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What did comedians teach me about copywriting?

I have a pure love of the English language, in both written and spoken form. It’s one of the reasons I do what I do. I also love the power of laughter. Novelists, poets and playwrights can all move us with their language, as performed by actors. But comedians are the people who really have to master the currency of language to earn a living; deciding what to say, how to say it and how to connect it tonally with an audience, either in-person or through a screen. And that’s not easy!

The great comedians are linguistic maestros

We all have our favourite comics for a host of reasons. But if I look back over time, many of my favourites are those for whom the crafting of language was key to their success. Two names jump out:

Ronnie Barker understood the inherent fun within language itself. Everybody remembers the “four candles” sketch, but I love this one, for how incredibly hard it is to say things wrong, seamlessly!
Dave Allen had the most natural gift for funny story-telling. His cadence and timing are unbeatable. He made the funniest bit the pause, where your imagination catches up with him!

Where is this going?

Comedy, like any form of communication, has to move with the times. I’d argue the above examples are pretty timeless, but comedic communication these days is very different, often more complex and sometimes much darker than in the 1970s. Comedy began to mix with drama and comics became better actors. Two of my (very different) sitcom favourites are:

Blackadder is complex! The period language was often so dense, the jokes so multi-layered, the sheer amount of words so vast, that I found myself wondering “How do they even remember these lines?” But in the hands of Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, it’s an absolute masterclass in how to deliver funny ideas.
The Fast Show‘s quick-fire sketch comedy has so many beautifully observed characters, this show taught me writing economy. And in Rowley Birkin, Paul Whitehouse gave us a character with complete emotional range, while saying so very little. This scene might be the best example of peripety ever put on screen.

Stand and deliver

Live stand-up comedy remains the apex of the artform. The blankest of canvasses, just you on a stage; cheer us up, make us think, shock us, make us laugh so hard that we cry. What are you going to do? Stand-up taught me more about how to be persuasive than any debating society or expert analysis. It taught me how to take any bias or presumption and attack it from any angle, using any tone. No rules, no second go, just your ideas, your personality and the opportunity to change people’s emotional state… however you see fit. Thrilling!

The world would be a better place if George Carlin was still in it. The best observational comedian of all time, he mastered the discussion of huge subjects, simplified into memorable vignettes, with powers of description as good as any great novelist. George made us laugh, and be better humans.
Leaving politics aside, though this is political, Stewart Lee is a sublime user of rhetorical techniques. The magnitude of his thought and research amazes me in the second half of this clip (from 4.44). It says a lot about me, but “Comin’ over ‘ere, doubting transubstantiation” might be the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.

Comedy = tragedy + time

An old quote; but one that speaks to what makes things resonate, comedically or otherwise. Taking experiences and events, looking at them anew and placing them in a context that says something valuable about today and the future. That’s the basis for how I write pretty much anything, and I hope it brings a tiny sprinkle of the same powerful magic contained within a single, hearty laugh.

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