Archive for the 'Sketchwriting 101' Category

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.

Basic Sketch Structure: Good Samaritan

Let’s take a look at basic sketch structure.  One typical sketch structure will have five stages in the story:

1.  The Set Up
2.  Introducing the Conflict
3.  Exploring the Conflict
4.  Introducing the Solution
5.  The Resolution

So let’s take a look at this in the context of an example, from “That Mitchell and Webb Look” (watch before continuing):

Let’s talk about the elements of basic structure, using the sketch as an example:

1.  The Set Up

This is where the story begins.  Introduce the sketch.  Establish the CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective, Where) for the audience, and then establish a familiar, normal situation for the characters.

In the Example – Quickly, you can figure out the set up:  In ancient (biblical) times, a teacher (Jesus, played by Robert Webb) is telling the story of the Good Samaritan to a group.  CROW is quickly established by the set, costumes, positioning of the characters, and, at last (10 seconds in), the use of the term “Master” by a member of the (Jesus’s) audience.

2.  Introducing the Conflict

This is the point where a problem arises, the whole reason for the sketch.  During the set up, you told the audience what was going on, and this is the point where the sketch will get unusual.  Answer the question “What makes this day different from every other day?”.

In the Example – About 10 seconds in, they introduce the conflict, when one of the students (David Mitchell), wants to interrupt the story, and continues to try to interject until finally, at about 34 seconds, he stops Jesus to explain the conflict: the story is offensive because it implies Samaritans aren’t generally good.

3.  Exploring the Conflict

Now that we have a conflict, this is where it is explored.  Support the issue on all sides of the conflict, and see where the interaction takes the conflict.  Heighten the conflict.  Raise the emotional stakes.

In the Example – At about 46 seconds in, other students chime in supporting the problem the lead student has about the stereotypical view of Samaritans.  There is a little back and forth between the complaining student and Jesus, heightening the conflict.  At the end of the complaint, the main student accuses Jesus of racism.

4.  Introducing a Solution

This is where we work to end the sketch, right after the emotional climax.  Start working towards the resolution of the conflict by introducing a solution.  Introduce some minor conflicts because of the resolution, but remember that you are working towards ending the sketch.

In the Example – 1:24 Jesus attempts to defuse the situation, first clumsily (with objections from his audience) in a very familiar defusing-pc-objection way, and finally by backtracking to explain that the spirit of the story is what is important, despite the problems of the parable he tried to tell to illustrate the concept of goodness.

5.  The Resolution

This is where we end the sketch.  At the end of the sketch, the conflict is “resolved”.  This doesn’t mean it is solved, it just means that a solution was attempted.  The situation has changed, or it is pointed out that the solution has not changed (and that the characters will be continuing with the conflict).

In the Example – 2:02 Jesus has defused the situation with his speech but, in the end, nothing is really changed by the solution.  Jesus is revealed to be a bigot (when it comes to Samaritans), which the students had suspected (but Jesus had deflected).  Nice that they stuck in a little joke on which the sketch could end.
This is one of my favorite Mitchell & Webb sketches.  It takes a very well-known story (and better-known concept of a “Good Samaritan”), and revisits it with a modern sensibility (political correctness). I generally like sketches which do this. One of my favorite Kazoo! sketches sort of does this with the King Solomon baby story.  That sketch takes the familiar story of King Solomon figuring out who the mother of a disputed baby is by threatening to split the baby, and injects a modern realistic reaction (the women freak out and think Solomon is crazy for wanting to kill the baby).

I don’t want to say too much about other sketch elements of this sketch, because I want to focus on the basic element of sketch structure.  Maybe I’ll revisit this later to use as an example for other sketch comedy concepts.

What is Sketch Comedy?

I’m guessing that the vast majority of my blog audience already knows what a sketch is.  But for the minority…

Have you seen “Saturday Night Live”, “Mad TV”, or “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”?  If so, you’ve seen a lot of sketches, because those are examples of sketch comedy shows.

The typical sketch is a self-contained short comedic scripted scene (a prewritten story, acted out), 3-5 minutes long.
That it is short contrasts with comedic plays or situation comedy tv shows.
That it is scripted contrasts with improvisational comedy.
That it is acted out contrasts with stand-up comedy.
That it is comedic contrasts with crap (bad sketch comedy) and drama.

A more specific definition might talk about how this comedic story will have some sort of conflict between the characters, and the story will contain either a world with a twist, or characters with a twisted view.  Much comedy will come from the surprise that follows the logic of the comedic world or comedic characters, contrasting with the logic or norms of the real world.  In the end, the conflict is resolved, and there are more laughs.

There are many exceptions to this definition (blackouts, monologues, multipart sketches, callbacks, sketch tableaus, etc.), but don’t worry too much about it.  One of the lessons in any discipline is that you follow the rules until you’re good enough to know when to break them.

I’m not going to get into what makes for good sketch comedy here.  Like all art and entertainment, it is highly subjective.  On this site, though, I am coming from a writing perspective, so anything that does not depend on good writing, even if funny, might get overlooked.

Sketches, Skits, Scenes…
Do I care what you call it?  Not really.  Insiders say “sketches” (and sometimes “scenes”) 99.99% of the time.  Yes, I took an exhaustive poll of 5,000 sketch comedians and found only 5 didn’t. If sktech comedians said “skits”, I’d say “skits”.  But they don’t, so I don’t.  People who say “skits” when referring to sketch comedy just aren’t paying attention to the language of the community, but it doesn’t make my sketches any worse.