Claire Brine quizzes comedy writer Paul Powell about his work on TV programmes such as Insert Name Here, Zapped and Spitting Image
Paul, you are part of the team that writes and produces the comedy panel show Insert Name Here, which returned to BBC Two this week. How do you go about putting the series together?
The show is all about famous people who share the same name, everyone from Roman emperors to reality TV stars. Over the course of an episode, Sue Perkins quizzes the teams about these famous people, bringing up little-known stories and weird facts. The winning team is the one that demonstrates the most knowledge.
We have a team of researchers who provide us with all the raw material, but we can’t resist doing our own research. We’ll rummage through the internet to seek out strange, entertaining facts or to make fun connections.
Once we’ve done that, we’ll put together an outline script before adding all the gags. We try to write jokes off every piece of information – the questions and answers as well as the introductions and explanations.
We meet with Sue a week or two in advance of the recording to go through the scripts. She cherry-picks her favourite jokes, as we always write too many. There are usually about five or six jokes for every one that makes the cut.
So she has her script, which is generally the questions, answers and supplementary information, but during the recording she’s free to drop that and improvise along with the six panellists. We give her a kind of a railroad track to follow but she’s free to deviate from that as the mood takes her.
I love working with Sue. Plus the team captains, Josh Widdicombe and Richard Osman are funny and incredibly quick.
How easy is it to be a professional joke writer?
It’s a skill that grows with experience. There are occasionally days when you’re a bit slow, but what’s great about working with people like my co-writers on Insert Name Here, Dan Gaster and Will Ing, is that, if one of us has a slow day, the other two can pick up the slack. And if you’re not having a great day, you can often put things aside and come back to them when you’re feeling more inspired.
Writing a comedy script or a joke is like writing a crossword: it’s an intellectual challenge. You’ve got the ingredients, and you just have to find the best way to slot them in. People say: ‘You must be laughing all the time.’ But most of the time I’m racking my brains, trying to make something fit.
A joke is always better for being quick and simple. The more compact, the funnier.
Looking back, what would you say was your big break?
I started out working on a topical Radio 4 series called Weekending, which was recorded on Friday mornings and then broadcast that evening. From there, I joined ITV’s Spitting Image, which was exciting because it was such a legendary show.
How did you get into working in comedy?
When I was a schoolboy, my English teacher told me that if I wanted to pursue comedy as a career, I would have to look at applying for Oxford or Cambridge because they had such a long history of launching writers and comedians. I was lucky enough to get into Oxford and almost straightaway I got involved in the Oxford Revue, but I went along to it as a performer because that’s what I wanted to do. The writing was secondary to that – it was just to give me something to do onstage.
But it was the writing that took off for you?
You find your strengths. I’m not a great performer, but I had fun. And at university that’s fine, that’s acceptable. But I soon came to realise that I was a better writer than performer – although I still like to dabble a bit.
What do you think makes good comedy writing?
It’s about being original and imaginative and not stopping at the first idea. It’s so easy to do the first joke that comes to mind and leave it there. But, actually, what’s better is to throw it away and move on to the second joke or, ideally, the third, fourth or fifth. That’s a fair bit of hard work, but if you go for the first thing that comes into your head, that’s usually what the audience are thinking as well and you want to surprise them.
It’s different when you’re writing a sitcom, because you have to think about the show’s characters. It’s important that what you write is reflective of those characters’ personalities. Sitcom doesn’t work when it’s just people swapping lines and wisecracking with each other. In Zapped, the fantasy-world sitcom I write with Dan and Will, we juggle three or four stories every episode, as each of the main characters tends to get their own story.
On Zapped and the sitcom Miranda you have worked with the actress Sally Phillips, who was at university with you. Last year, Sally told the War Cry that, while at uni, she gave you a hard time for being a Christian. Do you remember what she did?
Sally remembers it better than me! I think she just took the mickey a little bit. But I think everyone found it quite hilarious that I was a Christian who was part of the Christian Union and went to church every Sunday morning. There weren’t many Christians on the comedy scene at the time.
How did you become a Christian?
I grew up in a Christian home. My dad was part of the Baptist Church and my mum was Church of England. We went between the two denominations, so I was used to different types of worship and different ways of doing things, which was good. When I was about 15, a couple of older guys I knew started a prayer group that met before school. I went to that and I had a really powerful experience of God’s presence and energy in the room. It was so real – it transformed me. Almost immediately, I got more involved in church.
Since then I’ve had ups and downs in my spiritual life. There have been really tough and really good times. But now I’m pretty much on a level plane.
What does Jesus mean to you?
The big thing about Jesus is that he came to heal the broken, and I see a lot of broken people around me, as well as myself. I think church is about standing up and being vulnerable and honest with each other. But it has been a bit lost within the Church and that has become more about being nice, smiley, happy people.
My experience of being a Christian is great, but my life has been complicated because I’ve made choices that have taken me down the harder path. Ultimately, my relationship with Jesus is about getting things wrong but being forgiven. And that’s what’s so important to me. I’m aware that I am broken and flawed. I do stupid things. But I’m accepted and I’m loved and I’m forgiven.
What convinces you that what you believe is true?
I’ve seen answers to prayers and changes in people. But ultimately it’s because I have a personal relationship with Jesus.
As well as Spitting Image, you’ve worked on Have I Got News for You. Those shows often provide a platform for people to mock others. Does that sit comfortably with you?
The key thing for me is that you don’t attack the powerless, you attack the powerful. That’s one of the things I enjoy about my job. I get a sense of satisfaction when I can satirise someone who is a worthy target of righteous anger.
In comedy I try to be a critical friend. I don’t try to be nasty. I try to be positive and constructive. One thing I believe as a Christian is that you comfort the disturbed and you disturb the comfortable (including myself).
Sometimes comedy is there to make people feel good for a bit because they’ve had a tough day. But sometimes you want to be able to shake things up and say to people: this isn’t good enough, you need to look at this again, see things differently.
Do you consciously put your Christian faith into the material you write?
I try to use my faith to direct me in what I do, but I see myself as a Christian who does comedy, not a ‘Christian comedian’. My whole life is dictated by my faith, whether that’s writing jokes, being a dad or buying a pack of sausages.
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