feel like I’d made it. Seriously, if I could pick one show on tv or radio to write for, that would be it. It’s very well produced, very cinematic and even though it’s written by more than one person, it doesn’t feel that way. There’s this singular vision and tone that runs through it that I really dig. They have many memorable sketches, often split up into multiple parts across an episode. The one about Chris DeBurgh might be my favourite. Or maybe the Gerry Rafferty one. Fans will know which ones I’m talking about.
3. Human Giant had many good ones, one I like very much is the take on “A simple plan” where they find a van full of money in the woods, and VERY quickly start to distrust and (literally) backstab each other. It’s a good lesson in just how few words and seconds you need to go from status quo to absolute mayhem within a sketch.
4. Mitchell and Webb had one on their radio show that I think is called “By the book”. It’s basically the Dirty Harry concept with a cop who might not play by the rules but does get results – flipped 180 degrees. “I may not get results, but by God I do things by the book!” I have a feeling that a lot of sketches I love are like this: a clever, inventive “what if”.
5. Another type of sketch I like very much is when a simple, silly idea is carried with pride and milked for all it’s got. The State has a great one that is basically a cereal commercial but all they say is “duh”. It’s silly fun and but also low-key poignant because a lot of what’s being said in a commercial is conveyed by means of tone. Remember that South Park bit where they mocked Rob Schneider? “Derp-da-derp, ta tiddelee-pum!” Same thing. They say nothing yet you know exactly what they’re saying.
You and I share a love for a lot of the same sketch shows. Something I’ve been planning for a while is a blog highlighting the series that British audiences often miss. I’m not going to ask you to rank them, but can you give us your ten sketch series that people should check out?
(For me without any thinking – Mr Show, Human Giant, Key and Peele, Kids in the Hall, Birthday Boys, The State, I Think You Should Leave, Aunty Donna, Cowards, Ben Stiller Show)
Off the top of my head and in no particular order:
The State, Big Train, Mr. Show, Wonder Showzen, Key and Peele, Human Giant, Armstrong and Miller (later incarnation), Jam, Exit 57, and Not The Nine O’Clock News although to be fair, the last one isn’t available in its entirety, so I’m basing that on those “greatest hits” dvd’s.
What’s your number one tip for writing a good sketch?
I’m the wrong guy to ask, but having a deadline probably? You’ve got to get them done. When there’s unlimited time, you can spend the rest of your life looking for the perfect premise. But it’s just like Netflix – you end up scrolling endlessly, eventually settling for an episode of Modern Family. It’s not doing you any good. Another piece of advice would be to purposely write a bad first draft so you can then tell yourself you’re “editing”. That’s a neat trick.
Last year you had a good run of getting material on shows like Newsjack, Breaking the News, and The Skewer. What’s your process like from finding a story up until submitting?
Oof, let’s see. I’ve always thought I was a bad joke writer so with Breaking the News, I don’t feel any pressure there whatsoever. I just do it for fun. I look through the brief, pick the stories I like, then ask myself how I feel about them, what the “route one” take would be and how I can top that. I don’t think I spend more than two hours on it per week, tops. It’s nice to get a brief by the way, because then you’ve got the setups all written and ready to go.
With Newsjack, I spent loads of time sifting through the news. I used to look for offbeat stories that others might not cover too much, then I sort of switched to things where I felt there was a lot of room for absurdity. I had a sketch in the script, one that got cut, that was based on a story about some temporary moon in our solar system. It was there and then it would go away again, I don’t remember. Anyway, I wrote that up as basically a “fuckboy” kind of story, where this moon was a guy who wanted to get laid but not commit. And the girl was the planet, I forget which one. It was immediately funny because of a.) the inherent absurdity and b.) I had a clear reference point in the “girl trying to find out if he’s serious” trope.
That sketch analogue is important for me as a writer. I don’t care if it’s cliché, in fact it should be because it must be instantly recognizable. And it’s so much easier if you can just borrow an entire group of characters and their relationships from somewhere else, and just kind of mould your sketch around that. Saves a heck of a lot of time and effort. I guess that’s another “how to write a sketch” tip: find the analogue.
The Skewer is satire rather than pure comedy. It also doesn’t have performers, so it’s a different thought process. Obviously, you’re constrained by the fact that you use existing audio. But I think there’s a great freedom in that too. Because when you’re using actors, you’ve got to establish a whole lot more to get the audience in the place and time where you want them.
My process is pretty much the same as always: finding my stories then settling for an interesting angle or a take, usually by asking myself what it is about the story that annoys me. I like that the show enables me to think wider and bigger. It’s a much different thought process from Newsjack in that sense. I don’t even consider myself a comedian at that stage – more of a philosopher.
I had one piece that didn’t make it on the show, but that I really liked. It was a mashup of Junior Bake Off and the movie Goodfellas and I arrived at it simply by asking myself what it is about those types of shows that bothers me. And the number one gripe I have is that they’re just kids and I’m not sure it’s good for them to compete like adults. Should we encourage that? To make that point in an entertaining way, I used Ray Liotta’s voiceover from Goodfellas, which is a movie about kids having to go through things that they absolutely shouldn’t. And I made it so that Ray Liotta’s character was talking about competing in JBO as opposed to being in the mob. It was a funny juxtaposition and a message I could really get behind. It feels amazing to have something broadcast when it’s both funny and makes a point that you think is important.
Once I’ve got my pitches, I send them off and hope for the best. One thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to check that the audio “is there”. Meaning if you want to take Matt Hancock and place him in a scene from The Terminator, don’t just trust your gut instinct that there’s that scene in there somewhere that would totally sound cool. You might be misremembering because the last time you watched it you were 15 years old.
The Skewer is a really unique show. It can be a tricky one to wrap your head around as a writer and I found it really off-putting at first. What advice do you have on being successful with The Skewer?
I didn’t find it tricky at all, I felt like it resonated with me from the moment I first heard it. In fact, I was a fan before I knew you could submit to it. I love how rich and dense the show is and how it encourages headphone listening. I’m a big fan of album comedy like The Firesign Theatre, so I really dig that format. I suppose if you’re a writer only it might feel odd, but I’ve been tinkering with audio in some form another for ages, so I really feel at home there. I love that things don’t necessarily have to be LOLs, they can also be just interesting or poignant, or scary.
I guess success-wise, my number one advice regardless of show is to try and make life as easy as possible for the people on the receiving end. That’s why the BBC has those example scripts so you can format properly. Same thing with audio really.
Last week saw the current series of The Skewer come to an end. I know you were REALLY going for it this time and have seen you make the credits almost weekly. What’s your final score and what was your highlight of the series?
I ended up with 10/12. I know because I’ve twice scribbled “WHY!?” on the wall in my own blood. At least I hope it’s my own – because it’s definitely blood.
As far as highlights go, I liked a lot of my music-based contributions, like the Eminem “One shot” piece. I had many that didn’t make it that I liked a lot, too.
You’ve tweeted a few photos of yourself behind microphones and from previous conversations; you seem to know your stuff when it comes to audio. What’s your story and how much has this experienced helped when it comes to writing for radio?
I did radio in high school and in college, mainly comedy. I then worked briefly as a radio host and producer, at a regional station. I also freelanced as a journalist for many years, during which time I also did a few radio pieces for SR, PRI and places like that. Not that many really, but whenever I had a fun idea. And I’m generally an audio and hi-fi nerd, so I love gear and mics and stuff, and I’ve always loved reading about audio technology, acoustics, and things like that. I don’t know if it’s helped me much as a writer, but it can’t hurt. I think a deep knowledge about any field is always going to be an asset in some way.
What projects have you been working on recently? Do you also write long form narrative?
That’s the thing, I must get back to my own stuff more. Lately, I’ve been so involved in the open-door shows that I’ve had to retire for a couple months after each window, just to recuperate. I want to write a play next, and short stories. Especially short stories. Outside of comedy, one definite goal of mine is to have a short story published in a real, proper literary magazine, in English. I’m going on the record with that so I can be held accountable later.
Have you ever considered launching your own sketch comedy podcast?
I have but I’ve given up on that because I think it would take way too much time even if it’s just audio and not a video production. Let’s say I made 6 episodes of 15 minutes each. I wouldn’t want anything on that wasn’t great, and you can only write so many “great” sketches per year. It would take me years and years just to write a thing like that. And most likely no-one would care. So for sketches, I’d rather be attached to someone else’s project and contribute to that.
I’d love to do something else on my own though, and I’m thinking it will be immersive and long form, perhaps with sketches spliced. Perhaps it will be outside the pod realm. Why not on vinyl or cassette? Something else I’d love to explore is a collaboration with an ambient musician, sort of like comedic musique concrète. I’m a big fan of guys like Hainbach and Paperbark for example.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read / podcasts they should listen to?
I liked Steve Kaplan’s book; it was useful for me personally. Also, Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Fiction”, that’s probably the best one I’ve read. John Berger, Ernst Gombrich and guys like that have all written great things about art and creativity in general, mainly from a visual arts perspective. Koestler’s “The Act of Creation” is also great.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up to date?
One of my favourite Swedish sketch shows is being brought back soon, by means of Kickstarter. I hope it turns out good, but it’s hard to replicate the magic of yesteryear. I generally don’t pay much attention to revived shows and movies. The whole idea of being a fan of a franchise is off-putting to me.
What are your current writing goals?
To start writing short stories again, like I said. And having something published. Like, properly published. I was born in the early 80’s, so my view of publishing is heavily influenced by the way things worked back then. Having some gate keeper sign off on my talents means a lot to me. More than it should, probably.
Radio-wise my only goal right now is to be consistent and funny enough for Jon Holmes to surrender and ask me to be a commissioned contributor for The Skewer. I love that show so that’d be awesome.
If you could travel back in time what advice would you give yourself when you first decided to write?
I’d tell myself to stop caring about how bad it is, and to not stop. And maybe show myself a few “how to write” books to demystify things a bit. That would have made a huge difference, I think.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
There are a lot of tough aspects of being a writer (to the extent that I even consider myself one; I often think I’m not good or successful enough to wear that moniker). Silent rejection is rough, obviously. Being in that social media bubble where it seems like everyone else is doing great, is rough. Having your passion clash with work and family commitments, is rough.
But in my opinion the worst by far is the self-doubt. I have a ton of self-doubt, to the point where I even feel weird about doing this interview. I keep thinking I haven’t done anything even remotely impressive or interesting, so why are you interviewing me. I love talking about comedy and writing and creativity, but I keep bouncing between those two standpoints: I love discussing this and I’m not interesting enough to do so publicly.
And although I realize that my background might make me stand out a bit from the crowd in some ways, at least in the UK, I’m also sensitive about it. Because I absolutely do not want people to judge my work any less harshly than they would if I were a Briton, or an American. I’d hate to be that “he’s pretty good for an X” type of guy.
As far as praise and stuff like that goes: to me, nothing ever really counts unless it’s coming from an outsider, preferably someone who doesn’t love me because they would always like what I did, wouldn’t they? As mad as it may sound, the person whose opinion on my (comedy) work means the LEAST to me, is my own wife. I realise how nuts that sounds.
I think this is part of the reason why I always try and tell other people when I like something that they’ve made. It could be over Twitter or email or whatever. I always try and let people know they’ve done a good thing … because I know I’d want to hear that too… if I had. It would make not just my day but my month if someone did that for me. I’ve spent many hours over the last couple years writing “well done” emails to people I don’t even know or follow, just because I strongly believe it’s the right thing to do.
Another thing I grapple with is having something else to fall back on. Not in terms of money but self-worth. I suspect a lot of writers are as personally invested in their art as I do; it’s a big part of who they are and how they see themselves. If it doesn’t go well, it’s not just a setback – you’re a failed human being. I’ve had my best year over the last twelve months, as far as comedy credits and so on, but it’s been hellish too because I’ve not had a proper job for over a year. Comedy is sometimes the only thing that makes me feel good at something. Or just useful. And without success in that department, I am nothing.
After that deep and thoughtful answer, this feels like a jump BUT it’s the end of the interview and I always have to ask – What makes you laugh more than anything else?
I should say playing with my son, right? But honestly his playing still leaves a lot to be desired. Someone telling a great joke about the state of the world, probably. It’s very cathartic.
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