a blog? I thought he was supposed to leave me wanting more?
How To Improve Your Comedy Writing
Man, sketch comedy is hard...
I have a friend / reader (I know - can you believe it?) who brought her daughter to this website for answers to the question: "How do you write a comedy sketch?"
Sadly, I'm just now getting into relaying my value (self-perceived, of course) to people after 17 years in comedy, so all she found in the blog section were my musings on Texas beaches, the disappearance of moms, and body hair in weird places.
In short, she found EVERYTHING SHE NEEDED for sketch comedy premises, but no direction in how to apply them toward actually writing the sketch.
And that is my aim here: to give you my two cents on writing comedy sketches. (Hopefully, you'll find those two cents worthy of inflation adjustment rather than Mexican currency conversion, but we won't know anything until we try. So, without further ado...)
The following information is based on a sketch I wrote called 'Profundity Phil.' It's available on my 'Samples' page for free - download it to follow along. Also, I lack any ability to track downloads, so don't worry: I'm not going to chase you down with emails or anything.
If you're reading this on a phone and can't download it, here's the gist of the sketch: An old steelworker becomes a sought-after guru - much to his chagrin, as he would rather just be left alone in his double-wide.
1.) JUMBO SHRIMP YOUR PREMISE
Oxymorons - ridiculous, contradicting juxtapositions - are your best friend when beginning your sketch comedy writing journey. Remember: it's sketch comedy, not sketch chemotherapy, so don't dive into that blank page taking yourself too seriously.
For me, the premise of the sketch is BY FAR the most difficult thing to write.
There are different schools of thought as to whether or not your premise should be believable, but my theory on that - after years of painstaking research and bombing on stage - is this:
Your premise needs to be whatever the hell it is that gets you writing.
If getting your juices flowing means writing a story about a jar of crunchy peanut butter's quest to resolve 'Smooth Privilege,' then by all means, write that sketch.
The point I'm trying to make here is that the premise for your sketch is the ONLY THING YOU DON'T OWE YOUR AUDIENCE. They owe it to you. Any audience worth their weight in stale nachos comes to see your show / troupe with an open mind. All they want to do is be entertained; they want to go, pay a cover charge (an up-front investment in you, by the way), sit, and - in the case of sketch comedy - laugh.
So I say just let your imagination wonder. Write about that conversation between the sheep and the farmer shearing him. Tell the page about the only guy in the world with a Five Sigma blackbelt. Describe to the reader a couples' divorce on Mars.
What do you think is going to happen? Some attorney specializing in Martian Family Law going to stand up during the show and yell, "NO ONE approaches the bench in a Martian family court! They don't even HAVE a bench! Pfft! [TO AUDIENCE] THIS guy..."
2.) ALL SKETCHES ARE COMPLETE STORIES
All of the elements of history's greatest novels (Straight Man, by Richard Russo) have a beginning, middle, and end; a protagonist, antagonist, something they're after. If they didn't have those things, the reader wouldn't care.
Writing sketch comedy is the same thing. You've got to have all those elements to grip your audience, or else they're taking a bathroom break. And you don't have the luxury of a 'Chapter 1' to do that, either. You've got to have that cleared up by the end of 'Page 1,' or, even better, by the middle of 'Page 1' because people watch comedy - especially sketch comedy - with about a 26-second attention span.
You've got about 1/2 to 1 page to get them interested in something about your sketch, be it the McGuffin (what your characters are all after), the premise, or the characters themselves. If you wait until 'Page 2' to drop your killer line about how camels love water but someone decided long ago they could go a month without it, your audience has checked out. They don't care, and why should they? Your sketch was about camels!
But fear not - with this insane demand to set everything up so quickly comes loads of artistic license. You can be brief (but detailed) in your opening scene, giving a background story if necessary.
'Profundity Phil' begins with a series of scenes and a song telling the story so that by the end of page one, he's in his double-wide. A hard man in a hard industry, by the time he's in his trailer, we know he's had a long life of bringing gentle truthfulness to others seeking guidance.
Pages 2-4 are, of course the meat of the sketch: the man coming to him for counsel and Phil's steelworker wisdom providing him a path toward personal achievement.
Once you've got the beginning down (the premise and the buildup), the body of the sketch is where you Abbot & Costello everything. Set-up, punch. Set-up, punch. Set-up, punch, punch, punch. Remember: as your story moves on, you're giving yourself more and more material for jokes and callbacks.
It can be physical humor, witty dialogue, the entrance of a random character, a combination of all three... it doesn't matter. Your job is to hammer your audience by packing these next few minutes with as many laughs as you can. The middle of your sketch is where that audience is going to get their money's worth, and that is the place you give it to them.
Now that all the hard work is done - all the laughs are in there and the dialogue is as tight as possible - you can end your sketch. And here's a little secret: if you've taken the time to craft a quick backstory and filled the middle of your sketch with solid comedy, how you end your sketch doesn't really matter.
Take one of my favorite sketches of all time, 'More Cowbell' on SNL. Even today, I still laugh out loud at the dialogue and Will Farrell's commitment to hitting that damn cowbell as hard and as effectively as he can. I mean, the dude is SWEATING at the end of the sketch! They've all got great lines, the performance is amazing, the body of the sketch is packed with laughs and the ending is... a memorial to Gene Frenkle?
What kind of long story-like denouement and closure is that? It's not! It's just you get completely sucked in to an awesome sketch that ends with a nonsensical and unpredictable ending. Yes, it's the ultimate rug-pull, but that's not the point:
The point is, Will Ferrell and Donnell Campbell (the writers) essentially said, "Meh. We're done," and nobody complained. Why? Because they built the premise quickly and absolutely destroyed the middle pages of that sketch.
3.) TABLE READ THE THING
For those of you not familiar with the term, a 'Table Read' is when a group of actors (or, in sketch comedy, 'Players') sit around a table and read your entire script from beginning to end. Unless you're writing for SNL or 'The Upright Citizens Brigade,' you're probably limited on funds and can't get one actor for each role.
No biggie. Just get who you can, and divide up the work: one reads female voices, the other reads the male voices, and you, dear writer, read the action and direction. And if you can, always record the table read for future rewrites (and there will be rewrites).
Table reads are invaluable because they let you actually HEAR your sketch. Writing jokes is fun, but when you hear them, you play the role of the audience, getting the chance to decide if that hobo's story is funny... or maybe just a little too sad to get laughs. After all, riding in a train car with a desk/bed/chair made of hay can only be so funny until an audience realizes, "Hey. Dude's a meth addict. Enough already."
The table read is fun and - as long as you can provide coffee and some snacks - cheap. If you're already part of a sketch troupe, they HAVE to do this for you. But if you're not, you can find any friend or comic on craigslist to come do the read for $10-$20 (or, better, for free so they can get community service hours credited toward their 'Possession' charge).
Immediately after the table read, listen / watch the read again, making note of anything you meant to say or notice. While still fresh in your head, you'll be able to make adjustments to timing and structure, and you'll be able to note ad-libs that may have gotten thrown in there.
Then wait 24 hours, listen again to that recording, and ask yourself, "Is this even funny?" Are the actors laughing? Are you laughing? Were all the laughs coming from the ad-libs or from your structured material?
And be brutal. It's hard to be objective about your sketch comedy writing abilities, but you have to be. One, your sketch has to be as funny as it can possibly be to keep the audience's attention. But you already know that.
You want to be brutal because - and I don't want to spoil the ending here - you will never be completely satisfied with the final product.
You just won't be. Right up until the very second your sketch's production takes place, you'll be wondering if that character should have said something else, if that couch should have been in the scene, or even if you should have just gone to grad school because the pain of hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt pales in comparison to the pain of not being funny.
At any rate, early objectivity and brutality hardens you up so that when your sketch sees production, you can be focusing on the next one. Once production has started, you have to be detached from the script, or else you'll hang on every word and want to change the past. That's self-defeating, demoralizing, and exactly what carries over into your next sketch-writing effort that will fail miserably.
Just write. Write, write, write, write, write. When in doubt: write. When When humled: write. When confident: write. (And write me about what that feels like.)
Creativity is your job, so don't be that writer who only writes when inspired. Approach it like it's work, because it is. And don't be afraid to build on ideas you may be afraid of, either. There are no taboos in comedy... so long as your skills can take them on with hilarity and objectivity. So if you want to write about [INSERT TABOO HERE], then by all means do so. Just be sure that you've got the comedy chops to bring genuine laughs at it.
So get out there, think of something - anything - to get on paper, and punch it up with a tireless dedication toward making this world a better place.
Because you are.
I'm Nick. I've never been afraid of getting in over my head, and I've survived every resulting injury from doing so. Played college football in the SEC while running a 5.1 forty at 200lbs, got booed off stage in front of 1,000 people at a 'Latino Laff Nite (I'm not Latino),' rolled with BJJ Black Belts, and got TKO'd by a Golden Gloves boxing champion during a fundraiser for MDA. The closest I ever got to being a real man was when my mom cut me off on the way to the Marine Recruiter's office - in the parking lot.