Getting the Best out of your Comedy Script

By Chris Aitken

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Like most new writers, in my early days as a screenwriter, I would attend as many relevant industry events about writing, comedy, TV and film, in an effort to break through. A lot of advice will start to sound fairly familiar, but one piece of advice that was later to ring fairly true, and I’ve adopted to this day, is that to get the best out of your comedy script, put it in the hands of comedians. I’ve often felt those from a comedy background sometimes make for better actors, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler can all knock it out the park if given the right script and direction.

Giving comedy scripts to comedians might seem an obvious statement but it really came true when put to the test. When I was casting for an independent sitcom pilot a few years ago, I put out a casting call on a talent website, Star Now, that was a haven for those wanting to make a career in acting. On the casting day, I was somewhat astonished by the contrast of those specifically from a theatre or acting background to those performing live comedy. Those from a comedy background were almost instantaneous in delivering the lines or giving those discreet physical movements that I was looking for and sometimes more. Although directing is its own craft, it’s emphatic for a writer to see their material being delivered, either to see if it is being executed right or maybe whether there is rewriting required, sometimes having your words in the wrong mouth can make you doubt yourself when in fact it just needed to be given to the right person.

When I started a short comedy film programme and festival called Short Com several years ago, it was just as telling, with a stark difference between those films with actors compared to those with comedy performers. Whilst not every comedian is a trained actor, they are regularly performing to live audiences, honing their skills, in particular the pitch of their delivery and physical nuances and they can transfer those skills in front of the camera. Practice aside, there are those who just have natural comedy instinct.

The bigger the actor the more out of reach they’ll naturally be, but that is not necessarily true for comedians. There will be a lot of comedians who only want to do their own thing, but not every comedian is adapt to writing for the screen, or has the knack to understand the craft of storytelling. A lot of comedians are desperate for showreel material or to establish relationships with talented writers and directors. There are a lot of talented people out there not getting any further and sometimes this might be down to an agent who doesn’t know how to get their client acting work, thus why some people with great reputations for live stand up have been overlooked for television and film work. Facebook groups such as the Comedy Forum are a great way to find aspiring comedians as well as checking out your own local comedy scene.

Don’t be afraid to approach comedians, many sometimes have a lot of free time during the day and can be quite flexible for filming. Many also have their own website with a direct email address so you can get around going through an agent. Connect with people online using forums such as Chortle, the British Comedy Guide and Reddit. By all means not every comedian is naturally gifted in front of the camera and there are actors who are very comedy adept. Unfortunately comedy commissioners nowadays tend to select talent based on their popularity as a stand-up rather than their scriptwriting or acting capability. But in the world of film festivals and capacity for viral hits, quality of content is judged before celebrity status. There is a large pool of talent out there waiting to be called upon so don’t be scared to take a punt on someone who might be entertaining hundreds in a room with a successful stand-up career, they could also probably waiting for someone to take a chance on them.

Chris Aitken is a screenwriter, script reader and founder of the short comedy programme Short Com. Follow on Facebook and Twitter. Chris co-wrote short film ‘Stand Up Guy’ with comedian Paul F Taylor directed by BAFTA nominee Ben Mallaby starring Paul F Taylor, Phil Nichol and Felicity Ward.