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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 June 2007, 07:21 GMT 08:21 UK
Turning headlines into punchlines
By Stephen Robb
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

As part of a series of "behind the scenes" features, the BBC News website investigates the serious funny business of producing BBC Radio 4's The News Quiz.

The News Quiz writer Simon Littlefield
The writers say thorough study of the papers takes 90 minutes a day
"Shall we open round two with Yeltsin?"

Where to put the recently-deceased former Russian president is being debated by host Sandi Toksvig, producer Ed Morrish and the show's writers.

The day of recording starts with a meeting to decide which stories will be covered and which questions will go to each panellist.

The stories are divided up between the three writers who produce jokes for Toksvig.

"There is usually one story that is a gift and the jokes just kind of fall into place," says writer Lucy Clarke.

This week that story is Prozac for dogs, whereas the writer left tackling MPs' Freedom of Information debate looks in need of antidepressants himself.

Laughing matter

Over two days up to the Thursday evening recording of The News Quiz, the writers each produce about 40 jokes - 10 for each topic.

"People say, 'How do you think of jokes?' but it's like asking a lorry driver, 'How do you drive a lorry?' It's automatic after a while," says Rhodri Crooks.

Sandi Toksvig
It absolutely needs to be funny, but it also needs to be on target
Presenter Sandi Toksvig
"The deadline seems to focus your mind," adds Simon Littlefield.

But the writers do admit to rituals that help them think, with Crooks disappearing for long walks, and Littlefield stepping out on to the balcony to smoke and gaze over central London rooftops.

When the jokes are ready, the trio will read out each other's efforts and fine-tune them together.

Crooks says: "There is a process, when you have thought of your idea, to get it out in the most economical way you can.

"Every time you write a joke your first thought should be, 'Can I make it shorter?'"

Team effort

The team also help out if somebody is struggling to generate enough jokes, as is inevitably the case this week with Freedom of Information.

Despite a combined effort that eventually achieves the 10-joke quota, the writers happily agree when Toksvig later proposes dropping the story altogether.

The News Quiz writer Lucy Clarke and producer Ed Morrish
Cuttings contributed by listeners are tried out by the team
"There are always some horrible ones every week," says Clarke.

The finished jokes take the original news stories in all kinds of directions: the issue of bin collections, for instance, generates punchlines about Wombles, Bernard Matthews' turkeys and David Blunkett's autobiography.

"It's reference points that everybody gets," says Clarke. "You need those in any gag-based format, particularly in politics because it's such a dry area."

She offers, as an example: "We know people love 'John Prescott is a fat, incompetent fool who can't speak English' jokes."

An ad lib about the size of the deputy prime minister's rubbish bin perfectly proves the point during the recording a few hours later.

Unscripted

The panellists' contributions are unscripted, with Toksvig weaving her pre-written jokes seamlessly into the loose, conversational format.

THE NEWS QUIZ FACTS
The News Quiz script
Launched in 1977, hosted by Barry Norman
In the beginning guests were exclusively journalists
Later hosts were Barry Took and Simon Hoggart
Richard Ingrams and Alan Coren were long-standing team captains
Regular panellist Sandi Toksvig took charge in September 2006
Guests have included Peter Cook, Charles Kennedy, Edwina Currie and Linda Smith
"She's a dream of a host. She is such a good writer and performer, she understands where the funny bit is and the timing of it," says Clarke.

"She can make it her own and also make it sound incredibly natural."

Less than 24 hours before its Friday evening broadcast, The News Quiz is recorded in the theatre of the Drill Hall, in central London.

While Radio 4 listeners will enjoy a 28-minute programme, the live version in front of a 200-strong audience lasts an hour and 13 minutes - but there is still not time for all those lovingly-crafted jokes.

For example, nobody outside the production team gets to enjoy this gag about a newly-discovered Earth-like planet: "Gliese lies in the constellation of Libra. According to astronomers this means its inhabitants are likely to be carbon-based, and according to Mystic Meg means they could meet a new flame at work today."

Unpredictable

"The moment for a joke passes, or somebody says something quite similar to a joke you have got," says Toksvig, explaining why she is armed with a surplus of jokes.

"You need to be listening all the time to make sure that what you are saying is the right thing."

The writers say they are surprised often by which jokes get the biggest reactions.

The recording of The News Quiz
The show must be edited for broadcast in less than 24 hours
"Every audience has its own personality, and you can't predict what they find funny and don't find funny," says Toksvig.

Now in its 30th year, The News Quiz remains seriously funny - and plain serious, the team are keen to stress.

"We do care about the news. We are telling the public about the most-important stories," says Toksvig.

"We have done some quite amazing stuff, I think, about Iraq and Freedom of Information.

"It absolutely needs to be funny, but it also needs to be on target."

The 62nd series of The News Quiz is currently broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 6.30pm, repeated on Saturdays at 12.30pm.


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