Archive for the 'Instructional' Category

Ed Toolis, Writer

While I was at Chicago Sketchfest, I met Ed Toolis.  I noticed him quickly.  He was one of the few people to show up alone to Sketchfest early, like me, just hanging around the lobby.  And he had a laminated festival pass on a lanyard around his neck (my pass was just a printout).

Well, he spoke to me on the last day.  He asked if I was a reviewer.  I guess he’d noticed that I’d been around for the entire weekend, too.  And I was alone.  Anyway, we got to talking and afterwards he sent me a link to his blog:

http://web.mac.com/edtoolis/TheHumorOfEdToolis/On_Humor/On_Humor.html

I suggest y’all take a look at it.  Many of his posts relate to the kinds of things I’d like to put on this blog, if I weren’t so lazy.  And if I had a better grasp of my thoughts.

It is another blog written from the perspective of someone, like me, who likes some sketch comedy but doesn’t like all sketch comedy, and is exploring why he doesn’t like what he doesn’t like.  And he’s sharing his thoughts on how to be better at sketch, particularly writing.

Even though I’m somewhat active in the Seattle sketch community, I haven’t met many people who seem to have given a lot of thought as to what some sketches (or troupes) lack.  Do they not detect the poor quality of some of the work around here?  Do they not care?  Are they just trying to be nice by not saying anything negative?  Are they of the (mistaken) belief that you shouldn’t analyze comedy?  Do they just not want to talk to me about it?

So it’s refreshing to meet someone who also would like to try to make things better.  For himself.  And by sharing, for others.

This is not the last you’ll hear me mention Ed Toolis’s blog.  I intend to comment here on some of his posts.  Stay tuned!

Sketch Training in Seattle!

Two opportunities in Seattle to learn more about sketch writing!!!

I’m pleased that two of the leading groups in Seattle comedy are now offering training in sketch comedy! The Seattle sketch comedy offerings have been largely inconsistent in quality, and having two groups offering classes gives me hope that soon we’ll have a new crop of better sketch troupes. Unexpected Productions has a great reputation in offering comedy instruction (mostly improv), and Sketchfest has selected an instructor who has consistently brought great sketch comedy to Seattle.

1. Comedy Sketch Workshop – Tristin Devin
Unexpected Productions
For those of you who don’t know, UP is one of the two big improv shops in Seattle. They are not known for putting on sketch comedy shows, but their improv shows are solid. I’m not very familiar with Tristin Devin’s work. The course description mentions he was a member of the sketch group Furioso! I vaguely remember that group, and I don’t think it had many performances.
May 1 – May 22, Noon-3pm
May 7 – May 28, 3pm – 6pm, with a showcase on June 4 @ 7pm
$125
http://www.unexpectedproductions.org/school#SpecialtyClasses

2. Sketch Writing Workshop – Mike Mathieu
SketchFest Seattle
Mike is half of The Cody Rivers Show, consistently one of the best bets in the area’s sketch comedy scene (for years now). SketchFest Seattle is an annual festival of sketch comedy, and the SketchFest Board and Staff are both very interested in improving the local sketch comedy scene.
June 15 – July 13, 6pm – 9pm
$120
http://www.sketchfest.org/events/sketch-writing-workshop/

Don’t forget that comedy is subjective

Ken Levine (writer or producer for shows like MASH, Cheers, and The Simpsons) uses an example from his career (of a bad writer codenamed “Shecky”) to bring up a point about comedy writing:

But the big question is this: How do you know when something’s funny? Especially since humor is so subjective. The standard answer is “it’s funny if it’s funny to you”. I disagree. And I use Shecky as an example. If you’re attempting to become a professional comedy writer you need to gage what strangers will find funny.

Amateur comedy writers should also pay attention.

One problem I see over and over again in amateur sketch comedy is that of oblivious comedians creating sketches that they find funny but the audience doesn’t. A few members of the audience may laugh, perhaps giving the illusion of success to the sketch comedian, but the response does not compare to that of the jokes that actually work.

If you are a sketch writer, don’t delude yourself into thinking your sketches always work. Study comedy, see what works. Work harder. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.

One of my favorite quotes from episode 18 of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, a show that wasn’t that great but meant well:

“You’re too hard on yourself.”
“You know who isn’t too hard on themselves? Amateurs.”
– Lucy and Tom

Work on writing what strangers will find funny. Actually make an effort of it. And be honest about how good your comedy actually is. I’ll thank you with my laughter.

Video Review: Self-Defense (Derrick Comedy) – 3 Stars!

Excellent sketch. It starts as a quirky parody of a self-defense instruction video. The humorous cuts helped to entertain before the meat of the sketch, the demonstrations. In the first demonstration, I liked the detail in the instructor’s demonstration of gaining control of the wrist. Then, BAM, the first major surprising twist. Unexpected, yet logical. After that, each demonstration increases the craziness. Loved it, wish I had written it. Three stars.

Elements I’d like writers to take from this sketch:
Surprise is a key element of comedy, so I’ll mention the surprise in this sketch again. Pulling the gun was a surprise because this a parody of an (unarmed) self-defense video, yet was logical because gun trumps fist. In the Second City workshop I took, instructor Amy Seeley told us to go for surprise.

This sketch could have been ok with just the surprise of pulling the gun. Many sketch writers go only that far when creating a sketch based on a clever idea. I wish sketch writers would more often ask themselves “Where can the sketch go from here?” In this case, the instructor put himself in crazier and crazier situations, maintaining his sincerity but making his muggers more and more unmugger-like. To a very exaggerated extent. So learn from this sketch and keep on heightening and exaggerating.

Writing: Vomit (Brainstorming / Early Drafts)

When I sit down to write sketches, I often follow the method of just starting to write, letting my ideas just flow until (hopefully) I eventually come across an idea that I want to explore.  Sometimes I call my first draft vomit, because it is an unrefined spewing of my sketch ideas.  If I’m going to call something a “First Draft”, it usually at least has some semblance of good structure.  I’ve taken at least one rewriting look before showing someone a first draft.  My vomit sketches may even have missing sections.

Anyway, here are some thoughts about sketch comedy.  I may expand some later to create full-fledged entries.  I may even delete this entry later.  Whatever I do, I do because I consider this entry an early draft(s) of what I actually want to say.  I’m not waiting until it is “done” to post.

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  • You know what I love sketch comedy?  Extreme flexibility. I got to sing “On My Own” at BUMBERSHOOT!  Am I, a male (baritone-bass), otherwise going to ever get to sing a song written for a girl?  A soprano (Eponine, in Les Miserables)?  Likely not.  Now, I didn’t sing it completely straight.  was dressed as Kim Jong Il and sang it to George Bush, and it was cut down a little for time.  But I still got to sing the song in front of some 300 people.
  • I don’t like sketches that are all premise.  I need more.  I need an exploration of the premise, and I need some surprises in the sketch which follow the logic of the world of the sketch.  On a recent episode of SNL, Andy Samberg did a “sketch” where he talked to farm animals as Mark Wahlberg.  Great Mark Wahlberg, by the way.  For me, it was funny for half a minute, then it got old.  All he did was talk to farm animals as Mark Wahlberg.  It was a waste of talent, to not actually write a sketch around his impression.
  • Your Audience – Who is your audience?  Is it just your friends and mom?  If so, I’m not interested in your sketch.
  • Remember that you, the sketchwright, are asking the audience to give you their time (and probably money).  Don’t be a waste to them.
  • Comedy is subjective.  Comedy is suprise.  There’s a lot that has gone on before that many haven’t seen but I have.  I am unlikely to laugh at that stuff.  Most will, the first time.
  • Try to be better.  Don’t be satisfied with 80%.  Don’t be satisfied with a half-assed job.  PLEASE, don’t be satisfied with a half-assed job.  Don’t waste the audience’s time/money.
  • Surprise!  Go for surprise.  The unexpected is a pillar of great comedy.  One of these days, give a try of shooting for surprise instead of shooting for funny, see what happens.
  • Follow the logic of your sketch’s world.  If, at the end of a WWII sketch about nazis, Paris Hilton walks in and makes a comment about Rodeo Drive, that may be funny, but it is a terrible end for a sketch.  It would be cheap, if Paris’s inclusion had nothing else to do with the sketch.
  • Rewrite your sketches!  Your first draft will not make for the best sketch you can write.  If you don’t make a habit of rewriting your sketches, you are lazy and your show will not be as good as it can be (and will probably be pretty sucky).
  • Many sketches have bad endings (a common gripe about SNL’s sketches).  A good ending should wrap up the sketch, following the logic of the sketch world, and should reincorporate elements of the sketch.  One of the reasons parodies are so strong is that the format of the parody already dictates a beginning, middle, and end.  That’s a reason why game show sketches are so easy/popular to write.
  • A list of the five common types of sketches (taught at Second City LA):
    1.  Seemingly impossible simple task
    2.  Fish out of water
    3.  Clash of context
    4.  Parody
    5.  Center vs. eccentrics
  • Juxtaposition!
  • Learn the “rules”.  They’re more guidelines than rules.  Learn them so you have them in your toolbox.  You can ignore them when you think it is best.
  • Watch sketch comedy!  Old ideas have been done a million times already.  I don’t want to see the old jokes again and again.
  • Variety is a good thing.  Stick a little bit of it into your shows.  Don’t let your sketches all seem the same.
  • Don’t confuse good performances with good writing.  Both are elements in creating good sketch comedy, but just because you have one doesn’t mean you have the other.
  • My reviews are meant to show what I think is bad as well as what I think is good, but I want to keep y’all entertained, so I’ll make sure to include a “good” sketch whenever I review a bad one.

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