Recently, Sam Bain wrote an excellent article for the Guardian about the reality of being a writer with a show in production. It made me laugh out loud several times – and I particularly enjoyed the comparison of turning up to filming being rather like having to stand next a photocopier for seven weeks in case there's a massive paper jam.
Rather than discussions and questions about the nitty-gritty of turning a good script into a great TV show, the comments beneath the article made very depressing reading. Reactions ranged from “Oh, poor poor you, having to do this for a living” to “you only get to do this because you went to right school or university.” The debate descended into a sad discussion of paranoia that the comedy industry is a closed shop, and that the door has been firmly locked from the inside by people who went to Oxbridge. This is a myth, as I will argue shortly and briefly.
But in time I hope to address a number of myths that circulate about ‘breaking in’ to the industry. These myths have power firstly because there is a grain of truth in all of them, but secondly because they are easy scapegoats for failure. If you’ve written a script and no-one’s biting, it’s easier to blame a conspiracy than admit that the script isn’t much good.
This self-delusion takes place at all levels. Writers who don’t make a living from it believe one set of myths to explain why they’re not making a living from it. Writers who do make a living from it believe another set of myths to explain why they’re not making as much money as they’d like to from it. Wealthy writers believe another set a myths about why critics don’t like their work. The list goes on.
So let’s take a look at these starting out myths beginning with:
Myth #1 It’s all about where you went to college
One can look at the Pythons, the Goodies, the Mary Whitehouse Experience and a long list of Oxbridge alumni and assume that your career is decided the day you’re rejected from Oxbridge. (I was rejected by Cambridge. At least twice. Seriously. And I applied because I wanted to be in The Footlights.) It’s easy to think that Oxbridgers not only have an advantage but rule the roost in comedy.
In my experience, my university education has made almost no difference to my career progression. I’ve had shows rejected down by production companies, BBC TV, BBC Radio, ITV and Channel 4 for some pretty spurious reasons. None of them were related to where I went to college. (I believe my own set of myths for these failures, one of which being that all executives are idiots, which simply isn’t true. Some are, maybe most, but not all. Besides exec idiocy isn’t always harmful and sometimes works in your favour).
The industry doesn’t favour Oxbridge-types. It favours good writers (and tolerates plenty of bad ones). The reason Oxbridge-types seem to be favoured is because good writers tend be fairly intelligent people who read a lot of books, try new things and encounter a wide spectrum of people – and learn to see the world from their point of view. This is simply university life.
I just said “my university education has made almost no difference to my career progression “. This is only half true. For three years, I did read lots of books, try news things (not that many to be honest), and encountered lots of different people. My horizons were broadened. But at university, I also met other people who wanted to do comedy and so we put on sketch shows and revues. We had mixed success, but learnt through success and failure. So by the time three of us did Edinburgh in 1999 as Infinite Number of Monkeys, it was our third Fringe, we had done about a hundred performances over the previous three years and were not totally clueless. And we were nominated for best ‘Newcomer’ and that opened a few doors.
Oxbridgers, then, do have one advantage – a tradition of comedy and a bit of structure which means they can start doing comedy earlier. This means failing quicker and therefore succeeding faster. It means time on stage performing your own material in front of other human beings who will let you know very quickly how well you’re doing.
Malcolm Gladwell’s “I takes 10,000 hours to get good at stuff” theory is pretty obvious, isn’t it? In which case, spend three years reading some books, trying new things and meeting new people. Write about them, put on a show with them and hey presto, you just went to Oxbridge.
You could also try going on a day-long course or two with Sitcomgeek and the highly experienced comedy writer Dave Cohen (yes, this is a plug) on April 20th and 4th May. More details here.