Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci on how to be funny

They have worked together on many projects over 24 years, from On the Hour through to Alan Partridge. At a Guardian Live event, Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci talked about how they write comedy and when to get serious

Just start talking

SC: When you’ve been writing for a long time you don’t mind having unproductive days because you know there are going be those periods when you’ll be incredibly productive. You can’t force it. Often we’ll spend the first hour talking about what we’ve watched on TV, what’s in the newspapers, and you’ll suddenly hit a rich seam and you’ll be able to mine it quite quickly.

AI: Skirting around it can be quite useful – it might just spark an idea that might work with a certain character or at a certain moment.

Enjoy the process

AI: Lots of people think making comedy is a very earnest and serious business, but actually it’s very funny. The process of making it, I found, is just as funny.

SC: You know that when you go in, even if you’re slightly down, or you’re not in a great place, because your job is to write, you know if you’re having a productive day you will be laughing.

Find your own groove

SC: I’ve written in threes, in twos, but never in ones. I like to hear things in my head and when I would write with Jeff Pope, who I’m writing with at the moment, I’d stay on the other side of the room and say: “Read it back to me and let me hear it,” because I’d sort of act out the different characters in it. I almost became obsessed with not looking at the page.

AI: It was almost like you were playing the whole scene in your head. We found the only way to write something like Partridge was for you to be Alan in the room. At the end of the day I’d have just about had it, because I’d been in a room with Alan Partridge all day.

Steve Coogan before the Guardian Live event on 15 October.
Steve Coogan before the Guardian Live event. Photograph: James Turner/The Guardian

Don’t be afraid to milk it

SC: Sometimes you hit a funny scene and you have to milk it until it’s not funny any more, so you know you’ve wrung every potential bit of comedy out of it.

AI: I don’t regard myself as a writer, I regard myself as a collaborator. On one hand it feels a bit lazier because you’re bouncing ideas off other people, but on the other hand it’s slightly harder as well – because it’s so easy to be tempted to think that because you made each other laugh that will do. In fact that’s the bare bones of what you’ve got.

SC: The fun part of it is the minutiae. The one thing I don’t like is when I’m described as a comedian – I write and act and produce things. I was never passionate about writing, it’s a means to an end. I only wrote my standup act because I could do impressions and I needed to say something. Then you start to learn what works and what doesn’t and what makes people laugh.

I also find that if the audience is smart, they’d be able to get to the punchline with less information, so you’re able to strip back. So the perfect joke is you’re able to give the minimum amount of information, and for some reason when the audience gets it they feel more rewarded for it.

Use comedy in new ways

SC: I find what takes real guts is to say something, and then not say something funny after it. I love comedy but it’s much more interesting to me to use comedy for things that are ostensibly difficult or uninteresting, to make them more accessible. If you do a drama with jokes in that’s a bonus. And that’s the way I prefer to work, it’s to find the humour naturally in the pathos. Comedy is quite useful in a drama to win the audience over. If you’ve made them laugh you then earn the right to say something serious.

Draw on your own experience

SC: I’m fully aware that all my dysfunctions are being channelled into Alan. Some of the things Alan says are things I might initially think – but what I have is an editing facility and a conscience. Using your vulnerabilities and defects is part of the creative process.

AI: A lot of standup comedians do stories about themselves that are heightened versions of themselves.

SC: When we were improvising The Trip with Rob Brydon I’d look for tension and discord and just turn up the part of your personality that’s a bit of an arsehole. You just do that and you don’t mitigate it.

AI: You tap your inner arsehole.

SC: When you improvise you have a choice. You find yourself saying you could go this way which will probably be quite funny and quite safe, I could go that way which is quite risque and could be quite rude, or you could go this way that’s dark and depressing and not funny at all and see what happens. I’ll usually go for the dark and depressing one, just because I’m bored of the funny one. And sometimes when you go with the dark and depressing one it ends up being funny as well.

Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci were in conversation at a Guardian Members’ event at Central Hall, Westminster on 15 October. Find out what other events are coming up and how to book tickets.

Watch the event in full.


Joanna Witt

The GuardianTramp

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