In which Paul Sinha reveals that he never actually writes anything down. Sound ridiculous?
On Friday March 2 2007, I walked out of Jongleurs Glasgow content with the job I had just done, but also, crucially, I was hungry. So instead of turning towards my hotel, I wandered towards an establishment called Best Kebab House. Whilst waiting patiently for a large chicken shish, I was punched to the ground by a complete stranger. As I lay in bed that night, experiencing a mix of drunken confusion and throbbing headache, I realised …
“This story will fit brilliantly into the Edinburgh show.“
Because the first part of the writing process is surely establishing the kind of comedian you would like to be. Without a persona and outlook, where are the jokes going to come from? At that moment in time I was developing a reputation as a storytelling comedian with an edge. This story had everything – drama, slapstick, a scenario all too familiar to the audience – and most importantly of all, I was the victim. I like to make myself the victim of as many jokes as possible, so as not to appear sneery. Comedy = assault + time. Now it was just a question of making it funny.
I am a fan of just about every genre of live comedy, whether it’s slapstick, one-liners, anti-comedy, political, surreal, musical. What they all have in common is that they have have specific points at which the audience are meant to laugh. Whether I am right or wrong, I don’t know, but I call these points “jokes”.
I still see a number of acts who haven’t quite grasped that. They tell a story that doesn’t appear to have these identifiable points. Yes, it is often an engaging and interesting story, but it lacks the moments when interest changes to laughter. When I wrote the routine about being punched in the kebab shop, the key was to identify the possible punchlines (no pun intended) and build the story around them.
A successful punchline needs an element of surprise. If you examine the great one-liner merchants, such as Emo Phillips or Milton Jones, the key is that you can’t see the joke coming. The greater the degree to which you can see it coming, the less you will laugh. Try and wrongfoot the audience.
I find the pen and paper or, or indeed the keyboard method of writing jokes quite difficult.The exception is when I’m writing for radio, when the combination of looming deadline and massively increased wordcount has a knack of concentrating the mind. I’ve done three shows for Radio 4 – on cricket, the 2012 Olympics, and the British citizenship test. In all three I would reread the whole thing every hour and just think “Punchlines. Punchlines. This needs more punchlines.” It seemed to work.
Sometimes, when it comes to writing routines, things flow easily. The Glasgow assault was such a new experience for me that I found the jokes arrived quickly. I have written at least 15 separate jokes for that story, and for that reason I’m proud of it.
But sometimes you find something that you desperately want to do material on, and inspiration is simply not forthcoming. Or everything you can think of has been done before. With topical material, it’s good to do a Twitter search to check whether your idea has become hackneyed already. When this lack of inspiration hits, I would love to be one of these prolific gagsmiths who can sit down and just make magic happen. But I’m not. There are two things I do. I turn the lights off and lie in bed. And just think and let my mind wander. Or I wait till I’m on long car journeys. I find the tedium of the motorway is a great way to try and focus and be creatively inspired.
What I don’t do is write ideas down. This isn’t a deliberate tactic. I just can’t be arsed. I’m lucky to have a good memory, and I trust it. On journeys to gigs I mentally go through my ideas in my head. Promoters have looked at me askance when turn up to previews without notes. I would rather do a preview without paper, get angry afterwards at any jokes Ive missed, and then I remember to do them the next time. It might not make sense, but it works for me.
As for the idea of when to try new jokes, I’m unusual in that I rarely do new material nights. I get very self-conscious if the proportion of an audience who are comics is over a certain figure. But also I find that the audiences are sometimes so positive, you get a false reading over whether a joke works. I like to insert newer stuff into gigs when I am doing well. An audience that’s already enjoying your stuff is a good judge of whether a particular new joke is likely to work or not.
Eighteen years on from my first ever gig, it is pretty clear that everybody has their own way of writing, and their own set of rules. If you turned up to my house, the only evidence you would find that I write jokes to a few radio scripts on my computer. Everything else is in my head. I would like to think that the jokes in my head follow the following guidelines:
1) Have a unique comedy persona, and make your jokes consistent with the persona.
2) Use a variety of punchline styles. There is nothing wrong with the occasional pun. Good to keep the audience guessing.
3) Look at the joke again. Can you see the punchline coming? If you can, they can too.
4) Write about the stuff that you would like to write about. Not the stuff that you feel you have to. In a year’s time that twerking joke you felt you had to shoehorn in will be utterly redundant.
5) Swear when it’s necessary for the joke.
6) Your boyfriend isn’t always the best judge of whether a joke works or not. He likes Keeping Up Appearances.
7) When it comes to topical, try and find an angle that hasn’t been done to death.
8) Retweets are not necessarily a good predictor of onstage success. But they can be.
9) Most importantly – just think in your head. Is this funny? Will the audience think it’s funny? If you can’t picture them laughing, it probably wont happen.
And that is how I write. I confidently predict that there are brilliant comedians out there who take a very different view.