More Thoughts On Collaboration…

People have some funny old ideas on what it takes to work as a unit.

Few, for example, ever really get how more than one writer can develop a complex set of ideas and turn them into a single script. Does it only ever work with monozygotic twins…? Do writing partners engage in some kind of cross-continental telepathic mind meld that churns out content even if one’s jet-skiing in the Caribbean and the other’s stuck in a cafĂ© toilet in Amsterdam…? If I push one collaborative writer into a canal, will the other one come home wet…?

To some, writing is a little bit like going to the toilet: something you do on your own without asking anybody else to critique or edit the result. We get that. Writing is a solitary pursuit, they say, and the solitary scribe is a lonely soul.

Yeah, whatever. We don’t really buy into that.

Writing as a partnership not only enables us to produce content quicker, it helps us to formulate ideas sooner and chop and change with greater clarity. Sitting with a creative partner you trust implicitly who tells you that your funnies aren’t landing or your scares are a joke also helps to minimise the ‘ownership grief’ of seeing your beautiful words carted off to the content knacker’s yard. But while we’ve never had much of a problem converting collective thinking into collaborative writing, we’ve seen plenty of evidence elsewhere to suggest it isn’t everybody’s favourite tipple. For example…

We went up to North London recently for a comedy workshop – a ‘comedy gym’ if you like for aspiring writers and stand-ups. We’ll do something like this every so often to see what’s on offer, meet kindred comic spirits and get out of whatever chores or transport details we’re being earmarked for at home on a Saturday.

The ‘gym’ was a blast and the aspirants proved to be an interesting and witty bunch punching at a pretty decent weight. However, things took a different turn when we were herded into random collectives to rustle up a few quick topical funnies.

Sure, it’s a hard ask to produce content on a tight time budget with a group of strangers, but being used to a lot of lateral thinking around the kitchen table, we fed into our groups, took our topic – the worst aspects of housework – and settled in for some quick-fire collaborative brainstorming. One of my group led with toilet cleaning – more specifically, her dread at having to clean up after an habitual ‘pan smudger’. A good start, I thought, and waited for a blizzard of plop-stained ‘what if?’ idea developments and lateral threads.

But it seemed nobody had realised this was a baton to grab onto and run with, not a stick to beat careless toilet users with. The ‘gym’ instructor (!) had been right to suggest that collaborating on ideas was a great way for writers to pan collectively for comedy gold but there weren’t many in the room who were actively prospecting.

“How about reverse engineering that idea to explore a character who’s forensic about personal hygiene but fine about leaving a dirty great smudge in the pan?”

“Yeah, I hate it when they leave the toilet paper in too…”

“Er, OK… how about turning it into an idea about people leaving small, manageable dirty protests to complain about minor things?”

“Yeah, toilets are horrid, aren’t they…?”

“Right… is anyone else thinking about anything other than toilets here?”

The point is that the idea was never explored. More importantly, it was the only idea that was actually raised. If you’re asked as a group to pan for comedy gold in the broad and expansive realm of ‘housework’, then do everything you can to explore its broad, expansive realm! As I sat and listened to tales of toilet use, toilet size and toilet cleanliness at home and abroad, I thought about:

  • the questions a lavatory cleaner might be asked in a ‘jobbie’ interview;
  • how hoovering my bedroom carpet devastated the great micro-city of Dustopia;
  • if you can clearly see out of your windows… why clean your windows?

Not exactly comedy gold per se, but definitely worth a few exploratory shakes and swirls before the pan’s washed clean, right? Alas, all we had to show for our collective ‘comedy housework’ brainstorm was a soiled toilet pan and a fairly obvious reason for finding it nauseating. Going around the room, it seemed that a) most groups had latched onto a single idea, b) more often than not, that idea revolved around toilets, and c) nobody had asked the question: “yeah, but how do we make that funny?”. Maybe we’re all a little too polite in the company of strangers, but it doesn’t make you the group’s Bobby Big-Trousers for raising the point. It makes you the one asking funny-minded people to think outside the toilet pan.

And that’s how you make your ideas shine brighter, folks.

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