Archive for September, 2008

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.

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.

Video Review: The Groundlings (1 star)

From Crackle: Groundlings: Tapped Episode 1

Originally, I gave this sketch zero stars.  Then I looked at it again, and upgraded it to one.

Original Look:

Awww, c’mon!  The Groundlings are supposed to be one of the best!  They are famous, have a long history, have a great list of alumni (Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Julia Sweeney, etc), and THIS is what they release as their first sketch on

On the other hand, I was recently disappointed by their live show, so perhaps I shouldn’t expect much from them.

Too long, very boring.  The premise is okay, I guess.  The twists are weak.  The ending is actually by-the-numbers decent, but not funny (perhaps only because the sketch isn’t funny).  Zero stars.


Second Look:

Okay, I took another look at this sketch.  The sketch has good structure and a good premise, but I still don’t like it.  I don’t know what to say about it except I don’t like it.  Maybe I don’t think the joke lines are particularly funny.  Maybe I don’t like that the kids on the phone buy into the reality of wiretaps too quickly (they don’t care enough, or at all, about their privacy).  I think one way I would have enjoyed it more is if someone (either the NSA guys or one of the kids to the other one) gave them a somewhat plausible reason why they should accept the wiretap.  I would have liked to have seen a stronger conflict between the NSA guys and the kids.  I would have liked to have seen a resolution that better reflected the conflict of the sketch, rather than the kids just hanging up.

What if, instead of the girl just hearing the NSA guys breathing, the kids suspected the NSA guys were still listening and tricked them into revealing themselves?
What if, in the end, the two kids somehow communicate that they should hang up (like a bad acting obvious “Oh, we should hang up!”), and don’t, and after they fake hang-up, the NSA guys start to talk, and “Ah-HA!”.
What if one of the characters (any of them) were especially smart, and tricked the opposing group into accepting their view?
Also, the description of the sketch when you mouse over the window is misleading. I think it would have been interesting to explore more the idea that the NSA guys are lonely and just want someone to talk to.
What if, instead of just trying to participate in the conversation, the NSA guys tried to take over the conversation more, complaining about their own lives (not the job part) as if they were lame college kids too? That could be a way they are drawn back into the conversation.
“I had like four long island iced teas” “Wow” did not make me laugh, and I don’t think that 4 drinks is a compelling enough reason to interject with “Wow” for the NSA guys. I would have suggested the girl say something way more outrageous to ellicit the “Wow” or maybe even “Oh my God!” from the NSA guys. I would have liked to have seen the NSA guys break their tone near the end of the sketch, even for a moment.
What if the NSA guys aren’t both essentially exactly the same? What if one were dumber than the other, or more willing to talk about gossip or girltalk? What if they had to argue about a certain point?
I’m not saying that my ideas are any good, just that this sketch is lacking, and I was searching for some ideas that might improve it. If I were giving notes on this sketch, I would look at the script to see where it could be tightened. I think there’s a portion in the middle where they don’t heighten enough, but I’m not sure.
Anyway, it does have a good premise, production value, and structure.  I’ll upgrade my review and give it ONE STAR.

Video Review: The Whitest Kids U Know (3 stars)

Warning: May be a little obscene

Two of my friends independently recommended to me “The Whitest Kids U Know”, so I decided to look them up.  This was the first video I randomly selected from YouTube, so this is the one I chose to review.

This is a good, funny sketch.  It’s a bit potty humor, but intelligently done potty humor (my absolute favorite kind).  Smart, even though it handles a topic that is usually only used in really stupid humor.

It has a fairly standard sketch structure, which I like.  The set up is good, the first turning point (the slow mime) is good, and even after the twist is introduced, they really push it well.  Great hightening throughout to the… climax.  This sketch also plays with the line of being too “adult”.  Lots of bad comedy just sees how far it can jump across the line, while this one takes something that is decently common (if NSWF), the miming of jacking off, and makes it much worse by modifying the action in a way that should be harmless, but isn’t.  An enthusiastic three stars!

Unfortunately, I watched more sketches from “The Whitest Kids U Know” and wasn’t impressed.  Lots of their sketches seem to suck, though some others are good.  I got lucky picking this one first.

Video Review: Professor Wikipedia (1 star)

See more funny videos and funny pictures at CollegeHumor.

Just another collegehumor video.

It had a good premise, and decent details to juxtapose a college class and wikipedia.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was particularly funny.  It made me smile when the wikipedia-ish elements entered the college class, but nothing made me laugh.  They did a good job of exploring the premise, but really didn’t have much of a conflict, so only one star.

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