#050 Jennifer Walker

“I don’t have a process (is that really bad?)”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #050 with Jennifer Walker.

Jennifer Walker is a name that has been appearing regularly in the credits for BBC radio shows such as The Skewer, Breaking The News, and DMs Are Open over the last two years. She has quickly earned a reputation as a reliable joke writer with an amazing ability to turn topical events into something funny. I’m really pleased to of had the opportunity to discuss Jen’s work… and her enviously levelheaded approach to dealing with rejection!

When did you start writing?

I started writing professionally during lockdown. I always wanted to be a writer but it’s so hard to find the time to launch yourself and work full time. I also didn’t have a clue where to start so I was very lucky that The Skewer was looking for writers at the same time I was able to commit the time needed.

Were you funny as a child?

Yes, daft I would say rather than trying to be the centre of attention. I remember as a child trying to distract TV newsreaders by making them laugh. I was obviously too thick to realise they couldn’t see me and I haven’t progressed a lot mentally since.

What was your first credit as a writer?

My first credit was in early 2021 for additional material on The Skewer, then a Newsjack one liner around the same time.

Are you a full-time writer or do you balance with a day job?

I have a full-time sensible job so balancing this with writing can be quite hard. I tend to get a head start during the day on what I’ll be writing that evening by trying to follow the news as much as I can from my desk. That works to some extent for one liners but trying to consume enough material to write a Skewer sketch is really hard. Lots of listening to Radio 4 while driving to and from work helps.

I have a full-time sensible job so balancing this with writing can be quite hard.

Earlier this year, I spent 6 weeks obsessing over DMs Are Open. How was your experience writing for the show?

I didn’t submit for every episode because it had an overlap with The Skewer and there aren’t enough hours in the day (despite what Molly-Mae says).

I got three one liners on over two shows but also submitted some voice notes which didn’t get on. It was really liberating to have a stab at the voice notes though as it was all about creating a character rather than the intricacies of the wording.

You previously wrote on Newsjack. What changes did you have to make to your approach with DMs Are Open?

The brief for DMs Are Open was a lot looser than Newsjack, where the one liners where structured (e.g. it was a good week for, it was a bad week for…) and this freedom suited me although new writers may have missed this framework. I also think the topics for sketches were more open on Newsjack, in that any news story could be covered as long as it was done in a quirky way. DMs Are Open was slanted towards a younger audience with the emphasis on celebrity culture and social media trends but I couldn’t bring myself to watch an episode of Love Island, even for research purposes.

The Skewer is a really rewarding show to work on but it’s one that a lot of writers find difficult to crack. Can you talk through your process of generating an idea, pitching, and what happens next?

The Skewer can be extremely difficult to write for because it relies on so many factors which are outside of your control. The starting point is essentially finding a really funny or powerful link between a news story and a piece of recognisable culture, e.g. MPs behaving badly integrated into The Muppet Show or the story of the Uyghur people set to the poem Then They Came for Me to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

Once you have the idea the next step is to see what audio is out there; if you can’t get the right clips or there is too little to work with, it’s on to the next idea.

To write a sketch for The Skewer usually takes me between 3 and 10 hours because it involves going through so much audio (the news story and the culture reference) to gain the clips and each piece of audio needs a timecode and weblink.

Once I think I’ve got all the audio I need, I then cobble this into a sketch format so it looks similar to any other sketch script. I submit in written form rather than making the piece myself, so I read through the script and try to imagine what it will sounds like.

Jon Holmes and Tony Churnside are audio geniuses and can make pretty much anything come to life so it’s always exciting to hear it for the first time when it’s broadcast.

The Skewer has a massive contrast in the emotions it generates across each episode.

What’s your favourite submission to The Skewer and what’s the story behind it?

I really enjoyed pitting Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond against each other as contestants on Gladiators but my favourite pieces are the serious ones at the end of the show. I got messages from people who had been moved by the Ancient Mariner/migrant boat sinking and the Guernica/Mariupol pieces.

The Skewer has a massive contrast in the emotions it generates across each episode.

You’re now a commissioned writer for The Skewer. How did this happen and how does it differ from being an additional writer?

I was lucky enough to get some sketches onto the third series of The Skewer as an additional material writer and the following series I became a commissioned writer. This means that I am asked to produce at least one minute of material each week but very often this goes over as the show’s endings are longer and there is always the optional challenge of getting shorter pieces into the introduction as well.

Being commissioned is a double edged sword; it’s great as a confidence boost and security but it also increases the pressure as The Skewer is such a difficult show to write for. The news changes rapidly and the style of the show is so hard to pin down.  I try to experiment as much as possible which sometimes pays off and sometimes doesn’t; even as a commissioned writer, I don’t get material on every week!

You’ve also written for Breaking The News. How did you get involved with the show?

I joined the writing team part way through a series and got nothing on air for the rest of the run. At that point it was taking me sometimes 2 hours to write a gag so those few weeks were a real learning curve where I was reflecting on my own work and getting a feel for the show.

At the end of the series, the show’s producer emailed me to say that a lot of my gags had made it into the recordings so that was a real boost to keep going to make the next step in the following series. I gradually got the occasional gag on and now have things on more regularly but there are some very talented and experienced writers on there so it’s a tough field. Even when I don’t get things on air, I’ve really enjoyed the process each week and I love to hear how other writers have tackled the topics I was stuck on.

What advice do you have for anyone who is trying to get a credit on BTN?

Listen to the show and write for the happy, warm feel BTN has. Also, don’t be discouraged if your work doesn’t make it on air because it’s all about practise and patience.

Don’t be discouraged if your work doesn’t make it on air because it’s all about practise and patience.

What is your process for joke writing and does it change depending on the show/format you’re writing for?

I don’t have a process (is that really bad?), I just try and think round a news story from all angles until I hit on something funny. This can come to me instantly or a few hours later while I’m doing something completely different. The more I write, the easier I find it and if I have a break for a few weeks, it takes me a while to warm up again.

You’re having a really good run on lots of the shows that people aspire to write for… but between the credits I’m sure there’s been a lot of empty inboxes and rejection. How do you keep going?

I get disappointed like everyone if something doesn’t make it into a broadcast but I wouldn’t say I’m devastated.

I don’t think there’s ever a conscious rejection of a piece of work, it’s just that another piece was a better choice for lots of reasons. The news agenda may have changed, the audience reaction may have been better for one piece over another and also you’re always going up against much better and experienced writers so you can’t hit the mark every time.

If I don’t get something on air, it motivates me to do better the following week and look at how I can improve.

What is the Making an Impression Podcast and what was it like writing for it?

The Making an Impression Podcast was presented by Simon Lipson who invited two different impressionists to chat with him each episode about their art. This included them performing three sketches each episode and I was lucky enough to get a few of mine on. Writers were given a list of future guests so we could research their favourite personalities to impersonate and write some very farfetched sketches which incorporated as many of them as possible. It was great to have so much freedom.

Have you ever thought about starting your own podcast?

No, it would be deadly boring and there are already A LOT out there.

What are your current goals as a writer?

I feel like I’m quite adaptable so I’ll go for any opportunity that comes along. I’d love to write a Radio 4 sitcom but so would a lot of others!

I expected writers to be very competitive but I’ve found completely the opposite.

How are you when it comes to networking?

I’ve found Twitter a good place to communicate with other writers. I’ve been amazed at how supportive and encouraging writers are of each other; I expected writers to be very competitive but I’ve found completely the opposite. We’re all genuinely excited by each other’s success, probably because we appreciate how much people have worked for it. When I don’t get a gag on air, I’m always thrilled for those who have.

Are there any books, podcasts, blogs or YouTube videos that you’d recommend for writers?

I’ve never used any myself as I just listen a lot to the shows I write for and try to replicate their tone in my writing. I probably should read books about writing but I don’t have a lot of free time so I just learn as I go along.

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

A couple of things. One is the hours you can put in without result (although it’s all practise and learning), the other is the times when it’s just not happening however hard you try. Sometimes I get really into a flow of writing material that I’m very happy with and other times I can struggle to write things that are mildly amusing but not anything special. I don’t know the reason for this or if other writers experience the same thing.

I do find that the more sugar I consume, the better my stuff is so if I’m going to make a go of writing, I have to accept that I will soon have diabetes.

What makes you laugh more than anything?

Derry Girls. It’s my go to comedy when I need cheering up. Each character is solid and every line has a purpose. Even though it’s farfetched it draws you in and can have you in tears as quickly as it has you laughing out loud.

There are so many layers to it and each episode must take an age to write. It’s a real inspiration!

You can follow Jen on Twitter and view her British Comedy Guide profile.

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Back to: Writers in Various Stages of Development

The Comedy Loser

One thought on “#050 Jennifer Walker

  1. Thanks for this Chris, really enjoyed it! Jen is a Twitter pal and is lovely. It brightened up my morning. Hope you have a lovely Sunday.

    Best wishes

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