Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #057 with Will and Owen Cooper.
The Cooper Brothers are a writing duo with credits for Mock the Week, The Dog Ate My Homework, Celebrity Juice and LOADS of other big comedy shows across TV and radio. They have a CV that will make even the most experienced writers envious and are now taking on short stories and TikTok. I’ve been hoping to chat with them for a while and they did not disappoint!
When did you start writing?
Will: We got our first ‘credit’ when we were 9 and 6, creating a rip-off version of the Beano for our Auntie Trish called ‘BandO’ (Which very cleverly stands for Billy and Owen), where we’d draw daft cartoons and write daft jokes. As we were the youngest kids at family gatherings, I think we always got roped into daft stuff to entertain the rest of them.
There’s other bits too, like making our own terrible radio shows on Owen’s Home Alone talk boy. I think we fall into that classic ‘get people to like us by making them laugh’ trope.
Also Beano, you can’t sue us as it falls under parody law, sorry.
You’re brothers and a writing partnership – When did you realise that you were good collaborators and how do you make it work?
Will: I think we’ve got a similar sense of humour, so we’ve always been a good barometer for each others’ jokes. It wasn’t till after university when we realised we were both aiming for jobs in media that we realised we should team up.
I think the first thing we did as a partnership was to send in sketches for a writing scheme at BBC Radio Newcastle. We were living together and it was close to the deadline so it was like an ‘alright, wanna work on some sketches for this, and also you’ve left skids on the toilet bowl again’.
Do you have a set process for how you work together? Is everything done together or do you split off?
Will: Owen’s now in Leeds, while I’m in the North East so we do a lot of work over shared Google docs and Zoom calls. It’s good because we’ll have brainstorming sessions and then go off and write something and then meet back up to review or talk things through.
There might be some clear image in my head of what I’ve written, but if Owen has read it on his own and doesn’t get it, it obviously doesn’t work or isn’t as effective as it could be. We do also like to go off on our own and work on different projects in our free time, but it’s nice to come back together to write our dumb lil jokes.
We’ve recently been working on a new script, so we divided up the work based on how free we are. As we’re both working full time jobs on top of trying to write things, we might not be free at the same time, so one of us will take a scene, then check it in for the other to review. One of us will then take the draft and go through it adding comments on things we think could work better or might need punching up. The other one will respond and then we get together to go through all the comments and cobble together a better version. That also helps for if you hit a bit of a block you can chuck it back at the other one to attack.
What advice do you have for anyone considering forming a writing partnership?
Will: There’s a lot of benefits to being in a writing partnership. We can spur each other on. I’m more prone to writer’s block or hitting the wall and Owen’s really good at helping me come through it. And then I also help Owen in other equally good unspecific ways that are too many to mention here.
It also keeps you accountable, if you’ve got a deadline but keep thinking ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, it is good to have someone chasing you up like ‘have you done that scene yet, you lazy tosser?’.
It’s hard to explain how good it is to have someone to bounce ideas off of. It makes it so much easier to get out of your own head and get an idea rolling when you talk it through with someone.
We have a lot in common, same taste in comedy, similar goals, same parents, different grandparents, which is weird. But we trust each other, we trust each other’s opinions and that helps massively in not being offended if we want to remove or edit something in a script.
If I leave a script with Owen, I trust him to make it better. Plus on Google docs you can go into the revision history and put stuff back if he fucks it.
Are you full time writers or do you balance with day jobs?
Will: I’d love to be a full time writer, but I’m too much of a coward to go freelance and not have a steady income. I work on websites for the NHS, so I do none of the heroic NHS work, but I do get an NHS discount which is sweeeet.
Owen works behind the scenes for a major national television broadcaster, he can’t say which one, but it’s Channel 4.
What was your first credit as writers and how did you land it?
Owen: In 2010, the BBC ran a comedy writing scheme called Jesting About led by Bob Mortimer in the hopes of finding new comedy talent in the North East. As we were both living in Newcastle at the time, we decided to submit a few sketches and were eventually accepted on to the scheme where we wrote for a radio sketch show along with ten other writers. It was an incredible experience getting to work with so many talented people and seeing how iconic comedians like Bob Mortimer and Ross Noble approach comedy writing.
Whether people like it or not, open door topical shows are the go-to entry point for so many writers in search of their first credit. You have credits across series 10-15 of Newsjack. What advice do you have for anyone who is thinking of submitting to shows like DMs Are Open?
Owen: Try to find multiple articles about the same story. Sometimes you might spot a phrase in one article that sparks an idea, even if it’s just a bit of wordplay. Force yourself to write more one-liners than you’re allowed to send and then whittle them down to the funniest ones. Don’t just submit the first ones you think of.
Will: Try to link two topical stories together, if you can find a link between two stories you can tend to find a more effective twist or punchline.
If you’re not getting on, it’s easy to get disappointed and want to pack it in. If you keep at it, the more you do, the better you get. Make sure you listen to the shows to see what material is being used. Oh, and before you send it off, give it one more edit. Try to be as efficient as you can with your words.
You’ve also written for both the radio and TV versions of Breaking the News. What do you like about writing for BTN and how does it differ to other topical shows?
Will: I much prefer writing one liners to sketches, so BTN is perfect for that. This is a personal preference but I also like how the BTN deadlines are through the week, whereas Newsjack had a Monday, Tuesday deadline. We really don’t want to be thinking about British politics on a weekend.
I think the tone and style is a bit different too, Des has quite a cheeky way about him, which I think suits our style a bit more and you’ve got a starting point if you know the voice. Newsjack felt less accessible to me, like trying to win a writing competition. Probably my own neurosis that shouldn’t be read too much into though.
You seem to have managed to do what a lot of people struggle to pull off – found work on a range of radio shows, including Dave Gorman’s Pub Olympics and Tom Deacon’s Road Trip. What advice do you have for anyone seeking opportunities in radio?
Owen: As someone who is a bit awkward, I always hated hearing this before we started writing properly but a large part of getting opportunities is through knowing people. Networking with a ton of strangers is my idea of hell but annoyingly, other people are the ones who have to take chances on you.
If you manage to get one opportunity, work your arse off and write more than you need to. Sometimes you might not know exactly what a producer finds funny so it’s all about flinging comedy shit at a wall to see what sticks. That’s how you impress people sometimes: just creating so many ideas that at least some of them are golden, at least to someone. From there, if you impress one producer, they’ll either use you again or recommend you to others.
Will: Yeah it’s annoying to be one of those people, but networking is a thing that helps. Most of our jobs came from working with a producer who liked us and got us on other stuff.
Being open to new experiences. As a former shy boy, I used to hate applying for stuff, going to things and putting myself forward. I think stuff started happening when we became more active with politely bothering people to see if they had any opportunities.
That also reminds me, sometimes you might get a sniff of an opportunity and then nothing happens. And you think ‘I could email them, but I don’t want to annoy them’. Email them. Media people are busy (drinking weird coffees and buying expensive furs), you need to get yourself back on their train of thought. As long as you’re polite and not demanding, the chances of you annoying them are probably pretty slim.
This is also really annoying but in the last 6 months or so, Owen started a TikTok that has now amassed nearly 90k followers. It’s already started to creak a few doors open. So make stuff, make stuff you like and then you have examples to show people. You might just catch the right person’s eye and then you’re in. You might seem like less of a risk if you can say ‘look this amount of people like my stuff, so your audience might too’.
You guys have been super busy over the last few years working on shows including Mock the Week, Celebrity Juice and The Dog Ate My Homework. How have you got involved in these shows and what was the experience like?
Owen: We got the opportunity to write for Mock the Week by impressing a producer on the Jesting About scheme we worked on, which was the first thing we ever did professionally. He was good friends with a comedian who was regularly on the show so he put us in touch. After a few series of doing that, we were recommended to the producer of The Dog Ate My Homework.
Celebrity Juice was completely different though. I messaged the production company to say I was at University and had a background in comedy writing and that I’d love to come down and do some work experience on the show. When they said I could, I was expecting to go down and work as a runner, changing bin bags and things. I was really surprised when they had me shadowing the lead writer for a few days and pitching my own jokes.
Working on all three shows was a great experience, especially because they’re all so different. It’s weird going from writing jokes about Tom Cruise’s spunk or whatever on Celebrity Juice to a joke about Henry VIII being a silly billy on a kids’ show like The Dog Ate My Homework.
My writing partner and I worked on the same series of Diddy TV as you two. We had a lot of fun working on the show. Dick and Dom are absolute legends and they seem to get away with things that no one else can on kids TV. Which sketches did you write?
Will: Yeah that was one of the best things I’ve done. I love Dick and Dom, I love CBBC and that show was bonkers. We had a sketch that was an advert for shouting and another one about Master Chef.
It was a proper good show, that. I watched loads of CBBC to get me in the right mind frame for tone and style. People would look at me weird on trains as they walked past and I’d be watching Jamie Johnson or whatever it was at the time.
The standard of kid’s TV is so good too. I would heartily recommend new writers looking for opportunities in kid’s TV, for a start some series have like 50 episodes, so you know they need some writers. I loved CBBC and CITV when I was a young ‘un. Now if I could just write on a remake of Aquilla (a sci-fi drama about a Roman spaceship, yes that’s correct) I think all my childhood writing dreams will have come true.
What does it take to write a good comedy sketch and does this process change when writing for a young audience?
Will: I don’t like writing sketches so my process of ‘Oh God, I have to actually write a sketch’ was the same. I find that our most effective sketches have a surprise for the viewer in them. You want to zig when they’re expecting a zag (I’d also love to write for Zig and Zag).
You need the sketch to be as tight as you can, get to the premise quickly, so you can spend more time squeezing the jokes out of it.
It’s important to know what the age range is of your target audience. Be careful with pop culture references, kids today are not going to get your reference to the Marathon chocolate bar. When I did the Diddy TV sketches, I was trying to make them as visually interesting as possible and keep them moving at a quick pace. Kids are smart so you have more scope than you’d think for witty quips and smart wordplay as long as it’s something they can reference.
Another thing that we have in common is that we were both finalists in the 2019 David Nobbs Memorial Trust competition. What was your submission and how did placing in the competition help your careers?
Owen: This was a script I wrote by myself about a student TV station at Northumbria University desperately trying to get better viewing figures than their enemies at Newcastle University. I think as part of the submission process, I was only required to submit the first ten pages or so. I remember being proud of what I wrote and feeling that it summed up my sense of humour nicely.
As for the second part of your question, I don’t think it helped me in my career at all haha. It was fun though.
Back when BBC3 was more than a night-time segment on BBC1 and a menu on iPlayer, you won the Funny on Three competition. What was the experience like?
Will: That was great. We had to submit a 10 page script of a sitcom and I think 10-15 winners were chosen and we were paired with a producer. The producer then helped us prepare a full sitcom script, giving us notes and deadlines. It was a really good experience of seeing that professional process and preparing us for working closely with producers.
As people who have started a lot of scripts and not finished them, it was a great opportunity to actually get to the end and receive feedback on it.
There are more people entering writing competitions or submitting to open door shows than ever before. How can people make their submissions stand out?
Owen: I feel bad when I think about some of the hacky shit I used to send in when I first tried writing for shows. I didn’t find anything funny that I was actually submitting, I was just trying to send the type of stuff I assumed the producer was hoping for. The only real way to stand out is writing for your own sense of humour.
I mentioned earlier about not just submitting the first jokes you think of too as it’s likely other people have also thought of them. Spend a while trying to approach stories from a different angle and hopefully you come up with a joke that’s completely unique.
You’ve even managed to grab the attention of Ricky Gervais! Tell us about that!
Owen: I made a video a few years ago where I inserted Ricky’s laugh into The Big Bang Theory instead of the studio audience. I tweeted it to him when I noticed he was active on Twitter and was pretty surprised when he replied almost straight away just saying ‘Amazing’.
Ricky used to be a massive hero of mine so it did mean a lot to me that he’d seen it and liked it. It wasn’t meant to be a dig at The Big Bang Theory as such, I just thought it’d make a funny video. (The Big Bang Theory is shit though, in my opinion). Here’s the video for anyone interested:
Will: I then nicked that tweet and stuck it on the website to make us look better than we are. I often wonder if it was Owen’s video that made Gervais think that God doesn’t exist.
What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?
Owen: This is probably a very obvious one but funny dialogue should mainly come from your character and their opinions on stuff. If you have a big character, they shouldn’t just say things like ‘I don’t like that dinner you cooked’, they’d have a funnier way of saying it. Your character can’t be passive, they have to be the ones that create drama because of things they say and do, otherwise you’ve just got funny things happening to a boring character instead of a funny character creating funny situations.
Will: Yeah, I think a trap we fell into when we started was filling a script with insults rather than actual jokes. Slagging people off is funny, but in a script you do need to move the story on and can’t just have characters insulting each other’s clothes if it’s not adding anything to character development or story.
I’ve seen this a fair bit too, but it’s good advice so I’m going to repeat it. Read your dialogue out loud. It’ll help you trim down the fat in your dialogue. You’ll be able to hear if anything is jarring or isn’t running smoothly. I think it’s easier to edit when you hear it out loud, you can pick out things that might not sound like something an actual person would say.
What have you been writing recently (that you can tell us about)?
Owen: Right now we’re writing a short-form digital comedy series. It’s a cheap premise with minimal characters. The idea is to pitch it out to broadcasters and if there’s no interest then we might just film it ourselves.
I think one of the best things you can do is just make stuff yourself.
Will: I’m into writing short stories and plays at the moment. I got into that during lockdown and it’s something I am planning to do more of.
How much did the pandemic impact on your work?
Will: I think the pandemic impacted my writing probably more than I realised. I really struggled to generate ideas during lockdown. I think it was because I wasn’t going out and creating new experiences or getting input from the wider world. Because we were trapped inside watching loads of TV anyway, I think it was hard to actually do good writing.
No one talks about it now, but it was pretty mad that every day you’d get an updated count of how many deaths the country had. It really didn’t inspire me to start writing jokes about dogs or whatever I usually do. Although BBC Radio Leeds were doing a thing where you could send in short stories and they’d act them out, so that was fun.
That really got me into writing short stories.
Owen, how did you get started making content for TikTok and what advice do you have for anyone who’s looking at it as a platform for their own comedy?
Owen: I was reluctant to get TikTok for ages because I thought it was just an app where kids go to mime along to songs in their kitchen (which a lot of it is) but eventually, after about 10 years of putting sketches on YouTube and 95% of them getting less than 100 views, I thought I’d give it a go. I definitely recommend it to people looking for a way to get their comedy seen. It’s a good place to experiment, find an audience and figure out what sort of stuff works well for the platform.
What are your current writing goals?
Owen: It would be incredible to have a sitcom get made for television. I think that’s the ultimate goal for me.
Will: I’d like to write something that’s performed by someone properly good at acting. You know, just being able to say “I made Kenneth Branagh say ‘bumhole’” would be very satisfying to me.
Something a lot of people miss when they decide they want to write comedy is that it’s a business. I’ve met people with heads full of ideas but no concept of the business of writing. What lessons have you learnt over the years?
Get prepared to chase people up for money. Don’t be passive aggressive about it either, just get to the point and ask for the cash. There are a ton of admin jobs if you’re managing multiple jobs at once. You need to be organised, get yourself a spreadsheet or trello board to keep track of everything. Gemma Arrowsmith once shared her spreadsheet of all the companies she’d contacted to keep track of their responses and manage her follow ups. You need stuff like that or you’re going to drown in a pile of emails.
We don’t have an agent, but I’m guessing getting an agent might help mitigate some of those admin jobs.
The other thing I’d say is ‘be prepared’, you never know when you’re going to have to do an impromptu pitch. If you’re pitching one idea, you will definitely get asked at some point ‘what else have you got?’ Have a few back ups in mind so you don’t sound like a blithering idiot. I’d say that with writing samples too, have a few good examples ready to go. If you’re emailing people and sending out samples, you will 100% be asked to send more stuff, so it’s good to have it ready.
So basically, do loads of perfect writing, have multiple genius ideas and get ready to take on a full-time admin job.
What advice do you have for writers when they reach out to industry contacts?
Will: This question set my imposter syndrome off, but I’ll try my best to answer it.
Be polite and don’t be rude or demanding. Know a bit about the person you’re trying to contact, don’t just send a mass generic email out, they’re easy to spot and easier to ignore. Be yourself, try get some of your personality in the email as you’re selling yourself.
It’s also hard to ignore you if you’ve got something to show up front. Maybe that’ll annoy them, but I also think having links to work, or asking if they have time and would they mind viewing a script. If they’re sitting on a train with nothing to do they might just start looking through your work and if they like it, that’ll be nice, I imagine.
Am I right in thinking that you also perform live comedy?
Owen: We’ve both done stand-up a couple of times in the past. I think with stand-up, you really have to be obsessed with it in order to be good at it and make a name for yourself and after two times of doing it, I realised I much preferred writing behind a laptop than performing on a stage. Especially because my second time doing it was at a gong show where I was gonged off stage after my first two jokes.
Will: I did it a few times, which was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. But you’ve got to be committed to it to get really good at it and I like being a hermit too much to actually go places every night and perform.
We’ve got to talk websites, too! I’m a big advocate for writers having a website. You’ve claimed www.comedywriters.co.uk… how did you snag that golden URL and what are the benefits of having a website?
Will: I was trying to find the catchiest URL I could, so I was trying ‘cooperbros, comedytits, writinglads, etc’ and I just typed that in and it was free. And if anyone wants to buy it off me, that’ll be 10k cash pls. I think it’s been useful to send out, but to be honest people seem more interested in seeing examples of your work.
I think if you’re regularly updating your site with blog posts and useful info it’s great for getting your name out and to keep people checking in (would you agree? You’d be the best person to answer that!).
If it’s just for keeping a list of credits and videos you could probably save some time and create a linktree with links to your comedy.co.uk profile and youtube channel. Although saying that I’ve had a few people reach out to us through the site, probably not as many as you’d think.
You kinda preempted this question earlier but if you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?
Will: If I mention Aquilla again it’ll be the most anyone has talked about that show in 30 years. I’d love to do a comedy version of the X-files. I still love that show and there’s some funny episodes. If you see an episode written by Darin Morgan you know you’re in for a treat.
I love comedy paranormal stuff, Shaun of the Dead, What We Do in the Shadows, and Wellington Paranormal are all favs. I know there’s an alien invasion sitcom coming to Dave soon, which I’m very much looking forward to.
Owen: I think we should bring Friends back just so we’ll no longer have to see 200 articles every year about the possibility of Friends coming back.
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc?
Daisy May Cooper (no relation) did an instagram live on how to create characters and it’s class:
The Eight Characters of Comedy by Scott Sedita is really good, it gives you some nice starting points for your characters.
There’s a list of apparent writing rules that Pixar uses that is also pretty handy.
This feels like cheating, but if I’m struggling on Breaking The News, I might revisit this just to organise my brain a bit more.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Owen: Writing. It’s so hard. Why’s it so hard?
Will: Networking – just lemme write something for you, alone in a dark room by candlelight pls.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Owen: Dumb stuff or stuff that’s incredibly unexpected – like Heidi Klum dressing up as a really realistic worm for Halloween or the guy that gave out warm scrambled eggs to trick-or-treaters.
Will: One time my wife had an allergic reaction to some ham, she was ok, but her head tripled in size. Also seeing a builder’s arse crack in the wild. Oh and Comedy Bang Bang, I love anything Scott Aukerman does.
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