21 Sep 2016
dave's picture

Welcome back, Newsjack. I’ve written before about sketch writing and I’m not going to stop saying it: if you want to make a living as a comedy writer this is the best place and the best way to start.
 
If you can master the skills of sketch writing you can, very quickly, build up credits on radio and possibly TV shows and become known as a comedy writer that producers will want to employ.
 
I’m making it sound easy, and of course the competition is enormous. But with no obvious signs of an increase in TV and radio sitcom commissioning, and the proliferation of performer-led comedy vehicles, sketches remain one of the few comedy staples of the last 50 years that are still in demand.
 
Over the years I’ve met many people who would like to become sitcom writers, but have turned their noses up at the idea of writing sketches. I point out that some of our top sitcom and movie writers, including Simon Pegg and Richard Curtis, began their careers writing sketches. Most of the ‘Veep’ team began their careers writing topical comedy sketches for a BBC Radio 4 show called ‘Week Ending’, which was the ‘Newsjack of its day. Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews were writing sketches for Alexei Sayle before ‘Father Ted’ appeared, and followed that with ‘Big Train’, possibly the most perfect TV sketch show ever.
 
What is a sketch? If a sitcom is the equivalent of a short play, then the sketch is a short story. These days it rarely lasts longer than two minutes (or at least if you’re starting out as a writer, it shouldn’t), but in that short time contains a tale with a beginning, a middle and an end. Some shows have recurring characters but the truly memorable sketches are usually one-offs.
 
The beginning lasts a few seconds and establishes where we are and who is talking. Then something happens, in comedy it’s often called the ‘what if’ moment (what if the pet shop owner who sold you that parrot was like a car mechanic? What if the hardware store owner misheard every request you made for items and kept bringing you the wrong thing?). It’s the moment that ends act one and begins act two, what we experts call ‘the middle’. The middle is a string of funny jokes that are a consequence of that moment. Three quarters of the way in something else happens, a second twist, and that sends us hurtling to the punchline and into a new sketch, before the current one can outstay its welcome. The end.
 
As with the short story, sketch comedy is a notoriously difficult form to pull off. I’ve read thousands of sketches by writers at every level, and there is invariably one problem that stands out. Many people can write funny ideas, their ‘what if’ moment can be hilarious, and the jokes that follow may all work, but it’s that second twist that is nearly always missing from a sketch. Many writers take the strongest joke from their middle section and try and pass that off as the punchline, but it’s never a second twist. ‘Monty Python’ and ‘The Fast Show’ are great examples of shows that made a point of ignoring the need for a punchline. You, new writer, don’t have that luxury.
 
If you want to be good at sketch writing you have to work really hard at it, and it may well take you longer to come up with that second twist than the whole of the rest of the sketch. Your reward will be that your sketches stand out above the competition. And if you write enough great sketches you will be asked to write sitcoms.
 
Indeed, sketches are remarkably similar in shape to scenes in sitcoms. Excluding the opening, your first moments in a new scene in your sitcom establish who is in it, and a reminder of the story that’s just happened. Watch classic old episodes of Seinfeld and often the first few seconds of the scene involve George and Jerry riffing almost musically on the punchline from the previous scene – “You took her to Schindler’s List?” “I took her to List” “You made out with her?” “I made out.”
 
You’ll be needing to move the story on and will need to  add a twist (the equivalent of your ‘what if’ moment), out of which will come the body of this scene, with lots of jokes that hopefully emerge from the character and the story. And if to keep that story moving, you’ll need another twist towards the end of that scene, it won’t even cross your mind to quit on your strongest act two joke. And of course every scene must end with a punchline.
 
But Dave, I hear you saying (well, I’ve been saying it to myself anyway), you’re 58 years old, what the hell do you know about the current state of young trendy sketch writing? It’s all changed now grandad, it’s all about deconstructing the format, and lots of sketch writing is created in improvisation by writer-performers.
 
There’s some truth in that, I was one of the founders of the Comedy Store Players, and twice a week you can still see the Players, most with decades of experience creating comedy out of audience suggestions, taking set-ups into weird and wonderful places, making great jokes along the way, and producing punchlines seemingly from nowhere.
 
One of the reasons I’ve been questioning myself about the form is because last year I worked with a group of well-meaning amateurs, all good performers who believed they could create a sketch show based entirely on improvisation, without the help of comedy writers (in other words, me).
 
The trouble is, improv audiences give live shows the kind of leeway you don’t have with written sketches, and however postmodern and 2016 you think your style, without those two twists and a punchline you have no sketch. It’s also worth remembering that one of the first sketch shows ever made in this country, ‘In All Directions’, created in the early 1950s, was partly improvised, by Peter Jones and Peter Ustinov.
 
Those giants of radio comedy writing, Denis Norden and Frank Muir, would come up with ideas for the two Peters, who would then improvise into a tape recorder. Frank and Denis would go away and fashion sketch ideas from those tapes, and return to the two Peters with almost fully-formed sketches based on the ideas, which the two Peters would then realise through further improvisation. Sorry kids, you think you’re ‘now’, but Norden and Muir beat you to it by 60 years.
 
That 1950s sketch show was as modern as any you’ll see and hear today. Conversely, some of the acts currently described as ‘subversive’ and ‘post-modern’ are creating extremely conventional sketch comedy. The other night I caught a radio sketch show by the latest young white male ex-Footlights sketch troupe being touted as the new kings of comedic deconstruction, The Pin (And before you moan at how life’s not fair and these Footlights types get all the breaks, be aware that they churn out loads of new stuff and have several hit Edinburgh shows under their belts).
 
While there was a fair amount of playing around with the form of radio (that reminded me of classic 80s radio sketch shows like ‘In One Ear’, ‘Son of Cliché’ and ‘The Burkiss Way’) some of the sketches could have been written or performed any time in the last 50 years by Mitchell & Webb, Fry & Laurie, Armstrong & Miller, Cook & Moore, any one of Pin’s many Footlights predecessors.
 
One sketch has probably been done by every student troupe a dozen times. It had the kind of ‘what if’ you can imagine being thrown out at any sketch writers’ meeting – Oscar Wilde was a man who stepped out around London during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, what if he had witnessed one?
 
A policeman opens the sketch, so Oscar Wilde, you’re the only witness who saw the murder, can you describe the man who did it? And with Oscar’s flowery reply we’re straight into act two, not bad we’re barely ten seconds in. Cue lots of jokes about Wilde not giving a straight answer but being eloquent and witty, big laughs along the way. Then, I’m delighted to say, a second twist, what a pleasure it was to come across that. I won’t repeat it because they never look as funny explained as when you hear them performed. And within a few seconds, a punchline and out. The sketch lasted less than two minutes.
 
Did I mention The Pin are currently working on a sitcom idea for the BBC? Instead of getting annoyed at another bunch of Oxbridge graduates dominating our radio and TV comedy, listen to all the effort that went into writing that 90 seconds of Oscar Wilde silliness, and make sure you’re working at least as hard as they are.
 
 New classes 'How to write sitcom' and 'make a living at comedy' - details on my home page davecohen.org.uk

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