John Hopkins on sketch writing
There’s so much you could write on this, and there are so many different types of formats that require different types of sketch but from the point of view of someone who occasionally receives script submissions as a director (and as a writer/performer) then here are some thoughts if you’re trying to write sketches. Firstly there are NO hard and fast rules. Everything I say here will have an exception. So read on with cynicism.
People will loftily say “all films, novels and plays have a beginning, a middle and an end, THEREFORE so should all sketches or skits” They’ll say ‘Hmmmm, Aristotle explained this in The Poetics, which I’ve read don’t you know, and it still holds true today. A story is set up, complications follow, then it is resolved: the three act structure. Aristotle blah blah blah.
Now as a writer I’ve read ALL of Aristotle’s work and although she was quite clever, she wasn’t a sketch writer and she didn’t work in the mediums we have today. (IN fact I don’t think she even had a TV, never tasted a latte is or understood the importance of thick black-rimmed media spectacles when writing.) This beginning middle and end thing is a very handy tip for longer form formats but sketch is not at all rigorously fixed to this. Its great when you can achieve this of course BUT sketch can be much more abstract. One reason, and a good one, is that sketch is short form: the performance itself; a good character just appearing in a scene; expectation not fulfilled; (a million things), can often negate the need for this kind of classical structure, Sketches can fade out, blow up or be one line if the character is good enough and the situation right.
The best sketch writers are or were often performers themselves and innately understand this. There can be no resolution. Think about python 40 years ago. They showed you don’t need resolve a sketch. They would just walk out of one sketch into another if they didn’t have a good out. It created a sense of something higher than the sketches themselves and added to the whole of the show. Of course it was really surprising then because they were breaking that rule and perhaps now one has to work harder but can be still thrilling and heighten the comedy if done properly.
Remember though, people are very ‘alternative’ comedy literate these days and Monty Python was breaking the rules then. Irreverence towards structure is almost expected these days but it can still be powerful. (As you can see, it’s hard writing about the rules of comedy cos there are always exceptions.) The point is if in your sketch, the jokes build and build and then you find they start to lose momentum sometimes its better to get out and move on in an inventive way (like the Pythons did). It can be quite refreshing and a relief, (although try to avoid the classic “so then he/she pulls out a gun and shoots him” cliché. , Being left hanging if you weren’t expecting it can be surprising and funny and more satisfying than some stodgy, over worked punch line. A sketch can very often be a just a beat in the whole rhythm of a bigger thing/show: A cog, a moment, in a bigger picture. If you’re writing for a show especially, remember the big picture. It can be about just a flavour at the right moment, a diversion etc.
This rule that our Aristotle loving friends quote overlooks surrealism. A sketch can be as simple as a good photo in the right place, remember “The Larch” voiceover over a photo of a Larch Tree in Monty Python. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that as a kid it blew my mind, So a sketch can be a suggestion, moments, an essence, feeling. If the moment is right it will be funny. Comedy can be a very ephemeral thing, jazzy and… oh God…. you know what I mean.
One note on surrealism – as comedy is often the art of surprise surrealist comedy can scupper itself if it doesn’t start with, or come from a place that has at least a toe in reality. How can you surprise people if you start with the premise that ANYTHING can happen?
Another good tip I can think of is that situation generally comes second to character. A performer likes to get into a good character, a producer can see development and returnability (horrible TV word) with a character and in general the best and most surprising comedy comes out of character itself. So develop a good, rounded, funny character and you’ll find endless scenarios to dump him or her (or it) into. Plus, cynically looking ahead, if a TV show likes it you’ll get a sketch per episode as the character reappears and even grows through a series, which means more cash.
Of course again there are exceptions and a good visual, one-off joke can be great. However fuelling a constant output of visual jokes (that last more than a few seconds) is hard. Also these types of jokes can be placed in scenes with a good character whose reactions to that situation will make the set up and punch funnier.
However The Fast Show, although full of brilliantly realised characters, is full of exceptions to rules, for example they often used the comedy of expectation, i.e. you knew what was going to happen but nonetheless you looked forward to it and found it funny. Charlie Higson’s Artist character is an example of this. He would be triggered by the word ‘black’ and, like the audience, his wife was anticipating it too which added to the tension. The moment the camera alighted on Higsons character you were looking forward to him kicking off.
Regarding length – if the sketch sustains keep it going but know when to get out. Online you’ll be hard pushed to keep viewers watching for anything more than around a minute and a half – unless your material is really sizzling along. So very often short is good. Somebody terribly witty once said something like “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have time.” Work hard to keep it short. It’s a sketch. Cut out the flab. But then again have confidence in your comedy. If you really believe it sustains go for it. Comedy without confidence is normally uneasy and doesn’t work.
Most of us have been to a gig where the beginner is so nervous the audience can’t relax and enjoy their material. So, as a writer, be confident. You learn the hard way anyway, live on or online, because you’ll see the response. People will laugh in the room, buy your sketch, or share online. That simplicity is the great thing about comedy: its funny or it isn’t. (Like horror – it’s scary or it isn’t. They are similar reflexes and, as an aside, often good comedy writers find they can write good horrors and vice versa.)
Just to underline again that these are not rules they are just thoughts and I should point out that there are loads of exceptions to the keep it short rule. Some jokes are all about the just keeping it going. Persistence jokes. They are funny at first they, then they start to fade out and then through persistence or repetition over a period of time they become even funnier. These are often written by performers because it’s generally about reading an audience and timing to make it work.
Whether you are submitting written sketches or posting one online that you’ve already shot and edited, whatever you do avoid writing the punch line or the main character trait in the title. This may sound obvious but it happens a lot and there’s nothing more annoying than knowing what’s going to happen before you start reading or watching.
As I said comedy is often about surprise so if you write for example ‘Falls Down a Hole Man’, at the top of your page and that’s your joke, then you’ve given away your punch line. Not only do you know what’s going to happen so the joke is ruined but a title with ‘MAN does X’ or ‘WOMAN does Y’ usually indicates that whatever is about to happens to MAN or WOMAN it’s about to happen to a generic character. If you’re calling any character in a script “man” or “woman” – you’re probably being lazy and missing an opportunity for comedy by not realising your characters properly.
What can really help, and make the process much more fun, is collaborating. Many great writers and comedians work in teams. There are a million reasons why finding a writing partner, for sketch comedy particular, is a great way forward. Ideas tend to get read out as they’re written, get pushed further, and filtered. Plus you have an immediate, if small, audience in your collaborator. I would also add that if you’re writing sketch comedy go see lots of it and best of all try doing some of your own material.
TIMING in writing is hard to convey on paper. The brilliantly funny Tony Law once joked: “Reading is great. Unless you’re a really bad actor in your head.” Make it easy with brief concise descriptions and write in “A BEAT” if the dialogue needs to take a beat to help the reader/audience work it out in his or her head.
That’s all for now,