Comedy Scribe Monday #5: Maxamillian John
Greetings, fellow humans! It’s the latest #ComedyScribeMonday — a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.
The transcript below includes tweets from our guest Maxamillian (@maxltj), from us, Sean Howard (@passitalong) and Eli McIlveen (@forgeryleague), and some other fine folks on Twitter, as noted. I’ve reordered and made some minor edits for clarity.
Sean: We are tickled British to have Maxamillian John on this week’s #ComedyScribeMonday. Maxamillian is an accomplished writer, one quarter of Definitely Human (@HumanDefinitely), and appears as the unstoppable Cornelia Cavendish on The Infinite Bad!
Maxamillian: Hi, Sean, thanks for having me!
Sean: Your company Definitely Human appears to be a collaboration between yourself, David Knight (@Mr_DavidKnight), David Price (@deejprice), and Tom Dalling (@tdalling). Can you talk about everyone’s roles? And how did you first start working together and how has that changed over time, if at all?
Maxamillian: The roles are fairly fluid, we each try to look after whatever needs doing. But for the most part, the Davids and I all write, sometimes in pairs, sometimes separately, and Tom takes on the monumental task of producing all the audio.
At least, that’s for the fiction! Of course, there’s also the biscuit-based chat show The International Worldwide Global Biscuit Review Podcast which the Davids do together, and The Infinite Bad which is written and run by Giorgio Mariani (@GWMariani).
Sean: Interesting! Do you have roles as writers? Is someone playing a showrunner or editor role? I’m intrigued by how revisions happen on a show like MarsCorp.
Eli: Also curious to know how you write in pairs — is it in person? Or trading drafts or alternating scenes?
Maxamillian: Well the process is different for every show we do, and often a big part of starting a new show is discovering a new rhythm of work. The Davids wrote the first season of MarsCorp together, but for Human Capital, David K and I wrote everything together (literally in the same room, sometimes typing over each other on the same scripts), and then recorded it all together before David did the audio editing and sent it to Tom for production.
But, among our upcoming shows there’s a comedy that we worked on together and now David is taking the lead on because it feels much closer to home for him, so that makes sense. And similarly there’s a show that I’m obsessed with, so I’ve been working on that in my spare time, and at some point David and I will look at it together again.
I feel like the best collaborations happen in person, but I understand that might not be for everyone. For me, everything moves so much faster when we can sit (or frantically pace!) around and pitch lines or ideas to each other that if we were communicating remotely would take forever to discuss. Writing with anyone can demand a tremendous amount of trust though, and finding both the right people and the right style is a whole adventure itself!
Abandon hope, all ye who land here
Sean: Every show of IWGBRP ends with “Remember, there is no hope.” It strikes me how British this is but also how fitting to so many of your shows. Is this a bit of a motto for Definitely Human? With the exception of E.L. Hob in MarsCorp, so much of your comedy seems to come from people who face and accept and even relish their hopeless situation/future.
Maxamillian: Well, Definitely Human has had a number of mottos, from “There is no hope” to “Don’t have ambition” and “Don’t free Satan”, but none of those are necessarily the mottos of us as individuals!
I think British comedy has a very rich history of characters being constantly thwarted in their lives, and some of the biggest influences on my writing draw heavily on that premise. Galton & Simpson’s sitcoms, like Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe & Son, are about working class people trying to attain greater status, but being thwarted by their own ambitions. It’s not that they don’t deserve status, but that they have are pursuing an ideal that doesn’t really exist. And you can see that same pattern when Basil is trying to spruce up his hotel in Fawlty Towers, or Rigsby is putting on airs in Rising Damp. I think it has a lot to do with the history of the class system in England, which is why American comedy (for instance) is so different. They don’t know the despair of a rigid society because they grew up with the rhetoric of capitalism telling them that everything can be good and fair, and anyone can be president.
Eli: That veneer of everything-is-fine seems so thin in British comedy. And the happiest people on MarsCorp do seem to be the robots.
Maxamillian: Yes! You can’t disappoint someone who is entirely resigned to who they are, and this also applies to the Martians in general, who accept their place in the company.
Eli: Come to think of it, to me, the most emblematic sound on MarsCorp isn’t the robots’ voices, or the public address chime — it’s David Knight’s unhinged, despairing laughter.
Sean: On the subject of that #bestlaughever, I assume that David Price and David Knight are just playing themselves in MarsCorp and the voices they are using in IWGBRP are character voices they created, yes?
IWGBRP (@iwgbrp): I guess the game’s up, folks. Rumbled.
The value of comedy
Sean: I hate that comedy is so often portrayed as less than drama or even as frivolous. I’d love to know how you think about comedy as so much of your work explores themes of sadness and loss. Specifically: “Donald Trump Killed my Dog” and “A Sea View with Exit Wounds”, which is mesmerizing and SO touching, btw.
Maxamillian: Yeh, I know what you mean. Comedians are largely dismissed by the establishment, which is both a good and a bad thing. It allows us to comment on systems without seeming to compromise our objectivity (sometimes), but also means that what we say is easily ignored. There’s an Italian politician that’s a comedian, with a lot of great, progressive ideas, who is unfortunately seen as a joke even in his political career (Giorgio could say more about that!)
Personally, I’ve always thought that comedy is the perfect way to broach ideas. If you try to talk to someone in a pub about politics, everyone (including me) would probably excuse themselves. But if you ask someone if they want to hear a JOKE about the government, I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t say yes. You can smuggle a lot of your opinions and ideas into the world in comedy, and make a lot of people happy besides. So I don’t buy that it’s the lesser sibling of drama. And often, an honest story about people in the world will always have humour. Even the most tragic, downtrodden person laughs with their friends.
The Infinite Bad
Sean: I can’t have this platform and not ask about Cornelia Cavendish on The Infinite Bad and how you came to play her. Where did she come from? I can’t get enough Cornelia!
Maxamillian: Haha, thanks! When we’re writing scripts for audio drama, David K and I will finish a section then do a read-through where we play all the characters to test for timing, rhythm, whether the dialogue sounds natural, that sort of thing. When we were reading Human Capital 6: Jessica Horn, I was playing the part of Tom’s mother in a very histrionic, posh way, and I wanted to continue playing that sort of character in something else. So when I was coming up with a character for The Infinite Bad, I decided to play a haughty, passive-aggressive posh lady, and it developed from there.
Eli: AHA, that makes sense. Perhaps Tom’s mother should take heart, then — a little part of her does live on, but in the distant past!
Maxamillian: Our Human Capital scripts also gave David’s Infinite Bad character his name — MarsCorp’s David disguises himself in episode nine at the Ultra-ade mine, going as ‘Sebastian St Battenberg’.
Sean: I also have to confess that it took me until the last few episodes to realize The Infinite Bad was a horror role-play podcast as I couldn’t stop laughing.
Eli: Why, this is a silly bit of fun OH GOD THE TEETH
Maxamillian: Yeh, I think we’ve managed to keep both the humour and the horror going side-by-side quite well! Giorgio always writes the adventures as a straight horror, and then we players come along and turn it into a horror-farce!
Writing for audio
Audio Drama Production Podcast (@YapAudio): So how do you map the comedy out in your shows — do you start with some hit points and an arc or bounce ideas off each other and see what happens — or is it planned to the nth degree on 500,000 post-its?
Maxamillian: I think the jokes come quite naturally if you have a very good grip on the characters. Each character has a unique point of view, and the humour will often be in how these viewpoints clash or misunderstand each other! Some jokes are more abstract and depend more on an internal narrative structure or exploring quirks of language — @M_Woodcock’s puns on The Monster Hunters (@Huntingmonsters) are a great example of that!
In terms of how we plan stories themselves, I’ve always started big and then progressively zoomed in. An idea for a show turns into a breakdown for a season, then episodes, then scenes, and when you have the shape of it all, everything flows very naturally, because you know exactly where you are, where you end up, the ambitions and fears of the characters, and any contradictions have been worked out during the relevant breakdowns.
Chris Jordan (@its_only_a_game): Have you worked on projects outside of podcasts? What do you think are the unique challenges and opportunities working with a podcast as opposed to a visually based comedy?
Maxamillian: Hi Chris! I’ve worked on a loooot of stuff outside podcasts. I started as a joke writer for topical shows, then did stand-up for 7 years, then wrote for other comedians, among other things.
The advantage of podcasts is that the jokes and stories can be far more ambitious without a commensurate increase in production costs. To create a robot-human battle in MarsCorp, we only need the sound of one — I have no idea how we’d be able to do that visually with our budget and only four of us at Definitely Human! Obviously we’re very lucky that Tom is a goddamn genius and can make anything we put on the page sound real!
I’d also say that I think audio can be far more immersive than visual media. If you close your eyes and listen to a good audio drama, you can actually feel the world around you. But visual media require a screen, and the frame creates a world within which you have to commit your sense of self while trying to ignore the fact that you’re still in the real world. Not only is there a suspension of disbelief, but there has to be a suspension of the whole physical world, and that’s not easy. For instance, you’ll have cuts between camera angles. So where do you imagine yourself to be placed in a room with people talking if they’re cutting between points of view? On the other hand, with the sound of that conversation and room around you you can be fully immersed with a coherent sense of yourself in that space.
As for challenges, only having audio channels to impart information to the audience means trying to get necessary facts into dialogue sometimes, and if you’re not careful it can sound a little clumsy. But there’s opportunity there too! H P Lovecraft has a trick of describing monsters as ‘indescribable’ which you obviously can only do if your main information channel is words. Similarly, in the Bonnie episode of Human Capital we describe the outfits that Bonnie and David are disguising themselves in, and the joke exploits the absurdity of what we’re making the listener visualise bit by bit.
Chris Jordan (@its_only_a_game): Love the responses! Are there any episodes you’ve worked on that you are particularly proud of? The musical MarsCorp Christmas special, or the @BunkerPodcast finale? What are your favorites?
Maxamillian: My favourite episode is always the next one! There’s nothing like having new stuff to work on, and as much as I love what we’ve done, I’m always more excited for what’s coming next! We’ve got so much awesome stuff in the pipe like our pirate comedy that we’re scripting, and MarsCorp 2, and half a dozen shows in various stages. There’s a show we haven’t announced yet that I’m personally crazy about, so that’s occupying a lot of space in my head right now!
Final writing tip: the trick is to use a teapot lid to keep your second cup of tea hot. “But Max, why not just use a teapot?” HA, you fool! Because a teapot would over-brew the tea! You achieve optimal strength, then stick a lid on it. Good tea = good writing.
Sean: We want to send a SUPER big thank you to Maxamillian and Definitely Human for being here on today’s #ComedyScribeMonday! Where can people learn more? What’s coming up? Plug time!
I’m also one of @SarahofGolding’s script judges, and there’s a production of her @YapAudio competition winners on the 7th of March at @VAULTFestival, including cast members @BethEyre and @BullshotUK — Sarah can tell you more!
A planet-sized thank you to Maxamillian for joining us! Definitely Human are creating some of the funniest, most compellingly, desperately absurd worlds on the Internet. We are supporters and you can be too! Help make Season 2 of MarsCorp at: patreon.com/definitelyhuman.
#ComedyScribeMondays are brought to you by Sean and Eli, the writers of Alba Salix, Royal Physician. Join us on Twitter every Monday at noon ET / 9 PT in North America, or 1700h UTC, wherever you are!