Masterclass Recap: Q&A With ‘Peep Show’ Creator Jesse Armstrong
October’s free monthly masterclass was with Jesse Armstrong, who taught us the tips and tricks of his comedy writing, illustrated using his very own characters.
‘Peep Show’, ‘Fresh Meat’, ‘Babylon’ and ‘Four Lions’ – three TV shows and a film that capture the dry and deadpan humour that we Brits pride ourselves on. All come from the brain of writer Jesse Armstrong, whose unmistakable comedy keeps us laughing, but not too hard – that’s the British way.
We invited him to do a Q&A to an expectant audience of writers, filmmakers and vloggers and because he insisted that comedy writers aren’t always funny (although there were definitely a few laughs in there), we threw some familiar faces in for good measure.
Here are some of his top tips:
1. Write What You Enjoy
Write what you like, because it’s the mostly likely thing to catch people’s eye. People reading it can sense your interest and it will be more likely to get through to the channels you want.
2. Writing Partners Are Good But Not Essential
Writing with other people is a great way to bounce your ideas off of someone and it helps you get through your cycle of ideas quicker. If you’re comedy writer, hearing someone else laugh at your work gives you more confidence. But if you’re working with someone else, remember that there’s no right answer, and compromise is more than likely.
3. Be Flexible
Writing is a personal experience and most of your ideas have your imagination to back them up. When it’s translated to the screen, it’s going to be different, which is something you have to get used to. What matters is how the scene is going, not how closely it matches your vision.
4. Write When You Don’t Feel Like It
It’s a common misconception that comedy writers are really funny all the time. It’s an assumption that probably has its parallels in every written genre. Even if you’re having a tough time or aren’t feeling funny, grind your way through the process. Writing is hard work, and stamina will keep you going through the ups and the downs. It’s helpful to have characters you like writing for. Find aspects of their world that you find amusing, even if you don’t feel that way yourself. Even if one day’s work isn’t great, you can piece bits together to make something good.
5. You’ll Probably Offend Someone
You have moral authority over your characters, but they are characters after all. Some of the most insightful lessons have come from not very nice characters, but would you be comfortable if something your character did was misunderstood in a way you don’t like? Trying too hard not to offend can make you second guess yourself, so make your own decision, but be prepared to defend where you’re coming from.
6. Be Brutal
“Nothing will kill your script more than a joke not fitting into the character.”
If a joke doesn’t fit, doesn’t fit, don’t force it. It’s important to stay true to the characters, whether you’re writing comedy or drama. Your ideas can only go as far as the character you’ve created. What they should be based on something you’ve already shown the audience. But do keep all of your jokes (and ideas) written down somewhere, because if you’re laughing, it’s probably good.
Are you a comedy writer, scriptwriter or filmmaker? What are your favourite TV shows and films that inspire you? Tweet us – @rifemag
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