Recently I was helping out at a sketch comedy writing class, reading sketches and giving notes and feedback, and I was reminded how many of the same things we all do in the beginning. Well, maybe not all, but certainly a lot. Tons. A noticeable amount. When you first start writing sketches either in a class, for a show, or just huddled in your closet like a weirdo – it’s easy to get really excited because OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE SNL YOU GUYS, and then suddenly feel the crushing weight of “Oh God, I suddenly have no idea what’s funny anymore! What’s happening?! Where am I?! What year is it?!” but as any writer will tell you, the most important thing is just to write, and if it is the suckiest thing in the world, just toss it in the digital trash. At least you wrote something. But it’s also common to fall into something that’s too easy and come in with something that everyone has heard before, and isn’t likely to make it in to rehearsal. Particularly if you work in a large writers room where everyone’s churning out tons of sketches and only the best can survive. Here are some things I’ve seen a hundred times and don’t really need to see again:
THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE’S GAY – This little gem of a sketch usually has a weak premise and then at the end you either find out one character has been gay all along, or that – oh dear – EVERYONE’S GAY! Why people write it: Because it’s got surprise in it. Unexpected turns of event are big in comedy, so let’s lead everything to think the sketch is about something else…and then they’re all gay! That’s surprising! Why I hate it: It feels lazy. It feels like a cop-out. That, and it’s just sort of stupidly offensive. If it were written in 1952 I’m sure it would feel fresh to someone, but now it just seems like you haven’t been living in society, and you’re tossing pointless barbs at an entire group of people. (Particularly if you’re living in San Francisco, that sketch isn’t exactly going to get you a standing ovation, unless they’re also carrying pitchforks.)
THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE’S SITTING AT A DINNER TABLE – This isn’t to say that you can’t write something super awesome with a family sitting around a table, it definitely happens. But a big roadblock for a lot of beginners is that their characters aren’t doing anything. They’re just talking. Which is great for, I don’t know, a podcast, but if this is a live show we’re talking about – people are looking at the actors. Help create an engaging show by having some movement. Why people write it: family conflict is funny! They’re tossing barbs at each other! Why I hate it: I will say I don’t always hate this, but often enough it bores me to tears. It’s not Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So unless the characters are actually tossing barbs at each other, like physical barbs – it might not make for the best comedic situation. Again, it CAN, but it often doesn’t, especially if you’re new to the game. Give yourself a break and don’t try to be the Fyodor Dostoyevsky of comedy – at least not right away. People want to be entertained. Entertain them. You only have a few minutes, make them count.
THE ONE AT THE PEARLY GATES – Oh, look, it’s St. Peter! I guess we’re all dead and it’s hilarious Sketch at the Pearly Gates Time! Everybody wants to know what happens when we die, right? Well I’ve got the answer RIGHT HERE! Why people write it: Because it has the potential to be kooky and the afterlife is mysterious to everyone. Why I hate it: I’ve seen one of these that I actually loved, and easily a dozen that I loathed. It’s a tale as old as time, so making it feel fresh can be really difficult. There has to be something very unexpected in there to keep us all on our toes. If it doesn’t feel extremely original, it’s not likely to make the cut. (See also: the sketch taking place in hell. Same thing.)
THE ONE WHERE ALL THE WOMEN ARE PLAYED BY MEN – Look at this fancy dinner party full of sophisticated women – BUT WAIT – those aren’t women, those are women played by MEN! Look at their flowery blouses and silly wigs! Why people write it: Easy, almost guaranteed laughs. Why I hate it: Hey, Allison, if it gets laughs almost every time, why wouldn’t you like it? It’s just way too easy. It’s not based on anything you’ve written actually being funny, it’s just based on the fact that the actor on stage has a hairy chest and looks funny in a dress. Then there’s the secondary matter of it taking parts away from actual women, who are often underrepresented in sketch comedy already, if they’re not playing straight wives and mothers. I do think a well placed man-in-a-dress can be a funny addition to something, but it’s a one-note joke and if your sketch isn’t funny without that? Then it sounds like you may not have written a very good sketch. I believe Tina Fey touches on this topic in her book, Bossypants.
THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE IS PLAYING A LITTLE KID – Look at all these little kids at a slumber party! They’re so silly! Waaaiiiit a minute, those aren’t kids, those are kids played by adult actors! Why people write it: Because it’s silly and fun. Why I hate it: This one’s a little sticky for me. It has similarities to the “women played by men” sketch, in that it can be funny for everyone to be a little kid, but you can’t just rely on the actor wearing footie pjs to be so adorable that it carries the whole thing. You’ve still got to have some structure in there. There has to be something funny in it apart from the jammies and pig tails. What’s actually happening to make this a real sketch and not just people being cute? Is there an interesting juxtaposition there? This one can be done well, it just often times isn’t.
None of these sketches have 100% failure rates (Except maybe that first one. Blech.) they can be funny, but only if they’re original first. Comedy is subjective and this is only my opinion, but it’s based on being in the room with these sketches being read aloud, or performing them in front of lots of people. Or watching them get cut. There has to be something new about what you’re creating. Something exciting and different. Clearly people have been writing sketches for a long time, and it can definitely be a struggle to be original. At some point you’ll come up with something brilliant only to find it has absolutely already been done before. I had an idea for something last week, which someone immediately informed me had already been on South Park. It’s okay, that happens, but throwing out some of these more obvious premises might give way to something new and awesome, and is certainly more likely to get something you’ve written onto that damn stage.
Speaking of sketch comedy, Allison is toiling away in the Killing My Lobster writers’ room preparing for KML’s Winter Follies show, performing December 12th – 15th. Details at killingmylobster.com where you can also find out about our writing and acting classes.