Comedy Scribe Monday #4: David K. Barnes

Hi all! It’s our fourth #ComedyScribeMonday — a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.

This week, our guest is playwright David K. Barnes (@VelvetBarnes), creator of the hit podcast Wooden Overcoats, a witty, charming and darkly hilarious sitcom about rival undertakers in a tiny village in the Channel Islands.

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


Sean: Let’s get started! David K. Barnes is the creator and head writer on Wooden Overcoats. It’s a Best of iTunes selection, a British Podcast Awards winner, a Prix Europa nominee and one of the most lauded audio comedy full-cast podcasts in existence.

David: Hallo! I’m desperately frightened by all this, but also very happy to be here.

Sean: I’ll start us off with a question. David, your world building is second to none. Do you recall where where this all started? Was it a character? Or something in the world of Piffling that began it all?

David: The series began with Felix Trench (@felixtrench) and Tom Crowley (@crowleeey) asking if I could write them a sitcom about rival undertakers! By developing how those characters should function first, I could begin working out the world they had to inhabit.

Sean: Interesting. Do you tend to start with the characters first? Or was that just in this case?

David: I like to begin with a specific relationship and extrapolate characters, situations and settings from that.

I wanted Rudyard to be worse than Eric, I wanted Rudyard to have been there all his life and for Eric to be the newcomer, and I wanted an island so it’d seem harder for Rudyard to get away!

Eli: Ahh, I like that aspect. Trapping characters like the Funns in a situation must crank up every terrible impulse they have.

David: In Wooden Overcoats, I like the characters to be defeated by their own flaws as much as by external circumstances. Like Rudyard is his own worst enemy and doesn’t know that, despite all evidence.

What’s been really fun is pushing the characters to extremes — like when Georgie left Funn Funerals, Antigone had to bury 40 clowns, or Rudyard going mad every fortnight — and then tweaking how they operate during the next big disaster.

Sean: That totally makes sense! I was going to say that there are so many great lines in Wooden Overcoats and yet so much of what I find hysterical is each character taking their point of view to its “logical” extreme.

The opening to S1E1, “The Bane of Rudyard” is brilliant. We are told as writers to start in the action and yet you start with a lovely exploration of Reverend Nigel. And a pacing that only escalates as Rudyard appears.

You seem very aware of structure and pacing. How did you come to this decision? It so so so works!

David: Oh, structure is the biggest thing for me. My writers will be so bored of hearing me talk about it. We work out the stories and scene-by-scene breakdowns before writing any dialogue.

I think it’s studying Ayckbourn’s theatrical comedies that did it — his book The Crafty Art of Playmaking is a wonderfully practical guide, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Eli: Aha! I’d been wondering about that. So your season’s plot points are worked out well in advance of letting your team of writers loose on it?

David: Ah, well. Ideally yes! But a lot of exploration happens during the writing of scripts, and I’m often interested in picking up threads that come together as other writers’ scripts come in.

I usually have a broad idea of how relationships will begin and might develop, but I also monitor how much each character is being given to do each season, and make practical decisions on the fly.

So while episodes themselves will be planned pretty thoroughly, actual seasons and their shapes can build much more slowly.

Sean: This. This is GOLD and SO fascinating. Thank you. The reverse of what we thought and practice.

David: I think a healthy balance needs to be struck between creative desire and practicalities. Never be entirely beholden to either.

Elizabeth Campbell (@LizxCampbell): Alright David, what prompted you to choose to write with a team rather than on your own? Do you prefer writing that way?

David: Hallo LIZ. I think it was the fanciful idea that writing 8 x half hours in one go might kill me. But having other writers really broadens the sort of ideas the series can play with.

I’m equally proud of my own scripts and the ones I develop with the other writers. It’s wonderful to get given stories you’d just never have thought of yourself — and use them to spark off your own stories!

Eli: How did you maintain the right tone and feel across different writers’ scripts — especially at the beginning, before anyone had heard it aloud? Are there certain familiar shows/characters you use as touchstones? Or is it all in the editing?

David: I hate to say instinct, but it kind of was. As I wrote my own scripts and read early drafts of others, I got a feel as to how characters were functioning best within stories.

Then personalities might be tweaked to make them work better, and especially once I heard the actors read drafts. I’d rewrite any line that didn’t fit or sound right.

I was also writing specifically for Felix, Beth Eyre (@BethEyre) and Tom from the beginning. Ciara (@CiaraBaxendale) was cast after initial readthroughs; I loved her take on Georgie and rewrote all her dialogue before recording.

Sean: How many iterations and readthroughs do you manage? I know you do the full cast readthroughs. Are there other partial cast readings?

David: Series 1, we had an early reading of episodes 1 and 4 as a test. Otherwise we just do a read of all scripts a week or two before the recording.

At least, in theory. My season finales have been known to be, er, a little closer to recording. Ahem.

Sean: Oh dear. That doesn’t sound stressful at all! And you are doing rewrites based on those readings, yes?

David: Yep, based on cast and crew feedback, the opinions of guest writers, and me thinking “Hmm, that line had too many syllables. I’ll change that.”

Eli: What’s your approach to editing other writers? With your own material, you can tinker until the deadline, but how do you manage it when it’s someone else’s script?

David: I tend to allow myself a month to play with the other writers’ scripts, so they have to write drafts to strict deadlines. I decided quite early on to make whatever changes I felt were necessary to maintain tone / story arcs etc.

It’s never a case that a script doesn’t work when it comes in — the guest writers are all brilliant. It’s simply that you get a fresh perspective when you’ve got 8 scripts in front of you, and they all have to sound like one voice.

So I make changes where I feel appropriate, and then consult with the writers until we’re all happy. And further changes happen between us after the readings.

Sean: There are writers out there who struggle with taking notes and making revisions to their scripts. How many iterations do the Wooden Overcoats scripts go through? And what do you say to writers like that?

David: There’s the initial idea, then a breakdown, then 2 or maybe 3 drafts to my feedback, before I then take over and do my own edit. Tweaked script after readings, and maybe some tweaks in the studio.

I’m not always so rigorous with my own — to my shame, the Series 2 Clowns finale was a 2nd draft script. It’s easy to crack the whip, much harder to whip yourself (oh my).

I think our writers are great for taking on feedback and allowing scripts to be moulded afterwards to suit series-wide arcs and tone. It’s a real skill to be comfortable doing that. Often it’s practicalities beyond their control, like actor availability.

Sean: I have to ask. I’ve heard that your personal writing process requires you to lock yourself away from the world for days on end with nothing but your bathrobe, an addictive substance of choice and a typewriter. Can you confirm or deny? :)

David: Shamefully, I’m in my bathrobe right now, having spent today working on a different project. My addictive substances of choice are tea and my own tears of panic.

Sean: I’ve been wondering about something. If you had to do Season 1 of Wooden Overcoats again, would you use Madeleine the mouse as your narrator? She is such a delightful character and POV, but did you find it a little challenging to get her into every location?

David: Oh God, Madeleine. Yes. She’s the most challenging character to write for those reasons, and because she mainly speaks in chunks of prose with gags.

But — modesty aside — I still adore her as a narrative device, and the “squeak” conversations with other characters are my favourite bits to write.

Sean:

“Just stick the kettle on and make me a cup of tea.”
“Sugar?”
“No, Georgie, this isn’t a brothel.”

These lines, as immortalized on a Wooden Overcoats mug DESTROY me. I have to know. Did this gem just pop out of Tom or was it a collaborative effort?

David: It grieves me to say it, but that gag is a 100% Tom Crowley original. It’s our most quoted joke and I had nothing to do with it! I fully expect it’ll be inscribed on my tombstone.

Sean: Since I have this platform, I have to ask. Antigone is my most beloved character of yours. Will she ever find love????

David: Ha ha ha! I think that might be too much happiness for one of my characters. But you’ll have to tune in to series 3 next month to find out it I’m lying… (I might still be lying)

Sean: I have to say that I was just re-listening to S1E1 again and that scene where we meet Antigone for the first time and it’s just the three of them and then Chapman. It’s just brilliant. So much comedy/drama and the characters drive it all.

David: I’m still super proud of that scene. My favourite scenes to write are the core cast talking to each other, dealing with dramatic dilemmas as well as wacky shenanigans. The drama and comedy are equally important to us.

Eli: Oh yes. Eric leaving Antigone sputtering, while Rudyard tries to imagine buying him, or anyone, a drink — such a perfect introduction to all of them.

David: Developing their relationships is my favourite part of the show. I think we cover some really interesting ground in Series 3 — hope the listeners will agree!

Elizabeth Campbell (@LizxCampbell): If you could write for any show, what would it be and why?

David: Ooo. I think I’d like Andrew Davies’ career, really — write some lovely sitcoms, then get commissioned to do high profile, big budget novel adaptations. With horses.
 
Of course, I’d also say Doctor Who — though thanks to Big Finish (@bigfinish), I’ve now written some!

Eli: WHAT HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS

Sean: Wait, you can’t just drop that and not give us a link or two! I had no idea!

David: I think I’m allowed to say now that I’ve written a Doctor Who audio drama set in the 1960s with the Daleks, released by Big Finish in September. Was a joy to write and record.

It’s not yet on their website but I’ll flash it around everywhere when it is!

Eli: Cannot wait!

David: Thanks! When I say “a joy to record” I of course mean a joy to watch the Big Finish team do a fantastic job whilst I just sit there eating biscuits.

Sean: Plug time! David, please share with everyone what’s up and coming!

David: Plugs!

Wooden Overcoats performs live at @VAULTFestival London February 11th.

And then our Series 3 live shows from February–April.

My dark comedy thriller Timothy is at @VAULTFestival too in March, produced by Beth’s @SnatchbackCo.

And my Doctor Who story The Dalek Occupation of Winter is available from Big Finish in September!

Sean: Thank you again @VelvetBarnes for taking the time to be grilled mercilessly by us. I mean, to share with all of us! :) It was truly the highlight of my day, week and month!

David: Thanks for having me! Looking forward to Series 3 being unleashed. We think we’ve got some fantastic stories in there, and it’s a deeply personal season for me too in terms of where it’s going.

For anyone who’d like it, I wrote this article about writing / devising sitcoms back in 2016, and reading it back I still stand by every word! Hope it’s at all interesting!


Be sure to join us for our next #ComedyScribeMonday.

They take place just about every Monday at 9am PST, noon EST and 1700 hours UTC (UK).