(Heads-up, this was written to cover series one of the show. A lot of it still applies to the new series but ignore anything about writing topical or there not being a live audience. I’ll get it updated soon… but should probably start my submission first!)
DMs are Open is the new BBC open-door comedy series that anyone can write for. If you’ve not read my previous blog yet, go do that first as it’ll tell you all the basic stuff you need to know.
You know what the show is and what you need to submit (a max of 3 x sketches, 2 x one-liners, 1 x voicenote) via the show’s website.
Trouble is, THOUSANDS of hungry comedy writers also know this. Some of them have previous writing credits and are represented by agents! Some of them are professional comedians! Some of them are still working from home and have a bit more free time than you do!
I know it feels impossible but I promise it’s 100% possible for you to have your material broadcast on the BBC. It’s a case of showing up and doing everything that you can control in order to boost your chances.
Here are my 5 tips to get your on your way:
- Actually submit.
It sounds obvious, but stay with me.
Some of the people reading this aren’t going to submit. They may be too casual and miss the deadline. They may lose their nerve. They may have a sudden family emergency. They may just be lazy. They may go as far as writing a few sketches and recording a voicenote before deciding not send them.
The number one way to get your material broadcast is to actually submit.
Not just once. Every week. On time! And use the templates!
The odds are STACKED against you. There are WAY more writers than there are slots on the show. Some people will not make the cut, not because of a lack of talent but because their thing didn’t quite fit. It may be too similar to something else in the edit, or it may have not worked so well when performed, or it was too long, or maybe it required an impression that the cast couldn’t deliver. There are LOADS of reasons why your submission doesn’t make it beyond the one that most of us default to, “I’m a terrible writer and everybody hates me!”
A big part of any writing is confidence. It’s tough to put yourself out there and the idea of sharing your work can fill people with dread. Kevin Smith says it best when he says that you need a reasonable amount of unreasonability. Some self-belief will get you further than you think.
Check out this blog on applying an athlete’s mindset to your writing. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
By submitting each week, the production team will come to know you and your work. You may not get a credit but this can lead to the formation of relationships and the creation of new opportunities.
2. Understand the show.
DMs are Open is a bit different to it’s predecessor, Newsjack as the show’s producers are a lot more open on what you can submit. This is a positive thing as it means we’re not restricted to satire or political commentary but it isn’t an open invitation to send in your poetry, picture book manuscripts, feature screenplays, or letters of complaint.
DMs are Open want your sketches, one-liners, and voicenotes.
They don’t want anything else.
Don’t send them anything else.
The show is new and its voice and tone is still being defined but there is a general theme and regular features, which need to be understood and respected.
Stick to the brief. You’ll be AMAZED how many people don’t.
This isn’t Newsjack and the show is more interested in current events, pop culture and trends than it is with deep-dive news stories. Comedian, writer, and broadcaster, John Dredge captured it perfectly during a recent conversation when he called it, “an audio version of Twitter with jokes” or as the writer, Liam Arnold put it, “Week Trending”.
Politics are still welcome, but keep to the big stories (you know the ones!) and feel free to go silly with it. Remember as well that this isn’t an independent podcast, it’s a BBC production for a Radio 4 audience and there are lines to stay inside. The political view of the show must remain impartial and balanced, swearing needs to be justified, and extreme or offensive content isn’t welcome.
3. Know that it isn’t all about you.
A common misunderstanding about open-submission shows is that they exist only to serve as a platform for new writers.
An audience will listen to the show and they won’t care that it’s written by the public. They want to be entertained and if they’re not, they’ll turn off or switch over to something decent (like season three of Barry, which is 🔥).
You are a member of the biggest writing team in the world.
Part of being on the writing team for a professional production is understanding that your work can be changed and adapted by others, without consultation, and sometimes beyond all recognition.
This is the life of a comedy writer. It is a collaborative process. Do not get upset, angry or disheartened if your work is rewritten. It is a win – you submitted something that beat the competition, delivered a unique/interesting/funny idea and stood out from the crowd!
Remember, the show is also an opportunity for script editors, producers, and performers to develop and build careers. As a collective team, everyone is working to serve the audience and deliver the best possible production.
This will FREQUENTLY mean having your masterpiece rewritten without warning. Not just a little. Sometimes entirely.
It is not about you.
I wrote about the process in detail here. This is for Newsjack but it applies to DMs are Open.
4. Write good stuff.
Seriously, stay with me.
DMs are Open will receive THOUSANDS of submissions and many of these will be very funny and well-written.
But LOTS of them will be poorly structured, difficult/confusing to follow, full of mistakes, and will fade into nothingness as the writer didn’t have a good ending.
Sketch writing for DMs are Open
Comedy is subjective and it’s difficult to say what the ingredients are for a ‘good’ sketch… but here are a few pointers wrapped up in a scenario. A lot of it comes down to clarity of what your sketch is about.
You find an article about Chris Rock’s Mum defending him following the events at the Oscars (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then this isn’t the show for you) and you decide to base a sketch on it. This is the topic. This isn’t what the sketch is about.
You now need an angle. This could be about an over-protective parent, freedom of speech, or modern definitions of masculinity. What is the point behind your sketch? What is your unique point of view? What truth are you trying to reveal? What is it that you’re trying to say to the audience in this mini story of yours?
Once you know what your sketch is about, you need to think about how it ends. What’s that final twist or pullback and how will this deliver your biggest laugh? This can be the moment when you reveal what the sketch is actually about. If you can’t think of an ending at this point, my advice is to move on. It is possible to start writing without one, but it’s best to know where you’re going and why.
Once you have your topic, your angle, and your ending; you need to create characters and work out what they’re going to actually do. This is where you’ll find a game for them to play. The fun part.
What’s the meat on the bones of your sketch? What is it that HAPPENS? What is the back and forth between the characters? What interesting/strange/funny/unexpected pattern is going to be persistent throughout the sketch? Maybe Chris Rock’s mum is demanding that he is respected but will not let him speak? If so, get into that as quickly as possible. Show it in action within the first couple of lines and stay with it until the end.
Play the game, bring the audience in, make sure every line is a setup or a payoff, and then deliver the ending that you’ve been building towards. That moment when music begins to play and you realise the characters are having this conversation on stage at an awards ceremony – or whatever your ending is!
This is a basic breakdown of the process that works for me, you may find another method suits you better. Be creative with your ideas, don’t just replay events – make them your own, use them as a stepping stone, switch perspectives (not just to another person, this is radio, your characters can be anything!) and have fun.
Keep it as concise as possible. 2-3 pages max. Delete anything that isn’t relevant or part of your setup/payoff structure. Fill it with jokes but make the jokes true to character. Build characters and make them stand out on the page (readers shouldn’t have to go backwards to remind themselves who someone is). If it’s a known person, find a funny/original take on them that is also logical. If a joke doesn’t sound natural coming out of a character, bin it.
Remember to include a brief intro to the sketch to help explain the story that your sketch is based on and to establish what it’s about. Make it like a one liner – a mix of factual information and a solid joke.
One-liner writing for DMs are open.
Jokes may be harder to advise on than sketches as there’s a lot more unpredictability around what works and what doesn’t. A bad sketch is easy to spot of paper/screen but so much of a one-liner is down to the delivery.
There are a few things that will help though. I’ve included a few links to example jokes to help, you can find all my Newsjack material on My Soundcloud.
Have a clear setup. What direction are you trying to steer the audience in?
Have a payoff that subverts the expectations of the audience. You know that moment when you think you’re about to eat a chicken nugget at a buffet and then it turns out to be fish? Basically, that. Walk them one way then hit them with something that’s surprising but somehow inevitable based on the information you’ve given them upfront. This was my first Newsjack credit.
Or think of a payoff that makes the audience mentally go back and reassess the setup and visualise it in a whole new way. Here’s an example of that.
Brainstorm ideas, words, and associations that fall out of a topic. It’ll lead you to things like this joke.
Puns can work, too. I once got a Newsjack credit with this joke.
It’s possible to create one line sketches like this.
Remember that you can turn the person telling the joke into a character based on their view point. They could have an opinion or reveal something about themselves.
Music can be a punchline. Sorry not sorry.
Keep it brief and concise.
Only include the information that’s relevant for the payoff. If the day of the week doesn’t have anything to do with the reason why the chicken crossed the road, don’t bother including it in the setup.
Put the funny bit at the end. Don’t try to add another bit after it. Know what the payoff is, deliver it and go.
Listen to each episode to make sure you don’t submit a joke that’s basically the same as one that’s used.
I also recommend that you take some time to read Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to writing a joke.
And whatever you do, remember the Five F’s! (Again this was written for Newsjack, but it still applies apart from the stuff about the live theatre audience).
Voicenote writing/performing for DMS are Open
This one’s new so I’ve not got any tips yet so I’ll go back to what we learnt from the webinar earlier this week:
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.
5. Be prepared to commit
This is the one that brings it all together. Writing good material, understanding the show, knowing your place in the team, and submitting for six consecutive weeks is going to eat up a LOT of your time.
Getting a credit for DMs are Open is not going to be easy and it’s not going to be quick. It’s going to require patience, commitment, and an openness to learn. You need to accept that your writing style may not necessarily suit the show and you’ll need to adapt. There will be endless rejection. There will be an absence of feedback beyond the acknowledgment when you make the script/final edit. There will be weeks when you cannot find anything in the world that feels funny or that you have an original take on.
Some people will get lucky. Their first ever attempt at writing a joke will make it on air. It always happens with these shows but this should never be the expectation. The expectation should be that you’re going to commit, like REALLY commit, and in return you might get a credit five weeks in, maybe.
It’s going to be hard work and you’re going to spend lots of Thursday evenings sulking. You will question why you wasted all of the previous weekend working on your submissions, only to be faced with another empty inbox whilst a bunch of writers celebrate on Twitter.
If you’re serious about getting a credit, be prepared to commit to picking yourself up again each week and starting over. One way to make this easier is to find a community of writers. This could be a local group but the easiest way is to look on Twitter and follow everybody who’s engaging with @DMsAreOpenBBC‘s tweets. We’re all in this together!
You cannot beat the feeling of hearing your material performed and your name read in the credits. It’s tough but it’s all worth it and it’s 100% possible for you.
Bonus tip: Don’t be too quick to submit. Write a draft as early as you can in the submission period and then take time to reflect on it. Edit it. Get someone you trust to be honest to read it. Edit it some more. Stay open to new ideas, angles, endings, characters, jokes, and even to the idea of binning it entirely in favour of something better. This applies to sketches, one-liners and voicenotes. Give yourself time. Don’t rush something off Friday afternoon only to get slapped with inspiration on Sunday evening. Stay open.
Oh and hey, if you found this useful, I have a Ko-Fi and enjoy coffee and appreciation from strangers.