Comedy Scribe Monday #10: Tom Crowley of Wooden Overcoats, Story Etc. and more

Welcome back to #ComedyScribeMonday! It’s a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.

Our guest this week is Tom Crowley. His work is everywhere. He’s at the Vault Festival. He’s on Story Etc. He’s written for The Amazing World of Gumball, The News Quiz, The Now Show (BBC Radio 4) and written and performed in the Prix Europa-nominated Wooden Overcoats.

The digest below includes tweets from Tom, and from us, Sean Howard (@passitalong) and Eli McIlveen (@forgeryleague). I’ve reordered and made some minor edits for clarity.

Staying in character

Sean: I can’t tell you how jazzed I am to have Tom Crowley with us this week. Tom is a writer, director, producer, performer and has frankly written some of the funniest shit ever.

Tom: Sean, you are too kind.

Sean: Tom, you wrote an article for Wooden Overcoats (“What do you do when the laugh won’t land?”) about what makes things funny. And it was brilliant. It was also insanely entertaining to read.

I love the example you use to show how critical the characters are to comedy in all its forms. But you also speak about context. Can you explain the “super-objective” and how you use context when you are writing a piece?

Tom: This goes right back to the founding principles of a character, who you think they are overall. Are they defined by something they want in life, something that happened to them previously? It’s important to remember what you think is most important to a character and how that affects the way in which they approach whatever situation you’ve put them in.

This comes into complaints about someone acting ‘out of character’. Are they betraying a core element of how you’ve established them? If so, do you have good reason for it? Are you bearing in mind the consequences for this change in them?

Naturally no character goes through a story without changing, but if you abandon something within their character which seems essential to their personality, it’s going to jar! Or create huge changes within their world.

Sean: I love this SO much. So many people are trying to write “funny lines” and you are the funniest writer I know. And you speak so much about motivations and characters. You talked in your article about how thinking through this can help you get unstuck too?

Tom: Aw thanks mate. I think it’s as much a help as a hindrance, but it at least helps you identify why a joke is falling flat (in a particular character’s mouth).

And if you abandon a joke because it’s out of character, it makes you ask ‘so what WOULD this character think or say in this situation’ which is a great way to unstick a line or an encounter you’re struggling with.

You are the connective tissue

Sean: In the article, you write about comedy being the absurd in a mundane world and vice versa. You acknowledge that “This test is fairly simple, but hard to remedy.” How do you go about training yourself to make these leaps into the unexpected?

Tom: The reason it’s hard to remedy is that basically, if your work isn’t imaginative enough, all you can do is… have more imagination? But you CAN train yourself to think in more abstract or ambitious ways.

It’s a question of the old chestnut of ‘feeling inspired’. Often this is something you can’t control, but long walks, healthy breaks from work now and again and taking in influences are the best remedies I know. The best way to do this is to keep absorbing other people’s work, especially work which you find inspiring or particularly beautiful. All the stuff that makes you think ‘how did they come up with that!?’

And crucially, NOT JUST WORK IN YOUR CHOSEN MEDIUM OR GENRE! There’s no point punishing yourself by watching/reading/listening to stuff you feel you should, but keep a broad and varied diet. You might have the best idea for a sketch or a story ever by watching sport or listening to music or seeing an Oscar-winning moody drama. There are no rules, everything can inspire everything else.

And crucially, YOU are the connective tissue. The way you respond to these influences, filter them and put them into a new form all of your own is what creates properly exciting and new work.

Sean: So true. It reminds me of the lesson on how to create more interesting work: become a more interesting person. And yet it can be so hard to not fall into a trap of working and fretting and late nights. Suddenly we are just working stiffs.

Tom: This too — we all do this because it’s better than working. Have fun making things. It’s very difficult sometimes, but it MUST be fun, or it isn’t working. If you’re bashing your head against a desk, something needs to change.

Splitting up to work together

Max Kreisky (@MaxKreisky): I’m writing an audio pilot with my friends. Right now we all meet up to write together but once we’ve finished the pilot we want to split up to write individual episodes. What are some best practices to keep us all on the same page?

Tom: Oh goodness, this is a question for David Barnes (@VelvetBarnes) really! Based on our experiences on Wooden Overcoats, I’d say regular check-ins. Have meetings and settle on a shared plan for the rest of the series, then off you go.

Eli: (On that note, check out the transcript of our chat with David Barnes from back in January.)

Sean: If it helps, Max, we’ve had great luck with weekly writer meetings over Zoom where we read sections of scripts aloud to each other and get notes from the other writers.

Tom: Back when I was writing sketch comedy in the group Sad Faces (with Jack Bernhardt, @jackbern23 and Tobi Wilson, @tobiwilson56) it worked best when we would all talk through a sketch (or plot point), go away and write a draft with those instructions in mind, and then all meet back up together to go through the drafts. Often we’d then swap drafts for rewrites (which may not work in your case), but it also works if you all share feedback together then go back to your draft with those in mind.

Sean: Okay. This is a great segue to talking about rewrites. This idea of handing off a script to another writer and having them rewrite it. This came up with David too. I know writers that can’t take a single note. How do you approach rewrites? I.e.: What’s your approach to notes and rewrites on your work? How many revisions do you tend to go through? How do you get notes, etc.?

Tom: It depends, project to project! With Overcoats I always know David is the best judge of what’s right for an episode so I just take notes pretty much as gospel.

But feedback can be tricky. When it’s friends or fellow professionals offering feedback on something you’ve written, of course it’s important to listen to all of it, but then, they’re not you, they don’t necessarily know what’s right for your work.

With very new, untested work which I’m hoping to unleash on the world, I find LOTS of feedback from folks whose taste or work I like is best, then you can spot trends in what everyone is saying, which will lead to very helpful clues.

And some feedback is incredibly frustrating. Lots of people might think it is, but ‘that’s not funny’ isn’t helpful, and isn’t strictly speaking actual feedback, just subjective opinion.

What you need to ask yourself is:

  1. What was I hoping to convey?
  2. Did those offering feedback get that from it?
  3. Why not?

Rather than just ‘is this good writing or not’, which is a hopeless question and impossible to truly answer.

Sketching out a career

Charles, but a bear (@ChazzyDeane): Possibly a cheeky one, but what was the first time you got paid for writing? Did it turn out the way you expected?

Tom: Not cheeky at all! We were very lucky in Sad Faces in that when we were VERY young (18/19 years old) we came runner-up in a new talent contest at the BBC called Witty & Twisted, run by Victoria Lloyd (@victoria_lloyd). And off the back of that, we were invited to be writing and acting company in a runner-up showcase, called Play & Record on BBC Radio 4 Extra (then called BBC Radio 7). That was my first writing AND acting pay day!

Sean: You work in a crazy number of forms: stage, screen, standup, audio podcast and more. Do you think this was helpful in your finding your voice as a writer? I guess what I’m asking is if we all should be trying standup? :) #ScaredShitlessofStandup

Tom: Stand-up is the thing I have done the least so far in my life, and should have done much more by now. And intend to do much more in the near future! Sketch was where I started and was a brilliant place to begin…

There’s no improv to sketch to SNL to sitcoms to movies progression in Britain, people just tend to leap into whatever medium they think they want to do. More big-writer’s-room sketch shows would help to galvanise new talent, but alas…

Anyway, sketch was great because it made you think about character voices, shaping a scene, gag writing AND (when we started performing live) engaging an audience. I learned the bare basics of most everything I know about writing from sketch comedy, and after doing live sketch stuff, I’ve just written for whatever medium is around. I’ve done a lot of theatre because I love the immediacy (inherited from live comedy, I’m certain) — find the people to say the words in a place, and you’ve done it!

We started working on Overcoats as a podcast because we knew we’d be able to send it all around the world immediately and reach lots of people. Again, it’s project-to-project, whatever medium you think your idea suits best (and whatever you want to do!).

Eli: So was it a fairly natural progression from there to writing whole shows? Did the character-focused approach scale naturally to longer stories, or were there other big things to learn?

Tom: We went into writing more story-driven comedy hours with Sad Faces because a lot of our influences were narrative as well as quick sketches, and we wanted to play with bigger, longer-running story ideas and jokes.

So on that front, yes, it was a pretty direct progression! I always wanted to write some more drama (radio, stage, film, I didn’t know) and I started to write my first long-form narrative efforts at the same time as Sad Faces began writing story shows. But I think that was a coincidence, really! On my own, I wanted to tackle bigger, longer stories and more complex characters, and with the group, we wanted to write more ambitious and complicated sketch hours.

Inspiration, Story Etc.

Sean: I think you may take the title for most inspiring chat yet, Tom. So awesome. Is there a book or other resource you would recommend to people wanting to explore sketch comedy as writers and/or performers?

Tom: Oh boy, you know, I don’t really know of any — I bet a quick Google would find some great ones, but again, I think the best thing to do is just absorb more of it! Of as many different types as you can find. Off the top of my head, great shows to check out are Big Train, Goodness Gracious Me, The Fast Show, Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, Burnistoun, Key & Peele, French & Saunders, the list goes on.

But again, check out the BBC Writersroom website for tips and opportunities — a lot of amazing sketch writers I know have contributed how-to articles there. WHAMMO:

Sean: As you may know, I am HEAD OVER HEELS in love with Story Etc. and I want to make sure everyone knows about this show. Can you give it a quick pitch? Just help everyone understand what it is and why it was started.

Tom: Story Etc. came out of me wanting to do some sort of anthology podcast — interviews mixed with radio plays — and Felix Trench (@felixtrench) introducing me to Jenny Redmond (@JennyRedRedmond) and Eleanor Rushton (@Wellybeana) who had a similar ambition — we thrashed out the format between us three.

We all decided we wanted to do something like the This American Life of fiction — factual interviews, but all based around the arts, media, all kinds of storytelling — plus examples of different sorts of stories within the show. Which is pretty much a pitch!

Sean: And as a follow up to that, are you going to have an episode on Comedy or Humor? And when? ;)

Tom: I can’t reveal anything at the moment, but we have talked about Laughs or Jokes or Comedy or similar as an episode theme. You’ll have to wait and find out!

Sean: OMG. This hour has FLOWN by. Eli and I would like to thank Tom for taking this time to share with all of us. It has been both inspiring and helpful! Where can we see more of your work? What’s coming up?

Tom: Ah! Well you can listen to Wooden Overcoats Season 3 right now, the first 3 amazing episodes are out, and Season 3 Episode 4, The Race for Piffling, is my contribution! It’s out on Thursday and I hope you like it!

Also I turn up in The Beef and Dairy Network as a guest now and again. It is one of the best bits of British radio comedy ever produced. You should listen to all of it right now.

I’m also a lead in Victoriocity, the BRILLIANT first series of which is out now. I didn’t write any of it, so I can say that. Incredible world-building and excellent jokes throughout.

Sean: Nice plug. And I couldn’t agree more! Victoriocity is one of our FAVOURITES! And we will have writers Jen and Chris Sugden (@JenSugden and @chrssgdn) on this chat series on March 26th!

Tom: Thank you so, so much for having me! I’m so glad it’s been interesting, hope folks who are reading have found it helpful. The hour has indeed FLOOOOWN! Thanks all!

#ComedyScribeMondays are brought to you by Sean and Eli, the writers of Alba Salix, Royal Physician. Join us on Twitter every Monday at 1pm ET / 10am PT in North America, or 1700h UTC, wherever and whenever you are!

Writer and audio producer, creator of fantasy-comedy podcasts Alba Salix, Royal Physician and The Axe & Crown.