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.”

Not good enough for the BBC Returns!

Well it’s that time again. The BBC radio 4 Extra series ‘Newsjack’ has returned, and with it, equal amounts of excitement, rejection and frustration.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Newsjack’ is a weekly topical comedy that has an open-door submission policy, so basically, it is written my members of the public rather than an established and closed writing team.

I was lucky enough to get two ‘one-liners’ broadcast during the last series and I’m hoping for at least one ‘hit’ again this time around. However, as with all writing, it is tip of the iceberg stuff. I must have submitted nearly 50 jokes last time and a handful of sketches, just to get two very quick puns into the script. I don’t mind this, and if I fail to get anymore on, that’s fine, there are literally hundreds of people doing the same each week, so it’s not easy or statistically very likely.

However, the whole process is enjoyable (if frustrating) and examining your misses can be fun. I’m yet to have a sketch broadcast, and I don’t write very many anyway (favouring puns), but I do have a go now and again. Last week I was struck by the idea of the news that Voyager 1 had left our solar system as being a bit of a ‘sounds-exciting-but-is-actually-quite-dull’ story, and tried to write something. I ended up with two versions of the sketch, both of which I have reproduced below for you lovely people.

Firstly, I wanted to do a Star Trek parody based on Voyager 1 – so I did:

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Voyager 1 Sketch – Garry Abbott

Cast:

Host –              Newsjack host.

V/O –               Star Trek style voice over

Robot –           Monotone robotic voice of Voyager 1 probe.

Host:              People often say fact is stranger than fiction, but is this really true? As the   unmanned space probe Voyager 1 officially left our solar system last week and heads off to the nearest star, is science fact really stranger than science fiction?

ATMOSPHERIC MUSIC

V/O:                Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of er, Voyager. Its 40,000        year mission to explore strange new worlds, well one strange new world, maybe, if it ever gets there, and if it has any power left to tell us what it’s like, which it won’t, and we’ll all be dead by then, and even if it did, it would take years for any signals to reach us, but anyway…To seek out new life and new civilizations, scratch that, to seek out                       fluctuations in radiation from our sun and measure the density of charged protons amongst other low level spectral analysis by instruments designed in the early Seventies. To boldly go, no that’s not technically right is it, split infinitive, to go boldly? Whatever. Just to go out into interstellar space where no unmanned space probe has gone before,                             possibly because, well, there’s nothing there is there?

DRAMATIC MUSIC INTRO

FX – BEEPS / SPACE SOUNDS

Robot:             Voyager Log. Star-date 19th September 2013. Thursday. Reading an                    increased density of charged particles in my vicinity, thus indicating I have reached             interstellar space. All instruments normal. Power levels holding within acceptable parameters. Nothing additional to report.

PAUSE

DRAMATIC MUSIC

V/O:                Join us next week for another exciting adventure when the unmanned             space probe voyager encounters what appears to be a slight reduction in solar wind activity and runs its regularly scheduled self diagnostic.

THE END.

***

The idea behind that was that it is short and sweet and the joke comes from the under-whelming notion of a battered old 70s space probe being placed in the dramatic ‘Star Trek’ setting.

Next up, I wanted to write a sketch of a reporter being sent to live cover the exciting event and being similarly underwhelmed. I have to admit I had a very strong Alan Partridge style reporter in mind when writing this, so to play this down, I changed the gender of the news reporter.

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Live from Houston Sketch by Garry Abbott

Cast

Justin – Newsjack Host.

Mazy – Exasperated science correspondent.

Prof –    Boring pedantic NASA scientist.

Justin:             Marking a giant step in space travel, scientists confirmed this week that           the Voyager 1 probe has officially entered interstellar space. To bring you all the exciting, up-to-the-minute developments, we’ve sent our correspondent Mazy Upton to the NASA control centre in Houston for this special live report.

Mazy:              Yes thank you Justin. I’m here with Professor Derek Hedger who has all             the latest information live from the voyager probe.

Prof:                It’s not live actually.  Because of the vast distances involved it takes at               least seventeen hours before the signals reach us here in control.

Reporter:       Seventeen hours? What network are you with? You know what, it doesn’t           matter. What we really want to know is, have you found any aliens yet?

Prof:                No, no aliens I’m afraid.

Reporter:       Well what about strange new worlds then?

Prof:                No new worlds yet, strange or otherwise.

Reporter:       Really? No new planets? But I thought you’d got like, really far away?

Prof:                Yes, but basically we’re now in the space between solar systems, having           just left ours. That’s what interstellar means.

Reporter:       You’ve only just left our solar system? When did it set off?

Prof:               Voyager 1 was launched in 1977.

Reporter:       That’s rubbish.

Prof:                Excuse me?

Reporter:       That’s like, 36 years and you’ve not found any aliens or new planets yet?

Prof:                We’ve found out lots of very important things during the mission.

Reporter:       Like what? Go on. Amaze me.

Prof:                Well, for example, recently we’ve seen a hundred fold jump in protons per       cubic square of space, that’s actually how we knew that-

Reporter:       Protons? We have those on Earth don’t we?

Prof:                Yes of course, but –

Reporter:       No. Not good enough. This isn’t working. When will it reach the next interesting thing? Anytime in the next 30 seconds by any chance? Just a little something to make my two day journey from Surrey to Texas worth the effort, and the licence fee?

Prof:                Well, it will reach the nearest star in around 40,000 years.

Reporter:       40,000 years? Are you kidding?

Prof:                But by then the power will have ran out so the probe won’t be sending              any signals.

Reporter:       Hang on. So it’s taken it over 30 years to get out of the bit of space we               already know about, and now it takes seventeen hours to tell you that it’s in a bit of new space that’s empty anyway, and it will take forty thousand years to reach anything interesting, by which time we’ll all be dead and even our descendants won’t be able to contact it?

Prof:                Well, when you put it like that, I suppose but –

Reporter:       Actually, come to think of it, since Voyager was launched, Pluto’s been               declassified as a planet hasn’t it? So the net gain of interesting things found by Voyager is minus one planet. Is that what you’re telling me?

Prof:                It picked up some interesting fluctuations in radiation levels from the sun       once-

Reporter:       Stop. It’s just not enough Professor. Too little, too late. We’re out of time.

Prof:                Sorry.

Reporter:       Well there you go, Space. Big, boring and void of life, just like the                       Professor here. Back to the studio Justin.  I’ll see you in two days you Bast-

Justin:             Yes thank you Mazy.

THE END.

***

Reading this back it’s a lot of waffle to get to the joke that actually we are minus one planet since voyager launched, and we’re not going to be able to contact it anyway once it gets anywhere exciting!

As I said, sketches seem a lot harder, and even though I could ‘hear’ the delivery of the lines in my head, it’s hard to know if anyone reading it could get the same idea from the plain words on the page. That’s always a problem though, someone like Steve Coogan could make the words ‘Ford Cortina’ sound funny by his delivery, but on the page it wouldn’t ‘seem’ like a joke.

So there you have it, the only two sketches I’ve written for the current series, neither of which got in, and probably rightly so, they just aren’t yet good enough. Turning an idea into a reality that properly represent it seems to be the key to this, and I guess, most other things!

I will keep you updated over the next few weeks with any successes and failures that I think are worthy of a bit of re-examination.

Not good enough for the BBC part 3

Good morning world! (If you are indeed reading this in the morning)

I think I will loosen up my fingers this morning with another post about my failed topical one-liners. If you haven’t read the first two parts, check them out now! (and then I won’t have to go into the description of how these jokes were submitted to the BBC Radio 4 Extra topical comedy program ‘Newsjack’ and were not used… even though I did get a couple used. Oh, well there we go, I’ve done it now.)

So, all these are from my last page of submissions for the last episode in the series. Starting with the return of the pun!

‘Hundreds of scratch & sniff cards containing the scent of cannabis are to be sent out in order to help people identify cannabis farms in their area. The scheme has been set up by the Police and Crime-stoppers as part of a joint operation.’

This is one of those jokes that make you want to grab people by the collar and shout ‘JOINT OPERATION! JOINT! Get it?!!’… and that may have been the problem. Funnily enough, when I saw this story, the first thought I had was of people using the cards to make roach with (the little circles of card that are used instead of filters in joints), but I couldn’t think how to make that sound funny, and I wasn’t sure how okay with that sort of thing Radio 4 would be… as it happened, they used exactly that joke from another writer and I didn’t think it was one of the best, so my better judgement prevailed. Though it would have been nice if they had of used my superior gag instead. (Joint operation?! I mean, come on!)

Anyway, next up.

‘Tony Blair has said he has ‘no regrets’ over his decision to take on a tyrannical monster all those years ago, and despite all the difficulties that followed, he and Cherie are still going strong.’

Blair had been stroking his ego on the Andrew Mar show on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion… yes that’s right, invasion, not rescue mission. I tried to do a ‘make them think it’s about one thing and then come in with another’ style joke, which I’m sure there is a snappier title for. Maybe Cherie Blair jokes are a bit old-hat, but any opportunity to poke a bit of fun at war-criminal Blair is welcome, even if it didn’t get used.

Moving on…

‘This week a Greek footballer was banned from playing for his national team when he did a Nazi salute to the crowd. The footballer defended himself by saying it was an accident. Yeah, Reich. Oops! I mean… right.’

… So this is another one that depends on the reading. I like the idea that when reporting about someone who ‘accidentally did something Nazi’ that the reporter would do it themselves. The word ‘Oops’ jars a bit – I presumed that it would be interpreted differently from the page to the microphone. Not much else to say about this one really.

Getting down to the desperate last scrag ends of the submission page…

‘Doing something funny for money was taken to new records last Friday when millions and millions was raised by normal people (BEAT) in Cyprus.’

For those of you unfamiliar with scripts, ‘BEAT’ is really just a pause/breath. You try not to use them too much, as it can be seen as dictating to the actor/director how they should interpret your words, which is their job, not yours. However, I though this was needed here at the time but in hindsight this sentence could have ran in one flow. I was of course, combining Comic Relief with the Cyprus ‘levy’ atrocity. Could have been better I think. I was desperately trying to think of funnies about the Cyprus affair, but it made me so unbelievably angry it was hard. (they’re coming after our bank deposits now! Yay!)

So last of all in this post, which may be the last, I don’t know…

‘Boris Johnson’s sister has said that David Cameron still looks up to Boris, much like he did back at Eton public school when Boris was head boy and Cameron was his junior. The only difference is that nowadays he doesn’t have to lick his shoes clean and warm the toilet seat for him at the same time.’

So this is a bit unwieldy (like the one ring to rule them all…). Too many words to make too slight a joke. But still, it was worth a shot. More time and practice and I would have boiled this down or found something better, but then, I heard worse on the show (though mostly I heard better) – so I think it does come down to the person reading the submissions being able to ‘hear’ the joke in the their minds-ear, and I think they get that wrong sometimes too. It would be wrong to say that Newsjack is consistently hilarious, as with all comedy shows, it has it’s hits and misses. Who knows if these one liners would have been hits? It is really hard to tell from the page. For example, this next, and last, joke is the second one I did get broadcast… who would have thunk it?

‘Scientists are now saying that it’s not just about how much you weigh, it’s about where you store your fat. Apparently if you are storing it in your body, that’s bad’

Success! And it came from a scientist joke (again) and it got a big laugh from the sound of it (Justin Edwards delivered it perfectly).

So there we have it. Not good enough for the BBC, except for the last one, which was…

Newsjack is back in the Autumn I think, and in the meantime there is another new submission show on the way featuring sketches on a theme. All my submissions are made and I eagerly await the upcoming round of rejections, and who knows, possibly, a hit.

Garry x