Ariane Sherine is a stand-up comic, comedy writer, and singer-songwriter. She writes for television, radio, and various publications such as The Guardian and The Spectator.
She’s very good at stuff, is what I’m saying.
We met a hundred years ago on the comedy circuit, and recently got together for a chat.
Hi Ariane. Thanks for agreeing to the interview. So, we met on the comedy circuit a while ago as gigging comedians, but I know that you are also a journalist and have written for a number of TV shows. Which came first, and how did it all come about?
I got lucky, really. I entered a BBC competition aged 21 with the first sitcom script I’d ever written, and came runner-up. After that, I got to write for lots of TV shows, including My Family, Countdown and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. I know writing for telly is lots of people’s dream job, but my dream job was being a pop star, so I actually had a sort of resigned ‘Sigh, I guess I’ll do this instead’ reaction to it! (So ungrateful, I know.)
Then in 2008, my friend Charlie [Brooker] was asked by the Guardian if he knew any comedy writers who could write columns for them. He put me forward, and I wrote for them for years and have been a journalist ever since, writing for The Sunday Times, The Spectator, Esquire, The Observer, The Independent and Independent on Sunday, etc.
I enjoy it. Though I’d still rather be a pop star!
Wow, that’s quite a journey. And I guess you kind of still get to be a pop star through your comedy songs.
Have you ever toyed with ‘straight’ stand-up, or do you prefer musical comedy?
I’ve tried straight stand-up, and I do occasionally MC without an instrument, but I prefer performing musical comedy. I feel as though it’s an innate part of me, as my late father used to sing me Tom Lehrer songs as lullabies when I was tiny. ‘I hold your hand in mine, dear, I press it to my lips/I take a healthy bite from your dainty fingertips.’ So I grew up knowing that songs could be funny.
I’ve played piano since I was five, did a music degree, spent my late teens in the studio with Duran Duran, then sang in lounge bars around London for years. Being proficient at music gives me a confidence on stage that speaking doesn’t – in the knowledge that even if the crowd don’t go for the material, I can entertain them. And yeah, as you say, it’s like being a very poorly paid, unknown pop star.
Also, straight stand-ups are ten a penny, and it’s hard to stand out, even as a mixed race Asian girl. Your material and persona have to be really distinctive. There aren’t as many musical comics, so we’re more in demand with promoters and are often used to break up bills. I don’t know if it’s the novelty factor or that jokes seem to go down better when sung, but our sets frequently hit home more often than those of regular stand-ups, too.
That’s an interesting point about standing out as a, well, stand-up. I remember Reginald D Hunter saying that being funny by itself isn’t enough, which I think is very true.
So what would you say are the main differences – and similarities – between writing stand-up and writing comedy scripts?
Writing stand-up is similar to writing scripts. But I would say that stand-up usually needs more consistent laughs, and fewer moments of pathos.
Also, there can be callbacks in your set, but you might only have a couple, whereas in scripts you often reference things that happened in other episodes or quite a while back.
Unless it’s the first episode of the first ever series, viewers are often very familiar with sitcom characters, whereas – unless you’re established – audiences are not usually familiar with you as a stand-up. So you have to introduce yourself very quickly, prove you’re funny and get the audience laughing straight away, which isn’t so essential in a sitcom script (you might have a slow build-up, which can be fatal in stand-up!)
Sitcoms have a narrative, whereas stand-up often doesn’t (especially if you’re a one-liner or musical comic). Sitcoms are usually half an hour long, whereas to start with as a stand-up you’ll only be doing five-minute sets. Oh, and you’ll hone the same stand-up set for years, making it longer and longer, editing it very finely, whereas scripts are usually done and dusted in far less time. With scripts, you get to write for many voices and characters, whereas you don’t generally with stand-up (unless you’re playing a character with multiple personalities, or acting out the parts of other people, and they’re rarely as three-dimensional). Is that enough generalisations?!
I think so, yeah!
I see what you’re saying about having more time to build-up with a script, although do you feel that audiences might be more impatient now in terms of getting to the first laugh of a script/TV show?
Has the internet ruined everything?!
No! It’s improved everything in my view, in the sense that writing needs to be more immediate, which means a better viewing experience.
Personally, I’ve always tried to get the first laugh in very early, but if you watch some sitcoms (those that have proved themselves over several series/are primetime/have big stars in them) the writers clearly feel they’re allowed more leeway before the first laugh is needed. They’re probably right – a viewer will give a sitcom a few minutes before they switch over, especially if they’ve enjoyed it before. (You can have even more of a lead time in films, because it takes an awful lot for the audience to walk out once they’ve paid for a ticket or two plus drinks and popcorn!)
Yeah, I can imagine that if there’s already that goodwill (from an established show), then you probably do have more time to play with.
So as you know I’m a new parent, which means a lot of the material I’m writing now revolves around babies. Did you find that having a little girl changed what you wrote about?
And did it change you creatively in other ways?
I think becoming a parent has positive points in terms of creativity: it has opened up a whole new world of understanding about life.
My Twitter feed is also now full of my five-year-old’s funny remarks, which go down well. But I think that, on balance, those remarks are only funny because they actually happened. If you try to put them into a stand-up set, it doesn’t work so well, either because people don’t know how cute my daughter is and her manner, or because they wrongly suspect it’s just ‘material’ I wrote, rather than truth.
The only gag that works consistently is ‘I’m brown, but my daughter’s white, so I call her my Secret Asian.’
Yes, there’s definitely an element of that in stand-up – where you have to get rid of certain things even if they happened because they sound too good to be true. Weirdly enough, recently another comic reminded me of a time that happened to me, and my defence was still ‘But it actually happened..!’
I like that ‘Secret Asian’ line, by the way. 🙂
So how are you finding the move from writing scripts, articles, and comedy songs, to writing a novel?
I’ve actually shelved the novel!
I was trying to write 500 words a day, but it was a chore. I wrote a novel last year that was more fun to write, and I didn’t find it much different to other writing.
Long-form narrative prose fiction is still fiction, the same as scripts and some of my songs, so I’m still telling stories. You just keep on writing for longer, but you break it down into manageable chunks. (I’ve always loved that advice: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!). I’m still waiting to hear back about my novel.
I’m philosophical about my writing career these days. I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years, or unprofessionally for 20! I’ve been on the cover of the Guardian, written the cover feature for the Spectator, been profiled in the Independent, run a major global advertising campaign that ran in 13 countries, had my name on primetime telly several times, and most people neither know nor care who I am. That’s the case for most writers.
The professionals you hear about are the 0.1%, and everyone else is slogging away, hoping to be in that 0.1% and often putting their happiness on hold until they are. I’ve sort of given up hoping, and am a lot more relaxed for it. Instead of slogging away, I just write stuff I find fun, and hope that a few other people will too.
Oddly enough, it was a similar thought that led me to write The Artist (my first novel) – albeit with acting rather than writing. It’s like when you watch, I dunno, an Oscar-winner saying ‘I always knew I’d make it’, and conveniently ignore the millions that didn’t make it but also ‘knew’ that they would. It always feels like a trick to me.
Yes, exactly. Success is great and addictive – I wouldn’t say no to more of it – but I think that making it your ultimate goal, and your life feeling as though it’s falling short as a result, is unhealthy.
So what are you mainly focusing on now, stand-up? Or are there other things you’re working on?
These days I’m taking it easy and planning some fun videos for my comedy songs. And dating, and seeing friends, and enjoying being a mum. I used to work so much I didn’t have a work-life balance.
Now I have a life-work balance!
And having Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Corbabies’ of course…?
Yeah, though I reckon he’s put his security detail onto me after all the publicity for that song! I’m looking forward to cavorting with him in bed (okay, with a lookalike) for the video.
Haha! You never know, you might get even more (in)famous after all… 😉
Yes, that is a general rule when it comes to writing – you never know what’s going to take off!
So, what advice would you give to somebody who wants to get into scriptwriting – whether comedy or drama? Are there things that you’ve learned over the years that you wish somebody had told you?
Advice: write, write, write. And then edit, edit, edit. And proofread, proofread, proofread (I sound like Tony Blair!) Don’t wait until you have ‘the perfect idea’ – if an idea comes along later that you like better, write that instead and return to the original afterwards (if you want). Remember that ‘inspiration is perishable’ (not my words) so you need to capitalise on it when it strikes. Enter all the competitions you can. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there – all rejection is valuable feedback.
Ask for specific feedback when rejected, instead of accepting a generic fob-off email. Get a screenwriting agent as soon as you can, but a good agent that loves your work instead of one who doesn’t care as much as they should (shop around). Be original, but never at the expense of being good. Never plagiarise or ‘borrow’. Watch films and telly for inspiration though.
What I wish someone had told me: what a solitary and insecure profession scriptwriting is. How you often have to do between five and eight drafts of a script before a script editor is happy, and how the last draft never resembles the first. How you can’t write what you want, and the higher the production budget, the less control you have over the content.
That it isn’t the dream job, but it’s more enjoyable than most day jobs in terms of the work (though it can also be less enjoyable, as it’s lonely). That you probably won’t get to be Richard Curtis. That the sensible move, if I’m pretending to be your mum, is getting a day job and writing scripts in the evenings.
Hope that helps!
That’s some excellent advice, Ariane.
And I never understand people who think it’s ok to ‘borrow’. I mean, I understand allowing yourself to be influenced, but straight up plagiarism is just lazy. Although maybe I feel that way because I do stand-up, where joke theft is akin to kicking a child. Then stealing their sweets.
Then kicking them again.
Ok, so lastly, let’s turn this into a real interview, shall we – where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ha ha, ten years is a very long time! Who knows? I’ll have a 15-year-old daughter, who will no doubt be yelling ‘Mum, you’re SO embarrassing!’ whenever I breathe. And maybe I’ll have a lovely husband and a couple more kids, if I’m very lucky.
I don’t think that’s the standard answer to the interview question, but then I don’t have a standard job or career trajectory. Career-wise, I’d like to have made lots more people laugh, and to have had a book published. But really, I’m just glad to be alive and to have a wonderful daughter. That’s all I need.
Great answer, Ariane.
Thank you again for taking the time to do this interview, and I look forward to seeing what you’re going to do next!
Thanks so much, Angelo. It’s been a pleasure!
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