Great Science Fiction and Fantasy Creators Who Started Out Writing Comedy

Illustration for article titled Great Science Fiction and Fantasy Creators Who Started Out Writing Comedy

When you write about other worlds and strange discoveries, you need a quick wit. And an ear for clever dialogue, that keeps the story buzzing along. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that many of science fiction and fantasy's greatest creators started out in comedy, including sitcoms.


Here are a dozen of our favorite SF creators who started out writing straight-up comedy.

Terry Nation

Nation is best known as the creator of the Daleks, Doctor Who's most fearsome opponents — who are at their best when they're deadly serious and slaughtering everyone in sight. (The Daleks have been played for laughs, but that's usually a mistake.) But Nation also created The Survivors and Blake's 7, two classic dark SF shows of the 1970s. Originally, though, Nation was a comedy writer who worked for many of the greatest British comedians of the 1960s, including Tony Hancock. But when Hancock and Nation had a falling out, Nation remembered that he'd just turned down an offer to write for a new science fiction series — so he turned around and pitched a story about these Dalek creatures. It's amazing to watch "The Dead Planet," which doesn't have a single laugh in it, knowing Nation had just been writing comedy gags.

Dennis Spooner

While we're on the subject of classic Doctor Who, there's also one of the show's first script editors, whose role in Doctor Who's longevity is seldom acknowledged. Spooner took over running the show's scripts from the original script editor, David Whitaker, and kept the show going during a difficult time. He also stepped in and plugged the gaps in Nation's epic Dalek story "The Daleks' Master Plan" and wrote a few other stories, introducing the first Time Lord, other than the Doctor, that we meet in the series: the Meddling Monk. Spooner's Who scripts tend to be silly, and he was the one who decided the show's regular historical adventures could be played for laughs — so it's perhaps not surprising that he started as a stand-up comedian who moved into comedy writing, including a stint on a show called Bootsie and Snudge, which is probably a P-Funk thang.

Chris Carter

The creator of The X-Files got his start writing comedy TV movies for Disney, with titles like The B.R.A.T. Patrol. He then became a producer on the musical comedy show Rags to Riches, before finally making a move into hour-long drama and launching his paranoid show about FBI agents who look for the truth that, quite possibly, could be somewhere out there. We never got to see the X-Files team up with the B.R.A.T. Patrol, though.


Charlie Kaufman

Like a lot of the people on this list, Kaufman kept incorporating comedy into his work once he moved into drama/science fiction, but stuff like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a serious, creepy undercurrent to it as well, and explores issues of memory of identity in an intense fashion. It's definitely not straight-up comedy in the same vein as Kaufman's early work on sitcoms like Get a Life, Ned and Stacy and the Dana Carvey Show. Kaufman told an interviewer that he enjoyed the sitcom gigs, but the hours were bad: " When I was working on sitcoms I'd work 80 or 90 hours a week and I might do that anyway, but I do it at home now and I do it on my own terms as opposed to being in a room with six other writers and that being your life.



Douglas Adams

It's sort of debatable whether the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ever really left comedy — arguably he just moved his interest in comedy in a science-fictional direction. (We're not including Woody Allen on this list, despite Sleeper. Or Mel Brooks, for that matter.) But Adams became heavily identified with science fiction and big cosmic ideas, and like many other people on this list he worked on Doctor Who, taking Dennis Spooner's old job and writing three stories.


Jane Espenson

She was pitching stories to Star Trek: The Next Generation all along — but her earliest credited work is for sitcoms, including Monty, which apparently starred Fonzie from Happy Days as a Rush Limbaugh parody. And Me and the Boys. Her first staff jobs were on the animated comedy Dinosaurs and the sitcom Ellen. She told CNN a couple years ago that the sitcom writing rooms were a tough environment to be the only woman, but the experience helped solidify her comedy chops. And her episodes of Buffy and other Joss Whedon shows are among the funniest and sharpest, although she's also proved she can do intense drama on shows like BSG, Game of Thrones and Caprica. She's now a producer at Once Upon a Time.


Joss Whedon

Speaking of which... Whedon's father and grandfather both worked in TV comedy, and Whedon himself got his start writing for the sitcom Roseanne. He's been quoted as saying, "When Roseanne read the first script of mine that got into her hands without being edited by someone else she said, 'How can you write a middle-aged woman this well?' I said, 'If you met my mom you wouldn't ask'." He went on to become a script doctor, and then created Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, plus Dr. Horrible. And he directed Avengers, too. In case you were under a rock.


Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

Wright and Pegg both started out in straight-up comedy, and their first real collaboration was the sitcom Spaced. They've gone on to create the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy that started with Shaun of the Dead and concludes with The World's End. And Wright also directed Scott Pilgrim and the upcoming Ant-Man, while Pegg has given us Paul as well as appearances in Doctor Who, Star Trek and tons of other beloved series.


Joe Cornish

Seriously, if you've never seen The Adam and Joe Show, the sketch comedy show that Cornish co-created, you should hunt it down. It's hilarious and insane, and well worth checking out. There's one gag where they accidentally switch to the DVD commentary in the middle of the episode, which is perfect. Cornish, of course, went on to direct Attack the Block and is now signed up to direct the movie version of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.


John Rogers

He would be one of our favorite writers just for his work on the Blue Beetle comic, which is one of the best superhero origin tales of the past decade or so. But he's also created the show Leverage, worked on Transformers and some other movies, and written for Eureka. Most importantly, he wrote the unaired but awesome Global Frequency pilot. And he got his start as a stand-up comedian — after first getting a degree in physics. And his first TV writing gig appears to have been Cosby.


Mark Gatiss

Actually, Gatiss is debatable, since a lot of his earliest writing was for Doctor Who novels. But even before that, he was working in sketch comedy, doing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and getting one-off comedy plays produced on television. He talks about this a bit on the Doctor Who: New Adventures featurette on the "Ark in Space" special edition DVD. And his first big break was as part of the comedy group The League of Gentlemen. He's gone on to be a mainstay of the new Doctor Who series, as a writer and also as an actor. And he's writing the TV movie about the show's origins, airing in November.


Steven Moffat

And finally... speaking of people who wound up on Doctor Who, Steven Moffat is the show's current showrunner as well as the author of tons of episodes. He's also worked on the Tintin movie and Sherlock. Actually, Moffat's first TV series, Press Gang, was a drama set in a school, but he made his mark with a series of sitcoms, including Joking Apart and Coupling. We asked him in 2008 how working on Doctor Who was different from his sitcom experiences, and he said that he has to work less hard to make sure there's a joke on every page in Doctor Who, but that the jokes also seem to come naturally.


Thanks to Max Gladstone, Ian Vincent, Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeremiah Tolbert, Jennie Goloboy, David L. Ennis, Wesley Chu, Uriel Walker, Chris Woodfield, Christopher Busch, Brian Huberd, David L. Ennis, Steve Bagley, Max Gladstone, and everybody else who suggested stuff for this article!



Does Terry Gilliam count? An early career making cartoons, leading into Monty Python's infamous cartoons, then a handful of high-concept Sci-Fi/Fantasy films?