SPS-392: How to Add Comedy to Your Writing – with Dave Cohen
“I’m scared to write comedy” Is something comedy writer, Dave Cohen, has heard multiple times from authors in any genre. Today he joins the podcast to share his outlook on humor, and a couple of quick tips to help you start writing comedic scenes!
- The recent history of the British comedy scene.
- The wide application of comedy in fiction.
- How to get started with writing humor into your book.
- Comedy VS Drama.
- Observational comedy.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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How to Add Comedy to Your Writing – with Dave Cohen
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show,
Dave Cohen: If you've got a character in your book or wherever saying too much information. Or did I say that out loud? You have unwittingly stolen the line from Friends
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first time author James Blat as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show with me James Blach
Mark Dawson: And me Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Here we are, mark in the middle of summer in the northern hemisphere, a shivering down under my daughter's shivering down under. We shouldn't forget that There are people in the cold.
Mark Dawson: That's true. And it is raining here. It's just look out the window and it is raining over the river. So my wife is quite pleased because she can't ride her horse at them because the ground's too hard. Ah, so she's been hoping, she's been hoping for rain and there's actually quite a lot at the moment. So Yeah,
James Blatch: The going is firm.
Mark Dawson: Very, very firm. Too firm. Yeah. And he's just had an operation, which means he can't, he, he can't really do too much on hard ground at the moment. So should be, should be pleased with this.
James Blatch: Really love talking about the weather in Britain. It has it's going to get warmer though. I've got the British Grand Prix Wimbledon on Friday and the British Grand Prix at the weekend. I'm very excited about both events and the weather is looking okay. Yeah. Now you have to watch on YouTube for this bit, but you and I got some gifts during the week, a few days ago. Oh, we did end of last week. We
Mark Dawson: Did,
James Blatch: Yes. And I got the most unique gift anyone's ever bought me before. And I, I find it very, very brilliant. It is. Or it was a sealed, you know where this is going? Spare part for Vulcan Bomber, if you're watching on YouTube, it's a Vulcan bomber behind me. Big Delta in four engine nuclear capable or capable of dropping nuclear weapons. R e f bomber from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties even. And the spare parts, you know, when you, you build a bomb, you have all these spare parts, a lot of them get used, some apparently don't, didn't get. So this was off the shelf and I, on a live, not a live TikTok, but I recorded it as live on TikTok and I actually unsealed it with a knife with my trusty bottle ner knife. Really, really annoyingly. I think this is one of the only tos I've recorded that can't be redone. And my microphone started playing up in the middle of it. There you go. I have to live with that. So, so I, I went through it so, well,
Mark Dawson: You've seely with cell tape.
James Blatch: They redo it again. They never know. That would be lying. But so no one's seen this since 1965 until about 10 minutes ago when I recorded the TikTok. You can go and check that out. But it's got this beautiful old wax paper. But what's exciting about this, basically it's a switch for an aeroplane. This is it. So probably, I'm going to guess,
Mark Dawson: So when you say, when you say it's exciting,
James Blatch: It's exciting,
Mark Dawson: What you actually, what you actually mean is, it's not exciting I in at all, apart from you.
James Blatch: I think this would've been mounted in the ceiling above the pilots. If I listen to this, you want, you want to hear something very satisfying. That is a perfect click. That's a precision engineered arrow click.
Mark Dawson: Have you just, have you just dropped a bomb on Moscow?
James Blatch: There are God, I'm not well maybe there are a few more satisfying things to do. And the exciting thing about this, if you get into a Vulcan today, there are a few scattered around the country. A few of them just cockpit, some of 'em the full thing. But you can get in there and look around. And I took my dad, who was a Vulcan pilot in there, and he got a little bit sad because it, it was a reflection of him getting old. And this thing, they, these things are knackered now. They're, they're a bit broken inside the windscreens all opaque and cracked. Everything looks old. Which is understandable cause they were built in the late fifties and they've been sitting out in the grass. But this is brand new and it looks all shiny and it's a bit of a Vulcan that has not been weathered. And I'm going to put it back in its case, but hang on just one more time. Can you just put the, I, I isolate the ICU too? Will you? Winco done Captain.
Mark Dawson: Oh gosh. Jesus.
James Blatch: The fun I have.
Mark Dawson: Sorry everybody.
James Blatch: It what a fantastic gift from Stuart Grant who works on this podcast.
Mark Dawson: It is a great gift. Yeah, he and it was very, he sent me a gift as well, which is he sent me something from Back to the Future, which is He knows is one of my favourite films. So that was very thoughtful and what the great films, he sent me a absolutely and a, a vinyl edition of a Depeche Mode album. I don't have. So again, very, very thoughtful of him. So we have, we're very, he's a very nice, very nice man and recommended, if you're looking for websites, we should probably, you know, give him a shout. He's he was a sponsor actually. He was, he was a little, he was a little bit ill that before,
James Blatch: Yes,
Mark Dawson: Before the yeah, shut up James. He was a little bit ill before the show and came to the show on, on Tuesday and Wednesday and was very busy. And I know Is, is is busy with, with making lots of authors very nice websites and we don't recommend many people in SVF four, he would certainly be one person we would recommend if you're looking for a website and I think it's Digital Author Toolkit, is that right?
James Blatch: Yeah, digital Author's Toolkit I think plural.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Yes. That's not why he gave us presents. So we give him another plug. He gave us presents just to say thank
Mark Dawson: You. No, I know. No, no, he just, cause
James Blatch: He's a nice guy. But we are going to give him a plug Because Digital Authors Toolkit is a fantastic place to go for an author website and I know he's pretty busy. I know that the show is does very well for him. Yeah. but he's a good business person. Street always has been. And valued member of our team. So I've got my little toggle switch. I don't know what I can attach it to. So I need a Vulcan eventually I'm going to put all the panels around this desk here. So I'm sitting in the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber,
Mark Dawson: God midlife crisis. Anybody
James Blatch: As the midlife crisis guy. Yes. Not a bad one. I could be having a failed buying of sports car. My wife bought sports guy. I suppose I should have had an affair. But Fred instead I'm going to get a Vulcan Bomber cockpit.
Mark Dawson: Exactly.
James Blatch: Okay, look, we are still sort of buzzing and recoiling from our our conference in London. It was it was tremendous couple of days. The more I reflect on, it's hard to reflect on it at the time because we're mired in the organisation and supporting Catherine who does most of the work on that front. But nonetheless, you sort of barely look up. But the more I think about it, I think it was good conference and simple. People sort really enjoy it. And we're now eagerly anticipating getting the video production back that will be released on August the third and fourth. So all the work's going into that now. And in addition to that, we are putting together a bunch of value added sessions, including from the aforementioned Stuart Grant who's going to do a session on a one hour author website.
So really valuable sessions. All of that will go live on the fourth and fifth. We're going to have some live q and as to go along with the launch of that. And you are not too late to sign up for that. You can go to self-publishing formula.com/digital to get your get your digital ticket and all that stuff will be delivered to you on those dates. And yeah, so that's coming up. We hopefully we have a slightly quieter period in July, quite like a little bit of time off. I don't know about you, mark. I think you're going away at some point, aren't you? I mean, if burglars are listening, don't give the precise dates. Yes. But you're going away. No,
Mark Dawson: We are going, we're going to southward for a couple of weeks. Went, cause the kids finished school this week. So Friday's their last day at school. So we'll be going off at some point in the next few weeks for a little break. When I, when I won't be doing too much work or I'll doing some work, but not too much.
James Blatch: Maybe Mrs. Blatch and I'll bring the dogs walking on the beach with you, although our dog will probably kill your dog and vice versa. Do you take
Mark Dawson: Your dog? Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Scout's a lovely
James Blatch: Dog and Dora's a lovely dog, but I suspect the two of them would be, people would be laying bets on who's going to win.
Mark Dawson: Scout is quite easy. He only goes, he's not friendly with other boy dogs, so I think he probably would be okay with Dora. Whether Dora tries to, you know, Dora,
James Blatch: Dora doesn't care what sex they are. She's psychopath. She generally does a psycho shely goes for psychopath. Yeah. She's a psychopath against certain dogs, other dogs she loves and plays with. So we don't really know until that moment, but right. She's, anyway, well possibly we might just come and have a drink instead. Okay. And yeah, so slightly quieter period. We are going to release ads for authors and we do have a date in the calendar for that. So Ads for Authors is going to be released in early September. The precise date, I think is the 13th year, the anniversary of me passing my driving test in 1984. So 13th of September.
Mark Dawson: There you Go.
James Blatch: I'm such a 1970s radio disc jockey, aren't I?
Mark Dawson: You are very, very much so. You are, well, you, you're partridges. That's the kind thing ridges say.
James Blatch: That's exactly what partridges
Mark Dawson: Say. And and everyone, everyone loves you for it's yeah. Very nice. Must be. Anyway, we've waffled much too much. We should. Yes, we've got, we've got three of these to do today over the next couple days. So we should, we should get a move on.
James Blatch: We should get a move on. We have a really, I mean obviously we are very entertaining and funny, but our interviewee today is a professional, funny person. Dave Cohen. He is a comedian and a comedy comic writer. He writes for some quite well known sitcoms here in the uk. So if you're in the uk, you might know not going out is the one I can remember. I think he's worked on lots of shows that you would've seen on TV in the past. Have I got News for You and so on. And he's written a book on writing comedy. It's not just for people who want to write comedic books like Romcoms and how to be Funny and what makes Funny and or technical side of it but also comedy for those of us who write in other genres but have some light term moments. Often we have a, you know what Mark and I used to call in our B B F C days Comic Relief character, someone who's got a bit of comedy to them. You probably don't feel the need to have comic relief in your other dark noirish John Milton novels, but I think a lot of people do. And I certainly do like, have a little bit of levity in my words, because Mark, I'm a funny guy. And it's be, it's hard to repress that.
Mark Dawson: Well, you, you certainly have Funny, that's
James Blatch: True. Such a long gap.
Mark Dawson: No arguments me.
James Blatch: Such a long ga. Doesn't matter now. If you had to think that long about it. Anyway, okay. Here is Dave Cohen who's going to talk to you about comedy and then Mark, and I'll be back for chuckle at the end.
Speaker 1: This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Dave Cohen, welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. Really looking forward to this interview. We met London Book Fair. I immediately recognise a lot of the television programmes and so on you'd worked on here in the uk. I'm a big fan of comedy, huge fan of comedy. Bit like David Brent. I'm sort of, you know, full-time self-published author, part-time comedian, not really
Dave Cohen: Chilled out. Chilled out entertainer chilled.
James Blatch: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and that's the original office for our American friends. And
but I think probably you should probably introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself, Dave.
Dave Cohen: Yes, I've, I've written comedy most of my working life. I started out as a, a journalist. I didn't really know how to write comedy or that you could actually write comedy. So I, I thought, well, if I get a job doing writing that might get me somewhere.
And this was way back in the early 1980s and there was a, a, a thing happening in Britain called Alternative Comedy, which had sprung out of the 1970s punk movement. And that was the case where people who felt that they were excluded from the music industry had just gone off and created their own scene. Are you spotting any parallels here, James? I wonder? So very much like sort of you and Mark really the, the, the sort of John Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren of the, the 21st century
James Blatch: As we're often referred to. Yeah, yeah.
Dave Cohen: Yes. But that, that was that was really how I got into comedy was because there, there was just anybody could do it. And so I, I quit my journalist job and, and moved to London thinking I'd be a comedy writer and spent 10 years as a standup comedian, which was a sort of diversion really.
James Blatch: And that's I mean, I can remember it clear, I was born in 67 and that was right. That was absolutely my era as a kid. And I can remember going from Saturday night entertainment, mainstream entertainment with guys with kind of ruffled velvet jackets like Tarbuck and Americans Won't know these names, Mike Yarwood. And then suddenly the young ones came along, which was a, an anarchic BBC two sitcom about students living in a hovel together. And Ben Elton on standup. And I'm not sure what the American equivalent of this, I'm conscious most of our audience are American but I guess s n l I guess they went from the fifties, kind of rather stayed and presented comedy to the more irreverent stuff around the same time.
Dave Cohen: Yeah, I think what happened was that we in America in the fifties and sixties, the standup comedy was, was very much New York, New York Jewish influence, very heavily influenced by that.
And then there was a kind of period in the sixties and seventies where it became much more related to the, the Vietnam War. And so you got people coming from you had Lenny Bruce, who was the sort of the original alternative standup comedian in America.
James Blatch: And was George Cohen George, was it George Coen? George Carlin.
Dave Cohen: George Carlin,
James Blatch: George Carlin, yes.
Dave Cohen: Yeah, I'm Cohen And you're also probably thinking of George Cohen the fullback for England in the 1966 Cup final easy, easy mistake to make. But yeah, George Carlin Richard Pryor particularly. Yeah. and these guys and then Steve Martin in the late seventies, these guys were presenting at a, a way of doing comedy that was similar. We had, like you say, the men with the the sort of fridy shirts, and they were always, they were telling jokes about their, their mother-in-laws and also about that the minorities that had come into the country in the sixties and seventies, an alternative comedy was just, well, let's do standup comedy, but we don't really recognise these mother-in-law characters and we don't really have, feel animosity towards minority groups.
So it was just really comedy without, without racism and sexism. And that became just a very massive thing, like you say, the young ones appeared in 82. And then I, I moved to London actually in 83. And it was that there was this incredible standup comedy scene just starting up. And all the famous young ones, people had all left these small pubs in London. So people like me arrived and we were not very good, but we were allowed, we've had like two years to get really good in private while people found out about us.
James Blatch: Yeah. We should say there was some absolutely fantastic comedy both here and in the States in the forties, fifties and sixties. Seventies, it wasn't all kind of mother-in-law and racism jokes. I can very fondly remember two Ronnie's sketches and moan wise, which were, which I think you must be a fan of as well, some of the genius of that era.
I don't want to paint it all as a, as a bleak time, but the, the irreverence and anarchic switch in the eighties was, was distinct and dramatic.
Dave Cohen: Well, I think you mentioned Ben Elton, really, and this is more where I'm coming from, and, and Ben Elton was the sort of marriage of what, what was called alternative comedy, but he also came very much from that tradition. And the young ones for all its an anarchism was very much kind of like a love letter to some of the most sort of brilliant seventies sitcoms that define British humour. And yes, I was a, a massive fan of them, and that's kind of where most of my writing has, has kind of come through in, in the sort of subsequent time, really. And so mostly I have been working on writing for sitcoms and panel shows as well, TV panel shows, and also songs where I've, I wrote a lot of songs for a TV show called Horrible Histories.
James Blatch: Oh yes.
Dave Cohen: Kids, kids TV show, which I think is, has, has a little bit of popularity in America as well. So yeah, I can, I can mention that
James Blatch: Horrible Histories has been absolutely brilliant. And it's a, it's a kind of uni, it's almost like a Star Wars universe now. So many spinoffs and films and books and so on. It's it's, it's brilliant. Perfect for kids as well. I think adults enjoy it. Yeah. And yeah. So, so,
so in your recent, the last kind of 20 years or so, what programmes have you been working regularly on that we would know?
Dave Cohen: Again, there's the British shows, the sitcoms not going out. And my family, and then also I worked with Ju just also to mention the Horrible Histories gang, they went on to make the show Ghosts, which has now become a a, a, a us sitcom as well.
James Blatch: Oh yes. It's an adaptation in the US rather than releasing the original.
Dave Cohen: Yes, that's right. And that's, I think it's a bit of one of those rare occasions like the UK office that where the actual move over across the Atlantic has been quite successful. And I think that's what's been happening in British, in comedy generally over the last 20 years or so. I think the UK office started it with Ricky ve becoming very successful in America. And then Michael Sure's adaptation of, of The Office for America. So, so it's kind of brought together. There's much, there's much less difference now, I would say between British com TV comedy and American TV comedy.
James Blatch: We are going to talk about writing and, and become relevant to authors this thing in a minute. But I, I want to talk to you a bit more about comedy before we talk about that.
And I know you've written a book to help authors and so on, but you mentioned Ju Jewish New York, and I mentioned this to you straight away because I'm such a huge fan of the sort of New York Jewish comedy scene Mm, being Kirby Enthusiasm, and I was massive Seinfeld fan. And I think it's still an important era, but I think that's almost is, I wonder if that is that like the British things that's, it feels to me what I would cons consider more British humour that Jewish New York humour than
perhaps some of the mainstream American humour, which didn't translate as well. Do you feel that's the case?
Dave Cohen: Do you mean that the stuff that that's, that, that we have now has?
James Blatch: No, I, I mean, going back to, you've got Mel Brooks on the Wall behind you. Yeah.
Dave Cohen: Mm-Hmm.
James Blatch: And Seinfeld and Gary, oh, what's his name? Chand
Dave Cohen: Chandley, yeah. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
James Blatch: And, and Larry David, obviously now mm-hmm. I don't know,
is that what we would describe as British humour? Slightly sarcastic and,
Dave Cohen: Yeah. I mean, I think it's interesting how Jewish Jewish humour in, in Britain was not never quite the same thing as it was in America. I was, there was myself, a guy called Jerry Sarowitz. Mm. and and a Scottish comedian called Arnold Brown. And we were really the only Jewish standup comedians in the eighties, but actually some of the, the biggest stars from British comedy in the last sort of 20, 30 years, people like Ali G as played by Sasha, Sasha Baron Cohen who also played ett and Matt Lucas as well, who's a very big name British comedy.
And, and they, they both, I suppose, came from the, the, the British, that sort of seventies British tradition we've been talking about. The old, the, the, the, the old school, the mother-in-law jokes, that, that kind of thing. I, I think the main difference used to be which is less so now, is there, was that, that the American comedy is mostly aspirational and Jerry Seinfeld yes. That, that's, that's the sort of classic example. And his sidekick George is a classic loser character, but British comedy was much more about lovable losers, I think.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Dave Cohen: And the American comedy was much more about the sort of aspirational Jerry Seinfeld. So e even the, even the deeply flawed American sitcom characters like Frazier he's a, he is a, a, a success. He's a big success at what he does. And 20 years ago, you would never have had a British sitcom star being successful.
They're all, we, we the kind of, they're that sort of petty bureaucracy type people, and Reggie and also Reggie Perron
James Blatch: And fat Leonard Otto played se several of those characters. The Rising Down.
Dave Cohen: That's right. Yeah. Reggie Perrin. And it's interesting you mentioned Reggie Perrin because that, that started out that was originally a novel which which was then turned into sitcom. David Knobs probably the greatest, one of the greatest British comedy writers of the last 50 years or so. He, he wrote the Reggie Perrin books. He, he considered himself a novelist first, although he wrote loads and loads of comedy for tv, wrote for the Two Ronnies and all of those sort of great sketch shows. But it, but it is, I, I, I think British comedy does have slightly more, we are a little bit more literary, I suppose, partly because we have that whole background of Shakespeare and Kins and Austin.
So, so we come from that sort of more that, that sort of more literary approach. I say Americans, it feels like it's a more aspirational
James Blatch: Yeah, yeah. The American Dream. And perhaps last question on the, on sort of wider comedy area, you mentioned that we talked about that change from the seventies through to the eighties sort of feels like it might be happening again now. It doesn't always feel in a positive way. You mentioned Jerry Sitz then, but he's somebody who's struggling to get stage space now because sort of, I'd hate to use the word cancelled, but sort of is being looked at as being cancelled because he,
because people have decided suddenly that, that that jokes were okay five years ago and no longer acceptable. Do you think that's happening again now or,
Dave Cohen: Yeah, I think I, I, I don't want to kind of o overplay this whole, you know, cancel culture thing.
It, it, it works both ways. I think, you know, there a lot of, there, there are definitely a lot of white male, 70 something famous comedy people in Britain who are saying, nobody, we, we can't get work anymore. And there is an element of truth to the fact that comedy has become more multicultural and that it's more younger people. Is that a bad thing? And not, not necessarily. And speaking as a white male, 60 something who's I've, I've enjoyed, I've enjoyed a very lucky time, really. And you know, I I I understand how much harder it would be for me now starting up in that world, but I, I think it's part of a general change anyway. I think, yeah, it 40 years now, 40 odd years since the whole alternative comedy thing started, and it's, it's be, it feels to me a little tired.
I went to the Edinburgh Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, where all the new comedy starts, and I was there last year, and that was kind of the first year since Covid that, that there were more, way more people there. But it was interesting that the standup comedians were struggling to get audiences, but the people who were really getting audiences were people who did short form sketches.
James Blatch: Right.
Dave Cohen: On YouTube and TikTok. And so it does feel that the, the, the, the change that is coming is, again, it's kind of similar to that change that happened all that time ago. Yeah. People who don't have access to the normal channels of comedy, they're finding their own way. And I, I think it's quite exciting, actually.
James Blatch: Yeah. There are some brilliant creative comedians on TikTok who've really owned that, that format. And it'd be interesting how they transfer that to this stage or the wider outside of the, that shape.
But okay. So let's talk, so a rare thing, I think you do meet people who are brilliant comedians and brilliant comedy writers, and you ask them how they do it, and they say, I don't know, you know, so that, but you are somebody who, who who does like to talk about the process and how you can be funny and how to write comedy.
And I think you've, well, first of all, we should say, you've, you've written a book aimed at writers on that subject.
Dave Cohen: I have, yes. The book that I've written, and if I, I've, I rewritten it to sort of cope with the changes that are happening. It's called the Complete Comedy Writer. It is aimed, I should say, mostly at, at people wanting to write com comic fiction or sitcom or screenplays. And I think it should make a distinction at this point that there is that, that comic fiction, when we talk about comic fiction as in the, the kind of writers we think of people like PG Woodhouse for instance Sue Townsend, who wrote the Adrian Mole books, the Bridget Jones books by Helen Fieldy, these are what I would call comic fiction.
And I think in terms of the whole world of self-publishing and what's going on in that world is what I'd talk about more is you write in a genre but it's about which, which isn't comic, but it's like thriller or young adult or, or romance, science fiction, whatever. But you, you bring comedy to it. And that's where I think I, I haven't seen anyone really kind of doing that. And I, the, the, there are quite a lot of elements in the book that will help you to bring comedy to your fiction.
James Blatch: Yeah. And I think most of our books have some comedy in it. I mean, I write thrillers, but I like there to be some levity in there. I like the banter that the armed forces have, and I use some of that, some that's always some great comedy, romance in particular, contemporary romance Lucy scores books are hilarious, but they are essentially contemporary romance.
So, so there's, there's something in it for those that's, unless you're writing really dark horror, maybe, or even then you need the odd bit of levity.
Dave Cohen: There's, there's no, you know, there are, there, there's, there really isn't a genre. I mean, you're saying, you, you write military books and, you know, what's, what could be more kind of dark than, you know, people going out and literally killing other people. Yeah. in war. And in fact, in fact that there, there is a tradition of comedy that, that there's, that deals with that. Obviously there's the thing things like from the, the novels of say Joseph Heller like Catch 22 and mash and of course Bluestone four two in Britain as well. But these are all, they, these are, you know, the, the, the, that kind of dark underside. But it does show that every, every topic does have the potential for humour.
I do work a lot with new writers starting out and people who write comedy and write drama and write fiction. And a lot of them say, I'm a bit nervous about. I, I, I'm a bit scared of adding comedy. I think I'd like to address that point, first of all. And I would say that if you can write, if you are a good writer, you can write you can write comedy and you can add, you can add comedy to your fiction. It's not the same as adding jokes, just having a string of jokes. And again, that's the kind of difference between comic fiction and, and adding comedy. But it, but you can bring humour and, and the humour that you bring is directly related to whatever it is you're writing. So as you say, you have that kind of the, that banter for that army banter.
But why, why do they have that banter in the army? Because they're going out and they're doing absolutely terrible life and death things and, and, you know, the, it's, it's like a sort of safety valve, isn't it, for, for, for, for soldiers to have this kind of black, black gallows humour, really, because it's a kind of way of kind of letting you do the thing, which is really, really awful thing. Yeah. And you'd see a lot as well with I mean, a lot of people who come came to comedy, standup comedy were doctors and I've known quite a few doctors who turned to comedy and who had very, very sick, very dark sense of humour. Yeah. But I mean, what you expect, they've kind of had to run into rooms and help people who were dying and, you know, watch people die.
And they've, they've, they've seen, they've seen terrible things. And, and so for them, humour is a, is is a kind of, you know, a way of sort of letting off steam.
James Blatch: Yeah. And I think, I think that's fairly universal. It's definitely a British thing as well, that black humour. I can remember once I did cover a really horrible fatal accident in in the r e f and about six months later, this guy's air Force jet hit the ground at 500 miles an hour, was absolutely nothing left of anything. About five or six months later, I was in the squadron building and there was a black and white crash report with a picture on the front of this, just a wreck. And obviously that was the, the accident report. And I remember saying to the squadron boss, so is that, is that, I'm not going to say his name, is that so-and-so?
And he said, yeah, I think that's a bit of him there. And he pointed at the the image and, and he was one of his mates. And, and, but that was exactly what you are talking about. You can't, you know, you can't go for those guys climbing back into an aircraft and flying the day after their friend was killed. You have to have some coping mechanisms in place. And that was one of them. And it's a, it's a, it's a good tradition and probably some sort of psych psychological benefit.
Dave Cohen: Yeah. And I think one other thing as well, we don't always necessarily see the join as they used to say on Morman wise. But there is, you know when people say, well, why should I add comedy? I kind of say, well, why, why wouldn't you add comedy? And if you look at some like the, the, the Harry Potter series, which is, you know, the most successful book franchise in the history of the Universe Bar on.
And you, you look at some what JK Rowling does with the Harry Potter books. And no, you wouldn't say, oh, they're comedy books would do you. But, but actually, if you think about the, the opening scene of the first Harry Potter book is an absolute classic comedy DC and, you know, you're talking here about British and American humour. There's, there couldn't be a more British opening than the opening to Harry Potter suburban street, classic opening of all the, yeah, yeah. And so it's like three or four in the morning, whatever, it's, it's late. And, and bloke dressed as a wizard walks up and you think, okay, well that could be, you know, some party or something. Alright, I'll accept that. And then a cat turns into a witch and you go, oh, okay, alright. I realise that. But we've, we're, we're still, we're still in this kind of normality of the suburban street and we, you know, we've no idea what's going to happen.
And then, you know, the, who is the main character, Harry Potter, and you always talk about when you first introduce your main character, you want to give them a, a big entrance. And, you know, here he comes, he's on a motorcycle being ridden by a giant strapp strapped to a giant coming from out of the sky, and he lands in this little suburban street and puts this baby hat, and you go, okay. And I mean, that is a really funny Opening. And you look at all the people who play the secondary characters in the movies, you know, you've got Robbie Coltrane already in that opening. You've got John Please Zoe Want tomaker, Maggie Smith, all the sort of big name, great comedy actors. And that's how it's written. It's a, it, the, the, the main story is yes, it's an adventure for kids, but there are all these comedy performers who bring just the little, little extras to the scenes just to kind of make it more than just, oh, it's a book about a kid who does magic in a, in a school.
James Blatch: And if we think about why people enjoy reading our books, turn the pages, this has gotta be a part of it. Right. you know, the, the reason we use humour in, in conversation is, is because it's an enjoyable way of talking. And if people are perhaps thinking, well, why, why people aren't reading through my books, this could be something that's missing in a, in a book, just that, that levity and that humour. So should we move, we should talk about more practical tips on writing it, because I think, I think you're right when you say people are scared of writing humour, it's famously difficult to write. You might make it look easy. We've been doing it for a few years,
so how can you help us mire mortals?
Dave Cohen: Well, I think, again, and it's one of those things that you think about, well, I want to add some sense of atmosphere to my book.
And I read a lot of books by Rose Tremaine, British Novelists. And I, cause I, I've also, I've, I've started writing novels myself and I've get Rose Tremaine is absolutely brilliant at, at providing a sense of place and smells and, and atmosphere. And she does it so, so, such a light touch. I sort of want, I want to be able to do it like that. Or if you want to add some suspense, you know, you'll kind of read Stephen King and you'll get a sense of how, oh, this is how you do suspense. So you want to write, you want you, you want to add comedy. You, you read some of the best comedy and you learn from how, how it has been done. So starting with JK Rowling these secondary characters are, are one of the first ways that you do manage to do it.
So you've got a kind of character, you've got the, the story is being told through the kids, and then, but you've got these teachers in the background and there is something about the teacher. So, so it's when you are creating your secondary characters and you're looking for various ways, they're, they're, it's like when you create any character, I mean, characters in drama have flaws, characters in comedy have flaws, and they, they think of themselves in a certain way, and other people look at them in another way. So there's not a huge difference between creating a, a, a comedy character and a, a non-comedy character. The most important thing about your comedy character is they, they lack self-awareness. They don't, they don't necessarily realise that they are funny or the butt of jokes. And there are so many ways that you can do this.
You know, you could make a character sort of pompous, very full of self-belief. So for instance, you would have a tea a a teacher who thinks they're the best teacher in the world, and the students all think they're rubbish but teacher believes it. And so straight away you've got a a, a nice sort of comedic conflict working there with those, with those two with, with, with that character and, and the students.
James Blatch: So that, so, so the, the flawed nature, and I can see straight away, I mean Hagrid is, is you mentioned Robbie Coltrane character in Harry Potter films who's not the brightest tool in the box. And that's kind of his flaw. He sort of failed as a teacher and banned from doing magic. But the self-awareness is a really interesting point. The more I think about it.
I was I was thinking about the other day I don't know why I was thinking about this. I saw Will Ferren in something else, but Will Farrell's performance in the Christmas film in in Elf. Which is a super Christmas film. But I think the reason it works so well is he plays it so earnestly and is completely unaware, a hundred percent unaware of how ridiculous he is. And that's what makes that film work. And if you, if he deviated as an actor or you got as someone else who did it from that one iota, that would, that would stop being as good and as funny and as lovable if he had a smile on his face. Because he kind of knew he looked ridiculous. That's, and that's might be an extreme example of something that I think you've just really alerted me to is that that lack of self-awareness is a key to that comedy character working.
Dave Cohen: Yeah, that's right. And we were talking a little bit earlier about David Brent, the the original, the UK office character played by Ricky Chave and this character all through the, the series is completely lacking in self-awareness. He, he has absolutely no idea that everybody hates him. He thinks that he's really, really popular right up until about the last five minutes in the last Christmas special, there is a, there is this a moment at the end of this the UK office where he, it dawns on him and all the, all the everyone's you know, sort of joshing him in the way that they always do. And he's always standing there going, haha. Yeah, that's really funny, isn't it? You are calling me an idiot. Yeah. And, and I thought one of the characters said, no, no, no, we really mean it Brent.
We really think you are an idiot. We really think you are pathetic and useless. And there is just like a moment on his face. And in that moment the, the show is over because that's the whole, the whole thing is built around his lack of self-awareness. And within 10 minutes of that happening, all the strands of the plot are are are the previous two series and the Christmas episode, they're all drawn together. The whole sort of subplot love story is, is dealt with. Brent gets a moment of self-awareness and meets somebody who actually is quite nice. Yeah. Like, likes him anyway, despite the fact that he's like that it's like the end of a sort of classic Hollywood Yeah. Romantic comedy. And and so, and that's it. And that's the end that no more, no more episodes. Brilliant. And you know, and obviously they come back 10 years later to do when they someone offers them, makes 'em an offer they can't refuse.
But still it's like, yes, this is the perfect place to end this because you can't do, he can't be David Brent anymore of those first two series because he has that self-awareness. So yeah, the lack of self-awareness is so important. And it's really the only difference I would say between comedy stories and dramatic stories. You, you have a character who goes on a journey and, and you have it in every book and every film or whatever, and they go through a journey and they get to a certain point where all is lost or all is won or whatever, and they have to deal with that. And they go through that battle, whatever, they slay the dragon, they, they, they zap the spaceships, whatever, and they come through it and they've grown as characters. And that's the only difference that in comedy, the character doesn't grow.
The character doesn't learn, yeah. They're going to come back next week and make the same mistakes.
James Blatch: I mean, that is, so since I've been writing, I'll probably spend a bit more time thinking about character journeys and that is something I noticed. We talk about Alan Partridge a lot in the UK as a fantastic comedy character.
I don't know if you've ever worked on any partridge stuff. Have you, Dave?
Dave Cohen: I never have. I was there at the, I was there right at the start I was doing, doing a show with Steve Cogan that and it was the first time he ever tried out this new character that he had who was this sports reporter. And it was yeah, I I mean it still, I I just weak when I watch channel.
James Blatch: Yes. I, I can't, it's, I don't know how, whether it, how it's got any, whether it's got any traction in the states or not, I don't know.
But if you, if you like comedy at all do look up Alan Partridge on on YouTube is it is brilliant. It's painful sometimes to watch. Yeah. But one thing I noticed, so they did a film Alpha Pap, I think they're supposed to do another one. I don't They're going to do that. Yeah, yeah. Oh, they're good. So Alpha Pappa, and when you do a film, it's a bit different from a 25 minute TV episode or even a 10 minute short. There has to be this, this story arc, this character arc that you have to have a certain feeling at the end that this, that this journey's taken place. And what I did notice about that for the first time is what you've just pointed out is that Alan Partridge did not change one iota. He went on quite a dramatic journey in that film with a kidnapping hostile, but
it was exactly the same at the end as he was at the beginning, sort of breaking the rules that we are all taught when we're writing novels about our main, main character who has to change and has to come to some sort of realisation at the end of their, their journey.
But that's opposite for comedy.
Dave Cohen: Yeah, it is. And it, that there is a kind of difficulty in this. There is a contradiction. And now that very much the thing that with Netflix is comedy drama, Netflix say, oh, and, and the bbc write a lot for the bbc. And they all the, the commissioners always say we want comedy drama now. And in my head, well, you know, okay, so comedy you want characters who never learn and, but you want drama as well. So the character needs has to learn.
James Blatch: Needs to learn. Yeah.
Dave Cohen: Yeah. And it's like, how do you, how do you find a way of marrying that? And you can do it. And there are, there are characters for instance, the American Show, modern Family has this character Phil Dunphy, who's the sort of all-American sitcom dad. He
James Blatch: Loves Phil.
Dave Cohen: The, yeah, everybody loves Phil. He wants to be the perfect dad. He wants to be his dad. We all loved his, his dad. And he always tries, but he, he tries too hard. He's always trying to do stuff for his kids or his wife, and they, they, they're just too big and they're too grand. And they're, they, they fail. They always fail. And so there's a point about two thirds of the way into every episode of Modern Family where Phil has failed. And it's just like an instant that, that the mask drops and in, and instead of being there, hey, oh God, I'm wacky. There's just a moment of like real anger and we get, and we're all shocked because, you know, that's not, that's not the Phil we know, but actually that's the real Phil and we like him now because we've seen him for real.
And then, so there's about four minutes of the show left, and then the next four minutes he kind of, he, he realises and he grows and he understands what he did wrong. But by the end resets Yeah. Completely reset. He's completely forgotten it. And that's like real life, isn't it? Yeah. I mean, we think about, we think about how many times you've been told to take out the rubbish on Tuesday night, and, and no matter how many times, you know, you get told off for doing not doing it, it doesn't sink. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll remember, I'll remember. It's just, you don't remember. And so come next week, you've forgotten it again. Yes, yes. And that's and that's how you can keep a comedy character going. How you can have a, like a secondary character a bit. And you know, you think about some of these characters, like you mentioned Hagrid in, in Harry Potter, and he keeps making the same mistakes.
We love him anyway because he's just, you know, he's just clear and simple and he loves Harry and that's what all he lives for is that he loves Harry. So, but he can't stop making the same mistakes and, you know, and it, and, and it's, it's like Charlie Brown and Lucy, you know? Obviously I will, I promise this time I'm really going to pull the ball, keep the ball there, I'll, you know, kick the ball and then, and each, each time she takes it away, well, you know, I have to take it away. It's who I am, it's what I do, you know? So, but there's always room for that in when you're creating comedy characters.
James Blatch: One area we haven't talked about is observational comedy or observation, which I think you're, I'm, I'm sure looks from the outside, like another very important part of it.
You mentioned Phil Dunphy. I, I was thinking as you were talking about him, that he was reminded me of Clark Griswold from the National Lampoons Films as this earnest father who, and I think this is great observational as a father who's got, trying to get enthusiasm going and has been greeted by arms folded and grumpy teenagers. And, you know, it does feel exactly like Phil being Phil and Clark Griswold on occasions.
So that observation of real life, that's seems to be another key part of, of comedy.
Dave Cohen: Yeah. I mean, I, I, again, I, I've talked a little bit about, you know, the difference between writing a comedy thing and adding comedy. And when you're writing a comedy thing and you put lots of jokes in, and that's fine. And I think that's what another of the things that stops people from writing, they think, oh, I can't write jokes.
But actually jokes are the, the, the are the way to sort of get those observations in there. And Jo jokes are kind of exaggerations of real life. So that's really all they are. And those very famous British writer called Dennis Norden who through the sort of forties, fifties, and sixties was, was Peerless in, in Britain the great comedy writer. And he describes Jo joke, he defines a joke. He says every joke is a momentary removal of sympathy. And I, I just thought this, ever since I heard that phrase from him, I've kind of looked at every single joke and just thought, oh, yep, he's right. Yep. That one you think, no, that can't be it. And know, and, and it is. And, and all it is is that you are taking something that is a reality and mocking it. But we, but that doesn't mean, therefore all comedy is cruelty.
Because the keyword in there is momentary. It's a momentary removal of sympathy. So yes. And then the moment we laugh and also we go thank goodness that's not me. But then we also look at that moment and go, yeah, I can see why, why he acted in that way. And it's funny when people then mock him for it, but it's interesting that a lot of people look at sarcasm, which I think again, is a great British export. That's, we, we do sarcasm better than anyone else.
James Blatch: We will, we, we should get gold medals in the Olympics for
Dave Cohen: We could definitely, if, if if America is aspirational, we are just sarcastic. Oh yeah, well done mate. Yeah. Oh, very good work, Yeah. But there, there is also, I mean, and, and there's been surveys done about this as well, actually.
And then one of the writers that I've written a lot for a British comedian Lee Mac, who is brilliant comedian and who's in the sitcom not going out, and he's just a lot of panel shows. It's just naturally funny guy.
James Blatch: Very, very quick witted.
Dave Cohen: Very quick witted, and sarcasm is, you know, key thing. John Clease was also very much a sort of king of sarcasm and that became very popular.
James Blatch: Although we should also say Chandler's character and friends made a a, you know, his century plank was sarcasm as well. So it's not entirely British.
Dave Cohen: Yeah. Although I would say that the central thing about Chandler is that he, he uses humour to hide, hide his insecurities. Which, which is a, which is just a genius thing for comedy writers to be able to say, we've got a character and they can only joke.
And it's like, you've got the best gag writers in the world writing for this character. And so, and
James Blatch: Every line will be a deflective joke. Yeah.
Dave Cohen: A absolutely, totally memorable.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Dave Cohen: And by the way, and lots of people, I should just say this, if you've put, if you've got a character in your book or wherever saying too much information, or did I say that out loud? You have unwittingly stolen the line from friends because these lines were so they that's the, that was,
James Blatch: Was that the first appearance of Tmmi and Yeah, yeah. Did I say that loud?
Dave Cohen: So they became cliches overnight because there were such brilliant lines. Yes. And so everybody thinks, oh, it's something that's out there. No, you took it from friends.
James Blatch: Wow. I didn't realise that.
Dave Cohen: Yeah. So it's worth, worth remembering that. And I've completely forgotten why Yes.
James Blatch: I was sorry. Interrupted you about John Cle and Lee Mack.
Dave Cohen: Oh, yes. I interrupted myself. So yes, sarcasm, which is a great British trait. And Americans, I do appreciate our sarcasm as well. And Larry, David you mentioned as well. But sarcasm and warmth, they are kind of, they, they, they, they're often talked of in the same way. So there is, comedy isn't just about cruelty, it's also about warmth and a shared experience. And that's another, another reason why, why wouldn't you want to have comedy in your, in your action adventure or whatever, really? So yeah.
James Blatch: Well, I'm, I, absolutely, I could honestly go on for another couple of hours. Dave, I'm going to have to bore you over a pint at some point. A friend of mine who, who's he's actually a Sky News presenter, but he and I have occasionally sat down and tried to write comedy, but we'd perhaps buy you a pint one night and you could teach us in, in five minutes how to do it.
And then we'll be genius comedy writers. But
do you want to just give you a book, a proper plug Dave, so people know exactly where to find it?
Dave Cohen: Yeah, as I say, the emphasis on the book this is, I'm holding it up for those of you who are not listening complete comedy writer, it's, it is more about writing comic fiction as I say, yes, or screen comic screenplays. But a lot of the, the things that are in there are like creating these secondary characters or things like creating subplots is another area you'd want to look at. Having a, having two idiot characters nothing, nothing ever suffers from having two idiot characters in it. And, and even like the darkest, some of the darkest books or shows or I think there's a, again, a British show called Happy Valley, which I know, I know you are a fan of James as well, and that's a very deep, dark, horrible gruesome murder mysteries story, but it's also got some fantastic comedy.
And there're these two, there, there sort of two hard guys who caused quite a lot of trouble in the last series, but one of them is getting married on Wednesday and he has to go on Tuesday and create some big commotion in a courtroom. And, and so he gets, he gets beaten up and, and this, this just this sort of ridiculous idea that this guy who's involved in this sort of terrible crime things, he's, he's, he's off to get married the next day. Oh God, God, what's, what's she going to say when she sees this bump on my head? You know, I,
James Blatch: I was going to say, comic relief is something I remember from my B B F C days when we were film examining, giving certificates. It's actually pretty important in films particularly, and we would note it if there was a, a heavy duty scene and a strong use of language or something that might change the certificate of the film, but if there's comic relief, it does dissipate that, that tension, that tone and the context of, of the scene.
And there's a reason why writers put comic relief in the kind of texture and tones. It's something else people would definitely benefit from understanding, even if they're not writing direct comic fiction.
Dave Cohen: Yeah. And I, I'm work, I do work with writers as well. If you want to get in touch with me and I, my website is Dave cohen.org.uk and you can find out how to do that from that website. So yeah, I, I, I meet with people and chat with them, meet online and, and find out what they're, what they're looking to do and what they, how they want to kind of bring comedy in. And I can sort of help them and I can look at the work and, and tell them how best to, to go about that.
James Blatch: Superb. I've absolutely loved chatting to you, Dave. I'm so pleased we bumped into each other over a drink at in London back in March. And yeah, let's stay in touch.
Dave Cohen: Well, yes, I look forward to seeing what you and your Sky Reporter friend have to offer
James Blatch: With the next big things in our late mid age. But we may, we may, may miss that boat, but we'll we'll have fun trying. Yeah.
Speaker 1: This is the self-publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: There we go. Okay, so that was Dave Cohen and I, I foresee at some point, maybe even doing a little bit of like a live or q and a with Dave. Cause it's a really interesting topic. I think people who do write comedy might want to pick the brains of somebody who makes a living and has spent a career writing comedy. As you know, Jimmy Carr's a great community. I think he has crossed over to America. People probably know who he is. And he does talk about, he, he, one of his tools was called the Joke Technician. There's a technical side to comedy. Was, there's a quote in there in the interview. I can't remember who came up with it, but he said, comedy is the, I think with Barry Cryer is the brief suspension of sympathy. There's a sort of harshness to a joke, you know, and he said almost every joke you can think the reason it worked is you have no sympathy briefly on the poor soul who's the butt of that joke. Okay. Right. Mark, I'm off to play with my switch.
Mark Dawson: Okay. Yeah. Very good. Incredibly geeky for, that's, that's what we, we come to expect
James Blatch: I think. I think we need to cut in the auxiliary power chewy. There we go. But then the auxiliary power chewy. Yeah, that's a really stupid bit. Start. I start cause hands says twice
Mark Dawson: Listing
James Blatch: And then, and then chew Chewy. Just the kn fuck. At this point, chewy moves the knob right in front of both of them. I'm thinking him. Why don't you just do it? It was so important anyway. Probably shouldn't go down that, that rabbit hole. I think that's it for this week. There'll be more serious stuff next week. Tune in will
Mark Dawson: There. Okay. I, I'll wait with bated breath.
James Blatch: Alright. Good night all you truckers
Mark Dawson: Out. Yeah,
James Blatch: And that is it. All right, all that remains for me today is this goodbye from him
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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