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.
Amen. I’d add the couple having sex sketch, where the man wants some weird fetish.
Totally worthy addition!
Some of the ones I hate are the “comedy” sketches that forget that they’re comedy halfway through and make a DEAD SERIOUS statement that the audience is supposed to applaud. And then there are the classic “White-people-doing-Black-people-things” sketches that were never funny to begin with.
Page = sage.
First – well done. Second – and not that I don’t agree with what you’ve written… but do you think your perspective is unique to comedy makers, not comedy audiences? Check it: While you, as a maker, might wish we’d stop making them, there’s clearly plenty of demand from the consumers for some of this stuff – there has to be a reason Jeff Foxworthy still gets work.
Time for a PROBABLY SOMEWHAT RELEVANT BUT MAYBE NOT analogy: I think if Alice Waters were to say “I wish we chefs would all stop serving Cobb Salads,” there would be a major revolt by middle-aged white people & those suffering from moldy cheese addictions – and that revolt would come in the form of making their own shitty redneck salads of GMO iceberg slathered in dairy products & bacon (nothing wrong with bacon), and those that aligned with Alice Waters would see less demand. That’s a perfectly respectable choice – but just understand there’s a tradeoff when you try to elevate the art form, because you’re inevitably leaving pieces of your audience behind. If you’re aspiring to be Alice Waters, you can’t jump straight to Mesclun greens served with heirloom tomato vinaigrette & crumbled non-GMO kale chips. It’s phony & people will know you don’t know what you’re doing while they choke on kale dust.
BUT AMEN FOR STOPPING THE ‘IT’S FUNNY CUZ THEY’RE GAY’ SKETCHES IN THE WRITER’S ROOM. Gay is not inherently funny. Only farts are inherently funny, as evidenced by the fact that Fart sketches escaped your commentary unscathed. Huzzah!
My perspective is 100% unique to comedy makers, yes. But I’d like to think that coming up with something more original than the scenarios mentioned wouldn’t leave the audience sad about there being fewer pearly gates sketches. I don’t think they would miss them. Particularly if they, instead, get something they haven’t seen before. That’s really part of what comedy is anyway – causing surprise without pain, fear or confusion. They’ll be more surprised by something new, than by something…not new.
I don’t know if I can get behind the Alice Waters comparison, because it sounds like going from one extreme to another, but this is really about expanding to all kinds of other scenarios. It’s about variety. And it doesn’t mean some sort of constant intellectual comedy that exists purely for the maker of it – it’s about everything in between. Just because something’s “low brow” or simple, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t mean it’s not smart. But there’s a difference between a well-executed physical bit of absurdity (example: Ministry of Silly Walks) and something that hasn’t been thought out by someone who knows what they’re doing (95% of YouTube).
I took my boyfriend to see Maria Bamford the other night, and after we left, he was just mind-blown because of her unique approach to comedy; her ability to do something you’d never seen before and make you laugh until comedy club tears were streaming down your cheeks. And it’s not like there were 5 of us there, golf-clapping for an abstract painting. The club was completely packed with people who couldn’t contain their joy. You can argue that there may be more people in the world who know who Jeff Foxworthy is, but it doesn’t make what Maria does any less fucking incredibly amazing. I’m not concerned about fame and popularity. Sure, selling tickets is great, but if I were just worried about what a Big Mac fan would want, I’d just do a bunch of musicals, which I hate, because more people have heard of “Oklahoma” than the things I choose to work on. And “Oklahoma” is just awful.
And I’m also speaking from the perspective of someone who watches a lot of sketches not get into shows. And the person who wrote it is sitting there wondering why no one is recognizing their brilliance. When presented with a big ‘ol stack of 60 sketches, let’s say, and 20 of them don’t seem fresh and new to you – you’re going to toss those sons-a-bitches out in favor of something you feel like you haven’t see before. Something that surprises you. And though, as I said, I speak from the perspective of a comedy maker as opposed to a comedy audience – those sketches still have to make us laugh in the room. If there are 12 people sitting around a table, and your sketch is read aloud, and it doesn’t get laughs? GUESS WHAT! It’s not gettin’ in. And it’s much harder to get a room full of people to lose their shit laughing at something they’ve seen over and over again. And as the makers it’s our job to put out the best possible product. There shouldn’t just be Big Macs and Alice Waters, there should be mission burritos, turkey cranberry sandwiches, chicken pot pies, vegetable samosas, pepperoni pizza – there should be a vast array of flavors. If we lived in a world of only Big Macs because everyone’s used to them, they probably wouldn’t taste very good.
I’m not worried about not catering to people who want to eat up the Big Mac comedy, they’ll always be able to find what they want. (95% of YouTube), they don’t need me. And this whole thing is just my opinion, of course, I’m not going to tell everyone what’s right and what’s wrong, but I will say what I have seen be more successful and what I look for in a sketch.
Good advice, Allison! I would add that sketch comedy writers are wise to avoid the “Bull in a China Shop” sketch, where a “whacky” character is thrown in a house/office/foxhole/church/brothel etc. with a bunch of normal people (which seems to be about 90% of comedy sketches ever written).
Yeah, this one really depends on the execution. It’s definitely a cornerstone, but you’ve either really got to make sure there’s something awesome happening there – or make it super, super short.
Not sure I agree; wacky character/normal setting is one of the foundations of sketch. Like 50% of sketches have this format. It’s the ones where you don’t *notice* it’s in that format is where it works. And the others, I agree, are dross.
Allison, Kengrobe, you are both certainly right. The “Wacky Character/Normal Setting” aways has and always will work in comedy sketches, as long as the writing is fresh and original. Perhaps instead of saying “avoid”, I should have said something to the effect that comedy writers need to take extra care to make sure they are really bringing something new to the table when they use this popular format. My comment came from my frustration of seeing so many writers (even entire sketch troupes) doing literally nothing but this format. I think it often comes from both laziness, and fast-talking “charismatic” actors who are more interested in themselves being funny than the sketch as a whole.