15 1 / 2012
“Say we were all trapped in this classroom, and I had to prepare dinner and all I had was the stuff in that vending machine. And then say somehow I managed to put together something resembling a meal beyond what you normally eat out of a machine. You’d be tremendously impressed. Then say I invite you over to my home for dinner. You’d probably expect a nice home-cooked meal. If I served you an arrangement of vending machine food it wouldn’t fly.”
09 11 / 2011
You know what is neither cute nor charming? Responding to notes on your sketch with “Yeah, I wrote this in like, ten minutes an hour before class.” At best, it makes you look like you’re using being flaky as an excuse for shitty work. At worst, it looks like you don’t care. Why would you want to project that image? Knock it off.
07 10 / 2011
"Chris [Farley] was such a great weapon in the writers’ arsenal. If you were like writing a sketch and you got to page six and nothing was happening, you would just say, okay, “Farley enters.” I did that so many times in so many sketches. It was a trick that always worked and never failed, especially in read-through."
Former staff writer Tim Herlihy in Live From New York
Whenever I read this quote, I’m always like “WHY U WRITE 6-PAGE SKETCH?????”
Farley is entering TWO PAGES AFTER THE SKETCH SHOULD HAVE ENDED!
13 9 / 2011
It’s a near-inevitability that when I ask students for character sketches, at least one will be about a hipster character who:
- liked bands before they were cool
- are too cool to hang out with the straight man in the sketch
- does everything ironically
That’s it. There are no more characteristics. Here’s my question: do you actually know anyone who has these three (and only these three) traits? No? Then don’t make those the only traits of someone in a sketch. In real life, people are weird and wonderful in a million different ways. Sure, I know some hipsters (and, not to be the Jeff Foxworthy of Brooklyn, but if you’re taking sketch comedy classes? You might be a hipster) and sure, they are occasionally wearing ironic Jem and the Holograms tees, but they will be the first to admit that they’re unironically passionate about cooking or labor rights or hiking - if anything, admitting you’re a nerd about something is way more hipster-y than a constant pose of ironic detachment.
So why do people write these hipster sketches? When you’re starting out, there’s a certain sweaty need to please - you want your sketch to appeal to the most people possible, so why not go for an archetype that general society has agreed is funny? Here’s the thing, though: your generic hipster sketch will get gentle laughter throughout. People get it. It’s an archetype, even if it’s not a real thing. Your super-specific sketch, however, about the hipstery person who’s really into puppet theater and everything that implies (Vermont in general, offbeat protests, artisan bread), is going to KILL with half the audience. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have half the audience going nuts than the whole audience thinking something is mildly amusing.
30 8 / 2011
When you start writing comedy, it’s easy to get discouraged by notes, because, after all, a note means there’s room for improvement, which means you didn’t do it perfectly the first time. This is dumb: no one does anything perfectly the first two hundred times and usually not even then. Also, sketch isn’t an objective discipline, so it’s never going to be perfect. But most of all: notes help you get better. Other people have ideas and see things you don’t. They give you those things as a gift (which is really all notes are) and incorporating those things into your sketches isn’t cheating, it’s collaborating.
Here is a helpful way to put things in perspective: read some movie scripts from Daily Script or Tracking Board or whatever. These are pretty late drafts, usually just pre-shooting, which means they’ve already been through a TON of revisions. 99% of the time, the script will still be substantially different from the movie you know and love: key movie scenes won’t be in the script, characters’ motivations will adjust, etc. You know why? Notes. The writers (professional writers who were paid a shit ton of money for these scripts) got notes and those notes made the movie better.
09 8 / 2011
I have never seen any books about how to write sketch comedy, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any books that are helpful about writing sketch comedy. Here are a few I’m into:
- And Here’s The Kicker (Mike Sacks): In-depth interviews with comedy writers from Buck Henry to Bob Odenkirk. This absolutely made me think harder about comedy than I ever had before and is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read.
- Truth In Comedy (Del Close/Charna Halpern): Sure, it’s about improv and sure, you have to get past the AWFUL name-dropping and air of self-satisfaction, but the basic principles (playing to the top of your intelligence, etc.) are so important.
- Finishing The Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes (Stephen Sondheim) and Decoded (Jay-Z): Though both of these books are about music, all the thoughts on lyric writing apply just as much to sketch: less is more, content dictates form, keep it specific.
What am I missing?
04 8 / 2011
Instead of pretending there’s a million dollar prize for writing the best script ever, pretend your very life depends on proving that you suck. Pretend there are Nazi soldiers going door to door in your neighborhood, shooting all the good writers in the head. They just got to your door and they want you to see a sample of your work. If you give them any indication that you have the slightest bit of literary talent, or style, or knowledge of storytelling, you are going to die. Save your life by making them say, “not only is this guy not a good writer, he’s not even a writer.”
That’s called a first draft."
28 7 / 2011
19 7 / 2011
I would estimate that this happens at least once per class: someone brings in a sketch where, literally, the only unusual thing is that one of the characters is gay. Often, this happens during the anecdote exercise (“these guys got out of a car and I was intimidated, but then they turned out to be gay!” “I went on a date with this girl and she said her last relationship was with a woman!”), but I’ve seen commercial parodies, genre parodies, and, of course, character sketches that all rest on the belief that being gay is hilarious.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s not funny. And I don’t mean finger-wagging-scolding “that’s not funny,” I just mean it as a statement of fact. It’s not an unusual thing. People (and characters) can be gay and also have something unusual or interesting about them - then you have a character. Being gay is just a fact. When your sketch’s unusual thing is that a character is gay, it’s offensive, sure, but even more than that, it’s just hacky.