Three impossible things before breakfast
Jake Yapp gets to grips with writing topical sketches for BBC radio
Listen to the sketches mentioned in this article:
It is 8.26 am and I am trying to think of something funny to do with the Archers and young people. And I have another half an hour or so before the sketch I haven’t yet written will be played out on national radio.
It’s a faintly nerve-racking job. I mean, it’s not like working in A&E, or, far worse, doing supply teaching, but it’s fairly hairy at times. My job is to make sketches for the BBC 6Music Shaun Keaveny Breakfast Show. And I make them fresh on the morning of broadcast, each one-two minute sketch delivered from scratch in about an hour. Here’s how it works.
My alarm goes off. I try to crawl out of bed without disturbing my girlfriend Lucy – although Maisie the cat sees to that. Depending on the weather, and how cold the flat is, I pull on my usual classy work attire: tracksuit trousers, a t-shirt, socks and a dressing gown. It is a hot look. And it screams ‘Media Professional’. I traipse downstairs to the spare bedroom, and sit down at my laptop. It is already on – it came on several minutes ago. It’s on a timer thing. This whole job relies on streamlining and systems – partly because of the fast turnaround, partly because I am a lazy sod.
The Email arrives from the 6Music production team. They have been up for ages, bless them, in Western House, scouring newspapers for stories for the show: ‘Morning. Found this story of the new Archers spin-off for “youngsters”. We were thinking of some crunk version of the theme tune then some kids saying “blud” quite a bit. Something like that? And a podcast trail pls. Thanks Jake!!!!’
This is my brief for the day. There’s a link in the email to the news story, about the launch of the new youth-oriented spin-off from The Archers, Ambridge Extra. My mind starts churning. I decide to go for a straight spoof. But it will take time to do it right. So I decide to do the podcast trail first, and save the Ambridge Extra spoof for later.
I start thinking about the podcast trail. There’s a daily Shaun Keaveny podcast, and pretty much every day I am asked to make a trail to promote it. It’s a really broad brief. I can do it about pretty much anything I like, as long as I crowbar in some reference to the podcast.
I find this harder in many ways, than the sketch. I like having a brief – the more restrictive the better, in many respects. The vast, wide expanse of ‘anything’ makes it almost impossible to write. How do you choose the best idea when the ideas are unlimited?
Plus, I have done 120 podcast trails now. I am running out of ideas. I have done Glee spoofs, TV ad spoofs, TV chef spoofs, mad parodies of a serial killer who sounds like Eckhart Tolle, documentaries about African tribes from the 1960s, sci-fi movies from the 1970s, motivational speakers, muggers on the bus, online gadget reviews, and mad old rednecks making online dating videos.
My deadline for delivery is 8.00am. The trail will be broadcast at five past. I start looking at stuff on YouTube for inspiration. I also use wimp.com, a fantastic resource for throwing up random cool stuff. Somewhere I get into old TV ads. I decide to parody the Green Cross Code. I look it up. It’s all a bit obvious for a parody, but it will buy me time for the Archers spoof later. It’s like the Looney Tunes animators, who would dash off a quick Road Runner cartoon so they could spend an extra day or two on a good Bugs Bunny.
I start writing. I usually start writing about 20-past the hour. Maybe 25-past. If it gets to 25-to, I know I am starting to get into trouble. But I always try to leave a lot of thinking time if I can.
Script finished, I email it off for approval and start recording. It isn’t really writing, as you’d think about it. It’s more a kind of slo-mo improv. The great thing about writing so early in the morning, before you’ve eaten or showered or commuted or whatever, is that all the critical inhibition you might have when you’re fully awake hasn’t kicked in yet. You often get really interesting ideas forming on the page simply because you’re too weak to kill them.
I have opened up Logic Pro on my Mac. I vowed I would never succumb to the pretentious posturing of Macs, but they make the only machines I’ve ever used that are rock-solid for audio recording. It is a thing of beauty. And I am sorry if you feel that makes me a PC turncoat.
I have a default template which I use for the breakfast show sketches. When it opens up it has an empty voice-over track, two extra audio tracks, and five midi tracks. The mixer has my mastering settings already in place. Over the years I have set up several templates for these sketches – one for regular sketches, one for the highlights package I make for the end of the show each day… and one for X Factor spoofs. Because I have made dozens of them now. Ha.
So I record the script. ‘Hey, where do you think you’re going?’ is the first thing I have said today. I time it in between the cistern refilling (which it seems to do about once a minute) and the cats miaowing, and the traffic, and Lucy making breakfast upstairs. Often she is very wonderfully making me a cup of tea.
I try to record in one take, leaving gaps of the appropriate length for any dialogue from other characters. Then, if there are other parts to play, I’ll go back through and re-record the whole thing with the other voice chipping in in the gaps. It saves on editing time, but sometimes makes for slightly frenzied speech when I haven’t left a big enough gap.
Then I add sound effects, music if I need to, and mix it.
Delivered! The trail’s a two-parter. One of my faster turnarounds. My all-time record is seven minutes – from receiving the briefing email to writing the script to having a piece on air. Probably wasn’t all that thigh-slappingly funny, mind you.
Now I have an extra 20 minutes to work on Ambridge Extra. I have only a vague idea what ‘crunk’ sounds like so I have a look on YouTube, and then spend a bit of time doing a crunk version of the Archers theme. I use my own music 95% of the time, often writing songs. I’ve done parodies of Lily Allen, Dizzee Rascal, Take That etc, but also an Edwardian song about Asbos and gangsta raps about Jenni Murray. Yesterday I recorded a 6-part Gregorian chant version of Madonna’s Holiday. What must the neighbours think?
Theme tune finished. Back to writing.
Record the script.
Delivered. Now comes my moment of comparative calm, when I can go to the loo or even grab a bowl of cereal. The last thing to do is to make the highlights package which goes out at the end of the show at 9.55. The production team email me the clips, and I stitch them together with a little script.
All in all it was a good morning. My Archers sketch got repeated on Pick Of The Week. Did I get a credit? Not a sausage. ‘Shaun Keaveny and team’; I ask you.
I’ve been doing this job for three years, and I have made something like 3,000 sketches, songs and jingles for the show. Sometimes I worry about burning out, but I find that with writing, the whole ‘muscle’ analogy is true. And it is a great exercise to embark on a sentence or a joke without having any real idea of where you’re going with it. I worked with another writer on a very high-pressure topical tv show recently. He was more of an artist, who took his time and crafted really beautiful jokes. But we were under the gun. I started writing a set-up line for a joke. ‘Wait, wait… Where are you going with this?’ he asked. ‘I dunno,’ I replied. ‘You mean, you don’t know what the punchline is?’ he said, with mounting panic. ‘No,’ I told him, “but we’ll think of something!”
That said, I could live without having to do another X Factor spoof.
Listen to the sketches mentioned in this article:
You can find more sketches and videos at www.jakeyapp.com