03 Apr 2014
basac's picture

As we approach the end of the latest series of Newsjack, you may be wondering what the point is, now, of a blog piece on comedy sketch writing.

The answer is that sketch writing is arguably one of the most important skills to learn when starting out in comedy. There are other shows on Radio 4 extra taking work from new and non-commissioned writers, and you need to know how to write sketches about anything, not just the news (although that helps).

And yet surprisingly, it's one of the few areas of comedy that has hardly been written about. I can state with reasonable confidence that in the next year, not one of you reading this now will get your screenplay commissioned by Hollywood, Bollywood or the National Lottery Film Fund, whereas some of you will have already received your first BBC cheque for writing on 'Newsjack'.

Even so there are dozens, maybe hundreds of books and blogs out there offering tons of advice on how to improve your screenplay, sell it for seven figures to a Hollywood mogul, get it made, and so on. But as far as I can tell, beyond a couple of basic BBC writersroom blogs there is nothing on how to write non-topical comedy sketches.

I had hopes that the new BBC ebook, ‘How To Write Radio Comedy’, would devote a substantial area to sketch writing. I searched in vain for an article about sketch writing, maybe I wasn't looking hard enough, but so far all I've found is a radio discussion about how to write them. So far I’ve listened to about 15 minutes of it and, much as I admire the writers chosen, I've yet to hear anything that discussed the basics of what you need to become a comedy sketch writer.

There is a reason for this lack of information, which is that there is actually very little you can say about sketch writing. I wrote a chapter on the subject in my book, and even much of that was given over to discussing the history of the sketch on the BBC plus my own tales of starting out on 'Week Ending'.

There aren’t that many rules to sketch writing, so for those of you who unbelievably still haven't read the book I will, briefly, describe them again here:

A sketch usually starts with a funny idea, which can be anything. Right now, even as you're reading this, someone somewhere in the world is asking a comedy writer 'where do you get your ideas from'? Let's not be too harsh on them (apart from the journalists, who should know better), it's actually only a polite rephrasing of 'how on earth did you come up with that?!' The greatest compliment a fellow professional can give you is to say of your work 'I wish I'd thought of that.'

In sketch terms, the idea usually begins with the question, 'What if...?' What if the man auditioning to play Tarzan only had one leg? What if the pet you'd been sold in the shop was already dead? What if World War 2 pilot banter was updated to South London street talk (as in the funniest Armstrong and Miller sketches, written by Simon Blackwell)?

It's not just restricted to sketches by the way. 'What if a woman falls for another woman who's actually disguised as a man?' is a major plot in 'Twelfth Night', and there's one of my favourite jokes in the world, ever, from Douglas Adams, 'What if the world was destroyed because it was in the way of an alien building project?'

As soon as you have your 'what if', you're ready to start writing. Sketches are one of the purest examples of how to tell a story using the three act structure. Most films, books and dramas follow this, which was first defined by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago.

In act one (the beginning), you set up a familiar place, or conversation. The audience have no visual clues and they need to know very quickly where we are, and who is talking. The supermarket, operating theatre, football match, pub, church. This needs to be short and simple. You can have jokes if you want but the main priority is to get to the first twist - the end of the first act, the first big laugh - around 15 to 20 seconds in.

This twist should then lead us into act two (the middle), during which complications ensue, and a string of jokes follow based on that twist. "You're not the only gay in the village." "Wha-a-a-t!". This section should be about a minute long, and packed with gags.

Finally, there needs to be a new twist at the end of these jokes which changes the tone of the script, takes us into act three (the end), and delivers the punchline.

Without being over-prescriptive, when you're starting out I would suggest that your sketches should be longer than a minute but shorter than two.

It really is that simple. Anyone can write a sketch. The problem is, you have to make it good. And funny.

They’re slippery customers, sketches – you think you’ve cracked it, the piece looks as funny as you think you can possibly make it, then you leave it, start working on another one, and by the time you come back to the original it seems to have lost 80% of the funny it had when you left it.

If you're creating a new sketch series (as I'm doing at the moment) you need to come up with dozens of consistently good and funny sketches, all around a particular theme.

A typical 30 minute sketch show will have 15-20 sketches, some very short and maybe one or two longer ones, but most coming in around that magic 2-3 minutes figure. I'm still at the stage with the new show where there are loads of ideas floating around, there is so much promise, and potential, it feels like I've got hours of material - but I know that much of it won't work, and I really want to know this script will deliver a rock-solid 30 minutes of funny sketch.

John Finnemore is the current undisputed king of radio comedy. Not only did he write, create and star in the brilliant sitcom  'Cabin Pressure', he has also written and starred in his own Radio 4 sketch show, which happens to be the best new radio sketch show in ages. As if that wasn't annoying enough, he's also an extremely nice bloke.

John's sketch shows are packed with great ideas, well executed and full of jokes. John says he hates writing, and the only conclusion I can draw from that is his sketches are so perfectly written and funny sounding that each one must take hours of painstaking work to perfect.

Sketches are incredibly hard work. Not harder than going down a coal mine, or teaching Spanish to 30 bored teenagers, but as hard as anything can be in the world of comedy writing.

And so they should be. Every sketch is like a mini comic movie. You need to think of each one as a self-contained story, and you need to take the audience on a journey, with loads of laughs and two very big surprises.

The single biggest problem I come across when I read sketch scripts is that they contain only one surprise. Your first 'What if' will only take you as far as the end of act two, you then need another surprise to twist your sketch around and drag you, hurtling as fast as possible, to the punchline before the audience have a chance to guess what it will be.

So many sketches I read begin well, have the germ of a funny idea, then fizzle out. And that includes the ones I'm currently writing myself.

We all know how hard it is to come up with a new show – we can’t all do it the other way round, as Jennifer Saunders did with Ab Fab, which began as a short sketch on French & Saunders.

And just as a sitcom won't work if you haven't thought your way through why the premise and every character should be funny, so if you haven't put in all the heavy work before you create your sketch it is more likely to fall apart just as you're reaching the conclusion.

And now I must get back to those new sketches, and search, desperately, for that second surprise.