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.
- Primary comedy comes from normal people around the character reacting normally (frustrated) to the unusual actions.
Premise: The who, what, and where (exposition) of a scene.
- Ex: A lawyer’s son wishes his dad can’t lie for an entire day. Who: lawyer and his son, what: lawyer can’t lie, where: undefined for this film example.
Premise sketch: Sketches where no particular character is funny, but rather the what and where call out some funny or unusual thing.
- Ex: What if all bananas were magnets.
- Primary comedy comes from people either struggling to understand this new reality or
Here are a few reasons I like premise sketches:
- New World, and World View. Usually, these sketches put a new twist on the real world and allow the audience to SEE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY. Film and visual media is usually about taking people to another world and encouraging people EXPLORE that world. Good premise sketches do that: What if the Terminator was sent back in time to protect Jesus. 24 is the highest number.
- No need for straight characters to be annoyed. A lot of comedy comes from watching normal characters REACT to the unusual character. Watch SNL and lots of their sketches CUT TO: Bobby Moynihan wide-eyed and shocked. Premise sketches allow for the characters to call out the funny thing without having to be annoying.
- Mocks a situation or systematic or sociological construct.
Here a list of character sketches (for reference below):
- Kristen Whig’s Penelope (one-upper)
- Michael McDonald’s Stewart (annoying man-child)
- Bobby Lee’s Tank (Pass!)
- Keegan-Michael Key’s Coach Hines (HS coach who gives 154%, even at non-sport things)
- Key & Peele’s Trayvon & Mike (annoying commentators on everything)
- Chris Farley’s Matt Foley (down-on-his-luck motivational speaker)
Here are reasons I don’t like character sketches:
- Annoying. Most characters are strong willed annoying people who interject themselves on people’s lives to create the comedic conflict. Penelope is so annoying I checked out when she started to annoy me. Stewart is also so obnoxious. And it took me a while for Matt Foley Motivational Speaker to grow on me, but Farley can be disturbingly aggressive.
- Punches Down. One rule of comedy (at least at UCB as stated by multiple instructors) is always Punch Up, not down. That means if you’re making fun of someone, as we often do in comedy, make fun of people in power. To mock those without power is despicable. For example, if you make fun of a homeless person, it’s not cool, but if you make fun of Trump for becoming homeless after being President, it’s cool. The key difference is that Trump has power and master-minded his own demise. In character sketches, you’re usually taking someone you know and heightening their flaw. Essentially, you’re creating highly flawed characters who (to avoid tragedy) are oblivious to their flaw and have no intent to correct that flaw. A lot of annoying or funny things people do comes from poor or less fortunate people who’ve given up on caring or have been damaged or misguided at some point in their life. Most characters end up being made fun of and they don’t have power.
- Flat or (un)predictable heightening. In character sketches, you can’t heighten to the point where you kill off your character because then you can’t create sequels. So usually heightening is the severity of people’s reactions usually to the point where people leave. No stakes are increased usually. Sometimes the heightening is overly predictable (like the TV gag in the Penelope sketch). Sometimes it’s good to have the audience feel like they could predict the heightening while still appreciating it because they feel involved in figuring out the sketch and feel it was set up, deliberate, and inevitable. Most of the time character sketches are unpredictable in a bad way (no expectations), or it’s overly predictable (and if you’re not on board with the annoyance) it’s draining and dry.
- More difficult to write if you’re not an actor since you need to define several things: strong POV (belief that drives the comedy, like All people are stupid), attire, lingo, mannerisms, how they never changed their quirk, how they respond to being called out for their quirk, etc.
- Justification driven. I noticed in writing/reading sketches that there is a style where the character does something annoying, then is called out on it, then justifies it from their unique pov of view allowing the audience to laugh on the action, the reaction (call out), AND the explanation (strange POV).
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.