…and I answered them! Because I was brought up correctly. See below, and on the London Comedy Writers Festival website here.
Comedy Is A.Mann’s World: Q&A With Andrea Mann
Only a few weeks ago, Andrea Mann was an aspiring writer looking for a break. Now, she’s making waves at BBC radio comedy – spinning heads with her rapid rise. Read our inspiring in-depth Q&A with Andrea to see how she succeeded and how our very own Screenwriters’ Festival played a big part.
Tell us about your background before becoming a comedy writer.
I worked as a cinema manager, then a stand-up comedy promoter and then an interactive TV manager before redundancy gave me the kick up the butt to pursue a career as a ‘creative’ myself and not just facilitate the fruits of other creative people’s labour. So I took the leap into being a professional singer (I’d been doing jazz open mic slots for a while) and while I became a freelance writer on the web to pay the rent, I actually came to realise that I love writing as much as I love making music…
When the recession kicked in, I had to take an office-based freelance job editing the homepage of a big internet provider – choosing which news stories to cover on there, writing headlines and such. For a long time, this felt like a Boring But Necessary Day Job – but actually, it’s served as the perfect environment for writing topical comedy, as I’ve never been so well-informed about current affairs! I still gig, but less so – as I want to concentrate my efforts on a writing, rather than music, career now, and realised I couldn’t have the success I wanted with my feet still firmly planted in both camps.
When did you decide to take comedy writing seriously and how did you learn the craft?
Two years ago, I decided to write a screenplay based on a freelance article I had written. It seemed it would be perfect material for a romcom, and romcoms are pretty much my favourite genre of movie (when they’re done well!), so it made sense to me that that would be the kind of film I’d try to write. I also thought: ‘I’m not funny enough to write a sitcom; romcoms don’t need quite so many jokes, so I’ll have a bash at that’. Plus, Hollywood seems to be churning out so many awful romcoms that it really fires me up to try and write a good one (and one which has a great, smart role for a leading actress!). So, I bought Final Draft and wrote a first draft. It wasn’t very good, but it was a start – and now I’ve learned more about writing, I’m working on a (hopefully much better) second version of it.
The main catalyst for my joke and sketch-writing, though, was Twitter. I love Twitter – and there is something about the 140 -character limit that of course lends itself to quips and one-liners. I was getting a lot of positive feedback from people on Twitter telling me that I was funny – so spurred on by that, around last autumn, I found myself going from writing little thoughts/quips to writing out-and-out gags. And it’s true what they say about comedy writing being like a muscle: the more jokes I tweeted, the more my brain started to work that way, and the more jokes I continued to write.
I then found out (through Twitter) about topical comedy stage shows Newsrevue and the Treason Show, both of which have an open-submissions policy. So last November, I started to send jokes and parody songs to them every week (I guess my music skills meant I was ripe for producing the latter!) and got my material picked up straight away.
A big test for me, in terms of taking it seriously and learning the craft, was sitting down with a load of papers on a Sunday and seeing if I could come up with, say, a dozen jokes about the weeks’ news. Once I had done that once (and they may not have been comedy gold, but they were definitely jokes) I realised I could probably do it again; and I knew I just had to do it more and more and learn how to get better and better at writing them. I contacted a friend-of-a-friend who’s written for Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Jimmy Carr and others, and asked him if he’d be a sort of mentor to me. He said yes – so I started to ping my jokes over to him every week for feedback on what worked and what didn’t and why, etc. I’m quite geeky about language (I studied languages at university) so learning the craft of what makes something funny, of finding the punchiest/funniest/best way of expressing an idea, hugely appeals to me.
As a result of writing jokes on Twitter and for the live shows – and getting such positive feedback from people – I (like many others) was chomping at the bit when BBC Radio 7’s Newsjack returned for its latest series, as I knew this would possibly be a way of getting my first BBC/radio writing credit. So I sent them a raft of jokes every week – and then tried writing sketches, too – and once again, got very positive feedback in terms of my jokes and sketches being used, and then being invited in to meet and write with the team at BBC radio comedy HQ.
What are your long term writing goals?
To be a financially successful, full-time comedy writer (I’m too old to find poverty appealing in an arty way). A part of me would love to be a staff writer on a TV or radio show – my dream, say, would be to write for The Colbert Report or The Daily Show – but another part of me would love to go down the film route, and write feature films (romcoms, natch!). I guess my ultimate dream would be to do both – ie to earn a living writing comedy no matter what the medium or style (jokes/sketches/sitcoms/radio/TV/films) or mixture thereof.
What is your daily writing routine, if any?
To tweet! To literally tweet jokes as they occur to me (when I pull together a week’s worth of jokes to submit to Newsjack/Newsrevue etc, my starting point is always to go through my Twitter feed). As I work in an office three days a week, tweeting throughout the working day helps to keep me sane – and makes me realise that it’s not such a bind to be stuck at a computer for eight hours. Plus, while I always feel like I have to clear a huge chunk of time to work on my screenplay – I’ve not yet got into the habit of writing a couple of pages here and there – joke-writing can be done in snatched moments, of course. So I jot down jokes on the way into work, at work, on my lunch break at work, on the way home from work… (I do actually work, I hasten to add). That said, I do clear proper time at the weekends for writing sketches and the bulk of my jokes, ie. I sit down and go through newspapers and news websites and force myself to come up with gags. With Newsjack, say, I did want to prove that I could be a workhorse, that I could produce a good number of jokes week after week and not slack-off at any point. As (The London Comedy Writers’ Creative Director) Mr Bassett-Davies has said elsewhere on this blog: I think it’s important to take your work, but not yourself, seriously.
How did the 2010 London Screenwriters’ Festival benefit you?
Firstly, by networking: meeting face-to-face people I already knew via Twitter, plus making brand new contacts. It helped me make friends and form relationships with people who have been hugely helpful and supportive as I’ve been trying to break into comedy writing – ie I’ve got advice/feedback etc from people who really know what they’re talking about, and who genuinely want to support and encourage me.
Secondly, it made me realise that I would need more than one string to my bow. I had a first draft of a romcom screenplay – and not only did I naively think that my screenplay was going to catapult me to success, it was all I had to show for myself! Speakers at the festival made me realise that if I wanted to be a working writer I’d have to have other projects completed or on the go, other things I could show agents/directors. So it got me thinking about other avenues and things I could write.
Finally, very specifically: the Q&A with Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil, chaired by Paul Bassett-Davies, helped to spur me on into joke-writing. The idea of being a gag-writer had been slowly growing in the back of my mind as a result of Twitter; so I put a specific question to Andy and Kevin about this possible career move at the Q&A. Both of them – and Paul – advocated getting into joke and sketch-writing as a way of becoming a ‘proper’ comedy writer; and I will always remember one of them saying: “Shows always need more gag writers. And they definitely need more female gag writers!”
What has been your approach to making new contacts and finding opportunities?
To make contacts via – yes! – Twitter, and to follow up some of these in ‘real life’ (eg asking people for feedback on my screenplay; going to a monthly screenwriters’ drinks night in London). To contact anybody I already knew in the field – such as the friend-of-a-friend who I asked to mentor me – and take them out for a beer to pick their brains about comedy and screenwriting. To always say ‘yes’ to the offer of something, even if it seems a bit daunting. eg my ‘mentor’ got his first Channel 4 presenting job recently, and asked me if I wanted to have a go at writing some location-related gags and links for him. I knew there wouldn’t be much – if any – money in it, but I want to learn the craft and take every challenge I can, so I said yes. As a result, he used some, could pay me, and continues to send work my way!
What has writing for Newsjack done for your career/hopes?
It’s given me a big confidence boost and added to my momentum, my growing feeling that ‘wow, I really can do this!’. It’s felt like a really important step up that ladder – like I’m starting to play with the big boys. It’s also given me the all-important show credit (I deliberately wanted to wait and see if I could get a Newsjack credit before contacting TV and radio producers to introduce myself and see if I could get to meet any of them, get feedback on my work etc). Also: actually going into the office and writing with the team made me realise more than ever that this is what I want to do. ie I felt totally happy and at home in that environment. But more than anything, I guess, it’s got my foot in the door. As a result of my submissions to Newsjack, I’ve been spotted by the producer of The News Quiz and invited in for a sort of ‘try-out’/additional writer’s slot on an episode of the show in May. The News Quiz is one of my all-time favourite programmes, so the chance to write for it really is a dream come true.
What are you most looking forward to at the London Comedy Writers Festival?
Networking – ie the chance to meet producers and people in the industry that I absolutely want a full-time career in! I’m also looking forward to just learning from people – I think it’s so important and inspiring to hear stories and advice from those you admire or want to emulate; to learn from people who have made a success of themselves.
Finally, what advice would you give someone trying to break into comedy?
Network online and in person. Make every blooming contact you can and learn, learn, learn from people. Don’t be afraid to get feedback on your work, pick people’s brains and ask for career advice. Ask someone who’s successful to mentor you.
Work hard. Writing’s a craft. I’m getting better at it the more I do it – and I just want to get better and better and better. So I need to do it more and more and more. Opinion seems to differ over who said ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’ (Samuel Goldwyn? Thomas Jefferson?) but whoever it was, he was right.
Say yes to every opportunity – force yourself to rise to a challenge, because by succeeding at it (and you probably will) you’ll grow in confidence and become a better writer. For example: I had to write a bunch of jokes about Manchester for my TV presenter friend. I haven’t got a clue about Old Trafford, say, but had to come up with half a dozen jokes about it. It was all good for me, not only in terms of becoming a better writer, but also in terms of him seeing me as someone with a positive, ‘can do’ attitude.
Don’t be negative about yourself, or your work, publicly – whether that’s on Twitter, on forums, or on your blog. I do believe in ‘faking it to make it’ – not in the sense or being arrogant or dishonest, but just in the sense of not presenting yourself as a failure or putting yourself down publicly. Of course everyone has doubts and insecurities and feelings that you’re totally and utterly useless and what the hell are you thinking, trying to do this… But keep those private or share them with your friends or family. I strongly believe that whether you present yourself to the world as a failure or a success, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Pay attention to what it is that you truly, really love in comedy. My ‘mentor’ has told me that I can be tougher/nastier – that my jokes are sometimes too gentle! – and while I will of course always be willing to write whatever’s necessary, I guess, I also think it’s important to know what style and point-of-view is true to you. And I think I’m just a gentle kind of writer, that’s just my ‘thing’ (just as romcoms are my kind of film). As a girl, I grew up listening to and being a huge fan of radio comedy shows like Weekending, The News Quiz, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, The Million Pound Radio Show, Saturday Night Fry, etc – so it’s probably no accident, and indeed makes total sense, that I’ve ended up being drawn to BBC radio comedy!
And finally: to women – flippin’ go for it. Go for it! The only reason there are more male comedy writers than female ones is that blokes are much better at putting themselves forward. If you are talented and work hard and put yourself out there, there’s no reason why you can’t be as successful as any of the men who are doing it. It’s taken me an awfully long time to learn this lesson – but by golly*, I’m so glad I have now!