If you had asked me two days ago whether it was a good idea for a sketch show to include a 30-second video of a kitten riding on a roomba, I would have thought you were an idiot.  Of course not.  That’s stupid!

On Saturday, I saw Last Call Cleveland show a video of a kitten riding a roomba.  I loved it, and I loved them for putting it on.

The video is what it sounds like.  Kitten rides a roomba.  Sounds like one of the more boring vids from America’s Funniest Home Videos.  There is no writing.  There is no twist.  It is just cute.  In lesser hands, it is a video that DOES NOT BELONG ANYWHERE NEAR SKETCH COMEDY.

It worked.  It was brilliant.

I don’t want any other sketch troupe to look at that wildly successful bit and learn the wrong lessons from it.

Sketches do not exist in a vacuum.  What comes before affects a sketch, and what comes after is affected by a sketch.

In 2001 I performed at Seattle SketchFest as a part of the Pork Filled Players.  I performed a sketch that was mostly a monologue, where I told some disaster Christmas story.  I think it was written by Dave Kobayashi.  At SketchFest, it did pretty well.  Far better than average laughs.  I was pretty happy about that.

A week later, the Pork Filled Players opened the show Crouching Elves, Hidden Packages.  Many of the same sketches we’d used at SketchFest were in our show.  The laughs on this particular sketch largely disappeared!  What happened?  Where were my laughs?

The problem was our order had changed.  At SketchFest, this sketch followed what is probably the best sketch PFP has ever done, Emerald City Clinic.  It was definitely the highlight of our late 2001 performances.  Our reviewer from either the Stranger or Seattle Weekly hated our show except for that sketch.  My little monologue got to ride the clinic’s coattails.  The huge laughs from Emerald City Clinic put the audience into a good mood.  We won them over.  And so my monologue got a lot more laughs than it deserved.  And because of that, I was kind of unprepared for the lack of laughs in our final order.

Last night, I also saw a set from Seattle troupe Killer Donut.  I did not like their first sketch.  It was a sketch where the first two performers broke the fourth wall and told the audience they were doing something different, and established some rules.  Then, after a short start, a third performer entered and broke the previously established rules.  Then the first two performers pretended to break character, expressing mock outrage.  I hate it when sketch comedians pretend to break character to “argue” in a sketch, and perhaps many others disagree.  But it turned me off.  I did not laugh at their second sketch.  I started to laugh a little during their third sketch.  And when their set was over, I realized their second and third sketches weren’t bad.  They were actually pretty good.  But because they lost me with their first sketch, I was thinking “Pretending to break character is lame.  This group is lame.” And so it took two good sketches before I was at a point where I was ready to laugh at them.

Context matters.  Keeping an audience laughing is easier than getting the audience to laugh in the first place, and getting a hostile audience to laugh is quite difficult.  Obvious, right?

What makes Last Call Cleveland sketch comedy gods is that they blatantly put in something different, something that would be weak if taken out of context, and knew that it would work because what came before was so strong.  PFP accidentally had a weak sketch appear to be strong because of the greatness of Emerald City Clinic before it.

Maybe we could have put a 30-second video of a kitty riding a roomba after Emerald City Clinic.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 247 user reviews.

The 2010 edition of SketchFest Seattle ended yesterday, so I thought it might be a good time to try to revive this blog.  Plus, I’ve been thinking hard about getting back into sketch comedy, so the subject has been on my mind a bit lately.  Don’t know if I’ll have anything to say a month or two from now, but for the time being I’m full of opinions!

The Cody Rivers Show is something you ought to experience as soon as possible.  They’ll be in Seattle in November and December, and tickets are available at brown paper tickets.

Last Call Cleveland put on an awesome show.

Hey You Millionaires were great, as expected.

The quality of the rest of the groups was a mixture ranging from “good” to “so bad I wished I had the balls to just walk out of the theater”.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 171 user reviews.

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.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 172 user reviews.

Pete & Paula: Groundlings Ep3 – Three Stars!

I just heard the news:  Michaela Watkins has joined Saturday Night Live, and is debuting tomorrow night (11/15)!  I saw her perform in July with the Groundlings, and I really liked her Arianna Huffington.  So I decided I needed to rush out a review a video (featuring Michaela) I’d had on the backburner for a while.

I’ve recently become a big fan of Julia Nunes (not a sketch comedian), and the following video is listed as one of Julia’s favorites (watch!):

Like I said, three stars.

Effective framework.  Effective use of the rule of threes.  Effective use of escallation in the overall plot of the sketch.  Very effective use of surprise, especially in the third part of the sketch.  Effective use of contrast between the “on-camera” and “off-camera” energies.

The first take is a great food show restaurant review parody, with only a relatively slight exaggeration of reality (perhaps no exaggeration of some of the worst shows).  In the second take, they increase the energy and weirdness, and top it off with an inappropriate suprise that naturally comes off of Pete’s “kill” comment.  I want to emphasize how it arises naturally.  Too many bad sketches force surprises that come from nowhere.  In the third take, where Paula says they are going to “be more ourselves”, they increase the energy even more, and take the theme of “in love” (with the restaurant), and let Pete take that theme in a romantic context and really exaggerate a reaction.  Not only that, but they add details and take it to additional levels!  (Another problem with bad sketches is how they often only exaggerate to the next level, and don’t tke it any further)  OMG, violence against women CAN be funny!  And while their characters bring in the violence, they never forget that it is a restaurant review.  The entire sketch is an effective marriage between a normal food review show, increased energy, and surprise.

The end is very natural (and I liked the very last line).

Hmmm…  Maybe I’ll take this entry and redo it as an example of surprise and exaggeration.  But for now, it is just a video review to celebrate Michaela Watkins on SNL.  (Abby Elliott, Chris Elliott’s daughter, is also joining)

Note:  After my first review of a Groundlings video (and watching the second), I didn’t plan on watching any more.  Thanks to Julia Nunes, I gave this one a try, and I was quite happy with it.  The Groundlings ARE able to put on a well-crafted, funny sketch.  I’ve decided to use the youtube version, though, because I don’t like how Crackle.com immediately starts playing the following (possibly craptastic) “episode” of a video.  If you want to watch other Groundlings videos you can do it yourself.

Note 2: This is one of my favorite Julia Nunes videos, in case you care.

Pete & Paula: Groundlings Ep3 – Three Stars!

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 215 user reviews.

From Crackle: G.T.C.M.S. Season 1 Episode 1

This isn’t classified as sketch comedy on crackle.com, but this is very much a sketch. It’s a satire on weird Japanese tv shows (or the perception of them in the US). Plus, I know Kim Evey is a sketch comedian. She’s performed with Acme Comedy Theatre, and was on Seattle’s “Almost Live!”.

The sketch involves the general wackiness of a foreign show (with some familiarity because the US sometimes shows the wackiness of the weird Japanese tv shows), and interplay between the “eccentric” show (mostly Kiko, the host) and the grounded guest (Rick Pope in this episode).  Kiko keeps the energy of the show going by switching things up before the audience (actually, before Kiko) gets bored of the current bit.

Kiko is very appealing.  She is cute, friendly, confident, and enthusiastic about what she is doing.  She’s clueless, but in a culture clash sort of way (which makes it appear that the guest and we, the audience, are the ones who are clueless).  She’s also honest.  She’s not trying to make people look stupid and she’s not trying to be funny.  She’s trying to have a fun time with her show.  And she’s always upbeat and friendly no matter how her guest reacts to her antics.  Go watch the first episode, it’s worth a look.  Two stars.
The series, however, gets repetitive. The shows are kinda formulaic, putting different “normal” characters in Kiko’s show’s world. The first one was great, and the rest are usually good, but don’t watch them all in a row or you’ll really notice the sameness.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 213 user reviews.

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