This blog has been updated for series 2!
The BBC’s open-door Radio 4 Extra series, DMs are Open is back! It’s open for submissions NOW but don’t rush into it – there’s been a few changes! The big headline is it’s no longer a topical show.
Let’s start with the basics.
You’re going to write for DMs are Open!
(You might not get a credit… but you’re going to try!)
What is DMs are Open?
In the original announcement for series one of 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.”
This is still basically right, but it’s now even looser when it comes to topical. 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 (Rajiv Karia and Caroline Barlow) briefed around 300 aspiring writers on the format for the series and explained what they’re looking for.
Much like Newsjack (the BBC’s previous open-door show), DMs are Open features a regular host but rather than a singular voice, the show is led by the brilliant Athena Kugblenu and Ali Official. They’re joined each episode by a revolving cast of performers, including online sketch performers and voice actors. Worth pointing out that the casts won’t be announced ahead of each episode, so don’t write for a specific performer’s voice/impressions.
The hosts and cast perform sketches and one-liners on a wide range of subjects. This is where the big change comes in. They’re not looking for topical! Instead each Tuesday, the production team will announce a new theme via their website and Twitter. The first brief is to write a sketch that is in some way about or associated with crime. The theme is open to interpretation and you have space to go anywhere you want with it. Pretty cool, right?
For a long time, one big argument that I’ve heard is that open-door shows are too heavy on topical comedy. Not everyone likes writing about the news. Some writers think they can’t do it and talk themselves out of submitting. And for a long time it’s been seen as a bit of a barrier. Now thanks to the introduction of themes, the show really is open to everyone.
Another change to highlight, that may seem insignificant but is actually HUGE, is that the show will be recorded in front of a live audience. This was the case with Newsjack, but the first series of DMs was recorded behind closed doors. An audience brings opportunities but also challenges. I’ll do a whole blog on this but for now the key thing to remember is make sure that your script is FUN! It needs to play to a crowd of people who don’t know you. It needs to grab attention and get a reaction.
The way the show is recorded and broadcast is going to change a bit too. The turnaround time for production is extending but the deadlines remain the same. Episode one is currently open for submissions, but it won’t be broadcast until Friday 19th May at 22:30 on BBC Radio 4Extra. That’s right – it’s now a Friday night show! If you are successful and make it into the script/edit, you’ll still be informed on the week of submissions but you now get a bit longer to make people aware that you’re work is going to be broadcast. And everyone knows that one of the best parts of being a writer is getting to tell people you wrote something. Brag away, no need to be humble!
If you’re wondering, no, you won’t be told if you don’t make it into the script/edit. I know that can sound a bit harsh but there will be around 800 people submitting and, unfortunately, that’s too many emails for the team to be sending out. It makes it all the sweeter when you finally get the “YOU’RE IN” email though.
What can you submit?
Each week you can submit up to 3 sketches, 2 one liners, and 1 voice note. All need to be connected in some way to the theme of that week’s episode.
The good news is that as the themes are being released on Tuesdays, you now don’t have to lose your entire weekend going through the news and working on hyper topical material. Start brainstorming and planning on Tuesday, get some drafts by Thursday/Friday and then keep editing them up until the deadline.
A sketch is a short comedy scenario that has a beginning, middle, and end.
A good sketch also has an original take, characters that jump off the page, a clear game, escalation, and JOKES! Ideally with the biggest joke at the end so the live audience knows when to laugh. It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many sketches don’t have this.
Sketches should each be about 2-3 pages tops, typed in the template provided by the show.
Although the show has gone non-topical, there is still SOME room for some low-level topicality. Forget specific incidents and stories as they’ll be old news by the time the episode airs. But you can think zeitgeist subjects and modern day issues. So things like the cost of living crisis is going to be a part of our lives for a long time and so that would be safe to use within a sketch.
Once you know what the theme is for the week, you can start brainstorming around the idea (try searching for word associations if you’re struggling, or look at pop culture references that link to the theme). Be creative and playful. Don’t do the obvious things because lots of other people will. What’s a unique take on the theme that’s surprising but inevitable? What would make people say, “of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” Try and find a way in to the theme that allows you to show off your unique voice and perspective, whilst still remaining true to the tone of the show (which means it’s not cruel, there’s minimal swearing, it’s impartial, and it doesn’t punch down).
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.
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.
As the producers pointed out in the webinar, your writing will be sent to people who don’t know you or your incredible sense of humour. They can’t physically hear you perform the script. So your writing needs to be strong enough that a person can pick it up, read it, understand it, and most importantly, enjoy it. They need to get a sense of your voice and style just from your words. So don’t be lazy – work hard on what you submit and make sure it shines.
The producers have warned of what they call “navel gazing sketches”. Which are basically people sat around chatting. This type of scene may play well in a Kevin Smith or Tarantino movie but it doesn’t work in a quick-fire audio sketch show. Keep it lean and don’t stop moving. Remember to have a setup/punchline structure throughout that escalates. You need a satisfying (and ideally, surprising) ending. You need to show a part of yourself in your submission (not THAT part).
Don’t just deliver a funny idea – 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.
You don’t need to write intros to your sketches. This is an old feature from Newsjack/DMs series 1 that has now gone away. The producers have said that you can include a short (no more than two sentences) intro with your script to provide content, but I’m going to say that if you need some preamble to explain your sketch, then your sketch probably isn’t good enough yet. The show won’t feature intros so the audience needs to get everything they need to enjoy the sketch from the sketch itself. Y’know, like how basically every sketch show you’ve ever watched.
You might find writing an intro helps you to write your script, as it can be a good way of concisely describing the point of your sketch (for example, this is about what happens when someone tries so hard to be woke that they actually become anti-woke). But then once you’ve written and edited your sketch – delete that intro because the subtext should now exist within the script.
Also, don’t send musical comedy or song parodies. That’s what the producers said… but I also don’t like them much.
I’ve stuck my sketches and a one-liner from series one up on my SoundCloud – have a listen to get an idea of the tone of the show. Just skip the intros because you don’t need them in series two.
One-liner jokes is a bit on an unknown at the moment, so I’ll update this after episode one.
Traditionally this is where you’d send in ‘breaking news’ style lines that had a setup and a punchline. This is basically how it’ll work in series two but rather than news stories, you’ll need to write more traditional jokes. Those who take part in the BCG Pro Gag-a-Week completion will know the type of thing.
One-liners generally need to start with a straight explanation/setup, with something funny coming at the end of the second half. They shouldn’t be too long and the rhythm needs to be perfect – so perform them aloud to fine tune and edit, edit, edit.
Here’s another new feature for this series – prompts! As well as a theme, the production team will release a prompt each week. This is the setup of a joke, the first part, the bit that isn’t funny. You then add a punchline to it to turn the prompt into a joke.
Prompts are there to be used if you want them but you don’t have to! You can use the prompt for one or both of your one-liners or you can ignore it entirely.
My thinking is that if the production team are including them in the brief, then they’ll want to incorporate them into the show as much as possible. So the smart move would be to submit one one-liner using the prompt, and one that is your own creation.
Voicenotes are short bursts of audio recordings, think voicemail messages or voice texts, left by the general public. These can be character pieces, impressions, you delivering your one-liners, whatever as long as they link to the theme of the week.
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. Not only is it a different 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 so, like your writing, it needs to be as good as it possibly can be.
How to submit
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 7 episodes in this series.
Submissions open each Tuesday when the theme is released and there are deadlines on Monday at noon for sketches and Tuesday at noon 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’ll now have to upload your submissions via the BBC’s website instead of emailing. For those who used to submit to Newsjack, 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 and is now have a mini reboot for series two. There’s going to be some familiarity about it but you need to keep in mind that this is still a 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.
A few last bits to address questions you may have:
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.
Remember that everything you submit needs to connect to the theme of the week – sketches, one-liners, and voicenotes.
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 (not updated for series 2 yet… but will be soon!)
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.
Oh and hey, if you found this useful, I have a Ko-Fi and enjoy coffee and appreciation from strangers.