Friday, January 29, 2016

Adventures in Audio, Part 2 : Tag-Team Writing

Image by Alan Levine, via Flickr
Writing novels tends, on the whole, to be a solitary occupation. Novelists will occasionally team up to produce a jointly-authored book (Katherine Kurtz and I have written 7 books together), but such projects tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule.

This isn’t necessarily so in other realms of creative writing. When it comes to writing TV and/or radio scripts – especially comedies – a good many famous works in the genre are the fruit of teamwork involving two or more writers.

For example, in the late 1930’s, the celebrated comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello hired vaudeville aficionado John Grant to help them script their material, collectively producing classic routines like Who’s On First? Similarly, Jack Benny’s reputation as a radio comedian was build on gags he scripted with the aid of behind-the-scene writers like Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin.

More recent examples of comedy-by-collaboration can be found in the British SF comedy series Red Dwarf, the brainchild of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor and the American hit comedy The Big Bang Theory, which has no fewer than 15 writers on its scripting roster.

So what’s it like being part of a comedy team? My November posting featured an article on my husband Bob’s newly-launched SF radio pod cast Watch the Skies1, written and produced in tandem with his longtime friend Alan McFadzean. This month, I assumed the persona of an investigative reporter and interviewed Bob about the various aspects of collaborative script writing.

The Interview

Q: When you’re writing comedy, what difference does it make to have a collaborator to work with?

A: It’s very easy to write down something that you think is funny and assume that the rest of the world will share the joke. This personal assumption can be totally wrong, which is why there is a lot of depressingly unfunny comedy out there. Alan and I constantly push each other to improve the plots and dialogue to the point where they make us both laugh.

Q: What were the first lessons you learned about this sort of writing?

A: Our initial script for The Queen’s Heid was picked up by the BBC, but they had us rework it almost entirely. Firstly, we had far too many characters. It’s difficult for listeners to identify so many voices in the space of 25 minutes. Secondly, our tangle of interweaving plots was too complex for that format and amount of time.

Q: So do you have some rules you follow now?

A: We find that a sitcom works best with 3-4 central characters and one ’wild card’ character. The central characters are defined by their relations with each other, while the ’wild card’ character is an outsider who can pop in seemingly at random to jazz things up. In Seinfeld, for example, Kramer is the ’wild card’, always crashing in through the door while the other three are having a conversation.

Q: And plots?

A: Alan and I like to have two plots running in an episode which we bring together at the climax. Between us, we can identify any potential weak links in one or another of our story lines, and fix them before these weaknesses can undermine the comic effect of the episode over all.

This interview will continue in next month’s post, focusing on the technical challenges and advantages of audio writing.

1 Watch The Skies! is available absolutely free at Quantum Fridge.

You can Like it on Facebook at the Watch The Skies Comedy page.

You can also follow on Twitter @QuantumFridge

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. I'm looking forward to the next "episode." :)

  2. This certainly highlights the value of the second opinion. It should also make the work of an editor much easier, since each writer will find many of the flaws in the other's work -- at least I would hope so.


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