The improv at the end was the best part.
https://ucbtheatre.com/performance/56252 Not Too Shabby (hosted by Holly Prazoff)
The improv at the end was the best part.
https://ucbtheatre.com/performance/56252 Not Too Shabby (hosted by Holly Prazoff)
August 22, 2017
I prefer premise sketches over character sketches for a ton of reasons.
First let me define the two types of sketches so you know the difference:
Character Sketch: Sketch where the comedy comes from a funny or unusual character with a strong point of view and everyone around them struggling to deal with them.
Premise: The who, what, and where (exposition) of a scene.
Premise sketch: Sketches where no particular character is funny, but rather the what and where call out some funny or unusual thing.
Here are a few reasons I like premise sketches:
Here a list of character sketches (for reference below):
Here are reasons I don’t like character sketches:
That said, it’s important to learn the skills of writing premise, character, and topical to create a solid “packet” for submitting to a sketch comedy show.
Here’s a list of notes to keep in mind when acting as a comedy actor:
… Even though I hate the name.
I sometimes call the show just “Sunny”, but when I say “I was watching Sunny last night,” it feels wrong. Why is the name so darn long? I’d always wondered, but never cared to find out. Perhaps my love of the title music distracted or blinded me. But I had seen every season of the show four times over before I was told where its name came from. Apparently, back when Rob McElhenny (and co.) shot the pilot for the FX pilot contest, the show was titled “It’s Always Sunny in Hollywood,” and the main characters were aspiring actors. Who else would have all the time in the world to screw up their lives? The idea was that Hollywood is fake. We’re given this illusion that there’s always sun in Hollywood, when really, it can be a really ugly place to live. The characters believed it too, despite their situation. The pilot (shot on home video, later re-shot for the show as “Charlie Has Cancer”) was a smash hit and FX picked it up. When they did, FX talked it over with Rob, and Rob changed the characters from aspiring actors to bar owners and moved the setting to Philadelphia. Hence, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. It wasn’t for another dozen episodes that I caught myself thinking about the title and I realized the title sequence for “It’s Always SUNNY in Philadelphia” is set entirely… at night. I had always been distracted by winter-Christmas feel and the sights of Philly I recognized from frequent (coincidentally) winter flights into the airport.
But I’m not here to explain the title or the origin of the show. I want to tell you how it became my favorite TV show (next to Malcolm in the Middle), and why I still love it.
…is that the show is LOUD. It’s the only show I can listen to on my phone over the noise of my morning shower. Much of the show is dialogue driven, like an improv show, so the jokes continue to land despite not having the visuals. Although I’ve seen it enough to know what I would see. Friends have said, “I can’t watch the show. It’s just a bunch of people yelling over each other.” If that’s not your cup of tea, maybe it’s not for you. But I like the fact that I don’t have to strain to hear the dialogue, and somehow, even with all the actors talking over each other, I can still hear everyone’s dialogue. That’s a testament to both the sound engineer, and the actors who are able to time their outrage on the fly.
But what’s the REAL key to Sunny’s success?
It’s passionate. The characters are passionate about their misadventures. They are completely committed to their bad ideas.
The characters are “yes” men. You can really see theater improv influences in the show: every character follows the “yes-and” rule – to their detriment (and our enjoyment). “Let’s sell gasoline door to door.” “That’s a great idea! We’ll rent a van.” / “We need to scare this Israeli landlord away.” “Let’s make a terrorist demands tape.” “Okay!”
It’s brilliant. In its own way. From episode 1, they nailed the sitcom formula. They’ll take a concept or theme like abortion, or racism, or saving the planet, and half of the characters will be passionately against it and the other half will be passionately for it. This allows them to explore both sides of the argument. Then they’ll both see the errors in their approach and in many episodes, the characters’ opinions will reverse. Just when you think one character settles into the other’s point of view, the other one switches sides… so they’ve settled nothing. It’s how they keep the characters in conflict, in a hilarious way.
What makes the show so funny? John Cleese said [Comedy isn’t watching someone doing something funny. Comedy is watching someone watch someone doing something stupid] (see our article on comedy). This is true. Sometimes it’s watching straight characters cope with the crazies. But after many viewings, I realized the core of Sunny’s humor is not just watching the characters do extremely foolish things, but watching these guys justify their actions. It’s as if they’re somewhat aware that their ideas may not make sense, but because they need to be sure of themselves, they convince the others of the merits of their bad idea – or at least they convince themselves. We get to watch these people perform mental gymnastics out loud. The actors and writers have a knack for pulling that sort of thing out in almost every scene. Perhaps the moment it became obvious to me was the house-party flyer scene (which turned out to look like a dick). Mac is reading the flyer out loud. “…Just a group of guys looking for other cool guys who want to have some fun at our party mansion. Again, nothing sexual. Underline.” Then Dennis says “I have NO problem with that.” As if to emphasize exactly what we’re all screaming in our heads: “How in the world do they NOT see how gay that sounds?!”
Why do I find it way funnier than Seinfeld? I mean the formula is the same: a group of really terrible people harping on the dumbest faux pas, finding humor in the little things. But where Seinfeld finds himself apathetic about most things, Sunny characters are passionate about everything. Sure George can get passionate (he’s actually the funniest character in the show), but Seinfeld (as George’s foil) neutralizes his passion by shrugging him off or by speaking in his boring, obnoxious voice, whining about or dismissing it. They just do things, which happen to be a little off or clearly the wrong approach. We laugh at the situational dissonance that they don’t notice their little social errors. But in Sunny, they do the wrong things… passionately. They don’t notice it either. But in Sunny, the artists call attention to it, and the characters justify it, and they push it beyond a comic happenstance (Seinfeld) to a hyperbolized cinematic event. At times, a spectacle. At best, Seinfeld is “haha funny”. Sunny is hilarious. It’s bursts of laughter back to back. The characters in Sunny aren’t foils to each other, but enablers. It’s “yes-and”, which lets things spiral out of control. If there were rational people in the group, if there were any “don’t”ers, things wouldn’t get as funny as they do.
Back to passion. I think this is key. It’s the same key to the success as Malcolm in the Middle. (And why Tom Cruise movies always have a draw). People want to watch a character who cares passionately about something. It doesn’t matter what it is. If the character cares passionately about something, we find ourselves doing the same. It’s why evangelist and charlatans get so many followers – they care passionately about the bullshit they’re selling, and even though they can’t substantiate any of it, they try to, or speak as if it’s fact, and most people can’t help but assume there’s something there. Most people aren’t sure about everything (or anything, or some things) that they do in life, so they are attracted to those who are sure about what they’re doing. We follow the people who know where they’re going… even if it’s the wrong direction! It sucks, but it’s true.
The characters are generally sure of themselves. Even though all the guys dig on Dee and shoot her down, she proceeds without them. Instead of being a Debbie downer, Dee usually goes ahead with her plans despite the guys, which actually makes her more admirable.
That’s the other key to the show’s charm. Each character persists DESPITE their situation. And they rarely give up (during the episode). It turns out they always give up or fail at the end of the episode, but only after all the comedic routes have been exhausted. And sometimes one character giving up happens at the worst possible moment for another character. (Like when Dennis gives up on being a politician just after Charlie sold his Cabbage Patch kids collection to keep him in the race!)
The characters are doers. Every episode pretty much begins with “Heyo!! Look what I’ve got”. It’s usually an answer to the standing question “What are we going to DO today.” The characters are always looking for something to DO. And that drive is actually admirable. Say what you will about the quality of their character, but these guys are doers. If they have a problem (usually with somebody) they DO something about it. Although usually, it’s the wrong thing! They’re fighters. The same is true with the kids in Malcolm in the Middle. But it can’t be said about the characters in Seinfeld; only, possibly, George.
The reveals. For a show with a low budget and single-cam, they have some well-timed visual gags. Like the hospital scene when Dennis and Dee have a long argument with their dad after he suddenly shows up in their lives after so many years apart. They expose some deep-rooted family issues, and Dennis and Dee storm off wishing never to see their dad again. Then… the camera pans over to Mac and Charlie who we now realize were watching the whole ordeal. Mac breaks the silence with “That was awkward.” They do it again in front the lawyer in one episode, and again when Mac, Dennis, and Charlie are arguing about whether the building they’re in has helicopter pad on the roof, and the conversation ends with “Let’s table the talk about the chopper on the roof, and hear the man out”, at which point the camera reveals a salesman was in the room the whole time, unable to stop them from rambling on and on in their own conversation. They really know how to set up a joke with a simple visual punchline (often times cued in by a character).
A light approach to social issues. There are some topics that they really go over the edge, but something about the characters is disarming, letting the audience cringe (and laugh) without being offended. It’s exemplary in the first season particularly as they explored some touchy subjects like racism, abortion, cancer, and religion. How do they get away with it?
Each character has a redeeming trait that actually makes us root for them, despite the absurdity. Some of it is that we acknowledge that at least Mac and Charlie are too dim-witted to understand their faults (or actions), but they are trying their hardest, so (like children) we don’t (or can’t) judge them. Dee is always the odd-(wo)man out; she is generally shot down, ignored, or bullied by the boys, making us pity her, but she persists despite her situation (a comic hero), which actually makes us respect her. And Dennis is a douche. We’re supposed to really hate him, but we root for him regardless. Why? Because he’s so sure of himself. Which we respect (as I mentioned above, about passion), and lends itself to a certain set of comedic situations. And because he’s a douche, we’re actually satisfied when he gets his comeuppance.
Why do they never give up? Because they also live in denial, which allows them to persist for so long without admitting defeat or failure, and it keeps them from getting down on themselves, and keeps us from judgment. Malcolm in the Middle walks that fine line too. Hal made it obvious in a Christmas episode: “Dad you’re living in denial.” “The only way I survive is by living in denial. Come on! If I were to let reality affect me, I would have quit after the third child!” Our heroes never mope about their circumstance. They do something about it, or deny it. Denial can be really funny… when you’re not the one living in it!
It’s ironic. They’re all faulty people making bad decisions, but because they’re passionate about their actions, and they justify their actions, and because they each persist despite their circumstances (a quality of a comic hero), we can enjoy their shenanigans without feeling overwhelmed with disgust or pity or judgment.
You’re here because you don’t know anything about screenwriting and want to get started ASAP and look like a pro. That’s exactly what I wanted too, one place to learn everything. This is your portal into screenwriting, TV writing, and sketch writing (forget stage format for now). Coming from a background in feature film writing, I’m going to start with feature.
The easiest way to get your script to LOOK like a script is to buy or download a script writing application. The industry standard is Final Draft, but it costs an arm and a rent, so I’ll recommend Celtx for now to get you started. You’ll soon bump up into the limits of Celtx and want to shell out for Final Draft. Until then, save your money. There’s also word templates.
The article below goes over all the formatting rules and tips and tricks for breaking them (don’t try the tricks while you’re still learning).
Here is a printable format that I’ve put on 5.5 x 8.5 paper, so you can print it out as a booklet (under page sizing & handling, there should be a booklet option). You can also print 2 per page (on a normal 8.5 x 11 letter size paper). [DOCX, PDF]
The second resource is a bunch of sites for downloading and reading screenplays (in the order that I remembered them).
PDFs can be dangerous if certain permissions are enabled in your PDF viewer (and the file is malevolent).
The sites above are clean as far as I can tell, and I think they try to keep it that way. They’ve been around for decades (literally, have you seen their page design?).
Something to consider in reading feature scripts are the different types of scripts out there.
There is a spec (speculation) script which is a script written on one’s own time and sold to the studios after completion. (See this article for great insight into Time-Risk as a gauge for costing effort and living life.)
These scripts are good to learn from because they have to be pitch perfect in order to be sold as is (or their concepts are so compelling (The Island) that the studio will buy it to adapt if for a particular talent).
Just for reference, WGA has minimum purchase prices for spec screenplays by major studios. Last I checked it’s around $70k. Non-studios will pay less. Some spec scripts will also get “optioned” for less, which is money paid to the writer to essentially stop them from selling to other companies for a limited amount of time while they decide if they want to put in all of the money to buy it out completely.
Then there are commissioned scripts where the writers are paid by the studio to write a script based on pitches and treatments (you don’t get paid as much as spec scripts). These don’t have to be as good (but still film-able) because the creators have a vested interest in already. Sometimes a particular talent might be attached so bad dialogue can be imagined better because Keanu Reeves is saying it. However, there is no guarantee those films will still get made.
Then there are shooting scripts, which are the final script that is used to breakdown and budget the film. As such all scene headings (slugs) are numbered. If you see scenes with numbers, it’s a shooting script. Don’t number your scenes ever or you’ll look like a rank amateur. When you see a script with numbers you know that’s what the script looked like before being filmed.
Colored pages indicate draft changes (revisions) after a shooting script is first printed. As a form of draft control, changes are both added to the first page with a date and indicated by printing on different colored pages. Instead of renumbering the whole script, changed pages will become blue, pink, red, etc. and new scenes will get new numbers with A or B or C added to the end. The Arrested Development script linked to below has an example of this at scene 25.
The Arrested Development Pilot is a great script to learn all the tricks of the trade for sketch writing, screenwriting, and TV writing. It’s a great example of what a single-cam TV script looks like. (Single-cam is a movie-production style show like 24, CSI, or Modern Family, while multi-cam is a stage style show, i.e. Friends, Seinfeld, 2 1/2 Men). The single-cam TV format is so similar to screenwriting, that it’s useful for feature screenwriting as well. Plus it’s fun to read and easy to compare to the final product.
It has good examples of the following (do note that it’s a shooting script which means there is some over direction of camera placement with tons of “cut to”s in stage direction):
For now I’ll put the Friends Pilot out there. It’s a good example of what the title page and character page look like as well as the format.
I highly recommend All Columns from the Wordplayer website. It’s written by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio, the screenwriters of Aladdin, Mask of Zorro, and Pirates 1, 2, & 3 who also ghost wrote (uncredited re-wrote) Men In Black.
The site is all content and no ads. They were paid by AOL to write the series back in the day (late 90s), and now share the content for free and update when they want to.
I idolize these writers and the amount of knowledge they pack into the columns.
Some YouTube channels make great video essays. One specifically for writing is Lessons from the Screenplay.
[internal links with more resources, under construction]
What is Improv?
I’ve begun to notice how to read people’s eyes.
For example, the eyes of Heath Ledger and Robin Williams have a bipolar wear-your-emotions-on-your sleeve feel. They also have the look of someone who’s always thinking, more specifically, looking the abyss of fear and despair. They are able to express on camera their own inner depression.
But when they’re playing happy, it’s usually overly happy and desperately happy, like they’re at their own monster’s ball (a party thrown by British corrections officers for a death row inmate the night before his execution). A happiness which they expect might be the last time they’re happy ever. A nostalgic happiness that recognizes the beauty of the moment, but worries that they’ll never see a moment as wonderful ever again.
There seems to be a signature look in depressed people’s eyes. A vacancy that’s looking at the loss in any situation.
On the other side. There are also winner’s eyes. Those of Tom Cruise, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. When you see Tom or Arnold smile, they’re genuine smiles of: “I’m the best and can conquer anything.” Contrasted to Heath’s or Robin’s, their smiles and comedic performances are usually overly animated and desperate. Arnold’s best comedy comes from the clash of context that comes from a man’s man (and winner) who tries to win at the most unexpected contexts. Like winning in kindergarten, or trying to look smart. It’s their arrogance and obliviousness to their weaknesses (coupled with their overwhelming and admirable confidence) that draws out the absurdity in situations.
From Facebook Post (June 4):
I don’t know what to say about Wonder Woman that hasn’t already been said but I’ll try: It made me cry. Wonder Woman gives you the feels the way many modern Pixar films try to do. It did it with a compelling story structure and hopeful idealism. It’s a film that I think will empower a generation of girls to become leaders of the free world. It’s a morality drama and thriller with action and comedy added to support the story. It’s extremely well written, it’s well directed, and does exactly what it set out to do.
If one were to define the word “crowdpleaser” it would undoubtedly be a link to Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Armageddon. It is the pinnacle of collaboration. With nearly a dozen writers (screenplay by, story by, and ghost writers/polishers), a huge ensemble of actors, a picture perfect cinematographer, a war horse director, a solid musical score, and a culturally sensational soundtrack (both oldies and the classic original song by Aerosmith), this film fires on all cylinders. It’s a visceral, emotional, and auditory roller coaster that always gives you the feels. From laugh out loud jokes, edge of your seat suspense, tear jerking finales, to triumphant nostalgia, this film has it all in all the right ratios and for all the right durations. In the spirit of its heroes, it was All Go, No Quit fun.
Logline Limbo (https://twitter.com/loglinelimbo) was created a while back to inspire us to keep making log lines – for bad, bad puns. “When Hollywood says no, we fast track it into production with one mantra on our minds: How low can we go?”
We did pretty well for about a month and a half:
When Satan releases Damien on the church, it’s up to Father Michael to slay the demon. “
#MassMurder“. Coming Soon.
Alone, they can be lethal. Get them together and they can take down countries. “
#ConnectFour“. Coming Soon.
A wordsmith’s life changes when the fruit industry is caught moving cocaine. “
#BananaGrams: The Movie.”
Holmes is hot on the trail of a theoretical physicist who kills using a 12-gage wire and a multidimensional formula
#StringTheory: The Movie
#revenge when a statistician gives thirty babies a plastic bag to play with. “#RiskOfSuffocation“. Coming Soon.
And although I didn’t post it until recently, I made it around the same time:
Only one secret agent can stop an arms maker with low tolerance and military precision.
But while the jokes stopped flowing, good ideas didn’t. In the mean time, we’ve been contemplating lots of movie ideas, but there is a difference between an idea and a plot. Between a plot and a story. Between story and a scene. Between a scene and a movie. How does one maintain a thread through all of it? One argument is to write to your log line. http://zigzorg.com/?p=1033
To that end, I wanted to write a few quick log lines for a handful of ideas that have been mulling about in my/our head. They are by no means polished, but a start and a reminder of the catalog of stories we’d like to pursue:
Loglines for Good Ideas
Teal and Orange – When an average Joe discovers the colors in his world have been reduced to teal and orange, Joe has to confront this next door neighbor who is responsible for this, with the help of an independent thinker down the hall. (Short movie idea)
World Champions – A group of NFL rejects find redemption when they’re recruited by a patriotic, albeit eccentric entrepreneur who has big plans for them in the FIFA World Cup.
Asterisk – When a billionaire plans to destroy the middle east with a shower of untraceable asteroids, one secret agent employs the help of the billionaire’s scorned ex-business partner who used to sell asteroid insurance.
Jurassic Park #? – A boy and his pet pygmy dinosaur are rejected in the community until they save the town from a derailed train carrying full-size dinosaurs sabotaged by dino-rights radicals.
Galaxy Quest 2 – When its discovered that the writers of the show can imagine things into existence, they are taken captive by a new alien threat, and the cast of Galaxy Quest must pull together to free the captives and save the universe.
The Rock 2 – Goodspeed must use the secrets he learned from the microfilm when he is released from prison to stop a group of radicals who took control of the Smithsonian archives.
Those on the List – When everyone on a mysterious list of names starts killing each other, they realize that one of them is a Shapeshifter.
Identity Crisis – An insecure scientist finally discovers the magic formula that lets him transform at will into anyone he dreams up, but when he tries to use it to enhance his larger-than-life girlfriend, she uses it to humiliate him by becoming him.
Beauty is on the Outside – When a graduate student unlocks the secret of shapeshifting, he learns that true love is more important than true beauty.
Manifestation – Hobbs has a plan of his own when he’s hired to manifest a living human being in the real world from a fabricated memory in the dream world.
Under the Bridge – David Willoughby takes the side of conspiracy theorists deliberately despite the scientific evidence he presents to refute them – to the point of absurdity. (web-series idea)
… MORE TO COME…