Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

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.

*****************

  • 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.

The Sketchfest Audience

I spent Thursday evening, Friday evening, and part of Saturday at Seattle Sketchfest.  I was largely disappointed by the local troupes.

It’s not because most of the local troupes are necessarily bad (and btw Charles was quite good), it is because I’m not a member of the audience that SHOULD like them.  Most of the sketchfest audience didn’t like them.  They sketch troupes may not realize that, though.

There was laughter for each troupe.  Each troupe got some positive feedback.  Bu were they paying attention to where the laughter originated?  In every local show, there were localized laughs coming from certain groups in the audience.  Some were surely friends, but some were probably actual fans.  Big laughs from the entire audience were almost entirely absent.

Realistically, you don’t get to Seattle Sketchfest just on the strength of your friends’ laughter.  You need to have some quality.  You probably have an audience.  It’s just that your audience may be but a small segment of the general Sketchfest audience, and if you don’t realize it and work to improve it you will not do any better than a lukewarm reception at Sketchfest, if Sketchfest doesn’t drop you from the lineup (as they should).

The “bad” comedians seemed, to me, to be lazy.  They had gaps of zero laughs (even from their fans) throughout sketches, clunkiness, sloppiness…  But why?  Nobody strives to suck.  They appear to be lazy because they don’t or won’t fix the problems in their sketches.  But I actually doubt that laziness is the root cause.  They don’t fix their sketches because they think they’re good enough.  They think they’re good enough because they hear laughter from the audience.  The bad comedians are letting themselves get fooled into believing they’re better than they are by their audiences.

The comedians are letting themselves believe that the experimental comedy audience (where many get their start) is the same as the mainstream audience.  It ISN’T!  The experimental comedy audience is a very valuable audience for EXPERIMENTING.  They (and I, when I’m seeing a show targeted to that audience) are more forgiving of roughness.  They give you guaranteed laughs, which is good for confidence but isn’t good for accurately gauging quality.

You know what happens when you only perform for one small audience?  You may get better, but only for your small audience.  If you only perform for audiences of experimental comedy, only those audiences will like you.  Your feedback will push you in that direction.  If you want to appeal to a broader (say, Sketchfest) audience, you have to craft your comedy to appeal to that audience.  And that means you probably have to perform to those audiences more often than once a year (two performances, one night apart).  If all you want to do is be good for your small regular audience, then that is fine, but I’m going to complain whenever I see you at the more mainstream events, and the rest of the audience will agree that you’re no good.

Going after the mainstream audience doesn’t have to mean you water down your message.  It can mean that you just do a better job of delivering it.  From the local troupes I didn’t like, I often saw good ideas with good jokes that were lacking only because the comedians didn’t work on the sketches enough.  Not enough rewrites, no workshopping, feedback from too-friendly audiences.  It’s not the audience’s fault that they don’t like you, it is your fault for not trying hard enough to meet the audience’s expectations.  Maybe you just shouldn’t perform in front of that audience, or maybe you should try to improve yourself with that audience in mind.  When you are putting on your best work in the best way possible, THEN you can complain about the mainstream audience (but I’ll probably disagree).  Don’t worry about losing your curent audience, high-quality mainstream comedy appeals to the experimental crowd.

If you want to have mainstream appeal, you have to try (and possibly fail) with the most mainstream audience you can get.  You really need to draw a new audience that doesn’t consist of your friends and experimental comedy fans.  If you do the same exact show a few times within a short calendar period (optimally, something like a 4-week run of 8pm Fri/Sat shows), your friends and experimental fans will stop coming and you’ll be left with the laugher (or silence) of an audience that is interested in, but not guaranteed to, laugh for you.  They’ll tell you what really works.

Another way to go after the mainstream audience?  Don’t be so satisfied with what you have.  Assume you can do better and go for it.  When I told a member of Hey You Millionaires that I really liked the show, part of his response was to point out some of the problems with it (transitions, for example).  I really respect that.  They were the best troupe of Sketchfest this year, and they’re hard on themselves.  If you want to be good, be hard on yourself.

A quote!

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

(From Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which wasn’t the best show, but it makes a good point here and is about sketch comedy)

Once you’re harder on yourself, how do you get better?  Read books that apply to sketchwriting.  Rewrite your sketches.  Get feedback from people who aren’t just going to rubber stamp your work.  Watch a lot of sketch comedy, and find out what appeals to the audience (especially if it doesn’t appeal to you).  Take a class (if possible).  Write a blog about sketch comedy!

Sketchfest should NOT be a festival of experimental sketch comedy, and it should not go after just the more experimental audience.  And it definitely should not expect that a mainstream audience is the same as the experimental comedy audience.  Sketchfest should have a larger appeal.  I’ve seen some excellent troupes pack Sketchfest.  The reason Sketchfest doesn’t sell every seat is because almost nobody is working on appealing to the general Sketchfest audience.  It’s time everyone realized that.

Sketchwright First Draft!

Here’s the problem:  I’m lazy and unfocused, and I don’t know what I actually want.

I bought this domain a few days after I quit the Pork Filled Players, thinking I wanted a place to talk about sketchwriting.  Then, I decided I wanted to disseminate information about sketchwriting, and I could do so in a format that would allow me to sorta create a “manual” for my future sketchwriting partners.

Oh, did I mention that I intend to do sketch again one day?  Yeah, maybe I’ll get around to that sometime.  No promises.

Anyway, I had all these ideas about what I wanted to do.  I wanted to be the codinghorror of sketchwriting.  I planned on a post per week, starting with an informative post on “what iffing”, a lesson I really learned at the sketchwriting intensive I took at Second City last year.  I even had a large enough list of topics that I figured I could easily come up with enough material for two months.

Then I got lazy.

Then I went to LA and saw the Groundlings!  I actually wrote up a nice little post about how disappointed I was in the show.

Then I went to Chicago and saw the Second City!  I wrote up another nice little post about how I was happy to see an actually good, smart sketch revue.

But I didn’t want to “launch” until I had at least one good informative (instructional) sketchwriting post, and I never quite got around to writing it, and I haven’t yet (“Then I got lazy.”).

Another thing:  I have more to say about sketchwriting than I initially intended to post here.  Mostly, I didn’t want to be too negative in general about sketch comedy.  After spending 7 years performing and writing sketch comedy, and almost that long REALLY analyzing it, I have a very negative view of the state of sketch comedy today (and of most of the sketches I see).  I didn’t think it made for good blogging.

And I’ve been missing sketch comedy.  The Pork Filled Players will be performing at Seattle’s Sketchfest, and I’ll miss being up there with them.  And SNL opened its new season with a good policial opener, and I’m hoping they will not disappoint me this very political season.  And I am inspired today by the newly launched stackoverflow.com, which you shouldn’t really care much about unless you are a tech person.

So I am declaring that Sketchwright is going ALPHA!

Actually, this is more of a rapid prototype of what Sketchwright will someday be (if it lasts).  I’ll start with everything, and then refine it.  Wait, there’s actually a term used in writing that describes what I”m doing:  A DRAFT!  Okay, this is the first draft of Sketchwright.

So right now, Sketchwright doesn’t have a mission statement or a clear agenda.  It is whatever I think about sketch right now.  Once I figure out what I actually want to do, I’ll clean out the old stuff that doesn’t agree with Sketchwright’s (eventual) mission.

Warning:  I think I’m going to be harsh about sketch comedy, especially sketch comedy in Seattle.  I’ll probably be especially hard on the Pork Filled Players, but that’s because I know them so well and because I can easily imagine what they’d be like (or how I’d be pushing for them to be like) were I still with them.  After I get a bit more distance, that’ll probably stop, because they’re actually a much better group than most I’ve seen.

I’m going to try to not censor myself here.  I’ll try.  Self-censoring is bad for writing drafts.  I can refine later, and y’all can watch the process if you want.  I will edit my posts for various reasons.  I can do so at any time.  I probably edited this post before you even read it!  I can do what I want!  This is my blog!

Yes, this is a first draft.  If I consider this to be a draft, I can probably write more freely.  Remember that this is just a draft as you read.

Writers and Perfomers

Sketch Comedy has a tradition of writer/performers developing sketch comedy, at least in the United States.  At Second City, sketches are developed through improvisation.

I think the reason that you see so much weak sketch is that the performers are actor/improvisers who also write.  They are focusing on their acting to “make it” in the entertainment business (especially in L.A.), and they are talented enough to do so.  The Groundlings, like The Second City, come from a tradition of developing their sketches through improvisation and that (improvisatio) is where you find the focus if you look at the classes the offer and the requirements to get into the program.  So the writers who don’t act get weeded out early.  This is totally understandable.  There’s much more money in acting than in writing.  And apparently, there are very few performers who are both great at acting/improvising and writing (Tina Fey, for example).

Also, there’s a difference between actors and writers.  Actors want to be up on stage.  Writers may be satsified writing for a small audience (self, internet).

What if there were a top notch live theatre sketch comedy troupe that hired the best performers to work with the best writers?  Saturday Night Live and MadTV both do that to an extent on television, but is there a place for that on a live stage at the level of Second City and The Groundlings?   Because essentially no one will be great at both.

Actually, the Second City Touring Companies basically do that.  TourCo members are great performers just a step away from making the main stage (or the etc stage).  They perform from the library of Second City’s almost 50 years of sketches.  Essentially, a best-of.  I think I heard from Ruby Streak’s podcast that the touring companies produce some new sketches, but most of the material is already well-tested.  Great sketches + great performers = great show.  I’ve seen two of the touring shows (two different Second City touring companies), and the “official” best-of show in Chicago (performed by a touring company), and all were EXCELLENT.  I’m very much looking foward to the touring company returning to Seattle in November to perform at the Moore.

By the way, I’m glad that the Second City mainstage show was excellent.  At least at the top levels, improviser-developed sketch comedy is good.

Perhaps the reason I see so much weak sketch is that I live in Seattle.  Seattle is probably one of the better places to be an amateur sketch comedian, but it’s not Chicago.  Chicago has a lot of well-trained sketch comedians and lots of sketch competition.  Seattle has some well-trained improvisers and some self-taught sketch comedians and cheapish theatre space and a decent amount of fringe theatre and not a whole lot of sketch competition.  I’m not saying we all suck here (I love Train of Thought), but the scene is just not as vibrant and it seems like weaker groups can survive longer because of the general lack of good sketch to show audiences how crappy the crap is (and to show the amateur sketch comedians what good sketch is).

Every Seattle sketch comedian who is interested in the craft of sketch comedy should want to see the Second City Touring Company when it is here in November.  I’d have a hard time respecting any sketch comedian who didn’t (want to see the show).  And I suggest every Seattle sketch comedian make an effort to see Sketchfest (coming in September) and the next Train of Thought show (whenever that is).

Anyway, I lost my train of thought.  Writers.  We lack good sketch comedy writers.  Maybe because writing good sketches is a lot harder than everyone thinks.

« Previous Page