Want a Master Class in Comedy Writing? Listen to John Finnemore

John Finnemore, Roger Allam, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole
Cabin Pressure: The Collected Series
BBC Audiobooks

Today’s lesson is how to be a good comedy writer. First, be a good writer. Then be funny. Voilá!

If you listen to the comedy of John Finnemore, you might be tempted to think it’s as easy as that. It isn’t.

Being a good comedy writer is a craft, and it takes work to hone that craft. Good writers need to understand how stories should arc, how characters should speak and respond and develop, how settings should elevate, how images should amplify themes, and how language can be manipulated. They need to understand what’s funny and how to be funny, without letting the humour distract from the beauty of the story itself.

Finnemore is good at all of these things. In fact, he’s brilliant.

His most recent project, John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, just wrapped up its third series on BBC Radio 4. The show, which won Best British Radio Sketch Show at the British Comedy Guide Awards 2011, features Finnemore as writer and performer, along with the talented comedic cast of Simon Kane, Carrie Quinlan, Lawry Lewin, and Margaret Cabourn-Smith.

Even within the confines of the sketch format, Finnemore’s use of the elements of good writing is what takes centre stage. He creates characters we engage with and care about, and the scenes are perfectly sculpted, occasionally with punch line endings that are funny while still making logical narrative sense.

One sketch is a conversation between Laura and her friends, Tom and Nick. She shares the news that she’s now dating Ed, a mutual acquaintance. Tim comments that Ed is a great guy, and Nick adds that “he’s never been violent.” Laura is confused.

Tom: I don’t know what Nick means at all. Ed’s not violent.

Nick: No, that’s what I said.

Laura: But if he’s not, why would you say he wasn’t?

Nick: You’ve answered your own question there, haven’t you?

Laura: Nick, if you told me you were going out with someone and I said, Oh great, she never sets fire to things, what would you think?

Nick: I’d be pleased.

Laura: You wouldn’t be a bit worried, a bit unsettled?

Nick: No. Well… I suppose I might wonder why you hadn’t said whether or not she was violent.

Laura is clearly bothered and leaves, unsure of her new boyfriend. Tim then reveals the underlying theme.

Tim: Nick, wouldn’t it just be easier to tell her that you fancy her?

Nick: No, no. That’s not my style. I’m just going to subtly put her off every other man in the world.

The sketch is less that two minutes long, but we connect with Laura’s confusion and sympathize with (while laughing at) Nick’s pathetic strategy.

Some of the humour appears observational, but always in original and unusual ways. For example, two children argue over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car. This leads to two court cases with the final decision being rendered by Great Aunt Emily who, angered by yet another petty claim clogging up the family’s court system, invokes Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe to choose Harry who called shotgun (despite his sister’s solicitor, cousin Daniel, arguing that “E Triple M has been comprehensively discredited as an impartial system”).

There are short exchanges between characters that we don’t initially realise are animals: a group of posh voices (Geoffrey, Humphrey, and Daphne) bemoan being judged for their leisure time before it’s revealed they’re actually basking sharks and deserve the relaxation because, unlike the dolphins or lowly fish, they shark hard and need to bask hard. The unexpected again provides the comedy, while still maintaining the logic of the storyline.

Unlike in other radio and television sketch shows, the variety is rich and the repetition is kept to a minimum, a task that obviously requires more work for the writer. Yet it was Finnemore himself who set this rule, as he explained on his blog:

There’s no theme to the show — I felt that if I was going to write every sketch myself, which I was egomaniacally keen to do, I couldn’t really afford to restrict myself to one subject area or even style. So, there are sketches, like Before You’re Thirty, which, if not exactly satirical, at least have a point to make; there are sketches like To Rerecord Your Message which come entirely from character, and there are sketches like Three Guards, which are just silly and fun. I hope. Also, there are no returning characters. The rule is that one sketch can return up to three times in an episode, but nothing appears in more than one episode… with the exception of the stories at the end. (“John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, Episode One”, Forget What Did, 19 Sept. 2011)

The “stories at the end” feature a “connoisseur of the strange and unexplained”, played by Finnemore, who recounts his odd experiences in the (slightly skewered) voice of a classic mystery storyteller. The tales are extremely silly, but wouldn’t work if they weren’t also so very clever. The music, sound effects, and language of the narrator are so spot-on in their mimicry while still being absurd and surreal. And funny.

Similar cultural references include Famous Anecdotes The Way They Really Happened (Dorothy Parker’s quip “How could they tell?” when she heard President Coolidge was dead is greeted, not with laughter, but a judgmental “Jesus, Dorothy, a man just died”) and King Solomon reveals that simple game theory was the secret behind his wisdom.

So the sketch show provides ample evidence that Finnemore is an impressively talented comedy writer. But he’s proven that these skills transfer beyond quick scenes with four series of his successful radio sitcom, Cabin Pressure, which was voted the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s Best Radio Comedy and the British Comedy Guide’s Best British Radio Sitcom in 2011.

Cabin Pressure‘s setting is mostly in the sky: Carolyn Knapp-Shappey (Stephanie Cole) is the owner and manager of MJN Air, a small (as in one plane) charter airline whose crew includes her clueless but cheerful son, Arthur Shappey (Finnemore); dedicated but desperate Captain Martin Crieff (Benedict Cumberbatch); and bitter, snarky First Officer Douglas Richardson (Roger Allam). The show is as much a family sitcom as it is a workplace comedy, because all four characters are intimately bound together through failure: Carolyn only runs the barely-breaking-even company to spite her ex-husband who lost the plane in the divorce; Arthur’s childlike enthusiasm cannot hide his utter incompetency as a steward (or functioning adult); Martin took seven goes to get his license and only got the captaincy gig by agreeing to work for free; and Douglas, who has the skill and look of a respected pilot, is ending his career as Martin’s second-in-command after his lazy and less-than-legal behaviour got him sacked from his captain’s job with a prestigious airline.

The show is superbly cast. Stephanie Cole’s delivery of Carolyn’s vicious insults is sharp, managing to convey an honest balance of utter exasperation and sincere love for her frustrating son (and, reluctantly, for her frustrating captain and co-pilot). Despite Cumberbatch’s über-cool status (thanks to starring in Sherlock and multiple major films during Cabin Pressure‘s run), he is absolutely convincing as the bumbling, dorky captain. Roger Allam makes Douglas the perfect loveable rogue — he’s terrible yet you can’t help but adore him (and, quite frankly, the only voice more orgasm-inspiring than Benedict Cumberbatch’s is Roger Allam’s — how a sitcom pretty much devoid of sex managed to bag these two is a real coup). And Finnemore himself makes Arthur much more than the stereotypical stupid one existing only to be the butt of jokes. Arthur may not be a brain, but Finnemore’s portrayal makes him the heart of the show.

However, the writing is the biggest star of Cabin Pressure. Each episode has its own perfectly constructed story arc — with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution — cleverly laid out to engage and thrill listeners as each part falls perfectly into place. And over the duration of the entire series, a larger narrative builds as each character develops and grows. Every episode’s title is a destination and moves in order through the alphabet. Episode 25, “Yverdon-les-Bains”, aired on 13 February 2013, and fans were heartbroken at the “Is this the end of MJN Air?” conclusion, but Finnemore wrote on his blog:

A cliff-hanger is a promise to the audience. It’s implicitly saying ‘I’m withholding the gratification of giving you the answer now, but trust me, when you get it, you’ll think it was worth the wait.’ And if you’re going to make a promise like that, you’d better be able to back it up, or at least think you can. So, although I’m afraid I can’t comment on the future of the show at the moment, partly because it’s not only up to me, I will say this much, because to be honest I thought it was totally obvious, and I’m amazed there’s any ambiguity over it:

It is not and never was my intention that Yverdon should be the last ever episode of Cabin Pressure. I mean, come on guys, give me some credit. A to Y? (“Yverdon-les-Bains”, Forget What Did, 15 February 2013)

Of course, Cabin Pressure is more than just wonderfully-acted and beautifully-scripted; it is by far the funniest sitcom in recent years. The comedy is tight and clever. When a posh passenger first meets Martin, he makes a reference to The Importance of Being Earnest and asks, “Do you know your Wilde, my boy?” which elicits “I’m wild? In what sense?” as Martin’s perfect response. But there’s also silliness: while Douglas and Martin kill time playing word games, Arthur’s participation tends to lead them into the realm of nonsense (the boys spend one episode trying to work out how many otters they could safely stow on the airplane). The comedy is gentle, it’s consistent and, as Arthur says about everything that makes him happy, it’s brilliant.

This is Finnemore’s doing. Because Finnemore is a master of the craft of comedy writing. He could teach a class in it; in fact, he’ll be presenting at The British Comedy Guide’s The Big Comedy Conference in London in November. Anyone who wants to be a good comedy writer should study Finnemore’s work. The rest of us can simply sit back and enjoy his sense of humour.