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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 September 2007, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
The world of wiki-comedy
John O'Farrell
Writing has evolved since John O'Farrell started out
The web has changed the way comedy is written, says John O'Farrell, by empowering unknown writers to collaborate wiki-style with established names.

When I was first trying to get in to gag writing, there was an open meeting that I attended once a week at the far end of the legendary corridor that was BBC Radio Light Entertainment.

It was a sort of public therapy session for creatively frustrated or embittered young men. Anybody could turn up on a Wednesday lunchtime, nervously mumble their ideas to the producer of the topical satire show Week Ending and then return to the day job (which was usually selling the Big Issue).

When someone submits comedy material online, there is no way of knowing whether they are male, female, young, old
But other wannabes in that tatty writer's room were David Baddiel and Rob Newman, Pete Sinclair (who recently co-wrote the Jack Dee sitcom Lead Balloon), and my eventual co-writer Mark Burton who is now penning screenplays such as Madagascar and the latest Wallace and Gromit movie.

Anyone who is anyone in British comedy writing started in this same way, as an anxious hopeful, submitting sketches to the God-like producer of Week Ending. OK, the show was still a bit rubbish, but you can't have everything.

Rob Newman and David Baddiel
Graduates of the BBC back room
On top of the stuff from the uncommissioned writers who turned up, there was also a huge pile of stuff sent in from the general public, a good deal of it written in green ink on the headed paper of Prisons for the Criminally Insane.

If there were any pearls in there, by the time the producer had waded through the third ton of paper, he was often too exhausted and psychologically disturbed to spot it.

Twenty years later the internet offers the way round this problem. Get the public to do your sifting and rewriting for you.

A year ago this week, a group of us created a parody of a news website, NewsBiscuit, that had the twin aims of raising a smile for very bored people at work and providing a new outlet for comedy writing in the way that the now demolished Week Ending writers' room used to.

In terms of developing new talent, the virtual writing room has been far more successful than any of us dared hope.

Punchlines

The old fashioned, competitive meeting situation had an in-built bias towards confident young men, fresh out of university. But when someone submits comedy material online, there is no way of knowing whether they are male, female, young, old or that stalker who was waiting outside the station last night.

Each submission is then voted on by other readers of the site, and the best ideas rise organically to the top of the pile. That way the editors can spend more time polishing the best submissions to put them on the front page.

Of course if the founders of the site were super-talented and prolific, we wouldn't need any outside help.

In the end we had, I think, a pretty decent front page co-written by people who had never met
The undisputed master of comedy websites, The Onion, does not accept unsolicited material. "We're better than you," chuckled one of the writers in a recent interview. But many other comedy websites depend on user-generated content; b3ta.com is probably the UK's most popular and the variety of its submitted material keeps it fresh.

The popular news parody site The Spoof has been going for about five years with a seemingly endless supply of news stories and clever features like "featured writer" and a league table of contributors.

On NewsBiscuit we have set up a virtual writers room, where a sort of "wiki-comedy writing" is developing in which far-flung writers co-operate online, rewriting each others stuff, suggesting improvements, punchlines or alternative angles.

Last week one new writer had the kernel of a comic idea and submitted it under the rather uninspiring headline "RyanAir to revise service levels". Hidden away in the fourth paragraph of this piece were some half-decent jokes, such as pay-as-you-go oxygen masks and the removal of seats for no-frills flyers.

By the time other writers had embellished the idea, rewritten it and suggested other new surcharges, we had the far superior headline "RyanAir to charge for Emotional Baggage" - children would be quizzed at check-in about suppressed guilt and anger lingering from their parents' divorce and then be charged an extra 39.99.

Ruthless editors

In the end we had, I think, a pretty decent front page co-written by people who had never met one another.

This idea isn't unique. In June, YouTube broadcast the first episode of "Where are the Joneses?" produced by Steve Coogan's Baby Cow Productions which was collaboratively written online.

Writers that have met on our site have started to work together to create other programme ideas for TV and radio.

Comedy cannot be written by committee, and it needs ruthless editors at the centre to pull it all together, but the internet offers the opportunity to harvest a richness of ideas and input that has never been available before now.

Obviously the copyright lawyers and agents are going to have a nervous breakdown, but surely it is only a time before mainstream TV and radio programmes adopt this formula for sketch shows and maybe even sitcoms.

The possibilities for online co-operative creativity are endless. Damn, why didn't I get everyone else to write this article for me?




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