I've been writing comedy for well over n years, where n is too large a number for me to write because it makes me feel old: from stand-up through bits of The Day Today and Alan Partridge, on to sitcoms, films and, now, through my company That Lot, social content for brands and broadcasters.
Recently, I was invited to give some workshops on comedy writing to above-the-line agencies, like some sort of Yoda (by which I mean I’m short and a bit wrinkly). I expected and got some lively questions about the value of writing in a world that is increasingly visual – though, for what it’s worth, I think the same rules of writing apply for all content, from tweets to images and videos: concision, surprise, storytelling etc. Plus great copy will always be important in social: you can create a piece of video content that’s so good it’ll drive all your rivals to resign but, if you set it up with sloppy copy, it’s like serving a Michelin-starred dish on a muddy tile found in your grandma’s garden. Which is exactly what they do in at least two restaurants in Hoxton.
What I didn’t expect was the horrified reaction I got whenever I asked the creatives to split into groups of three to come up with ideas. It was as if I’d put a bowl on the table and asked them all to throw in their car keys or, I don’t know, called a snap general election.
My sin was clear: I was trying to break up the teams of two that the agencies had set up to work together in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death or a better offer from another agency do them part. Not since Noah has the concept of doing things two by two been so sacrosanct, and who am I to argue? So many gems have been created (presumably) using this system: from Beanz Meanz Heinz to the Cadbury’s Flake ads (my adolescence thanks you, Cadbury), from the Guinness horses to Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner (OK, not so much that last one). The system works. But as I looked at the first-day-at-nursery separation anxiety on the faces of the various ménage à deux, I wondered if some creative potential was being stymied.
Many TV programmes I’ve been involved in use a writer’s room model: writers in a room (hence the name), throwing ideas around, with one or two of them then taking it away and shaping the raw funny into smelted comedy gold. With a small group, unless they all hate each other (which sometimes happens), there’s a sense of clubbability that encourages ideas to bubble up out of the primordial soup of banter. (I can’t apologise enough for writing "primordial soup of banter". Really, I should stop writing forever now.)
"With a small group, there’s a sense of clubbability that encourages ideas to bubble up out of the primordial soup of banter"
Obviously, some of the greatest comedy ever has been written by someone on their own going slightly mad in a room, or by two people. But the writers’ room brainstorm remains a favourite tool at That Lot. I love how someone’s initial thought can prompt someone else to run with it, before a third person takes it on, and so on. At its best, it feels like a line of backs in rugby running the ball towards the try line of social media gold and multiple awards. Often, group work gives us (and the client) a lot more options, even if it’s just everyone throwing a few jokes or lines of copy on to a Google Doc, which we can then narrow down to two or three champions. Pun battles are a regular feature, a recent highlight being the hardware-porn puns for B&Q’s Valentine’s Day (favourites include "make sure your bush is properly trimmed" and "click for hoes in your area").
Of course, our creatives do have ownership of particular accounts, but they’re uber-promiscuous, used to breaking into different groups and pairings, chipping in a line or an idea for an account that they’ve barely met and whose name they may not even remember in the morning.
This promiscuity also helps tackle another cause of reticence mentioned by some of those in the workshops. One of them confessed they felt competitive with the other pairings and wanted to make sure they get credit for their ideas. It’s harder to feel that if an idea has many parents and was conceived in a permissive, swinging 60s-style exchange of creative juices.
So here’s a shout-out to the joys of group working. Maybe if I’d written this with other people, I’d have managed not to write "primordial soup of banter".
David Schneider is the creative director at That Lot