Part of Bloomsbury's Writing Handbooks series of advice books for writers in different genres, Writing Comedy is written by John Byrne, who is not only a successful comedy writer with 25 years in the industry under his belt but is also the entertainment industry career advisor for The Stage newspaper, for which he writes the regular "Dear John" advice column.
All of this experience shows clearly in a book that is always about the practical processes involved both in producing comedy material and in getting it performed, broadcast or printed. Writing books almost always get a bit vague when trying to describe the creative process and how to stimulate it, which often reads well but doesn't translate into anything useful for the budding writer.
This is never the case with Byrne's polished prose that insists upon studying examples of the work of others in the area that you want to write and upon treating writing as work with practical processes to go through to create each type of writing. As a career comedy writer, there is no time to wait for inspiration or to indulge oneselve with writer's block as there is work to complete and deadlines to make—and bills to pay.
Byrne breaks the mystique of the joke by showing how few varieties of joke there are, giving a step-by-step process to create some of them. The process of writing even a few quick one-liners is slow and laborious, from brainstorming as many initial ideas as possible on a subject to polishing the wording to get exactly the right rhythm to make it funny.
From jokes he builds to comedy routines, speeches and then to sketches—he insists, as others have before him, that learning how to write jokes is extremely useful to the sketch writer—and on to the half-hour sitcom, with brief mentions of comedy plays and screenplays along the way.
Byrne treats the reader as someone who wants to write professionally, and so there is lots of advice along the way on writing for others, collaborating with a performer or co-writer, being a writer-performer, submitting material and other practical considerations for anyone who wants to break into comedy writing.
This is the fourth edition of the book which adds some recent examples of comedy and brings the industry advice up to date, but there are still examples of great writing from many different eras and advice about more to explore in print or on DVD.
Any book on writing should be inspirational, in that it leaves you eager to get on with some writing, but it should also give you the tools to actually do what it claims to teach within the boundaries of your talent and experience, and this book scores very highly on both counts. It is easy to read, entertaining throughout and leaves you wanting to get out pen and paper or laptop and start writing some jokes.
Reviewer: David Chadderton