I would like to talk to you about sketches. But who am I to talk to you about anything? I assume you ask. Well, I would be the first to admit I am very much at the shallow end of my career, I am not someone with the experience of John Cleese or Spike Milligan, but I can match them pound for pound in aspiration. I am a comedy writer. I have written material for myself and other performers, I have written for professional and amateur stage shows, BBC radio, podcasts and more, but that being said you’ve almost certainly never heard me. So why have I taken it upon myself to talk to you about sketch writing? Well, mainly because there are NO good books about writing sketches. NOT ONE. Trust me, I’ve looked. So instead I am going to try tell you what I have picked up in the last ten years of non-commissioned comedy writing. I will warn you now, some of this is going to seem very personal to my tastes and a lot of it will be pretentious, but as a much better paid comedy writer than me once said “there is nothing funny about writing comedy”.
What should your sketch be about? Well, that’s always going to be a hard question, because your sketch can really be about anything. The thought of two people sitting in a gallery nattering about art doesn’t appeal to my writing sense much at all, but if you put that scenario in the hands of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s wise idiot and dumb idiot personas then it is comedy gold.
There are widely considered to be six classical sketch formats, but more often than not a good sketch is a combination of at least two of the following:
- Escalation: A small event gets out of control quickly. The finest example of this is the ‘dirty fork’ sketch from Monty Python.
- Lists: as the name would suggest this is where the bulk of the scene, or dialogue, is a list. Rowan Atkinson’s schoolmaster springs instantly to mind.
- Mad Man, Sane Man: this is possibly my own favourite, it’s like being stuck at a party where you are forced to talk to the maddest man in the world, and the only person who doesn’t know he’s mad is him.
- High Stakes: dangerous situations, high pressure jobs, people being caught having affairs, people feeding Frosties to real tigers.
- Funny Words: Clever language usage, unusual turns of phrase, excessive repetition, smug overuse of long words.
- Contrast: This can be contrast in scale, or time period, attitude (overreacting or under reacting).
Most sketches and jokes longer than a one-liner fall into the three act structure…
ACT ONE: THE SET UP
This is where the situation is established, preferably as quickly as possible. To speed things along in sketches shops have shop bells. Chefs wear hats. Waiters are French. This is just to set the scene quickly. You could call this stereotyping, but in sketch writing it tends to be called shorthand. And anyway stereotypes are fun to subvert.
So let’s create an example: a businessman is trying to board a plane but he is clearly very nervous…
ACT TWO: DEVELOPMENT
This is the main meat of the scene. So we have our fearful flyer and he doesn’t want to board the plane. We need to escalate this scene, so the man could meet the stewardess who tries to convince him to come on board with promises that everything is going to be alright ‘worst thing happen at sea’ and all that. She could start to beg a plead with the man to come on the flight, as it would delay everyone if they had to remove his bag from the hold, finally, she should get angry and challenge the man for booking the tickets in the first place…
ACT THREE: THE RESOLUTION
This is where the premise set up in the first act, in our case the man not wanting to board the flight, gets resolved. Now in our little scene we could have any number of endings, but the nervous man either needs to get on the flight or not.
The invention is how you do it; the stewardess could knock him on the head and drag him on board the plane quietly; she could try reverse psychology, like you would with a child, and the man finds himself arguing he wants to get on board. The stewardess, sick of his nonsense, could slam the door on him, inadvertently trapping his coat in the door so the plane takes off with him clinging to the outside for dear life…
I personally like a punchline that provides more information and makes you reassess the scene which came before it. So imagine if the second act of our hypothetical scene had the stewardess yelling “why have you even come here if you hate planes so much?”
And the man sheepishly replies “I had to, I’m the pilot.”
A somewhat hokey joke I must admit, but one that has a clearly defined beginning middle and end. The characters are set up, the joke developed and resolved.
There was an alarmingly annoying trend, not all that long ago, for not using punchlines as they were considered hack or too gaggy. Which is nonsense. Every story needs to resolved whether it’s a short silly one, or a long serious one. People would soon stop listening to your gags if they went:
And then just ended there.
Punchlines aren’t hack. They are just difficult to write.
I warned pretension was coming so here it is. . .
Sketches adhere to Aristotle’s three classic unities. Now, before you shout me down for being the pretentious ballbag that I am, please hear me out. . .
I was having a drink with a performer friend, and he, having read Poetics earlier that year, was trying to recall Aristotle’s “Classical unities” and after about an hour of brain racking we gave in and found them on someone’s phone. For those who are as unfamiliar with them as I was, here are the THREE RULES FOR DRAMA as laid down by Aristotle himself:
- The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.
- The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.
- The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.
Now, my Friend was using these “unities” to prove why Greek theatre is so painfully dull, and I have to admit he argued his case rather well. Then I got thinking, while I don’t think these rules necessarily have to apply to modern plays, I do tend to use all of these rules when writing sketches.
- The Unity of Action. Comedy sketches should always just have one plot or main gag. They can have little gags on the way (subplots) but anything too big distracts from the payoff.
- The Unity of Place. A good comedy sketch takes place in one location. This may just be personal taste on my part, but I find when a comedy sketch takes place over many locations, it quickly turns into a short film, rather than a gag, and as a result they never seem to know when to stop.
- The Unity of Time. A sketch is pretty much always a linear scene that takes place in real time.
Brevity is the soul if wit, and most producers wont read your sketch if it’s over four pages. So if you can cut anything out – do! Read through your script and after every line say “is this a gag?” or “is this setting something up?” if the answer is no, delete it.
A sketch really can be about anything, and as a personal campaigner for freedom of speech, saying a subject is off bounds just because its sensitive seems absurd. My advice is, though, the more sensitive the subject is, the better the joke has to be to warrant the effort. I often hear complaints about effs and c-bombs being used, when the real problem is the gag doesn’t really stand up. My personal feelings are the more grimy and taboo the subject you are dealing with, then the cleaner and more metaphorical the language should be. It just sugars the pill enough to stop people complaining while they swallow it, and it can be surprising how much you can get away with.
I am sure whilst reading this that the more comedy savvy amongst you would have found an exception to everything I have said. And ultimately if it is funny enough you can ignore everything. But it has to be genuinely funny. The only reason Monty Python got away with no punchlines was by being very funny without them. If you are not as good as Python, and not much is, give it an ending.