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Review of The Big Comedy Conference April 22nd 2023

This year's Big Comedy Conference, run by the British Comedy Guide was on Saturday April 22nd.


We put the dog in kennels and trotted down from Hull to make a weekend of it. Itinerary was to see Taylor Tomlinson at the London Palladium on the Friday night, attend the conference on Saturday, and pop down to Brighton on Sunday to catch up with friends.



Taylor Tomlinson was a great show. Well put together, confident, and easy to watch. It's inspiring to see someone who has worked hard at their passion and is experiencing success. She mentioned she had sold out 4,000 tickets for their London shows. I did have meet and greet tickets, but they shifted this last minute to post, instead of pre-show, and these days I have a justifiable propensity for early nights, so had to leave and get back to the hotel.


Saturday - The Big Comedy Conference.


Hats off to anyone who has the nerve and determination to organise a conference. Mark Boosey, Aaron Brown and the team did a wonderful job. I didn't even mind that during registration they had temporarily lost name badges beginning with A... (I improvised).



The quality of the speakers wasn't just about their industry experience, (although there must have been over a century of combined comedic talent on show throughout the day), it was also their kindness, generosity, and words of encouragement that contributed to the inspirational buzz you could feel effervescing amongst the 250+ attendees.


They were so open and positive about pursuing a career in comedy. There was no sugarcoating the journey - it's hard, it takes perseverance, a lot of writing, a lot more rejection, But when I heard things like:


"Yes we're busy but we also don't want to miss a great voice"

"Invite us to your table reads, and one-act plays. If we can't get there personally, we may have people in the office who can travel further afield (than London)"

You could feel the stirring of multiple pens on paper—making notes feverishly and then adding a pink asterisks to remind the writer to keep going and get their talent in front of people.


So who was there? Here's a summary of the panels and key takeaways from the event.


The Commissioners Panel


Here, we had:


Host Tiff Stevenson, an award-winning stand-up comedian, actor and writer, talking to:

  • Adnan Ahmed - Producer at Sky Studios

  • Sarah Asante - Commissioning Editor, Comedy at UKTV

  • Julia Mckenzie - Comedy and Entertainment Commissioner at Radio 4

  • Tanya Quereshi - Head of Comedy at BBC Television

These are the people who are looking for work to commission on behalf of a broadcaster, and they were all bloody lovely.




Key points include:


There are degrees of separation between writers and commissioners...


You do need to be linked to a production company to get to the commissioners. I've heard many Q&A sessions ask if a writer can approach a commissioner directly and every response has been that on the very rare occasion this may have happened, but usually it is through a production company.


The commissioners are looking for a product as well as an idea. Which means that they need to know that the show they invest in can be made, can be made responsibly, and by people who know how to make things.


Hearing this may make some writers feel like there's an insurmountable wall between their idea and getting something on TV, but the commissioners were quick to point out many opportunities for scaling that wall in different ways.


Tips for getting closer to a commissioner

(Milk Tray breaking and entering not required)


Approach the next in line (producers)


The panel shared ideas for approaching production companies. Many production companies won't accept unsolicited scripts, but that doesn't mean that all won't. You may have to trawl the net and find places further afield, but they are there... and they are looking for talent (see notes below on the Producers Panel)


Approach talent you admire


They also suggested approaching comedians you admire to see if there's a possibility to write for them for engagements outside their regular shows—think after-dinner speeches, panel shows etc .


Open door shows and competitions are worthy endeavours


Good entry points are still open door shows for example:

And competitions and bursaries are also a good way to go for example:

What tickles a commissioner's funny bone these days?

(What kind of shows are they looking for?)


Funny.


That goes without saying, or maybe it doesn't because apparently they're not seeing as much straight- comedy being pitched.


I've heard this on webinars with production companies, that there is an increase in comedy-drama, and a gap in the market for more tradition sitcom content (Think: Not Going Out - more on that later).


The Producers Panel


This time we had Anna Morris, award-winning character comedian, actor, and writer who was hosting the panel of:

  • Michelle Farr-Scott - Head of Scripted for Ranga Bee Productions

  • Clelia Mountford - Co-founder of Merman

  • Claire Jones - Award-winning radio comedy producer

So, if you can't get to a commissioner directly, as a writer, how do you get the attention of a producer who can pitch on your behalf?


There's still a degree of separation (mostly) between a writer and production companies


Typically, producers and production companies will go through an agent. Queue another shrinking of the shoulders from writers with plenty of ideas but yet to find representation.


Unfortunately, the agent who was scheduled to appear on the panel had a last minute conflict and couldn't be there. Perhaps due to the inevitable onslaught of writers who would have plenty of questions about.. how do I get to YOU?


But... just as the commissioners explained previously, this isn't an insurmountable wall to climb. It's not like that bloody wall in an Officer and a Gentleman. There are other ways to start a relationship with producers.


They were honest about their limitations in availability to new writers. They emphasised (understandably) that yes, they are busy, yes they get pitched a lot, and yes they don't have time to get back to everyone.


But also:


We don't want to miss out on "that" voice.

They encouraged writers and talent to keep pursuing that path that brings them closer together.


Those key paths are:

  • Open door shows (see the commissioners panel)

  • Agents

  • Live events - if you're putting on a show or running a table-read night, don't be bashful in inviting representatives of a company to come and watch it. They may not say yes, but it's a lightweight, friendly invitation that might just result in the right eyes being on your work, so what's to lose?

  • Taster tapes - a show reel of characters or sketches can be a good for getting an agent's attention, especially if there's potential for a repeatable character. One of the cautions with sketch tapes is that it's not always easy to extract longer-form content e.g. 30 minute show potential from them.

Many of the producers also expressed an interest in developing regional and under-represented voices, so don't feel that opportunities are out of reach if you're not close to any major production companies.


The Open Doors Show Panel


This time round we had comedy writer David Cohen hosting a panel of:

  • David Flynn from Breaking The News

  • Jon Holmes from The Skewer

  • Rajiv Karla from DMs Are Open


(LtR David Cohen, David Flynn, Jon Holmes, and Rajiv Karla)


It was interesting to hear the origin and development of each show ,especially the process of what goes into creating each show when the series is on. The time constraints between reviewing submissions, working with their own commissioned writers, and then packaging the content so that it's ready for broadcast was exciting and exhausting to listen to.


Which came to their first tip - if you're looking for feedback, or have a question about writing for the show, you may have a better result contacting them in between the craziness of series.


The major take aways from the panel was:


Listen to the shows


They receive submissions that just aren't suitable for the show's format. I don't understand why writers would ever do this. It's like turning up to a job interview not knowing anything about the position, but figuring you should be able to get in because they'll see something special in you.


The writers who have ideas accepted, respect the shows - they listen to them, they study the format, they understand that submitting is not enough, which brings us onto tip no. 2


Don't give up


Didn't get anything accepted that first go? It means absolutely nothing about your writing ability. Okay... it might. What I should say is that alone is not a commentary on your writing ability.


These shows are short compared to the volume of submissions they receive. The Skewer is about 14 minutes. There's just not space to put every great idea in every week.


I didn't get my sketch accepted to The Skewer until episode 3, and it was from a submission I'd sent in for episode 2. This is the other thing to bear in mind. Just because your idea wasn't used, doesn't mean it won't be used at some point.


The panel commented that the drop off rate of submissions from week one is a serious cliff drop. People try and then give up.


Don't give up. Even if you're not accepted, the discipline and practice it takes to think of material that could be used for these shows is excellent practice. You will only become a stronger writer for it.


The Plotting Panel


This time we had Lucy Lumsden, Development Producer from Yellow Door Productions hosting...

  • Adam Kay - Author, TV writer, comedian and author of This is Going to Hurt

  • Daniel Lawrence Taylor - Creator, writer, and star of Timewasters

  • Danny Peak - Comedy writer and co-writer of Not Going Out

  • Brona C Titely - TV comedy writer and actor

This was a lively and engaging session, with a lot of generosity of ideas and tips from the panel.



(LtR Daniel Lawrence Taylor, Adam Kay, Brona C Titley, Danny Peak, and Lucy Lumsden)


A key preservative ingredient for sitcoms


They discussed the essential escalation of a problem in sitcoms as often seen in shows like Not Going Out, and Frasier. Danny mentioned how important it is at the end of a sitcom episode to have a 'reset'. For a sitcom to have that perennial feel, it's important for the characters to remain consistent, and end up where they started at the beginning of the episode - different from comedy-dramas which build up a sequence of events and character development over a period of episodes.


Testament to this is Not Going Out, which Danny mentioned is approaching its 100th episode. Only 195 more to go before it beats Last of the Summer Wine.


A strong plot can't save weak characters


One recommendation was to not get too hung up on plot however, and to focus on characters and emotions. That's not to say you focus on character and emotion at the expense of plot, more that you could have an excellent plot, but if you don't care about the characters, it's going to fail. Whereas strong characters that people root for, can have a plot built around them.


Set up quickly, resolve quickly, and spend time escalating the problem was more advice on the sitcom.


Recommended episode viewing for strong sitcom plots


Each panel member gave their recommendations for sitcoms episodes with excellent plotting and pace:


When you're pacing a sitcom, you want to pay attention to every scene and every piece of dialogue to see that it's moving along. The panel received a question from an attendee who said that she'd received note that the pace needed work, and what to do with that advice.


Brona gave an excellent piece of advice to say always be looking for the note behind the note.


"They may say pace needs working on, but does it really mean that they just haven't laughed in 4 pages? "

You need to be part psychologist and part forensic detective sometimes to work out why a script isn't getting the reception you hoped it would.


The Jokes and Gags Panel.


Jo Bunting, BAFTA-winning series producer of Have I Got News For You, hosted a panel with


  • Gráinne Maguire - comedian and comedy writer

  • Joel Morris - Award-winning comedy writer and podcaster

  • Christine Rose - Award-winning comedy writer


They discussed the mechanics of jokes, and there was a similarity of advice in the open door shows. If you're writing for another comic, or a panel show, study that show.


Deconstructing and building jokes can be learned


Joel explained the power of a joke as an interruption to a pattern. Humans are excellent at pattern recognition, and a joke should comprise of something that potentially you 'could' see coming. The content of the punchline *should* be able to be deduced from the set up of the joke.


A joke delights when we either get it right or wrong. Either we can see something coming and the anticipation makes us laugh, or we're caught off-guard, but can still recognise the link between the punchline and set-up.


Obviously humour is subjective, but this panel explained that there really is a lot of breaking down and building up parts when it comes to writing jokes. They'd all had a variety of experience writing different styles - from one liners, to topical news, to missing word gags.


Their advice was that this can be learned, but you have to put in the effort to go beyond just being the funny person down the pub. This is a lot of (rewarding) work.


In summary (no, Chat GPT didn't write up my notes)


I would definitely attend again, if they put on another one. The lunch was also a fine selection of sandwiches and if you know me, you'll know that I was in buffet heaven. I loaded my plate with nary a self-conscious whisper.


I left inspired, tummy-full, and ready to continue writing and producing creative work.


Did you attend?

I'd love to hear from you in the comments if so. What were your key takeaways? What questions are you still needing answers to? And what are you working on at the moment?

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