Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #034 with Steve Blair.
Steve is a prolific joke writer, with experience of writing for numerous audiences and genres. After taking time away from writing, he’s returned with an inspiring energy and drive to push his career to the next level. With a talent for spotting opportunities and a willingness to take himself out of his comfort zone, you can find Steve writing children’s stories, performing in online videos and stand-up, having his topical one-liners and sketches broadcast on various BBC shows, and running a hugely popular social media parody account.
When did you start writing?
I have a legal background and did some lecturing and that led to writing articles but alongside that, I was a songwriter playing solo acoustic gigs and with a band for a time. I started slipping one or two of my songs into sets of covers I was doing in pubs and that led, eventually, to performing as a singer songwriter.
But once I’d started writing in that format I just couldn’t stop myself and began writing poems, then short stories, then scripts and sketches. It feels more like a need than a choice.
I really love the processes of writing in different genres. I get the same buzz from knowing that a joke works once I have crafted it that I do from when a plot from a script has all its loose ends tied up. I enjoy living in the world of a script, and similarly being in the character of ‘the voice of the joke’, if that makes sense
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?
I was very lucky – it was the very first sketch I’d ever submitted and it was for Newsjack. It’s a topical sketch comedy radio show on BBC Radio 4Extra with an open-door policy for new writers.
I’d injured my back and I was bedridden for about 5 days and I was being driven mad by daytime telly. The only thing I could really do was type, and that week just so happened to coincide with a new series of Newsjack. So I sent off a sketch not really expecting anything and then on Thursday tea-time the much coveted Newsjack email arrived. I was over the moon.
It was a sketch based on news that the BBC had been overly deferential to the monarchy or some other bandwagon nonsense, so the sketch was hyperbolic version of that – a Newsjack producer was being overly critical of the host who vehemently denied the charges via a patriotic rant to the strains of Rule Britannia.
I remember lying in bed waiting for it to air and on it came pretty much verbatim from my script. It got a really big laugh from the studio audience (remember them?) and I punched the air…further injuring my back and causing me to issue a blood-curdling scream which woke the whole house.
You’ve had success writing for Newsjack across seven series and were invited into the writers room. What was your experience like?
After my first submission to Newsjack being successful, I was hooked, and sent in some more and I think I had sketch hits plus one-liners in four out of the six episodes – it has been downhill ever since 😊
I didn’t know that they ran writers’ rooms for successful writers but an invitation came by email – completely out of the blue – when I was on holiday, and I couldn’t believe it. I spent ages considering whether or not I should attend – something like 0.36 of a second passed before I replied with a grovelling, deferential, ‘YES!’
The experience of the writer’s room was fantastic, although at first, I felt like I blew it.
There were writers there whose names I knew from listening to radio and it all seemed so slick and clever. I just felt I was way out of my depth, being in a room with extraordinarily talented and intelligent people and I went into my shell a bit – despite the fact that everyone was very friendly, welcoming, and helpful. I do regret that a bit and wish I had my time again.
However, despite that, quite honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my life – being paid to write comedy in Broadcasting House with names I’d heard on radio. I live in Scotland so I made a trip of it and got to sit with people associated with the show and their guests, in the front few rows of BBC Radio Theatre. I heard the audience laugh at my sketch and then got to see the world famous control booth.
The wonderful (and disgustingly talented) Tom Neenan was part of the writing team and at the end of the show he pointed to the stage and said to me, “You know, Peter Sellers once stood there telling a writer’s joke.” That’s a sentence that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I was also included as part of an online writers’ room through BBC iCreate which was ahead of its time and really helped me. I was put together with script editor Jon Hunter – over three weeks, I think – who was able to talk me through redrafting my sketches prior to final submission. It was hugely beneficial and really helped me hone my sketch writing craft and the difference between what I was submitting at the beginning of the run compared with those at the end, was enormous. Jon was very sharp with his analysis and clear with his advice.
It was announced last week that Newsjack will not be returning but instead will be replaced by a new open-door series in 2022. What would you hope to see from this new opportunity and what will you miss the most about Newsjack?
I’m very sad to see it go and it really feels like the end of an era. It has been very nice to see the outpouring of love for Newsjack across Twitter – so many writers, producers, and hosts cut their teeth on the show and it very much set the ball rolling for me and gave me quite a bit of success.
I’ll miss a lot about Newsjack, particularly those feelings where you receive the email saying you’re on the show and those when you hear professional actors making people laugh with your words. And I don’t believe one can tire of hearing one’s name in the credits. It was a great show.
The good news is that it will be replaced with a new open-door series which we all hope will be as, if not more, accessible. Look at some of the names who started out on Newsjack – it shows that the idea works so the worry would be that it’s a diluted version or downscaled in some way, when, clearly, it should be upscaled and perhaps with a longer run. We need a Week Ending, not a weak ending.
But Newsjack provided a great framework for that sort of show, so I’m really keen that it’s successor will continue with the sketch format and not rely wholly on one-liners. Newsjack was so London-centric, and while it gave writers from up and down the country a chance to attend writers’ rooms and writers’ meetings, that can be very expensive for someone like me who’s based much further afield. The BBC has bases all over the UK so perhaps there’s an opportunity for regional writers’ rooms which could make things a little easier.
It would be great, too, if there were clearer or more established links to other BBC shows for those having sustained success with the new show. I think that would be of benefit to all concerned.
And since we’re dealing with the hypothetical, what about something that would give writer-performers a chance to work with the actors performing the sketches? Obviously this would be a logistical nightmare, but there are clever people at the BBC who, I’m sure, could come up with something in this vein. (Oh, and if anyone making the show thinks this is a good idea, PICK ME!).
What advice do you have to writers submitting to open door shows, like Newsjack (RIP), Breaking the News, and The Skewer?
It has been said many times but there is no substitute for listening to the show you’re submitting to. Get the feel of it, know the tone, and be familiar with the rhythms, speech patterns, and personality of the host – and for the rest of the cast if it doesn’t change around too much. That pretty much goes for any show I write for.
Also, keep it tight. Only say what is really needed. Usually whether it’s a joke or a sketch, when I re-read it I can cut about one third that isn’t necessary.
I have two main methods for writing a sketch. The first is to make sure that it’s liberally peppered with jokes but it must end on a big laugh. The second is to have fewer jokes but really send the audience the wrong way before delivering the conceit – if you do it that way, the payoff has to be big, but it is my favourite type of sketch.
What’s your process for writing a topical joke?
That often depends on how tight the deadline is. If I’ve a few days, I’ll read every article I can find on the story and try to distil it down to the crux of the issue and then try to build a gag based on that.
I get a lot of satisfaction if I can find a way to satirise two stories with one joke. As a bad example, if there is a news story about dating apps and one about Matt Hancock I might merge the two for a double payoff – but that can take time.
If it’s a show with a tighter turnaround, like Breaking the News, I’ll try to take each story and just write as many ideas as I can think of and then something will start to take shape – but again, that will be tempered by the host’s voice. I’ll have to be able to imagine the host delivering the joke.
Sometimes the joke will arrive in my head fully formed, but I’m really wary of those as it’s more than likely that someone else will have thought of that angle too.
If I have time, I try to read my material out loud – particularly if it’s a sketch – so that I can iron out anything that doesn’t sound like the speaker would say it like that.
You took a few years away from writing. What was it like when you returned? Did it feel like starting over?
Very much so. It was very daunting and a lot of the producers with whom I’d built relationships or who had ‘got’ me, had moved on from the shows to which I was submitting. I tend to write from a happy place – the sunnier I am, the funnier I am – so it was difficult to be motivated while feeling a bit out in the cold.
However, I attended the Comedy 101 Zoom sessions run by Charlie Dinkin over lockdown – she was on the BBC staff writer bursary at the time – and the sessions were amazing. I was really inspired, enthused, and encouraged by them. Both Charlie and Ben Sutton were fantastically helpful and generous to me and they got me back on form. I owe them a huge debt of thanks – and all the producers who now have to sift through my dross as a result, blame them!
You now have credits across multiples series of Breaking the News (both the TV and radio versions).
Yes, Breaking the News is wonderful and it has been great for me. I came to it, in a roundabout way, through contacts and advice stemming from Charlie’s sessions.
The producers have been wonderfully warm, patient, and inclusive; the host, Des Clarke is great, and the panellist top notch; and I get a genuine laugh out loud every Friday to kick-off the weekend. I think it is one of the shows that really set the standard for non-audience shows during lockdown.
A huge factor, personally, is the writer friends I’ve made through it. Writing comedy – especially for broadcast – can be a very solitary job and particularly so in the current climate. On top of that, I’ve been very aware as I’ve gained experience that there’s a perception of writers being very cliquey and unhelpful. But that’s not my experience at all. There has been a lot of warmth from the other writers and a great deal of help.
If I’ve had something broadcast a lot of them will reach out to congratulate me and compliment me on the joke etc. And I know it’s genuine because, similarly, I enjoy seeing when others have had a good run of shows and I’m always interested to find out who had a joke which made me laugh out loud. I think it really helps if the show you’re writing for makes you laugh.
The show was also one of the first radio credits I had when I returned to writing so it really gave me confidence that I was back on track. I have voice in the back of my mind that is really sensitive about me stagnating and that led to me setting a goal for 2021 to achieve my first TV writing credit and for that to come in February was very exciting and, actually, it felt like there was a monkey off my back. So there is a huge space in my heart for Breaking the News, and I genuinely think it gets better with each series.
In 2020, you saw an opportunity and launched the @TotalSeasons Twitter account. What was the thinking process behind this and how has it impacted you as a comedy creator?
Haha! I knew you’d get round to that!
I wish I could tell you that it was a flash of genius that inspired it, but really it was a bit of dumb luck that I saw the famous press conference in the news pretty early and just thought to myself, “Hey, if I get in quick with a parody, that could get some laughs.” All of a sudden I had 16K followers and an email from Channel 9 News Australia looking for an interview.
I genuinely thought it might last a day or two but it seemed to catch the zeitgeist and as I started to get into the character a little better the gags seemed to start resonating with people and with the selfless help of Rudy Giuliani sweating something which looked like creosote, I cashed in on that and it went viral.
It’s currently sitting at 21.6K followers after 10 months and I’m still enjoying it. It definitely raised my profile as a comedy creator; I’ve had congratulations from a number of writers, producers, and even some celebs and a lot of the followers have started following me on my personal Twitter account. I only have about 2K followers on my personal account so it turns out I’m much funnier when I’m someone else. There’s a lesson there, but I’m ignoring it.
On that, how important is social media to you as a writer?
It’s huge for me for a multitude of reasons.
Twitter is where I’m most visible from a comedy POV and I post everything from quick, off-the-cuff, nonsense, to comedy shorts that have been written, performed, filmed, and edited. It has been great for connecting with other writers and comedians and just seeing that a lot of us go through the same things is quite comforting.
As I said earlier, it can be a very solitary business so it helps to see that others have the same feelings about certain issues. I also use it as a drawing board for gags. I have a Facebook page that I limit to just friends and my Twitter account I try to keep solely for comedy. But I’ll often write the same gag on both platforms but with slightly different wording to see when feels funnier. Then I’ll file that away for a sketch or a routine.
I have self-imposed rule that I should be writing at least one original joke per day on social media. They might vary hugely in quality and depending on work, I don’t always make it, but it keeps my mind active and in that comedy setting.
Obviously it’s where we all get our news now – isn’t it? – so it’s great for topical stuff and keeps you sharp: you know that if you don’t do the gag quickly, someone else will do it.
I think if we’re all honest, we’re trying to build our own comedy brand, and social media is the best way to do that today. And it has definitely raised my profile and I think has made me a better writer.
The Poke website have been very good to me by picking a few of my gags for the ‘best of’ lists, which has been really helpful in gaining exposure but also for giving me confidence that I’m doing the right thing and keeping the quality. I know that if I’ve made a list that James Felton is on, then I can’t be too bad. He has as genius comedy brain.
As part of you’re writing one joke a day, is this where #LunchPun comes in? For those who don’t know, what is it and what are some of the favourites you’ve written?
Yes, I had already set the goal when I found out about #Lunchpun – the gag has to be submitted between 12 and 1pm so that had the added bonus of the deadline to work to. And the best one liners in that format require that your gag structure is really precise which forces you to spend a bit more time crafting and that always helps the skillset.
My favourite jokes for #Lunchpun aren’t always the ones which do well. Some of my favourites are those which only work in text as they don’t fit with any other format. For example, “I’ve really struggled to put on weight since I gave up eating French bread. But you know what they say, no pain, no gain.” And, “For the first time ever I’m going to reveal the name of the stringed instrument I always spell incorrectly…drumroll please, and…Voila.”
One which did do well that I quite like was “Rounded off a first date with a little snog at the base of the Statue of Liberty. We got off on the right foot.”
Nothing earth shattering but a lovely bit of nonsense to get through the day and the (better) gags have led to gaining quite a few new followers and making some great Twitter pals who are really talented joke writers. In fact there’s a nice little community of #LunchPunners which has evolved and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to get into that habit of writing jokes regularly.
You’re also a member of the social network for comedians and comedy writers, ComedyWire. It’s not something I’ve really discussed on here before. What do you like about being on the platform?
With #LunchPun I enjoy the freedom of being able to pun about everything and anything. Again, it helps get into the habit of having to write something out of thin air, although they also have a #latelunchpun which gives you themes to write for.
With ComedyWire, your brief is much more specific and you’ve got to get in quick. So that’s a completely different sort of challenge and that’s always great to mix things up a bit. There’s also the incentive of the monetary prize, although I’d still do it anyway (though don’t tell them that at ComedyWire!)
I don’t spend much time there at all and rely on the emails to alert me to a competition. It looks good but with everything else going on, I tend to be in and out of it quite quickly.
You’re a writer who used LinkedIn to professionalise your approach. How useful has this platform been to you as a writer?
Well if Twitter is the sketch-pad, LinkedIn is the CV. It’s much more organised. It sets out your background and timeline in a much more formal way and that has been good for connecting with producers and others in a much more professional context – I do use it for some of my sketches and to publicise my non-comedy writing, but there’s less nonsense.
I have made some really good connections there and found some content I wouldn’t have been aware of – particularly Ben Ellis’ Life’s a Gas podcast ( voiced by the wonderful Sara Starling) has been a real find and it has been great to get to know Ben and Sara.
My profile has suffered of late due to lack of time but it’s definitely of value and quite refreshing to have a space to talk more seriously about my work.
How are you with networking? Have you struggled to connect due to lockdown or has the increase in digital platforms boosted your network?
That’s a difficult one. Certainly, my network has increased significantly during this time but I’m not sure whether that is due to me being more visible, having more work, and taking the plunge and putting myself out there – in effect making better use of the digital platforms that exist, or due to the fact that there is increased opportunity. Probably a mix of all of this.
I think too, that you can add to that the fact that lockdown forced a lot of other people to network in different ways and I have definitely been a beneficiary of that. It’s something I really love – meeting people, talking about comedy, talking about writing, hearing new ideas from other people. You can’t beat finding something new and funny and interesting – and then being able to feedback praise to the creator.
The contact that being part of a network can afford me is really satisfying – understanding the viewpoints of others who do the same sort of thing as you and learning what makes them tick. That’s exciting for me. It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy these interviews of yours, Chris – there’s usually the feelings of ‘oh yes, that’s exactly how I feel’ and ‘Ooh, that’s clever’ in equal measure.
(Note from Chris: I almost cut this last bit but hey, I’m a writer. I’ll take any credit I can get)
Earlier this year you scored a credit for BBC Radio 4’s award-winning The Skewer. What was your submission and how did you approach writing for such a unique show?
This was one of those dream credits – writing for someone I’ve admired for years on a show that I had been in awe of.
My submission related to the establishment of Alex Salmond’s Alba party. The parallels with Python’s Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea were pretty obvious and I’d always enjoyed the Albatross sketch from the Hollywood Bowl, so I cut that into news coverage of the Alba Party launch. It was really short, but I’d give my left something-or-other to have had any association with The Skewer and Jon Holmes.
As far as writing for it goes, there are two main options: submit an idea and sort of ‘script’ it, or to do the sampling and editing yourself. It was the latter I opted for but I’d never done anything like that before and had to start from scratch.
This is where one of your previous interviewees enters stage-centre: Henrik Persson. I can’t emphasise enough how helpful he was – and continues to be. I came to know Henrik through credits of things we’d both written for and we followed each other on Twitter so I reached out to him and his generosity with time and advice was incredible. He is an extraordinary talent, particularly with audio, and his hit rate on The Skewer speaks for itself.
He advised me what software to use, what type of material and format he has had success with, how to rip audio etc. and was just there as a sounding board (pun absolutely intended) throughout.
(Note from Chris: If you’ve not read my interview with Henrik yet – do that)
I began around episode two or three and by the final episode – episode twelve – I had my first credit, so it was a rewarding process but also really enjoyable and a fair bit of graft. Growing up I was a huge fan of The Day Today and Brass Eye and really loved the comedy that could be obtained from splicing audio stuff together, so despite the man hours involved, I was in my element and I find learning new things exciting in itself.
You’ve started performing your material since the beginning of the pandemic. What led you to this and how are things going?
I’d always had the urge, but lacked the bottle, so again, I began doing this in earnest following Charlie Dinkin’s Comedy 101’s and with some lovely encouragement from Ben Sutton.
Ideas are never a problem for me; they’re constantly filling my brain, but I desperately lack time and resources. So when I have ideas that my meagre skillset can put together and if I have time, I’ll try to give it a go.
Despite gigging and school shows and that sort of thing, I never really saw myself as a performer, but it’s something I really like doing. Growing up my mum always referred to me as ‘the mimic’ and I have a good range of voices and accents, so I try to exploit those where I can in the performances. I also enjoy creating characters, so that’s good fun.
My friend and neighbour, Merryn Hunter who also appears in a number of the videos is fantastic. She’s a really natural actor and has great comic timing so I’m lucky that she’s willing to join me at the drop of a hat. My long suffering wife, Sarah, is also really supportive and helps with anything she can, from acting, to holding a microphone or camera. I run all my jokes and scripts by her and she hasn’t run away yet, so I reckon she has a terribly strong stomach and a masochistic streak. But it works for us.
I’m planning to put them all on a thread on my Twitter feed soon as I think there’s a really clear trajectory of improvement from one video to the next. And I have a new one lined up for early September, hopefully, which I think will work quite well. I do everything myself, so the writing, performing, a fair bit of the camera work, the sound, and then all the editing and I think that’s quite limiting. I think they’d be of much greater quality if I had techy people on board, so that’s something I’m thinking about for the future.
I do like to be really hands-on so to work with talented people on similar projects is definitely a goal of mine and I really enjoy the BBC Scotland Comedy, Short Stuff, videos so that’s something I’d really like to be involved with.
As well as performing your own videos, you also performed at The Comedy Store’s notoriously brutal KingGong open mic night. You’re a brave man! How was the experience and is it something you’d like to do more of?
I have always wanted to do stand-up but never believed that I would. And I probably wouldn’t have without The Comedy Store getting in touch and offering me a shot. It was during Lockdown 2 and I thought, well, it’s online, there’s no travel, it’s a maximum of three minutes, and I’ve nothing I can go to on a Friday night, so let’s give it a whirl.
The biggest problem was that it was a really short turnaround – I only had a couple of days and I was working – and I had no material. So I bashed something together really quickly and spent the rest of the time rehearsing it. I had the very funny one-liner comedian, Richard Pulsford, cast an eye over the material and he gave me the thumbs’ up and a few pointers before it came to the crunch.
Strangely, I didn’t feel nervous until I got my ‘you’re next’ warning – a sort of online green room – and then I was suddenly petrified. But I went on and managed about two minutes before the gong, which was a show of three red ‘cards’ by any three audience members.
I had a couple of belly laughs early on so that really pleased me and I didn’t think I disgraced myself making almost two minutes and I really enjoyed it. One thing that really irked was that there was one line I thought was weaker but it was a link to my three best gags, which would have finished the last minute. I didn’t listen to my gut, and sure enough that was the one that got me gonged. So I really want to try it again with a bit more crafting of the set, and I think I’d like to try it on stage next time.
Do you have any experience with video production or performing or are you just working it out as you go along?
Growing up I managed to obtain a fantastic CV in performance – from Freddie Mercury, to Doctor Who; Monty Python to appearing as all of The Young Ones; Just a Minute to I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Unfortunately this was all in my own bedroom.
No, I’m afraid I’m winging it in everything. A bit like adulthood, really. Although I did make some very basic videos with an old early 90s camcorder – one of those massive things that you almost have to put on your shoulder – filming my toy Dapol Daleks destroy themselves and me regenerating into…myself, err… So I suppose it’s just a more focused version of that. But I have a lot of fun doing it all, and as I said earlier, I love learning so I’m always excited to try new things.
I feel very much like a jack of all trades and master of none, but I think the end products of my comedy shorts are more than the sum of their parts but no doubt I can improve on all aspects of being a creator – and that’s the goal. I just want to get better and be funnier, so I’m always working on that.
Tell us about your East Neuk Pirates Series. Where did the idea come from, what does the project involve and what are your plans for the future of the series?
I’ve always been a big fan of children’s novels and children’s telly and I really loved reading picture books with my own kids and always wanted to give that a go myself. In parallel with that, as my daughter was growing up, she was really into boats, but there seemed to be absolutely no sailing things aimed at girls so these two strands began to merge.
My kids and I are all into sailing, but there was very little in the way of learning the ropes for very young kids, and finally, I live in a very beautiful part of the world – the East Neuk of Fife – and it’s so underrepresented that I wanted to show it off a bit. All these ingredients led me to writing the first story: Pirate Bertie’s Bother with Boats.
It was during lockdown so I gave it a go and as all the publishing houses had shut down with everything else, I decided to record a reading of the story with the real Pirate Bertie (my son, Bertie) on video and set up Twitter and Facebook pages. It did really well on Facebook (Twitter has been a struggle) and some newspapers covered it and some local primary teachers contacted me to ask if they could use it with their classes, so I was really pleased.
I followed it up with a Christmas story – again, as a video reading. Every year at Easter, the local community organisation run a duck race for the local villages, which is very popular. They couldn’t do this with Covid, so they asked me to pen another story to support their Covid-safe calendar of events so this one had the East Neuk Pirates hunting through the town for ducks. It was the funniest of the three and I had really good feedback from parents and the Courier Newspaper picked it up and were really supportive.
I have plans made for more, with synopses of four more stories ready for writing and ideas for quite a few more. I’ve had some interest in doing to stories as bedtime story podcasts, but I’m holding off and intend to pursue a traditional publishing route in the first instance, although I had intended to do that this summer and I’ve just been too busy.
What appeals to you about writing for younger audiences?
Well, they say write about what you know, and I’m told I’m very immature, so that helps. There’s just such joy in children’s writing and particularly in children’s comedy. I think it’s easier to let my imagination run when I’m writing for younger audiences but I also think it can be harder to make the joke land. When you do, however, it’s a big payoff and children’s laughter is much more joyful and infectious.
I was shortlisted in the Class Dismissed initiative run in conjunction with the BBC writers’ room. The show was a mockumentary-style comedy series for CBBC, set in a fictional school. I really enjoyed writing for that audience and, despite not making the final cut, the whole process improved me and gave me an insight into an area of comedy that really appealed to me.
I remember watching Crackerjack, The Goodies, Cannon and Ball, and Adrian Mole, when I was growing up and I was reduced to tears of laughter. I loved that but it happens less and less as you get older, so I really want to try to make that happen for kids watching TV today.
What’s your number one tip for creating characters?
For creating characters, it’s important to visualise them clearly in your head but it’s more important to know of their individual styles and patterns of speech. If you have two or more characters you must know, clearly, how they converse with each other so that the joke lands.
Your characters must have a collective comic timing whether they know it or not. You can then build the structure of the joke to dovetail with how they speak. I think Cabin Pressure does this expertly. The four leads have distinct voices and patterns which is discernible beyond the actors’ voices and the timing of the jokes is exquisite as a result. Yes, Minister is another.
Performance wise, I get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction out of creating and playing different characters. I could never claim to be an actor *quickly checks CVs* but I do think a strength of mine is the ability to carry a character through a sketch even if it’s just a dopier version of myself. But it’s all about the enjoyment of the process and believing that the more I do it, the better I’ll get.
Topical, stand-up, children’s books, parody Twitter accounts – you seem to be at a really exciting phase of your career where you’re full of energy and determination, with a willingness to try anything. It’s really inspiring. How do you feel things are going?
That’s very kind of you to say and certainly, I’m in a much better place than I was eighteen months ago and really happy with a lot of what I’ve done.
I’m generally very positive but I’m well aware of my shortcomings, how much I still have to learn, and where I’ve been disappointing. So, some days I feel like I’m on the cusp of things starting to take off and others I worry that I’m stagnating. I know that I need to improve but I really believe that I am – albeit rather slowly at times.
I have some definite goals and I need to make more time to focus on certain projects – the problem with having loads of ideas is that I can spread myself too thin and that’s no good to anybody. But it’s a balancing act and sometimes I can only work on the things I have time for.
Overall, I’m happy and improving and really optimistic about what the future holds and I’m determined to keep going and putting new material out there. I just love creating and finding an audience that enjoys what I do.
What are your current writing goals?
I’m really keen to get into some more writers’ rooms. I feel like I still have to do myself justice and prove to myself that I can do it. So, I would like to be part of that again and to make a concerted effort to banish the imposter syndrome (even if just for a day) and just enjoy myself. I do get on with people and enjoy collaborating so that’s what I want to be doing.
I think my sense of humour would fit really well with panel shows, so something along those lines is what I’d like to pursue. But writers’ rooms for a comedy show or kids comedy show is really my number one goal at the moment. I tend to learn quite quickly so I want to be in amongst talented people and pick up what I can, and hopefully contribute to some of the great shows out there.
I also want more consistency in my broadcast credits and to complete a project I have started. It’s not quite a sitcom but it’s a six-parter with an Ealing Comedy feel to it. I’d originally written it as a screenplay but I’m in the process of adapting it to a radio series and I really like it, so I want that finished.
I have something in the pipeline for sketches so hopefully that will come off as I’d like to do more of that and I’ll be keeping my ears peeled for another series of The Skewer and try to improve my work in that regard.
I’d really like to perform more, be that video or audio, particular for other people’s sketches – test myself by performing in things I haven’t written. I’d love that.
Have you ever considered combining your love of satire and topical comedy and combining with your storytelling to write spoof news stories? There are plenty of satirical news sites out there. I think you’d be great at this.
This is a real frustration for me. I really enjoy writing spoof news stories and I’ve had loads published over the years on Newsbiscuit, The Daily Dafty, and quite a few others. And I’ve had some fantastic praise from the editors on those sites for the standard of the articles I’ve written. However when it comes to the more visible sites like NewsThump and The Daily Mash, I’m just not hitting my marks for some reason. So, I’m working on identifying the apparent lacuna between what I’m submitting and what they want but I love both those sites so that’s what I’m setting my err…sights… on achieving.
But NewsBiscuit is great in its own right and I’d recommend it to anyone starting out writing satirical articles as other contributors will give you feedback on your article and you can submit as much as you want.
(I’m thrilled to be able to add a little extra bit here to say that since we chatted, Steve has had an article published by NewsThump. Check it out here!)
What advice do you have for anyone who may be coming to writing later in their life or following a hiatus?
Get started. Find people who have been working on things you’d like to write for and talk to them. People want you to do well and there are a lot of really good sorts about who are willing to help.
Once you know what you need to do and what you want to do, just go for it. And don’t be put off by silence – be prepared to fail for a while and see the failing as training. A lot of my successes have been really small scale but I enjoy them immensely and I think it’s important. Baby steps are laying important foundations and if you keep at it, maybe you can mix metaphors as expertly as I did just then.
If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?
This may be a bit left-field but I’d reboot old radio detective Paul Temple for TV. Give it the Miss Marple treatment.
And I’d like to see the whole Adrian Mole series of books given quality TV adaptations – I loved the 80s series but it needs a new lease of life on telly and to keep them really faithful to the books.
I’m really impressed by the reboot of Danger Mouse. The original show was fantastic and there were huge boots to fill replacing David Jason, but boy does it work. The writing really lands with a modern audience and it’s incredibly funny, but loses none of the charm of the original and Alexander Armstrong is note perfect. Brilliantly done.
And I’ve made no secret of my love of the reboot of Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!), to the point where I was commanding friends and family and everyone on social media to sit down and watch it. It’s absolutely joyous and the gold standard for reboots. The hosts, Sam Nixon and Mark Rhodes do a phenomenal job and the script hits kids and adults brilliantly. I’m in a completely different world for the duration of the show and I’m horribly jealous of anyone who gets to work on it…
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
James Cary’s Sitcom Geeks podcast which he does with Dave Cohen is amazing. Such depth and analysis – if you want to write a sitcom, that should definitely be your first port of call. James is a walking comedy database but incredibly intelligent and insightful, and a genuinely lovely guy.
Dave Cohen’s books are excellent (and really cheap on Kindle at the moment). They’re inspiring but pull no punches and give a real insight into what it’s like being a comedy writer in the wider sense.
I’ve found these to be really helpful, but I tend to like to chat things through, so I’ll often reach out to someone and see if I can ask them some questions. And, of course, there’s no substitute for watching and listening to as much comedy as possible.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Lack of time. I have a job, my wife works a lot, we have two young kids, who are in all sorts of clubs, need to get their homework done, and then we have a daft dog on top of all that.
Sometimes sitting down at 11pm ahead of a 9am deadline and saying, “OK, Steve, now be funny!” can be difficult.
And then fitting in keeping my Twitter accounts ticking over, writing a children’s story, updating the children’s story social media, writing my spec script, and making a comedy short… Well, you get the idea. But the enjoyment of it keeps me going.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Brutal question, that!
I had to ask my wife for help on this one. I really like very clever word play, but also silly nonsense – A nice mix of these can be seen in Two Ronnies sketches: There’s the answering the last question Mastermind sketch, but one of my absolute favourites is the Crossed Lines sketch set at the phone booths in the supermarket. Ronnie C is talking about a shopping list and Ronnie B talking to a pal who had been on a hot date. Ronnie C, going through the list, says “Cox’s Pippins.” And Barker just looks shocked and raises his eyebrows. It means absolutely nothing but sounds a bit rude, and I love that sort of thing.
Nuanced performances can really make me laugh out loud; Leonard Rossiter was a master of the art. Turn the sound down – even on the brilliant scripts – and he can still make me laugh. Coogan does this brilliantly too and Larry David.
My go to for a laugh is I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue – it’s so wonderfully silly and it’s just half an hour of complete joy. It’s something I’ve listening to for as long as I can remember and I’d love to be part of that in some way.
Any laughing gas scene (particularly Sellers in Pink Panther Strikes Again), anyone corpsing, or getting the giggles. That sets me off. My young son has the best laugh ever and when he gets a fit of laughing he loses the power of his legs, which makes us all laugh. Perhaps that’s why I spend my time trying to make people laugh.
Crikey, I really went with the cringe finish. Eurgh.
You can follow Steve on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, and view his British Comedy Guide profile. If you want to learn more about The East Neuk Pirates, you can follow on Twitter/Facebook and if for some reason you’re not already, you can also follow Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
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