IT’S one thing to stand on a stage and tell jokes or anecdotes you consider funny enough to amuse a crowd.

It’s quite another to dream up comedic sketches, complete with characters, dialogue and setting.

While John Finnemore has his fair share of experience as a stand-up comedian, he is best known for the sketch shows and sitcoms he was either created or contributed to.

Dead Ringers, That Mitchell And Webb Look and The Safety Catch are among his writing credits, along with his two best-known babies: Cabin Pressure and John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme.

The live show he will perform in Colchester next month, Flying Visit, is something of a greatest hits collection, featuring scenes plucked from across his career including John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, Cabin Pressure and John Finnemore’s Double Acts.

Certain cherished characters will make appearances, too, including Cabin Pressure’s cheerful but unhelpful aeroplane steward Arthur Shappey.

“With musicians people tend to want to hear the old favourites,” says John.

“But it’s not the same in comedy. I suppose so much of humour is about surprise that you can’t repeat yourself too much.”


John found his comedic feet as a member of the Footlights drama club at Cambridge University and performed at many Edinburgh Fringes before he branched out into television and radio writing.

“I’ve enjoyed stand-up and really admire it as an art form but very little of my writing seems to come in that format,” he says. “It’s always come in scene form. Even my stand-up attempts become sketches by the time I’m done. I don’t know why that is.”

It’s tempting to wonder what the differences are between those inclined towards stand-up and those, like John, who attempt to create a mini-world through their work.

While he points out the “purity” of the former medium, he also can’t resist poking fun at his comedy counterparts that fly solo.

“As a broad generalisation I always say that comedy writers are easier to get on with than stand-ups,” he says.

“Sometimes, I don’t want to put everything through my voice. It comes more naturally to me to put it through dialogue.”


In an interview with The Radio Times a few years’ back, John said that radio “is always where I have wanted to do things”.

He grew up religiously listening to On The Hour – the precursor to The Day Today – and People Like Us.

“I loved the immediacy of the voice in your ear,” he says.

“If anything, radio is more accessible than it was when I was growing up. Podcasts are everywhere. Some people suggested it might die out but it doesn’t seem to have done. There will always be room for it.”

One of the most popular radio programmes he worked on was That Mitchell And Webb Sound, the show paved the way for That Mitchell And Webb look which appeared on BBC television.


Listening to him describe the creative process behind the comedy hit – and most of his collaborative work in general – is an interesting insight.

“Generally, the way it works is you have a meeting where people pitch ideas and then they are allotted to people in the meeting,” he says.

“You get given an idea to take away and write up yourself.”

“The way we worked with the Mitchell and Webb stuff was very productive, because it was quite a small team of people and we all got on, so there wasn’t any feeling of sharp elbows in the room. We would all just try and make each other laugh and there would be loads of jokes to go away with.”

There is a snag to this approach, though. Sometimes the imaginative banter between the writers might get too much, reach a level where the lay man simply wouldn’t be able to understand the central punchline beneath a tower of in-jokes.

He continues: “You can think something is incredibly funny in the room but then you look at it in the cold light of day and think ‘that’s just for us, that doesn’t make sense’. Even when I’m writing myself I’m always wary of making a joke upon a joke.

“It might not appeal to the audience because they don’t know what you’re playing on.”

David Mitchell and Robert Webb were also members of the Cambridge Footlights, a few years before John’s time at the university.

He was vice-president at one point and reflects upon his years in the group as essential experience.

“I always think the great advantage of something like Footlights is that you get to try things out and do all the terrible stuff you have to get your of your system early,” he says.

“You don’t have to go to a university comedy club to do that, but there’s nothing like performing repeatedly to small audiences to hone your act.”

Another platform that allowed him to sculpt his craft was Edinburgh Fringe, the huge arts festival that can make or break promising young comedians.

The writer remembers feeling slightly cowed by the whole thing at first, but ultimately the festival served him well.

“There was my name on the poster, next to all these proper comedians,” he laughs.

“Just the idea of having posters was extraordinary. I kept thinking I might be found out at some point. The first time we went to Edinburgh we were just a bunch of students, so nobody came to review us.”

From struggling to sell-out 50 seater venues back in those days, John has the status to perform at the huge capacity Charter Hall. It helps that he has a string of beloved characters to his name now, including Arthur Shappey.

He says: “In Cabin Pressure we heard him talking about wanting to give a lecture on polar bears, so when I brought him out live he delivered that full lecture.”

l John Finnemore’s Flying Visit is at Charter Hall, Leisure World, Colchester, on September 28 at 7.30pm. For tickets, go to