Why Comedy? Paul Dornan on His Writing Career
6 minutes read
Paul Dornan, tutor on Funny Business: The Comedy Writing Room, explores his reasons for pursuing a career in comedy writing.
I’m often asked, not least by my accountant: why did you become a comedy writer Paul? It’s a good question, right up there with all those other ones us writers can never quite answer like . . . Where do your ideas come from? What’s Steve Coogan like in real life? And the all-time classic, one that really brooks no easy reply while you wait for those mini-Beef Wellingtons to come round again at a Christmas party: are you famous or something? Should I have heard of you?
Oh how we writers all love answering that one.
Anyway, back to the tricky Why Comedy? enquiry and its many possible answers, some of which are even true. Sometimes I say my comedy journey started at the local library as a curious 14 year-old stumbling across Scoop, my first Evelyn Waugh novel and loving it so much I didn’t stop till I’d read them all. Others, I might point the finger of blame by talking about the fantastic and endless amount of comedy of all kinds, genres and qualities that I saw each and every day growing up. What a lucky kid I was to have everything from Monty Python to Porridge to Reginald Perrin to Tom & Jerry right there in my living room. Who wouldn’t want to make their way in the world having written a Blackadder or a sketch for Spitting Image? Not me.
No wonder, I’d go on, warming to the theme now, I was so keen to do comedy alongside all that Beckett and Shakespeare at University, and found myself unable to resist throwing myself behind those Cambridge Footlights. Or that even in my days when I was an actor writing his first play for his fringe company to maybe take to Edinburgh, it soon turned into a surreal comedy about a stand-up comedian, Irish Republicanism and a leprechaun in a city pinstripe suit. A play that got no further North than Camden by the way, and nobody quite understood, least of all me.
The lucky few who stay to the end of my list of reasons, then might get the story of me spotting an ad in the Guardian that led me to my first job in television sitting in a writing room at LWT towers with Barry Humphries, working on questions and routines for the guests on the Dame Edna Experience chat show. It was here that my fate was truly sealed, as I watched Barry and his writer Ian Davidson toss ideas and possibilities around till they found the word, the image, the crack in the façade that they could prise open into a joke and a routine that would have the nations in hysterics at the weekend. Watching them work was a revelation and a joy and I knew that my goose was truly cooked. This was my calling too.
From that moment on it wouldn’t be acting or producing or saving the world that would be my path. It was comedy writing for me or bust. Or comedy writing and bust as it turned out, until I got good, had some original ideas of my own, made some contacts and started doing one of the best jobs any human can stumble into: being funny for money.
It was after all, though I didn’t really think of it that way at the time, very much the family trade. You see my Dad told jokes for a living too. He wasn’t a professional comedian though or indeed involved in show business in any way. He was a bar and catering manager and the Licensee of the Control Bar at Heathrow Airport, a big smoky cavern of a place reserved for the people who worked there. Yes, that’s right. A bar. Under the control tower at Europe’s biggest airport. Rammed to the rafters with people in all kinds of neat uniforms, some with lots of stripes on their sleeves too, necking pints and large scotches on their breaks like they were going out of fashion.
It was a madhouse and it’s utterly bizarre to our eyes now that such a place could even exist, but this was the 70s and 80s and the world was very different then. For good or ill, the Control Tower Bar was my Dad’s kingdom and his stage, and he was pretty much always On from opening time to closing time, with a few extra hours thrown in between for good measure. There he was, standing at one end of the bar in his three-piece suit with a fresh carnation every day, entertaining his customers with non-stop shows full of jokes, funny stories, political analysis, airport gossip and a fine line in edgy joshing banter that would be utterly unthinkable now. He even had a catchphrase, which he employed ruthlessly against those foolish enough to take him in a battle of wits or joke-telling. ‘I do the funnies round here,’ he’d say. And he was right. He did. Pretty much all day, six days a week to send his customers back to their hard, stressful jobs landing or refuelling jumbo jets or whatever else they did, half-cut and wholly happy.
That’s what comedy does, you see. Connects us. Opens us up. Tells the real truth about ourselves, in the deepest, most authentic way possible.
That’s why I’m a comedy writer, in tooth and claw, whether I – or indeed my accountant – like it or not. Not for fame or glory, and certainly not for the money. I write and now teach comedy because I have to. Because for me there was no story I could tell, no character I could create, no page that I could ever write, that didn’t have some kind of humour or irony or yes, laughs in it.
That’s why I knocked on the door of the Faber Academy and respectfully asked if Comedy come finally come in. That’s also why, presumably, the lovely people inside threw the doors open and said yes. You’re right. It must. So, finally, all you lovely people I’ve yet to meet – you novelists, memoirists, playwrights and screenwriters, writers and thinkers and truth-seekers of all kinds and stripes, those who can’t resist the siren call of Funny either, could finally have a place to meet and finally get the answer to the big impossible question they never could get to the bottom of either: what IS Steve Coogan like in real life?
Paul Dornan has worked in the TV and film comedy world for over two decades as a writer, producer, director, teacher and mentor.
He teaches on Funny Business: The Comedy Writing Room which beings on 22 January 2024. In this new week-long course, you’ll find the wit, warmth and laughter in your writing. Covering screenplays, novels, memoir and everything in between, this five-day course will give you all the tools to kickstart your comedy project – or bring some levity to a more dramatic piece.
Find out more about the course here.