At the age of just 29, comedy writer Sean Gray has already built up a phenomenal CV. He has worked with Stewart Lee and is a key member of the writing team for Armando Iannucci’s hit satires, Veep and The Thick of It (pictured). He spoke to Will Gore about how to make it in the world of TV comedy…
Give us a run-through of your career to date...
My first proper credit was writing for Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet in 2006. Since then, I’ve written for The Thick of It and HBO’s Veep. I also wrote some of the abuse Armando hurled at Stewart Lee in Comedy Vehicleand had my own series called iGod on Radio 4. In 2010, I wrote and directed a short film called Bistro starring Peter Capaldi and Alex MacQueen.
What can we expect from the upcoming series of The Thick of It?
This series feels like a different beast. It reflects the coalition government, so Peter Mannion has to share his office with the third party, “the inbetweeners”. They’re intense and enthusiastic, but almost totally powerless, which is a great combination for comedy. Meanwhile, Nicola Murray is leader of the opposition and Malcolm’s boss. There’s also an arc to this series, which we haven’t done before. I’m very excited to see what people make of it.
How did you get into writing comedy for TV?
I started out writing film reviews and editing my university magazine, Isis [at Oxford]. This was basically just an excuse to try and write funny stuff for an audience. The biggest thing that happened at university was that I discovered Peter Cook – who opened my eyes to what comedy could be. I very quickly became a comedy obsessive. I was supposed to be working towards my degree, but instead, I spent my days watching comedy. It sounds incredibly sad, but it was actually brilliant; a sort of comedy Open University, with a syllabus provided by comedy internet forums.
In the space of six months I binged my way through a back-log of 40 years of classic comedy, Not Only But Also, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, On the Hour, Why Bother?, Harry Hill’s stand up, Brass Eye, Terry Gilliam, Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. I would suggest those as required viewing for anyone seriously interested in comedy as a career. In this period I also wrote about 200 pages worth of comedy sketches, which fortunately remain unperformed. I recall there was one particularly “edgy” Pulp Fiction/Winnie the Pooh parody revolving around the phrase “Dead Tigger Storage”.
What do you think are the key elements to good TV comedy writing?
Well, you just have to make people laugh. That’s it. Comedy is about surprises and if there were a set of rules it would become formulaic. And you can’t really teach it. The only way to get better is to write lots, make things and then show those things to an audience – either live or online. Do get feedback, but also trust your instincts.
What advice would you give to writers currently trying to break into TV comedy?
The comedy industry is, in my experience, incredibly meritocratic. If you can write genuinely funny stuff, you have a chance to make a career out of it. But you need to get your work in front of the right people. Producers are always desperate for funny scripts; there aren’t as many of those as you might think. You need to keep at it and be ready when an opportunity presents itself. In the process of writing you get better, you get quicker; it’s a lot like being an athlete, albeit one who sits down and eats biscuits all day. That’s why writing those 200 pages of sketches was so invaluable, even though none of them were ever performed.
The new series of The Thick of it starts on BBC Two on Saturday, 8 September.
Image courtesy of BBC/Des Willie.