Q&A with scriptwriter, indie author and podcaster David Cohen

By   Hannah Bickerton 6 min read

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David Cohen is a writer, comedian, podcaster and Edinburgh Festival Perrier Award nominee. He has written for numerous incredibly successful TV shows, including Have I Got News for You, Spitting Image, Not Going Out and My Family, as well as dozens of radio shows, including News Quiz, Dead Ringers, Sunday Format and the award-winning 15 Minute Musical. He has been a constant presence on the British comedy scene for more than thirty-five years and has written nearly a hundred songs for the multi-BAFTA-winning BBC hit Horrible Histories, such as Charles II King of Bling. Since 2006 he has been working as a script editor and teaching comedy writing to everyone from beginners to sitcom writers. He also hosts the podcast Sitcom Geeks with James Cary, where they discuss the art of sitcom-writing for TV and radio.

After years of writing comedy for iconic TV and radio shows, what was it that compelled you to explore the worlds of self-publishing and podcasting? And how did you find the transition to writing and creating for these different mediums?

In 2008 the comedy website Chortle opened its pages and invited people to write about comedy. I started to read these and realised I had so many stories to tell. Also that I disagreed with a lot of advice people were writing. I wrote loads of pieces and started to think there could be a book in it. Didn’t cross my mind that a publisher would be interested.

Around this time the British Comedy Guide asked me to put together some podcasts to interview people in the comedy world. I’ve been around since the early 80s so I know a lot of people!

Before I got into comedy I trained as a journalist, which meant I knew how to prepare for interviews. And being a journalist teaches you to write to deadlines, which is a skill that’s useful to have whichever medium you’re working in.

How did you come up with the concepts for your books? And what did your writing process involve?

The first book was How To Be Averagely Successful At Comedy (2013). It grew organically out of the blogs mentioned above. I knew that it had to be more than the collected blogs, but I didn’t really understand how to ‘make a book’. The result is a mish-mash of stories, advice and a little bit of fiction all thrown into the pot.

The Complete Comedy Writer came out in 2018. By then I had developed more of a career as a comedy teacher, and had learned more about self-publishing, which was much bigger. It’s a much more unified book, focused on the advice, but it still rambles into autobiographical places that don’t really add to the core.

I think I know now what to do, and the revised edition will be out at the end of the year, which will be properly focused on the writing process.

Why did you feel self-publishing was the right route for you?

My non-fiction subject is so niche, I’m always going to know more about it than even the best marketing department in the world.

With my novel, I wasn’t expecting to self-publish – but just as I was ready to send out the latest draft, the pandemic happened. With their regular income cut off in an instant, I guessed that all my stand-up friends and colleagues would move into book-writing. What small chance I had of being taken up by a literary agent or publisher fell away in that moment. And from March 2020 I knew it would be self-published.

You started your podcast Sitcom Geeks with James Cary in 2015 and published your book The Complete Comedy Writer in 2018. Did you find that topics covered in your podcast helped to inform your writing of this book? In what ways was it a different experience to writing your first book?

Yes, the second book is more focused, and it helped that James and I were connecting every fortnight to talk about the process of writing.

Working with James has been a fantastic experience for me. I arrived at comedy writing from the world of stand-up, and from a different era and generation. James is a great comedy writer, has a wider breadth of knowledge and is a really good teacher.

When talking about your recently published debut novel Stand Up, Barry Goldman on your blog, you wrote: ‘Self-publishing is not dissimilar to taking your show to Edinburgh [Fringe]. The writing (and performing) is the easy part. Getting an audience is where it gets hard. That’s where most of us fail, most of the time.’ What key lessons have you learnt from your experience self-publishing? And are there any challenges you are still working to overcome?

Yes, every day is a constant challenge. When I was a writer for hire I never thought much about the future; I was getting enough work to pay the bills, and it left me enough spare time to work on my own projects.

I don’t get as much writer-for-hire work anymore – which is exactly how it should be for us white male sixty who never had to struggle to be heard. It does mean I have to earn enough from teaching to give me time to write more novels.

But I now have another job, which is Head of Marketing at Dave Cohen plc. I enjoy it and love the creativity involved, but there are trained people who will be much better at it than me. But I’m trapped in a vicious circle – I can’t afford to pay someone enough yet to do the work for me, and I won’t be able to afford it until I write more books and courses. But all the time I spend on marketing takes time from writing.

If you’re reading this and think you can help me, get in touch!

In your opinion, is there anything particularly special and unique about sharing a book with your audience that can’t be achieved in other formats?

I love the connection I have with my students. There’s around 900 of them and they get a fortnightly newsletter, but I try and make it interactive. It’s there partly to publicise courses and other things but I’m also interested to hear about their own struggles to become writers. I’d never have discovered the pleasure of such bonds if I hadn’t gone down the self-publishing route.

It’s much harder to create this bond in fiction but I’m working on it…

Do you believe we’ll see more professionals from various industries, whether that’s podcasting, TV or radio, branching out into the publishing industry in the future? If so, what would your advice be to those looking to self-publish a book?

Emphatically yes. The old models of creating still exist but as we learned from the music industry, they are changing radically or falling away completely.

If you want to self-publish there’s so much information out there and it can get very confusing. I have just two pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to Joanna Penn’s podcast The Creative Penn. She is the undisputed number-one guru of how to self-publish. She’s recorded more than 500 episodes. Have a scroll and soon enough you’ll find a topic of specific interest to you. Start listening and take it from there.
  2. Join the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). Writing is a lonely world whatever your area. You need to be a part of the one organisation in the world that has your back.

David Cohen’s new novel Stand Up, Barry Goldman is available on Amazon now: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1999313828

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Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.