Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thoughts on sketch comedy

There's a lot of sketch comedy out there, and a lot of ideas on what makes sketch work. Even on our little platoon of sketch-warriors, you can see different schools of thought at work in our material. I thought I'd kick out some of the guiding principles I use when I'm working on a sketch.

I think I'm the only active performer in our group (Mr. Brownlee's recent leading role aside :). I do 2-4 live improv shows a month, varying from "Whose Line" type shows to full length improvised musicals and Quentin Tarantino homages. So I think I always have that feeling of making something work on stage when I work on pieces.

The sketches that I've always loved have always had a satirical edge to them - like Tina Fey's Sarah Palin sketches , Dave Chapelle's Ethnic Draft on the Chapelle show, Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks or Upper Class Twit of the Year (the Pythons were MASTERS of absurd satire). Satire to me isn't necessarily political, they just have a target, something to say. They also have a basis in some readily apparent truth. Mad TV never did much for me because their sketches always seemed to be about throwing the weirdest possible character into some situation, and letting the wackiness begin. In the end, the sketch didn't give us any food for thought, so our brains would toss it to make room for more important stuff. Every week when we get a topic, I look at it from the standpoint of "is there an aspect of this topic that I have a strong opinion about", and start from there. If nothing comes from the topic itself, I explode it out until I find something I have an opinion about - "3:34am" led me to thinking about torture tactics, "advertising" led me to thinking about car ads, the current state of the American automobile industry and how it got that way.

Once I have that I start thinking about the characters and relationships. I try to work on those at first more so than the narrative (plot) of the sketch. Creating a comic character, which is really just an exceptionally flawed human being, who breathes and reacts emotionally as he \ she tries to navigate through some situation generally leads me to plot points and actions more unique than I could find by sitting down and plotting things out. The relationship thing is definitely driven by my performer side - improv scenes that have a chance of going anywhere are always relationship driven. This is also where conflict, objectives (what the characters want) and obstacles (what stops them from getting it) comes from.

Sometimes there isn't an obvious relationship in a sketch - the car ad this week is a great example. But there is still a relationship, and objective, and an obstacle to be overcome with different tactics. The relationship in the car ad is bewteen the car companies and the viewing consumer. The car makers want people to buy, the consumer doesnt't want to because times are tough. Objectives and obstacles - we've got some drama...whooohooo! The relationship then comes in - the car makers are pissed at consumers (us), so they'll smack us with overwhleming Americana to make us feel heroic and patriotic, none of which has a damn thing to do with buying a car. The rest of the ad then becomes the car maker doing whatever they can to convince the consumer why they should go out and buy something despite the myriad reasons not too (fuel economy, image, technology, etc).

I try to avoid the "joke for the joke's sake"...I think sketches work best when the humor comes out of the situation and the charcaters, but sometimes there's a cheap gag you just can't pass up. Same with characters and plot points - sometimes there's one so juicy you just can't pass it up, and sometimes you regret it when you don't.

One thing I'm always working on is tightening scenes. As a performer, I like to give other performers the time to get emotionally invested, time to build tension, and a chance to act between the lines or play subtext. As a writer, it means I tend to create a lot of air by tossing in throwaway dialogue that I can do without. It's filler that might be okay for two improvisors trying to find a scene, but it should get whacked out for a tight sketch scene.

And I'm always working on clarifying my message, making my characters sharper (and more comically flawed), making their objectives clearer, the stakes higher, and the tactics more creative, and hopefully more active - it seems that, in my sketches at least, it can get awfully easy to let charcaters sit around and get talky.

There's a lot of philosphies about sketch (and comedy in general) out there, and all have merit. But this is what appeals to me, what stays with me after wacthing, and what makes me laugh. And I'll keep working at it until I perfect it (which, of course will be never).



Art/Trina said...

Being exposed to your blog through Chucks project has given me a greater appreciation for what it takes to get the laugh to me - no matter the medium. Cant profess to have a philosophy regarding what should be done, just have enjoyed seeing part of what it takes to get the sketch out there. Do so enjoy satire, and love the wackiness that comes from the likes of MadTv too. You never quite know how your audience will react to a piece, I presume to say that if its a piece your proud of - then you've done your part.

Ken Robertson said...

Legend has it that Edmund Gwenn, a famous British actor in the first half of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed if facing death was difficult. He replied:
"Dying is easy.....comedy is hard".

There's a lot of permutations, and a lot of moving parts, even in a short sketch, between the concept, characters, structure, etc. And that's before it ever gets to a performer. So you're absolutely right - you never fully know how an audience will react. But when you hear an audience laugh a deep, quality, authentic laugh, it feels worth every bit of juggling you went through to get there.