Writing panto is no joke – I swear on my hair

Karl Broderick is Ireland’s longest-serving panto writer, but can he teach this novice how to write a funny script?

Karl Broderick didn't attend his first panto until he was 21. He had just met Alan Hughes – now his civil partner and husband-to-be – who was playing Dick Whittington in that year's panto. Now, he is Ireland's longest-serving panto writer. "There is nobody else who's written panto for 18 consecutive years, so it's bizarre," he says when we meet.

I'm at his house to "help" him write a scene for this year's panto at the Tivoli Theatre, Beauty and the Beast. He assures me there is a simple rhythm to writing a panto, but doesn't elaborate much. "It must be a formula. I've struck on it and people like it and it's working."

I haven’t seen a panto for at least a decade and I’m just dying to write in a solid oh-no-she-isn’t-oh-yes-she-is type exchange with the audience. First, though, I must appreciate the importance of panto in an Irish Christmas.

“It’s grown to where maybe a family of four to now a family of maybe 17 are booking it and it’s part of their Christmas,” says Broderick. “A lot of people have actually grown up on the panto; it’s like a little phenomenon. We have audiences coming to us for the entire 18 years. I meet people in nightclubs, and I have done for years, who are 21, 22, 23, and they’ve been coming for 18 years.


“They come up and go, ‘Oh my God, you’re my hero. I’ve been going to your panto every year.’ I’ve had people telling me that the panto is the reason they got into acting, people on the West End who said growing up going to the panto made them want to go into musical theatre.”

As well as the pressure to live up to people's expectations, Broderick says panto isn't all jokes; there's a love story in Beauty and the Beast and that won't be lost amid the larks. "I really believe in the heart of the story being kept really real. The straight characters are kept fairly straight. Beauty and the Beast, that love story, will really be played out. When the Beast first comes out, I want the first five rows to have run to the back five rows. When the Beast is almost dying at the end, it will be played for full-on effect. I want tears.

“There are characters on the edge of the script who can do funny things and be funny, but the love story, and the story of a girl falling in love with the inside of somebody despite what the outside looks like – I have to believe in it. If you think about that little six-year-old girl in the audience, she really won’t be fooled. She wants to go through that story with Belle.”

Coming to grips with the two recurring characters in Broderick’s pantos is the next hurdle. There’s Sammy Sausages, played by Hughes, who Broderick describes as “everybody’s best friend”; then there’s Buffy, “basically a man-eater who loves the daddies”, played by Robin Murphy.

"These two characters are in every panto and there's a real familiarity," he says. "It's like Little Britain or Catherine Tate in that when Buffy says 'I swurr on my hurr', she gets a round of applause. She can nearly say 'I swurr on my . . . ' and the audience will go 'hurr'. It's just brilliant. Sammy Sausages and Buffy are interwoven through Beauty and the Beast in various different roles. Sammy will be Belle's best friend and Buffy works for the Beast."

This is important, as Broderick has reached a point in the script where Belle and the Beast are about to meet. The scene we’re writing together precedes it. Sammy Sausages and Buffy have been sent to find a dress for Belle for a masquerade ball and Buffy isn’t one bit happy about it.

“She’s convinced all the daddies in the audience are now looking at Belle. She comes down into the audience to the daddies. She says stupid things like, ‘Daddy, do you like cheese? Because I’m an easy single’, and silly things like that. I try to put them in as many weird situations as possible but also allow for snappy one-liners.”

Song ideas

My job isn’t hard. Broderick has dutifully recorded any jokes he has heard or thought of in the last year. He rings himself and leaves voicemails with song ideas and jots down things his friends say in the notes on his phone.

“All my friends are funny. An awful lot of the time they’ll say something, and we’ll laugh and they’ll go, ‘Is that going in the panto?’ They love the idea they could get in the panto. No one is safe; literally everything everyone says is fair game. People say the funniest things. There’s nowt as quare as folk, as they say. Irish people, Irish mammies, are just hysterical.”

As he types, he speaks in each character’s voice. This turns out to be a much better way to get into character than my way, which was to put on some fairy wings and several of the tiaras lying around his office. He reassures me that he just finds it particularly easy to write for Sammy and Buffy.

“People always say ‘Write about what you know’, and Sammy is this man-child and Buffy is this outlandish person. People are convinced the two of them together are actually me,” he says.

Finally, I get my moment to add in some audience interaction, but even this must be done with some thought, Broderick says. “The audience want to participate, but you have to teach them how to do it. If Sammy Sausages comes on and goes, ‘Hello everybody, how is everyone today?’ then you’ve 500 people going, ‘Eh, yeah, I’m good, I’m grand.’ But if you go, ‘Is everyone great?’, they’ll go ‘yeah’, because they know what to say. You can’t let a scene go on too long where you really haven’t brought the audience back in.”

Culling the less funny jokes

We write the scene and add in as many jokes as we can. Broderick says this is the best way as it means we can go back and cut out the less funny jokes.

“I try to write it and then go back and make sure every line is interesting and every line is funny in a funny scene. I like the yin and the yang. I like when there’s drama, to really give it drama, otherwise it just becomes grey and wishy-washy and you’ve a baddie who’s just hitting people with frying pans. That’s some people’s idea of panto but it’s not mine. I like the audience to know that’s the baddie and boo him at every angle,” he says.

There must be something that keeps people coming back, I say. It’s simple, he says. “It comes from the right place, I think. I think people get that it has its heart in the right place and it has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek as well.”

The Cheerios Panto Beauty and the Beast runs from December 9th-January 10th at the Tivoli Theatre. Tickets from €15



(The moonlight hits the Beast, who is watching Belle from his balcony. Poor Belle is chained up in the dungeon.)

Enter Sammy Sausages

SAMMY: Master, she’s beautiful, isn’t she? She could be the one to break the spell.

BEAST: She’s not the one. It’s hopeless.

SAMMY: Oh Master, think positive . . .

BEAST: Okay. I’m positive it’s hopeless!

SAMMY: Well, maybe if we made her . . . a little more comfortable? I don’t think she’ll be giving us a great review on TripAdvisor; more like Kip adviser!

BEAST: Maybe.

The Beast begins to pace back and forth

SAMMY: What’re ya doin’, Master?

BEAST: I’m hatching a plan.

SAMMY: Ya look like yer hatching an egg . . . I've already got a plan. Let's throw Belle . . . a welcome party. BEAST: A party? How can I go to a party looking . . . like . . . THIS? SAMMY (as if Beast had bad breath): Oooh, someone needs a TicTac. Master, we'll throw a masquerade ball. Everyone will be dressed up. People will just think you're in a costume.

BEAST: A masquerade ball. That might just work.

SAMMY: Oh Master, it’ll be masso. A chance for you and the young lady to . . . get to know each other a little better.

BEAST: Do you think she’ll come?

SAMMY: Well, I’ll ask her.

BEAST: Ask her? You will TELL her! (Getting angry) She will come or I will have her dragged there, by the hair.

SAMMY: That mightn’t be the best way to win the young lady’s affections, Master.

BEAST: Perhaps you’re right. Ask her nicely and get her a present. A dress. And Sammy – tell her it’s from me.

Exit Beast

SAMMY: A party! There’s gonna be jelly and ice cream and . . . balloons!

Buffy! BUFFY . . .

Buffy enters in her nightgown and rollers

BUFFY: Yes Samuel. I’m here, I’m here.

SAMMY: Buffy, there’s gonna be a big . . . huge . . .

BUFFY: Party! I know! I know everything, Sammy. I am the eyes and the ears of this castle.

SAMMY: Well you’re certainly the mouth. C’mon, we have to convince Belle to go to this party, so they can start falling in love.

BUFFY: (Heavy sigh)

SAMMY: What’s wrong? Are you jealous that the Master likes Belle?

BUFFY: Noooooo. How can you say that? I am SHOCKED. I am APPALLED. I am AVAILABLE. Why couldn’t he pick me? But I’m not jealous. I swear on my hair!

SAMMY: Ya what?

BUFFY: I swear on my hair that I am not jealous of Belle. I just want what she’s got – and I don’t want her to have it.

SAMMY: Jealous!

BUFFY: Oh Sammy! Am I over the hill?

SAMMY: Well it’s better to be over the hill than buried under it! Now c’mon . . .