TV writers lift the lid on the art of funny business

JUSTIN Kennedy takes it as a compliment that most viewers don’t realise The Project has a team of writers. Actors and presenters are the face of the machine, deservedly taking credit for their performance. But who put the words in their mouths? Who dreamt up the storyline, wove the intricate characters and moulded the rapid-fire succession of jokes that keep us in stitches?

In Australia, there are jobbing writers, who bounce from project to project, content creators, team players and solo sailors. We spoke to some of the smarties behind the scenes who bring our favourite shows to life.

At The Project, Channel 10’s nightly news and chat show, former stand-up Kennedy and his colleagues script witty one-liners and clever segues to prompt the panellists.

“It’s giving them options, pre-loaded,” Kennedy says. “It’s basically just a fallback.

“We kind of juggle different elements in the show. The first one is we choose the news chats, the headlines that will turn into a funny chat. Something lighthearted generally. We’ll have a couple of serious bits, then the news item that breaks off into a 30-second conversation.

Kennedy and three other writers bounce ideas off each other, which is a luxury he didn’t have in a previous, and much less glamorous, job.

“I worked on (ABC program) Letters and Numbers as a writer, as the only writer,” he says. “That’s another show where people go, ‘There’s a writer for that?’

“Basically all I had to do was write a lot of letter and number metaphor intros. It was a bit lonely, sitting in this little room in Elsternwick going slowly at writing out 300 or more wordplay-based intros each week.”

Josh Thomas says he’s had input from script producer Liz Doran and co-star Thomas Comedian Josh Thomas’ brief stint with Rove was distinctly unrewarding. “I did like, a week of interning on Rove,” he says. “There was this segment, ‘What I’ve Learned this Week’, where they’d all say a joke. You’d have to write like 20 of those. Then I worked on Rove’s monologue. You get sent the topics, and write some jokes, and then he turns them into his monologue. I never got in. Or, I got, like, one joke in that, and another in the end segment in about six weeks.”

But far from finding it demoralising, Thomas counts his time with Rove as a valuable experience. “I got a few weeks in and realised it’s just not what I do. I had a go. They didn’t renew my contract. I probably wouldn’t have renewed my contract either. Sometimes that’s a good lesson.”

These days, Thomas is in the enviable position of creating his own material from scratch. After years spent pitching the concept for ABC2’s Please Like Me, he wrote the show almost single-handedly. Having nursed the show from conception to realisation, it was an extremely personal project.

Thomas admits that writing the first season of six episodes was exhausting, and the second time around, he has had to accept more help from his closest creative confidants, script producer Liz Doran and friend and co-star Thomas Ward. “So we sort of plot the show together and then I go off and write it,” he says. “We’re being so quick this time, it’s like three weeks an episode (to write). If I don’t get it done, Liz and Tom and I divide it up.

When Thomas writes for female characters, he draws on advice from Doran, but women are still significantly under-represented as writers.

Robyn Butler, who has dabbled on Micallef Tonight and the Eric Bana Sketch Show, says the situation is slowly changing. “But when I started out, I’ve often been the only woman in the room and had to tell the others that I’m not the one who makes the tea,” she says. “It’s just a more male pursuit, comedy.

“Interestingly, Kath and Kim and The Librarians have women front and centre. They’re written by women who put women in the frame. It’s not that men are being mean. It’s just not their reality, it’s not their world.”

Butler mainly works with one bloke, her husband and writing partner Wayne Hope.

Most recently they’ve enjoyed success with Upper Middle Bogan on the ABC. “We started out writing everything together,” she says. “Less so in the last two years, as our slate has been so full. The story is the hardest part for me. I call the dialogue the dessert. That’s the easy part for me personally. The story is the part where I feel a bit sick.

“If I don’t know what happens next, I’ll go to Wayne and we’ll go for a walk around the block. Our poor dogs, they hate it when we’re writing, they get walked so much.”

Butler reckons Hope is the “ideas man”, which he says is “lovely, but not true”.

“I like the broad strokes, I like kicking that around. Conceptual stuff, underlying motivations for storylines and people,” he says. “Then I quite like moving that into story arcs and story beats. But that’s where Robyn’s skill comes into it. Her ability to shape scenes, so that every scene has its merits, every scene is charged, is her absolute skill. And then she sprinkles it with brilliant dialogue.”

“It’s like, ‘Guess what? My job is to make stuff up’. I’m a writer. It’s the difference between someone sitting down and painting a landscape they can see, and painting a Jackson Pollock out of their head.”

Anna Brain – Herald Sun – August 08, 2014

More Here:

www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/television