Advice on Writing Comedy – from Graham Linehan
Graham Lineham is an Irish writer responsible for the hugely popular Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. He started out as a music journalist and film critic in London and seized his chance to move into comedy writing when Arthur Mathews, who became his comedy writing partner, decided to also move to the UK. The following advice comes from an interview he gave for the IFTA event in 2010, ‘In Conversation with Graham Linehan’.
On Working with Arthur Mathews
‘Me and Arthur had this thing – because Arthur has an incredible sense of humour – and we were able to translate our conversations onto the page and it was just a good mix.
We took turns. Arthur would write two pages and then I’d sit down and read it and I’d laugh and I’d have an idea for fixing something, so I’d edit it and then I’d write on a few pages. We used to have Magic Eye pictures and basically one of us would be writing and the other would be staring at a picture trying to see a rabbit.’
‘We were very happy to throw out a scene or a plotline if it didn’t work. Writers can sometimes be defensive about notes but we would be happy to take it away and create a new plotline and ten pages that were totally different. I love that.
To me, the first draft is always a horrible, unpleasant grind but the second draft and the third draft I love because you can see the story, the jokes are getting better and bad plotlines are being squeezed out by the good stuff and then you get to a stage where the script is in such good shape that you’re literally just talking about full-stops and commas and that’s a nice place to be and that’s when the really funny one-liners come in.
I do find that a lot of writers still don’t understand how important rewriting is and how your first draft is just notes for the main draft. I see it as a bunch of notes, potentially funny ideas, jokes and situations that might work or might not. The first draft is just there so I have something to work from for the second draft where it really starts coming to life.’
On Experimental comedy
‘My thing is that telling a funny story or joke is already difficult enough, so I’m not really interested in pushing the boat out. I just want to be funny and it’s hard. When you hear an experimental piece of music, I think that’s easy to do; the difficult thing to do is create a song that’s around forever.’
On Situational Comedy
‘You come up with a situation that has to be very believable because if it’s not believable nobody will laugh. But it also needs to be the kind of situation that gives birth to lots of other situations. If the situation is good then you’re almost just transcribing what would actually happen next.’
This article first appeared in Issue 134 of Film Ireland Magazine.