Simon is a professional screenwriter and former stand-up comedian whose impressive writing résumé includes Smack The Pony, TV To Go and The Sketch Show as well as a novel, novellas and a comic book. I caught up with Simon to find out just what it takes to become a successful comedy writer…
Welcome to the Writesofluid blog, Simon!
When did you first realise you wanted to become a writer, and how did you discover that comedy was the genre you wanted to progress in?
I think the day my Dad bought home an Amstrad PCW 8256 – since then I’ve been fascinated and captivated by sitting at a keyboard and creating worlds and characters. The first things I wrote were derivative sci-fi stories, before moving on to writing a sitcom script.
I can’t remember why I made that leap, but I do remember it being my most prolific time of writing ever. I think I wrote about six scripts in six weeks, then had the temerity to send them off to the BBC. They wrote back to say they weren’t interested. I wrote back to ask them why not. I was about twelve. I cringe about that now, but to their credit, they replied with a lengthy letter outlining all the reasons they weren’t making a show written by a child. I don’t think one of those reasons was “it’s not funny”, which is remarkable, and probably a complete lie of omission.
Do you prefer any one comedic approach over another (stand-up, prose, scripts) and, if so, why does this approach excite you?
I got side-tracked by the immediacy of stand-up comedy for a long time. It was great to write up an idea in the afternoon and to hear the reaction to it the same evening. For a long time I kidded myself that I could be a writer and a stand-up at the same time, but in retrospect that was folly. Stand up is a full time job, and any time away from it is bad. As is writing. The moment I stopped performing, my writing output increased tenfold.
I’m getting better at writing prose (never tried poetry), though I do still think like a scriptwriter. In a screenplay you can write “It’s raining” and move on. Screenwriting’s a much harder and more rewarding discipline (for me), because you have to find better ways to showcase your characters. A book can have a lengthy internal monologue, a script can’t. So you have to show what’s going on inside, and that feels more real to me somehow.
Is there a particular comedy performer, act or show that has been a source of inspiration for you throughout your career?
I revel in the things that make me laugh, from classic sitcoms like Ever Decreasing Circles, via the wonderfully childish Rik & Ade and onto the perfection of Seinfeld. Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin scare me with their genius, as does Jimmy McGovern.
In the fascinating stand-up tips section of your website, you emphasize how you really need to connect with an audience on several levels, including giving a high-energy performance and working to make them like you whilst not belittling yourself or rambling for fear of the heckle. Did you learn these lessons the hard way? Any cringe-worthy stories to tell us?
I don’t think I ever really learnt how to be a stand-up comedian. My strength was my writing, and I never managed to get my performance to a level of consistency. Every gig is a learning experience, or it should be, and the trick is not to fall into the trap of blaming the audience or other factors.
The time I had a sword held up to my throat should have been my worst gig experience, but it wasn’t. That honour belongs to a gig in Reading that left me in my car on the verge of tears. It makes me tremble thinking about it now. I’d like to say it taught me to be a better comedian, but it actually taught me how to drive faster.
You’ve collaborated with Russell Howard on a pilot, Paraphernalia. How did you find the collaborative process of writing? Do you think creative collaboration is more fruitful than solo writing?
It was more of a speculative script than an actual pilot, but writing with Russell was fun. He’s very good at kick-ups, and played football around the room as we discussed ideas. The nicest thing was a few months later getting an email from a BBC Radio producer who had laughed at something in the script so much that he’d taken it around the whole department to show everyone. In retrospect, it was a bit dirty for Radio 4.
Collaborating with other writers is all about trust and comfort. I’ve done most of my co-writing with the comedian Wil Hodgson, who has such a unique voice and worldview that it took me places I never knew existed. It was some of the best stuff I’ve been involved with I think, but it never felt like mine. I read it back now, and even though I know which bits are mine, they still feel like they belong to Wil.
But what it did teach me was to trust my own voice, and highlighted my strengths as a writer.
What’s the best strategy for writers who are keen to enter the TV comedy scene, be it as a sketch or sitcom writer? Are there avenues that writers may not have thought of before?
Ten years ago it would have been to write sketches for as many shows and producers as possible, using the open door radio shows etc. And while BBC Radio still has Newsjack, the best way these days is to make your own stuff, make it well, produce it as professionally as you can and put it up on YouTube.
Even back then I was working with writers who had been recruited on the strength of their comedy websites. But comedy is expensive, and companies are a little less willing to experiment and develop as they used to be, so it’s getting a bit harder.
Embrace rejection, let it be your fuel.
What’s your ultimate top tip for writing comedy?
You’d think it would be “make it funny”, but it’s not. Of course that’s absolutely imperative, but spend just as much time on developing your structure and story. If you get those right, the jokes flow.
Are there any particular courses or events that you can recommend to writers who want to write comedy/perform stand-up?
Book an open spot and do it. Then book ten more. And ten more. And ten more.
I went to the London Comedy Writers’ Festival and did an appalling job of networking, but I did meet my agent there, and it’s always good to look up from the keyboard and experience the world as often as possible.
But like the stand up, there’s no substitute for actually writing. The more you write, and the more feedback you get from qualified readers (ie, not your mate), the better you will get. I think I wrote about a hundred sitcom scripts before anyone ever offered me some money for one.
Your agency profile suggests you’re now working on drama ideas. How are you finding the shift in approach to a different genre?
It’s the same. It’s always about the story and the characters, and their quest and their obstacles. The only difference is they don’t necessarily have to be funny. I’m still getting used to notes telling me to take out some of the comedy.
What’s next on the horizon for Simon Dunn?
A cup of tea. Then another chapter of my upcoming book. It might be out in the Spring, but that depends on how many tea bags are left. And then I’m going to start work on a sitcom script for my agent. He likes it when I do that.
Best of luck, Simon, and thanks so much for taking part in this interview!