7 Things I learnt from writing for Newsjack (and what’s next?)

The end of an era.

Last week it was revealed that after 12 years, 24 series and 134 episodes, BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Newsjack was over.

For many comedy writers’ in the UK, it was seen as the most direct point of entry into the industry. A chance to not only get a broadcast credit and be paid to write for the BBC, but an opportunity to be recognised by producers and peers. For many, it was a stepping stone to a successful career. For even more people, it was endlessly frustrating. Most importantly, it gave hundreds of people the opportunity to turn to their partner and say, “SEE! SEE! I AM FUNNY! THE BBC SAID SO!”

It wasn’t too much of a surprise when the news broke. 2020 saw the quiet cancellation of the spin-off series, Newsjack Unplugged and the most recent series dropped from the traditional six episodes to four. The fact that the usual Autumn series was yet to be announced was also a pretty big hint.

So that’s that.

No more breaking news, no more sketches, no more Number Crunchers, Newsjackpedia, Newsjack App, Viewsjack, Good Week Bad Week, or whatever format you were used to.

No more subscribing to every possible news source in the hope of finding that golden story that everybody else misses.

No more writing throughout the entire weekend, ignoring your family and missing out on a social life.

No more submitting seconds before the deadline and panicking when you don’t instantly receive the auto-response.

No more re-reading your submission over and over after you hit send.

No more noticing an annoying typo or formatting error and sending a revised draft with an apology.

No more constantly refreshing your inbox between 5 – 8 pm on a Thursday evening.

No more crushing disappointment when you see the tweet confirming that all successful writers have been contacted and your inbox is still empty.

No more checking your inbox three or four more times, just in case.

No more tuning in three minutes before the end to just listen to the credits to be DEFINITELY sure that you haven’t made the cut and they’d just forgotten to email you.

No more picking yourself up and doing it all over again the next morning.

No more Newsjack.

Man, I’m going to miss Newsjack. And so will the 1,475 other people who had their name read in the credits by the six hosts from Miles Jupp to Kiri Pritchard-McLean.

I found my way to Newsjack in 2017 when Angela Barnes was hosting. I’d already had a very small career as a comedy writer, with various TV sketch show credits, a cameo-heavy web series and a sloppy run of live performances behind me. I wasn’t the typical ‘new writer’ aspiring to land their first credit but I was completely new to radio. Apart from 6 Music in the background in my office, I hadn’t even listened to the radio since the original Flight of the Conchords series and even that was on CD.

But my writing partner had recently secured a book deal and was busy writing a trilogy of superhero stories for kids and nobody was at our door asking us to write on their hot new comedy series… so I had some time on my hands.

I’d never considered myself as a joke writer. I knew I was funny and I could write funny things, but I never thought of them as jokes. Jokes were something that people like Tim Vine did. I was a storyteller. A long-form sketch nerd, obsessed with Mr Show and Kevin Smith movies. So when a new series of Newsjack started up, I saw it as an opportunity to try something different. To get out of my comfort zone and write actual jokes with setups and punchlines for a medium I knew nothing about.

It was hard. WAY harder than I had anticipated.

I had so many submissions before I even made the script, let alone had something broadcast. I was sending stuff about Moby opening a detective agency and an advertising firm hiring a Jon Hamm lookalike to save a struggling campaign. I was ignoring the voice of the show and writing for myself. I was failing miserably. But it was fun. It was a challenge with a clear goal. Every week I was hearing the names of people who’d achieved exactly what I was trying to do – it was possible!

I became instantly hooked and continued submitting to the series right up until the final episode. I’ve talked about it a lot on this blog (in fact, Newsjack was the reason why I started a blog in the first place) but always to pass on my experience (failures) to writers who may be new to submitting.

Now the show is over, I thought it was only right that I come back for one last Newsjack blog.

So here we go, seven things I learnt from writing for Newsjack (and stick around for my thoughts on what happens next):

1. How to spot a sketch in (almost) any situation.

The news is bleak and full of truly horrible things. It’s hard to imagine that you could look through a newspaper or your News app and find anything to turn into a comedy sketch. But the the process of writing every week taught me how to spot the potential in most situations:

A rise in Barbie sales during the pandemic? Okay, maybe Mattel has released a new range of Covid-era Barbie’s.

The US Army are using 3D printers on the battlefield? Yeah, but workplaces always have dodgy, unreliable equipment that doesn’t work right when you need it.

There’s been an increase in Victorian illnesses? Is the same person catching all of these illnesses? What happens when they go back to work?

The boss of Sea World has quit? He’s probably fed up of jumping through hoops.

I can now read a selection of news stories and have a take on them almost instantly. Developing this skill was essential for me as a writer. It stretches beyond the topical work I do into my work as a children’s writer and series developer. I’m able to generate story ideas much faster than I used to be able to. Newsjack taught me how to do that.

2. You don’t have to understand the news to write topical.

I have never considered myself as a topical writer. I’m not up to date with politics, I don’t understand Brexit… I barely even watch the news and I can’t name more than maybe four current footballers. I didn’t go to a fancy school, or attend university, and I live in a village where the biggest story is that our garden waste bins haven’t been emptied for over a month.

But if you looked at my credits you’d be fooled into thinking that I was some kind of topical writer.

The truth is, you don’t have to know what’s going on. You just have to find a funny way to comment on what you see happening. You have to be persistent and invest the time in researching current events to use as a launch pad for your submission, but you don’t have to know everything. Every show needs a diverse mix of talent. You just need to workout what your role is.

I came to realise that my strength wasn’t writing biting satire, or exposing complex issues within society. I was the guy who could find a story about a big scientific discovery and turn it into a “Yo Mamma!” joke.

I was the person who brought the sillier side of things. A new variant of Covid that made people yodel uncontrollably. A mafia boss going to the job centre. A group of friend’s discover the guy they’ve been hanging out with isn’t actually Tom Cruise. One of the last sketches I wrote was about kids using bees to solve maths problems at school. That’s not topical. That’s never been topical. Just a kid with a pocketful of bees.

Don’t let ‘topical’ be a barrier. You have a voice and you have a unique and funny take on the world.

3. You can ALWAYS add more jokes.

Newsjack sketches were recorded in front of a live audience, either in the BBC Radio Theatre or remotely via Zoom. A successful sketch required a non-stop flow of jokes, escalating to a big payoff. There was no time for filler. Any line that wasn’t either a setup or a payoff had to go.

And the jokes had to be big. A diverse studio audience is not the place for subtle humour or clever references.

The jokes had to be funny to the largest possible audience.

4. People do notice.

Submitting to Newsjack sometimes felt like emailing your hard work into the abyss. An impersonal email address with a temperamental auto-response and no feedback unless you made the script or the final edit.

But behind the scenes there was a team of people. A team of people that came to learn the names of the regular contributors. A team of people who genuinely wanted to see everyone land a credit.

People like Nick Coupe, who messaged me to let me know that my material was performed and recorded, but lost in the edit. Who told me that my material had often made the pre-script and to keep going and. I remember when I finally got the email telling me that I’d made it into the episode, the first thing I did was email Nick to thank him for his encouragement and support. He emailed back to say that my joke had got one of the biggest laughs from the audience that night.

People like Hayley Sterling, who emailed me and said that I was on the right track to achieving my goal of joining the Newsjack writers’ room as a commissioned writer but that she wanted to see my have a sketch recorded that series first. I went on to have the best run I’d ever have because I knew that a producer was watching what I was doing and cheering me on. She would occasionally message me with feedback and ultimately helped me to achieve my goal and attend the room – twice!

These people are everywhere in the industry. They see you. Keep going.

5. It’s not always about you.

This was probably the biggest thing I learnt from the show. For a long time, my understanding was that Newsjack was a show for writers. A thing that only existed to be a small door for writers to crawl through into the BBC twice a year. This was not the case.

To the audience in the radio theatre or listening at home, the fact that the show was written by the general public was irrelevant. They wanted to be entertained and were not there to hear your original brand of comedy that completely conflicted with the tone of the show. You might have been submitting the greatest comedy scripts ever written, but if they weren’t ‘Newsjack’ it didn’t matter. It was a lesson in tailoring your voice to suit the needs of an existing show. Some people couldn’t deal with this and those people aren’t comedy writers.

Newsjack was open door and gave everybody a chance to write but it was also a platform for new comedy talent. I’ve discovered all kinds of amazing performers through the series – Darren Harriot, George Fouracres, Nimisha Odedra, Kiri Pritchard-McLean and so many more throughout the years. I tune in and watch/listen to anything that I notice includes Newsjack cast members. I’ll sit there watching Darren Harriot playing cricket on British as Folk as if he was a mate I went to school with. I’ve never even spoken to him but feel a bond with him as we were all part of this brilliant series.

It was also a show for new producers and script editors and crew members to hone their craft. Much like writers and performers who have come up through the ranks of Newsjack and graduated to big comedy careers, there are all kinds of people who cut their teeth on the show behind the scenes and are now moving and shaking things in the industry.

6. Don’t be precious

For a writer, it didn’t get much better than seeing a ‘You’re IN!’ email in your inbox on a Thursday evening.

But after you tell everybody you know to tune in you hear a sketch that kinda… sorta… maybe… sounds like the thing you spent all weekend writing.

It could be super disheartening. You were looking forward to hearing that favourite joke of yours be delivered and for the audience to lose it for five minutes… only for it to be cut entirely. I had sketches that were broadcast and credited to me that contained maybe 2% of my original work.

That’s how it goes.

IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT YOU. Sometimes the producers and script editors liked an idea or a take on a story but decided that they wanted to execute it in a slightly different way. Writing is collaborative. Even if you’re a solo writer, you’re collaborating with all kinds of people along the way without even realising it.

7. It’s essential to find a community of writers.

When I first became addicted to writing for Newsjack (and it was an addiction), I sought out everything I could possibly find online about it. This quickly led me to the British Comedy Guide message boards and I felt like I’d found my people. We would run a constant commentary of every series, sharing our success and failure and critiquing everyone’s rejected material. It was my first taste of writing as part of an active and incredibly passionate community.

Marketing guru Seth Godin talks about tribes and the understanding that “people like us do things like this.” I was seeing this first-hand. When it came to Newsjack, people like us obsess over their submission and sulk all Thursday night when they don’t get an email.

Around the same time, I created a new Twitter account to support my solo writing work and I would follow anyone I saw talking about Newsjack. If Newsjack tweeted, I’d follow everyone who liked or shared the post. I wanted to be surrounded by as many likeminded people as possible.

I found myself amongst an even larger community of writers who were all going through the same thing as I was. It felt like a club, not a competition. When one of us landed a credit, we all celebrated. When we didn’t get a credit, we encouraged each other to not give up. I got to know some of these people really well. They’re close friends now.

So… uh… what next?

Although Newsjack is over, the BBC has already committed to a brand-new open door show in 2022. No details are available on this yet, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on it and you 100% should be too.

My personal hope is that the BBC are moving towards a non-topical show.

I understand why a topical format works. It creates some clear boundaries and gives parameters to work within. Audiences know what to expect and there’s a constant stream of new content.

But it can be off-putting for writers… especially when the news can be so depressing. I certainly never set out to be a writer who spends half their time with their head in a newspaper. It wears me down over the course of a series. Like I said above, the process did teach me a lot and it made me a better writer as a result… but I hope the BBC are working on a way to invite a much broader range of submissions, from a wider pool of people that doesn’t necessarily rely on having an original take on current events.

I’d love to see something like a radio equivalent of The State or the Kids in the Hall. A show that has a consistent feel but is clearly the work of a community.

I picture an open brief, with a list of characters that writers can submit short sketches for. A sketch show with a large cast of characters, similar to the Fast Show but anyone could write in with a new Ted and Ralph story. With space for one-off sketches, and short one-liners to fill the space between sketches. Things that could be absolutely anything and give a platform to those writers who have amazing ideas but nowhere to put them.

Or maybe it’s a fictional news show. A look at what the world could be like. Something like Time Trumpet, perhaps?

It could be a panel show with little sketches and games that writers can submit to as well as one liners for the host.

A show that provides a platform for writer-performers and captures the spirit of Funny or Die in its heyday.

Whatever the show is, you are in the unique position of being a comedy writer when it first launches.

You get to be in on the ground floor. You can help define and shape it and build the next Newsjack. A show that will hopefully live on for the next decade or more and launch the careers of a new generation of writers.

But that’s not until next year. And you’re a comedy writer NOW.

Entry level shows are amazing but they’re not your only option. Please don’t see this as an opportunity to sit back and wait to find out what your next assignment from the BBC is. You have the time now to define the next step of your career. Don’t wait to be asked to write.

There are examples everywhere of people who have found a way to get their work out there on their own terms.

Whether it’s writing a 5-minute stand-up set and signing up for an open mic night, or creating a web series, or a podcast, or making funny character pieces on TikTok, or even writing some dumb blog like this one. If you need inspiration, I’m going to drop some links below. They might spark an idea, they may not…

But please, please, please don’t just sit back and wait for the BBC’s next show.

Here are some cool projects that normal people just like you created to showcase their writing:

Life’s a Gas Podcast by Ben Ellis and Sara Starling

The Monologues YouTube Series by Caitlin Magnall-Kearns

The Folded Hawk Audio Sketch Show by Alex MJ Smith

The Amber Phillips Comedy Sketchbook by Amber Phillips

I can’t wait to see what you do.

The Comedy Loser