DMs are Open at the BBC (and you’re going to write for it)

Last year, the BBC pulled the plug on its long-running open-door comedy show, Newsjack. I wrote about it in detail at the time, including 7 things I learned from writing for the show and my hopes for the promised replacement.

It’s now been just over a year since Newsjack ended and one of the few genuine open-door opportunities for new comedy writers slammed shut. Yes, writers shouldn’t be waiting for opportunities and need to find ways to generate and showcase their own work (perhaps through a website) but the industry needs a “Newsjack” show to discover and nurture new talent – writers, script editors, performers, and producers.

So I was very excited when the BBC revealed their new open-door Radio 4 Extra series, DMs are Open. It opens for submissions tomorrow with the first episode airing next Thursday (and then repeated on the fancier Radio 4 the following Monday) and do you know what the best part is?

You’re going to write for it.

Don’t worry if you’ve never written a joke or a sketch before.

Put the past behind you if your worldview never quite aligned with that of the Newsjack’s producers.

You’re going to write for DMs are Open!

(You might not get a credit… but you’re going to try!)

What you need to know

In the announcement for DMs are Open, the BBC said, “The satirical sketch show is loosely topical, reflecting online conversations and trends through a heady cocktail of comedy formats. This broader playing field is designed to attract a wide range of submissions and will reflect pop culture, hot takes and the political and social zeitgeist.”

Which sounds great… and probably leaves you thinking, “Yeah, but what do you actually want from me?”

During a webinar last night, the shows two producers (Sadia Azmat and Rajiv Karia) briefed aspiring writers on the format for the series and explained what they’re looking for.

Much like Newsjack, DMs are Open will feature a regular host but rather than a singular voice, the show will be led by Athena Kugblenu and Ali Official. They’ll be joined each episode by a revolving cast of performers. The production team searched the internet for the funniest people they could find and invited them to join the show. Writers can expect some familiar voices from Newsjack but there will be plenty of new additions, including online sketch performers and voice actors. The show will merge the worlds of online, radio, and live comedy to create something that promises to live up to the legacy of Newsjack and Week Ending.

The hosts and cast will perform sketches and one-liners on a wide range of subjects. They’re not looking for the usual stuffy political stories (although there is still an appetite for some political contributions, they’re only interested in the big headlines).

They want to see the week’s events reflected in your writing. The things that have been filling your social media feeds. The stuff that everybody’s talking about – Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard, Elon Musk doing Elon Musky things, Love Island, Martin Lewis, TikTok trends and challenges, etc. It’s current events, pop culture, modern day life in a post-pandemic Britain but all presented in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

Take something that anybody could understand or relate to and then flip it over, turn it inside out, stretch it out to the extremes. Make clever observations, switch the perspective, amplify the silliness, reveal a truth about us as people, zoom in on a tiny detail and exaggerate it beyond recognition. Have FUN.

Don’t just deliver a funny idea about a topical event – deliver your funny idea that only you could ever have thought of. Show your voice, not just a scripted recreation of an event or a tired caricature. As the producers put it, they want you to go outside of the box with your ideas.

They want unusual stories, ongoing social issues, Gen Z concerns, opinions that straddle all political perspectives, and satirical sketches that make points as well as delivering laughs. But they don’t want to restrict you to satire and our openly encouraging silliness, if that is where you want to go with your writing.

They don’t want musical comedy and they need you to carefully consider the use of swear words. Some can slip through but they need to be justified and not overused.

What’s new?

Okay, so admittedly this does all sound a lot like the more recent series of Newsjack and the sister show Newsjack Unplugged. But there are some key differences and this is definitely a new show.

The BIG one is that there’s now an opportunity to flex your performance muscles with the introduction of Voicenotes. Voicenotes is exactly what it sounds like. Short bursts of audio recordings, think voicemail messages, left by the general public. These can be character pieces, impressions, you delivering your one-liners, whatever. During the show, the hosts will “check their DM’s” and play a series of clips.

There are a few restrictions here. You’re only able to submit one Voicenote per episode and it can’t be longer than 20 seconds. Phone recordings are fine but however you’re taping it, you need to ensure that it’s a quiet space, there is no background music, and you’re only performing your original material.

This is a really exciting addition to the open-door format. Not only is it a new way to have your writing broadcast but it could lead to the creation of running characters and may even result in an invite to join the cast in a future series. Plus you get paid a small performer fee in addition to your writing fee. BONUS!

If you’re thinking of having a go at Voicenotes, the producers encourage you to show off your range and be confident and animated. Listen back to your recording before sending and be critical if your performance. Can you do a better reading? Would an accent make it funnier? Are you speaking too fast, too slow, too quietly? At the end of the day, your recording could be broadcast across two BBC radio stations and the BBC Sounds app… like your writing, it needs to be as good as it possibly can be.

Another change is that there will be no audience. The show will be performed and recorded in a studio. This means that the usual limitations of a staged radio play no longer apply. You can be a bit more ambitious with your idea and a good sketch won’t be lost in the edit thanks to a bad audience.

One-liner jokes will still be delivered straight but not in quite the same Breaking News format as Newsjack. It sounds as if there could even be an element of battling one-liners with the hosts/cast trying to one-up each other. It’ll be like that movie 8 Mile but with jokes about Kanye West trying to catch Pete Davidson with Acme products, instead of a bunch of insults that rhyme.

And although your jokes don’t have to rhyme, the show’s producers used the webinar to encourage writers to pay attention to the rhythm of their one-liners. They generally need to start with the factual explanation/setup, with something funny coming at the end of the second half. Y’know, like a joke! They shouldn’t be too long and the rhythm needs to be perfect – so perform them aloud to fine tune and edit, edit, edit.

When writing a sketch, get into the game as soon as possible. That means skip any unnecessary setup/exposition and remove any information that’s not needed. Within a couple of lines, the reader should be able to understand what your sketch is about. Your intent needs to be clear and understandable to each person who reads your work throughout the process – reader, producer, script editor, performer, editor, and ultimately, the audience. You need a satisfying (and ideally, surprising) ending. You need to show a part of yourself in your submission (not THAT part).

You’ll now have to upload your submissions via the BBC’s website instead of emailing. Say ‘goodbye’ to the panic you felt when you didn’t receive an auto response email and ‘hello’ to anxiously wondering whether your file uploaded or if your internet connection timed out.

This is a show that’s evolved out of Newsjack. There’s going to be some familiarity about it and it’s easy to draw parallels to the similarities. But you need to keep in mind that this is a brand new show and its voice, tone and style hasn’t been fully established yet. This makes it a really exciting opportunity. It’s rare for writers at any level to have an opportunity like this. You get to be in on the ground floor of a new comedy series and you get to help shape it. The producers have said it themselves. They have an idea for the direction of the show but it’s up to you to decide and define exactly what DMs are Open is.

Some things to think about and the details

By this point, hopefully you’re hyped about the show. You’ve decided that you’re going to give it a shot. So, uh… how?

Full instructions are up on the DMs Are Open website. Templates are available and you have to use these. Don’t try and work around them or design your own. Use the templates and follow the brief.

You can submit 3 sketches, 2 one-liners, and 1 Voicenote per episode. There are 6 episodes in the series. Submissions open on Fridays and there are deadlines on Mondays for sketches and Tuesdays for one-liners and Voicenotes. Everything submitted before the deadline will be read. Anything that comes in after the deadline won’t be read. Submissions can’t be carried over to the following episode.

You don’t have to be a UK citizen or resident to submit.

You will get paid if your submission is broadcast.

You won’t get paid if your submission is performed but cut out in the final edit.

You can write with a partner and share the credit/payment/glory/anxiety.

But mostly, you need to be thinking about making your submissions so damn good that they’ll stand out from the other thousand or so submissions each week.

It is not going to be easy to a credit on DMs are Open but it’s 100% possible.

Check out my next blog for 5 tips on how you can boost your chances of a credit.

You can also find my blogs on writing for Newsjack (which will mostly still apply) right here.

And you can hear my sketches/jokes from Newsjack on my Soundcloud.

I also recommend that you take some time to read Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to writing a joke.

Finally, emails will go out on Thursday evenings to let you know if you’ve got something in the script or the broadcast edit. It’s a horrible thing to wait for. Everybody will be anxiously hitting refresh on their inbox and re-reading their submissions for the millionth time. But you can avoid this. Over on Twitter, Dom Carter and I have started a Mario Kart networking group. Please DM me on Twitter if you’re interested. Instead of sweating over your empty inbox, you can join a group of writers, performers and other industry people for some of the most chaotic kart racing you’ve ever played. It’s a lot of fun. Come join us.

Oh and hey, if you found this useful, I have a Ko-Fi and enjoy coffee and appreciation from strangers.

The Comedy Loser

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