I’ve worked on a few of those ‘anyone can send in a sketch’ type sketch shows. What I have discovered is anyone can send in a sketch – but not many people can write them. There’s an art to it, a bit like baking. Miss out a vital ingredient, or have it appear on BBC 3, and the whole thing becomes slightly tasteless and hard to stomach. Here are a few tips to make that perfect sketch soufflé, or make that sketch car run, depending on which metaphor I decide to go with.
It has to be about something
When bitching to other comedy writers about a terrible sketch seen on a show we all tried and failed to work on, the main phrase uttered is ‘what was that supposed to be about?’ Your sketch, even if it’s 15 seconds long, needs to exist in its own uniform world and possess a beginning, middle and an end. People need to be able to recognise where they are and what they’re looking at instantly. If they are staring at the screen thinking ‘wait, is that supposed to be a horse or a man in a horse suit?’ then they’ve missed most of the action and your career’s over. If it’s just a funny character in a wig running in and shouting something ridiculous, it will fall apart. Unless it’s a comment on sketches where funny characters in wigs run in and say something ridiculous. Like this:
You need characters
Comedy is about recognition and feeling smart. Audiences like to have that warm, buzzy feeling they get when they see something and think ‘I understand this!’ Credible characters are essential to this. Your characters have to be grounded in reality and consistent. Even if the focus of the sketch is someone doing something completely out of character, you need to know their substance to begin with. SCTV developed their characters to the point where Floyd Robinson, the fictional TV station’s newsreader also worked part time as ‘Count Floyd’ the host of Monster Chiller Theatre. They never actually told the audience this, but allowed the obsessive fans to work it out for themselves and consequently have their minds blown.
Think about details
There’s a story about Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live. There was a typical ‘first date’ sketch. The suitor comes to the front door, rings the bell and gives his date some flowers. Lorne told the prop guy to change the flowers for chocolates. Why? Because with flowers the audience will start thinking, ‘what is she going to do with those flowers? She’ll have to get a vase? She can’t just leave them there on the table, they need water or else they’ll die?’ Suddenly the audience is so focused on the flowers they forget about the sketch. So you change it. You have to think about those little things, you never know what’s going to derail something. Kids in the Hall didn’t even bother with the chocolates.
Keep it short
My main problem with sketches I don’t enjoy is inevitably the girth. People take a funny idea and smash it into your face over and over and over. Especially online, where getting value for your money and adding tons of extraneous crap appears to be more of a consideration. ‘Oh, it’s only 30 seconds long, that’s no good. How about we get them to say basically the same thing again in different ways for another four minutes’. No one feels cheated by a short sketch. Just bored by long ones. Get in, get out. Hack away anything unnecessary, even good jokes, if they don’t add to the scene. As The Fast Show constantly demonstrated.
Keep it simple
Remember, if a producer is faced with two sketches they like and can only use one, and one features two people in a room and the other is a seven-minute epic set in Arthurian times with special effects, then you’re never going to see that dragon. Save it for the radio. This Mr Show scene is probably in the top three of best sketches ever. Three dudes, a table and a chair.
Being a comedy nerd helps
The more you watch, the more you learn. It can be frustrating to witness an incredible moment of comedy, which you never would have thought up in a million years. But you need to think about what made it great and allow it to inspire you (once the murderous envious rage has subsided). You are going to look like a chump if you walk up to a group of fellow writers and say, ‘I just had this great idea about a sketch where three men in monkey suits mime along to a weird song’, only to hear, ‘What like Ernie Kovacs did in 1956? Nice ‘idea’ dickhead’.
Don’t act like a Wachowski brother/sister
If you’re filming your own sketches for the internet (and if you have any sense at all, and you’re in a position to, you should) keep it as unfussy as possible. A wide shot, proscenium style, is the best option. Unless you’re filming a Matrix parody, Matrix-style editing is distracting. Finding an editor who can cut comedy is as rare as finding the Holy Grail in a pile of unicorn shit. If you do discover one, I suggest marriage or a civil partnership. But even more important than that is the sound. Even if it’s the most hilarious sketch on earth and looks fantastic, if it sounds like shit, it is shit. This Fry and Laurie sketch is brilliant in its simplicity, the camera never moves.
Personally, I think all the best sketch shows have been created in a ‘writer’s room’ scenario, where the funnies are worked over by a group of people until they are at their best. Python did it, SNL does it, Mr Show did it. For some reason (money) that approach isn’t favoured in the UK. So run it by other writers or people you trust. Especially if you write alone. Mingling with comedy types is a healthy activity to undertake. Lots of great US sketch comedy emerged from live troupes and improv groups working their stuff out on stage before committing to it film. You can tell this Upright Citizens Brigade sketch had its root in a long-form improv, it’s such an insane idea, it would be hard to write.
Endings are hard
If, by some miracle, you think of a hilarious resolution to your comedy premise, then work backwards from there. But you won’t, because no one ever does and if you do, then I hate you. Python and Mr Show avoided this altogether by running the sketches together and linking them. Though, from what I understand, writing these ‘links’ was just as difficult as writing punchlines. Here, Python do both…
I’ve never been able to sell the best sketch I’ve ever written. It involves two people meeting, having a conversation, over the course of which you realise that they are both in heaven and the one character murdered the other, but is having difficulty remembering that. Hard to do it justice in this environment, but trust me, it’s brilliant. No one wants it. I’ve shown it to other writers, they agree it’s a thing of beauty. No one wants it. Who knows, maybe me and everyone I know in comedy has terrible taste and those comedy producers who were all runners and receptionists this time last year and are all correct. But it’s the kind of behaviour that turns comedy writers into some of the angriest, bitterest, depressed people on earth. You just have to keep writing. It’s like a disastrous love affair; at first the rejection hurts unbearably, but eventually it turns into a dull, repressed ache. Just keep writing and think about that vain-glorious BAFTA speech you’ll make, methodically naming all the people who didn’t believe in you. You’re going to get fucked – get used to it. Larry David and George Meyer barely got anything onto SNL and this is one of Charlie Kaufman’s few contributions to The Dana Carvey Show.