Newsjack Series Ten Critique with BONUS JOKES!

By Garry Abbott

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As you may or may not know, the topical ‘sketchbook’ comedy series ‘Newsjack’ has just finished its tenth series on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

The show has an ‘open-door’ policy for writers, allowing anyone to submit sketches and jokes each week to be considered for the script. Over the last three series I’ve had credits in 9 episodes (two in series 8, five in series 9 (including a sketch) and two in series 10). I would say I’ve been lucky to get these credits, but that’s not entirely true – I’ve also been really disciplined.

Each week I prepare the maximum number of sketches and jokes they allow you to submit. I spend all week keeping an eye on the news, making notes if I spot something with potential. I then spend a whole day getting my sketches together and the best part of another day writing one-liners. Basically for six weeks I lose my Sundays and a good part of Monday to topical writing!

The format of the show changed a bit this year. I was invited down to Comedy House in London to attend a briefing where we were introduced to the new format by the new producers. I got to meet a bunch of other writers. The BBC provided beer. We all went to the pub afterwards. It was good.

The new format was challenging. Less submissions allowed, a strict format for one-liner jokes, and a new ‘feel’ to the show. A lot of these changes were centred around the new host, stand-up comedian Romesh Ranganathan, who now opens the show with his own routine before the rest of the cast join him to start performing the submitted material.

There was some unease at these changes, hence the writers briefing I think. It felt initially like we were losing nearly ten minutes of potential joke placement to Romesh’s monologue, and that the prescribed one-liner formats were stifling (previously you could just submit as many jokes as you could fit on a page, in whatever style/approach you felt like – now you are allowed three jokes in each of three categories – ‘coming up’, ‘breaking news’ and ‘listings’). However, things change and people must adapt – and I got the feeling that most writers (like myself) just knuckled down to the new show and vowed to see what happens.

So what did happen?

To start with the positives; I liked Romesh’s opening monologues. It feels fine to me that a show that is designed to bring people up through the ranks should do the same for the cast and crew as it does for the writers. I’ve already heard Romesh appearing since on the ‘News Quiz’ (Radio 4) and hopefully thanks to Newsjack we will hear/see more of him in the future. The change-up to one liners worked quite well – breaking up sketch features and keeping the show interlaced with snappy jokes between longer sketches. As per usual, the rest of the cast did a sterling job with most of the sketches, especially Lewis Macleod and Morgana Robinson (who joined the cast this year, a steal for the producers I reckon). And most of all, it did what it set out to do: showcasing material by none-commissioned writers from across the country who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

I think there is a general reluctance amongst the writers to say anything negative about the show in the fear that they may never get a broadcast credit again! However, what sketch show have you ever heard which doesn’t have its ups and downs? The famous hits and misses? And naturally, there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me. I think most of them generally stemmed from a bit of an identity crisis throughout the series. I registered a shift away from satire towards goofy-entertainment style stories – but then I think it went back towards satire again towards the end. This is understandable when the new producers had a vision for the show and were willing to test things out to see what does and doesn’t work. This may have led to come sketch/joke choices for the purpose of fitting the new vision, rather than being the best of the bunch. But under such pressure to collate, choose, redraft, rehearse, perform, record and edit the show each week, I think we can forgive the odd groaner or sketch that didn’t land quite so well. Also, Romesh isn’t a character actor, so we only had one male voice that could do diverse characters (in the form of the vocally-talented Lewis Macleod), so some sketch options felt thin, and there was a lot of one-to-one interview style sketches in order to give Romesh a role to play (as himself). These often worked quite well, but I think another male character actor would of helped a lot here to broaden the options.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the old format was also not perfect, because topical sketch shows often aren’t (even the ‘Now Show’ has it’s off-moments). So all in all, I think it hit the brief, raised more smiles than not, and explored some new territory at the same time – all good work for when they start planning series eleven (I hope).

Anyway, I’ll leave you now with a few of my jokes that did and didn’t make it into this series (I haven’t included the sketches here, I will put them up another time). Well done to all those who got stuff on, and all those who didn’t but stuck at it anyway.

 

Series Ten Hits:

BREAKING NEWS:

“Michael Jackson to release a new album in May, proving it really doesn’t matter if you’re black or white… or dead.”

LISTINGS:

“Later tonight, The Archers, at whatever time you’re not expecting it and can’t get to the radio to switch it off in time.”

 

A selection of my series ten rejects:

BREAKING NEWS:

“World plans to celebrate a hundred years since the first World War by starting a new one.”

“Studies have found that obese children may be slower thinkers because they take more time to answer questions in class. That’s a bit unfair if you ask me, it’s hard to talk with a mouth full of Mars bars.”

“Misunderstood threat from Obama laughed off by Russians who say their asses are already frozen.”

“MP John Mann warns Labour not to be ‘too clever’ if they want to win the next election – ‘not a problem’ says Ed Miliband as he cleans his ears out with his tooth brush.”

 

COMING UP:

“As the row over the upcoming budget escalates, we’ll be investigating if George Osborne has got Balls on the ropes, or if he just keeps them in his pants like everyone else.”

“Following the announcement that 100 year olds in the UK have increased by 73%, we’ll be investigating how they got so big”

“Grant Shapps will be trying to explain why he doesn’t think it was racist to refer to the UK as Bingo Bingo land.”

“Plain packaging on cigarettes: we’ll be investigating if it would be a more effective deterrent to only package cigarettes in actual planes.”

 

TV/RADIO LISTINGS:

“New to ITV! Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen goes head to head with Kelly Hoppen to try and redesign a town house in only twenty minutes! That’s: Game of Throes, coming soon.”

“This Friday on ITV2 – ‘Birds of a Fuhrer’: Long suffering Eva is in for a big surprise when her new husband tells her what he’s got lined up for their honeymoon.”

“Radio 4 has assembled the coalition cabinet to ask what songs they would play if they were ship-wrecked: in ‘Desert Island Dicks’ – tonight at nine.”

“Can you guess the celebrity just by taking a look around a triple heart bypass? Find out tonight in ‘Through the Keyhole Surgery’ on ITV2!”

“Join Jeremy Clarkson and friends as they score some high quality drugs from a bloke round the back of a pub, in Top Gear, tonight at nine.”

The death of a script & knowing when to move on.

After my absence (ten days in Menorca don’t you know, with a few days of sloth either side), I thought I would kick off my blog entries again with a little more about rejection. Ah, rejection, my old friend.

                You see, dealing with rejection comes hand in hand with life anyway, but I’ve found even more so when trying to pursue a career in the creative arts. I’m sure you will have at some point heard the familiar story of a now-famous author who collected rejection letters by the box load, the pop and rock stars that were turned down by some retrospectively stupid talent scout. Well, that’s because it’s true no doubt. There must be a handful of people who tried something first time and were given licence to continue by some purse-string, but I would guess it is the few, not the many.

                The more important question I’ve found is how you deal with it and what you make of it. There seems to be a number of stages and responses that occur, whether you like it or not, normal, human responses to someone telling they don’t think you (or your work) is good enough:

DenialYes it is good enough! The person has obviously had a taste transplant or wasn’t paying close attention! They have all the potential-spotting potential of a grapefruit!

Woe Oh god. It’s not good enough. I’m not good enough, basically. I may as well give up on everything, ever.

ResolveSo, one person doesn’t think it’s good enough? I need to try someone else then. Do I trust the future of my work to one person I’ve never met, who for all I know, didn’t even read/hear/see the thing? Keep on at it.

AcceptanceYeah. It isn’t good enough. I need to start again and make it or the next project better.

                Can you guess which two of the above are my recommended options in this situation? That’s right, resolve and acceptance (in that order – resolve has to give way to acceptance eventually, if rejection is still happening). Not saying that I’ve eliminated denial and woe, they are instinctive reactions, you can’t stop them, but you can deal with them.

                To use an example that spurred me into writing this brief exploration of rejection, I’ve just had two rejections for the same sit-com script from two different production houses.

                The first was the BBC. They have a submission window twice a year now where you can send off your scripts for any genre/platform, along with the thousands of others, and hope it progresses through the review stages. First stage, where 80% of all submissions fail, is a scan through the first ten pages. If nothing jumps out, slaps the readers face, tweaks their nose and says ‘I’m fresh, unique and exemplary!” – you won’t get past this stage. Which is fair enough. This is the stage my script failed at. Which again, is fair enough. After this stage, if you are lucky, the remaining 20% of submissions get filtered further by more detailed reading and second opinions, and they are eventually left with just 1% being taken further, and even then there is no guarantee it will get past the first development meeting and even get made.

                Unfortunately, being one of thousands rejected at stage one, you get absolutely no feedback, other than the generic ‘don’t be disheartened, it just didn’t grab out attention this time etc…’. So, I have no specific advice to build on here. I understand why they can’t offer this though, they really do have a lot of scripts to read.

                The second rejection I received was from an independent production house, responsible for most of the better radio comedy on BBC4 at the moment, and a huge chunk of the television comedy legacy to come out of the rallying, alternative 80’s and beyond. This was what I like to call positive rejection. I received a letter, specific to me, referencing my script name and the characters in it, with actual feedback about the reasons for not wanting to take it on.

                Before I go into those reasons, here is the programme synopsis, can you spot why it failed?

“Set in and around the offices of small-town weekly newspaper ‘The Herald’ in the fictional market town of ‘Dulton’ in the Midlands. The Herald and its small team are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of a new editor, Barry Barryson, an American with a mysterious past who seems to have walked straight out of the ‘Daily Planet’ and into rural England. Barryson wants sex, scandal and scoops, but these things are in short supply in a town where planning application for a new lamp-post is front page news.

                Senior journalist James Boon is the old guard of an easy life and easy journalism. The arrival of Barryson rocks his world, and he doesn’t like it. Together with his junior journalist Erica Roberts and photographer Steveo Brough, he is determined to oust Barryson or at the very least, ignore him and his crazy ideas and hope he eventually goes away. In the meantime however, the paper must go on! That cow that thinks he’s a horse won’t interview himself.

                 ‘The Herald’ will revolve around the main cast of Boon, Erica and Steveo while Barryson wanders in and out of the action with frantic speeches and bizarre ideas that set the pace and story of the action. It will focus on the dynamic between the core cast within the coverage of the various twee local news stories that arise in Dulton. Other characters will come in as necessary for each storyline, but never at the expense of the core cast who will drive the episodes with their banter and reflections on events, rather than being overly ‘situation’ based. Boon is the dominant voice, the real leader of the group, who believes himself to be senior in both years and wit to his junior colleagues. In this he is at least half right, but as with all great schemers, his plans often go awry.

                In this pilot episode we are introduced to the cast through the arrival of Barryson and the reactions of the existing staff. Future episodes will continue to run the core plotline of Boon’s attempt to oust or avoid Barryson, while introducing individual plots based on various overblown local news stories.

                This idea was inspired by a weekly newspaper in a small town where I used to live that literally ran an article once on a cow that thought it was a horse. It was published weekly, so if anything exciting really did happen, you had to wait a week to read about it. This paper and others like it are a constant source of comedy plots so I think ‘The Herald’ has potentially a long life-span without fear of falling into cliché and forced situations.

                Coupled with a vibrant dynamic between the main characters and their individual stories, I believe this is a formula for a successful radio comedy along the lines of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Cabin Pressure’, and will appeal to a similar demographic.”

                Okay, so without the actual script to read (available on request by the way), maybe this isn’t enough to go on, but I will give you a clue – it was the crazy American editor. At least, that was one of the reasons cited in the rejection letter. His presence, his character, just wasn’t ‘believable’, I’m told, and I agree.

                The positive feedback I received was that the opening scene was ‘better than most’ and made the producer laugh. The opening scene featured the existing staff of the newspaper talking amongst themselves, and as I was writing it, I felt at ease with the dynamic. Unfortunately, this scene led up to the arrival of the new crazy American editor, bursting into their lives, and basically disrupting my easy dynamic and setting the tone-o-meter to ‘whacky’.

                This may have worked for other production houses – think of the IT crowd with the two bosses (played by Chris Morris and Matt Berry respectively). They were both ‘whacky’, ‘whirlwind’ characters who owned all their scenes and scoffed in the face of believability… but it wasn’t the producers of ‘The IT crowd’ I had sent this to, and even if I had, would they want to pursue another show with that kind of force present in it, having done it so well already?

                So do I re-write (again) this script sans whacky American editor? No. I don’t think so. I think it’s time to move on. This was only my second attempt at a sit-com pilot script, which I had already adapted from a TV script to Radio, figuring that the overheads of radio production would make it more likely to get looked at (a tip I still think is correct). The original TV version had its own round of rejections some time ago, and all in all, this idea is now a few years old and it’s sad to see it limping to its demise, one rejection letter at a time, when I could just take it out back, and blow its brains out.

                I have reached acceptance, and now it is time for something new, learning the lessons that this script has taught me, absorbing the advice of the industry professionals who have offered it, wrapped as it was in rejection, and pouring this into the next project. Of course, this script will lurk in the background, and may even surface again one day, but even if not, it will be just as important as my successes, for it will have informed them and shaped them by its negative presence.

                I suppose there is some kind of metaphor in there for more important things in life, but that wasn’t the point, but if you want it, take it… I don’t care. Eat my metaphor.

                Thanks for reading.

                Ps – If anyone wants to read the script of ‘the Herald’ – please message me. You are welcome.

                P.ps – If any ‘budding’ writers are reading this, one thing I need to mention, while this script was being submitted and I was waiting for a response, I didn’t sit idle – Sit-com scripts are just one aspect of my work, and the best advice I’ve heard when submitting work is to forget about it until you get your response. In the meantime I worked on several other projects, and that is the key. There’s no point writing one thing and then waiting for several weeks or months to find out it has been rejected. Send it, move on, send it, move one and so on.