Funny Farms: the secret lives of sketch-writers
How do comedy writers juggle their own comedic voices with those of the performers they’re writing for? And what role does ego play in the writing, and delivery, of punchlines? Anthony Morris finds out.
How does it feel to slave away, crafting a punchline, only to be left waiting in the wings – or sitting at home on the couch – while someone else soaks up the laughter?
Lee Zachariah and Shannon Marinko know both sides of writing comedy. The pair started their comedy careers as the writers and on-air hosts of The Bazura Project, a movie-themed comedy series that ran for three seasons on Channel 31 in Melbourne before crossing over to ABC2 for a season in 2011.
Neither of the pair had ever planned to write comedy for others. Marinko’s comedy writing career began when he was recommended by a friend for a position on the ill-fated Channel Seven sketch show The Bounce in 2010. ‘That got me a meeting, which got me on as a part-timer, two days a week. Though that changed right after the first week when most of the writers walked out, leaving only two – including me – for episode two.’
Zachariah’s start came after The Bazura Project wrapped and he was offered a job doing research for The Chaser, where he was encouraged to submit jokes and sketch ideas. ‘That spun off into another job and then another few jobs,’ he says. ‘Which is amazing because we don’t make that much comedy in Australia’.
For Zachariah, getting into The Chaser’s style of comedy after having his own show was relatively easy. ‘My theory is that all jokes are essentially the same and the difference is in the delivery. Ultimately a good joke is a good joke, and so there [wasn’t] much work to get into [the Chaser] voice. On the other hand, I did have three months working there in the office with them before we started writing jokes, so maybe I’d just acclimatised.’
Marinko has a similar approach to adapting his style. ‘I like to think that, first and foremost, I can only write what I think is funny. Then, hopefully, I can bend it, twist it, filter it – or not – to what I think they’re looking for.’
‘You definitely have your own voice,’ says Zachariah. ‘But you can’t be too conscious of it. There was a joke in an episode of Buffy once that a friend of mine said, “That is such a you joke”, and I didn’t know what a me joke was until he said it.’
After working for The Chaser, Lee moved on to write for a number of other series, most notably Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell. Marinko, meanwhile, has most recently written for the Foxtel sketch series Open Slather; a series that reunited many of the original cast from the legendary show Fast Forward.
According to Zachariah, it definitely helps to know who you’re writing for, even when they knock back material. ‘If you’re writing for one comedian with a singular voice, you trust that they’re going to get it. And if they don’t get it, then it was never meant to be … you wrote a joke that wasn’t right for them.’
This raises the question of what happens when a comedian knocks back material that a writer still thinks is good. Lee says he doesn’t think twice about recycling jokes: ‘I will totally use a joke if it hasn’t worked somewhere else. There was a sketch that didn’t make it through at The Chaser and I tried it again at Mad as Hell. It didn’t make it through there either, but both times it didn’t make it through for different reasons, which was interesting.’
‘This is too good a joke to waste on this show, I’m going to keep it back for myself.’
And what if a writer comes up with a joke they think is too good for the show they’re working on? Do writers keep their best material back for themselves? ‘Absolutely,’ says Marinko. ‘Not often, and more whole sketch ideas than single jokes – stuff that’d work well as a short film. Although, conversely, if I was having a dry day on Open Slather, I’d dig through some of my old ideas for short films, then rewrite and submit them.’
For Zachariah it depends on the show and the people with whom he’s collaborating. ‘I wanted to give Micallef my best material, but there was another show I worked on where I [sometimes] thought “Yeah, this is too good a joke to waste on this show, I’m going to keep it back for myself”. Which is probably why I never got any sketches up on that show.’
So what about the egos? You’d think a group of comedians in a room competing to get material on the air would be a nightmare, and yet surprisingly both Marinko and Zachariah describe their own experiences as relatively free of politics. Says Marinko, ‘Even as one of the 50-something writers on Open Slather, I didn’t find it remotely competitive. I’d just give them what I think is funny. If they use it, great; if not, great, I’ll write something else. Ultimately, it’s not my show, so I don’t see how I can take it personally one way or the other.’
Zachariah’s spin on things is that the real competition is with himself. ‘Every show I’ve worked on I’ve tried to do my best. I want to keep at it, every time something works I think, “That was pretty good but I think I can do that better”. And it’s always helpful to have someone like Shaun Micallef come in and say, “If you move that bit there, it works”.’
In the end, it seems it’s the chance to hone comedic skills – and the money – that’s the real benefit of writing comedy for others. ‘I had a self-imposed mandate of writing at least three sketches a day for the three days a week I was there on Open Slather,’ says Marinko. ‘So just producing comedy at a volume was something I found very helpful for essentially learning how to treat it as a job. I’m not sure whether it improved my work or not, but it was at least nice to know I could do it at that level.’
‘To be clear, though,’ he adds. ‘I did get fired.’
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