Developing ComedyLessons from our session with Jon Petrie & Meghan Cruz
Jon Petrie and Meghan Cruz share advice for comedy writers looking to refine their craft.
Throughout May 2020, our BFI NETWORK team hosted Genre in Focus: Comedy - a season of creative masterclasses exploring funny film and TV. As part of the programme, we had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Jon Petrie, then Commissioning Editor for Comedy at Channel 4 and now Head of Comedy at Broke & Bones, and Meghan Cruz - Development Executive at Baby Cow Productions.
Meghan and Jon shared tips for writers looking to refine their work and perfect their pitches to production companies as well as insights from their experiences working on recent success stories like Jamie Demetriou’s estate agent farce, Stath Lets Flats and Jon Pointing’s self-shot lockdown web series, Key Worker.
We’ve picked out a handful of the key lessons from the session below - and the full conversation is now available to watch via the BFI YouTube channel. Our thanks to Jon and Meghan for sharing their time and their knowledge, and to the session’s host - Newcastle-based comedian Hal Branson.
Pitch your pitch right
Want to get your comedy project picked up by a production company? It all starts with the pitch. Your approach should be authentically you, representative of your work - oh, and funny. No pressure.
You’re applying for a job, but it’s also your job to be funny. Deadly serious won’t do, yet labouring a joke never helps either. Work on your tone, find the perfect balance and pitch your pitch right.
A lot of newer talent try to be gimmicky in their approaches. I really appreciate that they’re trying to stand out from the crowd and I understand the effort that’s going into a pitch like that. But trust in your work.
That sounds clichéd, but sometimes when I get an approach that’s gimmicky it makes me question how much belief there is in the work itself. Just lay out who you are and what you think is funny. If I don’t think it’s funny, that’s fine: maybe I’m not the right home for it. There’s something like 200 other scripted production companies in the UK. If your thing is good, it will find a home.
I would say, though: if you’re a comedy writer, whatever you’re writing in a pitch to a production company should be interesting; it should be in some way funny. If it says “Dear Sir/Madam” or it’s a really dry email, that says a lot to me.
No one has to know that you spent an hour composing an email that’s a paragraph long, but it’s really important because that’s the first thing they’re going to read. Anyone that I’ve ever worked with has always made me laugh in their writing – even if they’re just sending text messages. That innate way of writing funny; it’s really important.
You can find a bunch of comedy bibles and pitch documents online. And it’s so great when they get the attitude right. The Succession pitch has the show’s tone; it’s so representative of what that show is going to do. BBC Writers Room has loads of scripts that you can read, Shore Scripts has bibles and pitch documents that you can find. - Meghan Cruz
What to include
You’ve read how your favourite sitcom landed a producer, gone through a dozen drafts of your opening paragraph and your email is finally ready. What else are you sending with your pitch?
There’s lots of options here - from taster tapes to treatments to series development plans to pilot scripts. Different producers will like different things, but what they’re all after is a good idea. Focus on something that showcases your writing in the best light, don’t worry about including every bit of industry paraphernalia.
Personally, I don’t like series development documents that much. I think they can be a bit of a waste of time in some cases. I don’t like reading treatments either really. I’d much rather watch a taster or read a pilot script. Less is more. Don’t send in 5 attachments. That’s really off-putting.
As a writer, you should get on with it and write it. With a treatment, you open up your idea to lots of potentially unhelpful questions and criticisms and notes from commissioners and producers. If you’re a creator, you should write the thing you want to make. You’ll get more useful notes back and you’ll work out what sort of producer you want to work with from that.
Everyone’s different, but I think that there’s so much development that happens when you’re writing that you don’t need to have the final answers laid out in a plan.
Send in the thing that best exemplifies what you want to say. Who are you? What do you want to say? Send me that. - Meghan Cruz
I don’t need a full treatment. I would like a one-pager – just to have something on paper so that you’re not just talking about it; I want to see your writing skills. If you don’t have a full script, then do some sample scenes. And if you do have a full script, send that.
It’s always really good in an email to send a logline, or just a line about what it is. If you send me a pitch about a whacky guy who’s the host of a magazine show, I’m gonna say that’s not right for us because we have Partridge. That’s gonna save us both time.
Jon’s right about writers focusing on writing. We have to be the annoying producers that say: “let’s put a treatment together, let’s put a bible together, we need a pitch document to sell it.” But as a creator, you don’t need to worry about that – just come up with the best idea you can and let us put everything else around it.
Character is king
What’s the one thing producers and commissioners are looking for in your pitch?
Character might be the obvious answer, but it’s not necessarily the easy one. Creating a character that’s developed, heartfelt and funny is the difference between writing jokes and writing a story.
For me, I’m looking for characters. That sounds really obvious, but a lot of newer talent think about coming up with a setting that you’ve never seen before or giving you a really great scene or a really great gag. And that’s usually not enough to hang a show off. We need to give a shit about these people, and if we don’t it’s automatically a “no.”
We are finding more and more that a taster tape showcasing character helps a pitch. With Key Worker, you see it on paper and you think: “oh, that’s a great idea.” But when you see Jon doing it, you immediately fall in love with him; you can’t take your eyes off him. And you want to be able to capture that part of your character.
Jon filmed the Keyworker taster on his iPhone; it’s not high production value. It’s so simple and it’s something he could do without a camera crew, and that’s why it’s genius. If you’re a new talent, you can be doing that now, and you can add that to whatever pitch you’re sending in. - Meghan Cruz
Exactly. It is the obvious answer, but it’s 100% got to be about character. That’s the hardest bit to get right.
Stath started with just a voice; it was just an impression that Jamie did, he wasn’t a letting agent or anything. This character was so stupid and we had to think about what situation he could be in. At that time in London, there were these queues of people trying to rent places – so a letting agent could be really shit at their job, and still be brilliant at their job. And it was a funny idea to have someone as chaotic as Stath in that environment; it was a great way to put him up against people all the time and see how he would react.
Support your protagonist
Nailing a lead character is all important, but it doesn't stop there. Your protagonist needs a situation and a supporting cast that brings out the funny in them and allows the narrative to develop.
While the right players will unlock your protagonist and your project’s potential, there’s some common pitfalls to avoid when putting together your troupe. No inexplicably wacky sidekicks, please.
Stath took years. It took 5 or 6 years to get that on TV because we only ever had Stath as a character. It took us a long time to find those other characters, and it was actually the Al character that let us realise we could have a good sitcom. He felt like someone I hadn’t really seen before. He’s this really boring man that Stath finds fascinating, and that dynamic felt really interesting.
With supporting characters think about who the supporting characters are in your life. If this was your story, think about who’s around you. Your family, your partner, your friends. What makes them interesting characters? And who can someone like that be for your scripted protagonist?
You want real people around them. The big mistake is when people try and create wacky characters around their protagonist because: 1. It takes attention away from your protagonist and 2. They’re just not believable.
Making a mockumentary
Mockumentary has been one of the dominant forms of British screen comedy since The Office landed with a splash in the early 2000s. The intervening years have seen a number of productions drawing influence from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s work - with varying degrees of success.
But recent series like People Just Do Nothing and This Country suggest that the genre still has mileage, and it remains a prudent investment for channels. For Jon - who produced People Just Do Nothing - in-tune performers, naturalistic flow and a strong, scripted base are the key ingredients for a mockumentary hit.
When the boys started People Just Do Nothing they didn’t realise that you actually need a script. I think a lot of people think mockumentaries are improvised and that’s the beauty of them. But you definitely want a script.
The development process is actually pretty much the same as you would do for a normal scripted sitcom, and it was for People Just Do Nothing. You do a writers room, you work out your series arc, your character arcs and then you beat out every episode.
Improvisation is really useful for talking heads and things like that – it helps to naturalise those performances. I’ve made unsuccessful mockumentaries in the past and where they went wrong was us just going literally by the script. The talking heads ended up feeling really staged and not real at all.
It’s important to make sure all of your actors are very comfortable with improvisation. And in the best mockumentaries, the actors usually all know each other: they’ve been in the same sketch group or they’re a bunch of friends or – as with This Country – they’re in the same family. You want to create a situation where the performers have this kind of shorthand with each other and they share jokes. It’s fairly rare in British mockumentary to have something that is completely casted.
Apart from watching as much comedy as possible and scouring scripts and comedy bibles, where else can comedy writers research their craft?
Meghan has a few book recommendations, both for comedy writing and creativity in general. Once again, your voice and your ideas are what matters - not the conventions of comedy or formatting.
There’s lots of good books out there about comedy. There’s one called Writing Comedy by John Byrne that’s very good. But I honestly think things like Creativity, Inc and Brian Grazer’s book A Curious Mind are the best for writing. They teach you how to come up with ideas more than anything; how to observe and where to get brilliant sparks of imagination – as opposed to a bullet pointed list of “how to write comedy.”
I come from a scripted background, so I know how to structure a script. I don’t necessarily need someone to come to me with a perfectly structured script – I want them to come to me with a really great idea or character, or something that I’ve never seen before. We’re the Producers: we’re going to help it find structure and a format that’ll work for TV. You need to come up with the magic.