Sketch Writing 101

Becoming a professional writer does not start with talent. It starts with the right mentality. There are several schools which will teach you Hard Skills of sketch writing, but none will teach you these Soft Skills (though some allude to soft skills in class in passing). Soft Skills are inter-personal and intra-personal skills/habits/traits/behaviors. I argue that to be successful, you need to master the soft skills and the hard skills. Some people are born with the right attitudes and soft skills or pick them up from their parents. Most don’t. You will need to change yourself if you don’t have them.

Here’s a bullet point list of my soft skills and hard skills, followed by a Glossary of Sketch Writing and Comedy Writing.

Soft Skills

Your real key to success is mastering your interpersonal skills (aka Soft Skills). Winning friends and “earning” opportunities from taste makers. Also mastering your mental fortitude.

  • Your At-Home Goals:
    • Your goal is to create consistently good works, not greatness. Production companies and Writer’s Rooms don’t need viral, they need airable. That means you need to prioritize the following in the order given at-home:
    • Produce Pages.
    • Produce Workable Pages.
    • Come with ideas. Have lists of ideas, inspirations, pitches.
    • Study. Analyze your works and others.
  • Your only In-Class Goal:
    • Be a “Good Collaborator“. Not to be funny. Not to be smart. Not to appear funny. Not to appear smart.
  • Three parts of your In-Class Performance:
    • [Internal] Motivation (goals)
    • [External] Reactions to comments
    • [External] Pitching comments
  • [1] Your In-Class Goal is to be a Good Collaborator:
    • Your only goal as a writer is to write a first draft (vomit pass) of the sketch. From there, you’re a collaborator.
    • Provide positive feedback
    • Be someone others want to be around.
    • Praise others’ works (be like Brent)
    • Be “likeable”: be humble, be “nice”, be a yes-man
    • Don’t be a burden: Don’t require positive feedback, don’t complain (which implies to other they need to be negative or encourage you). Do your work.
    • Always help others.
    • Make your collaborators feel great about themselves. This will make you feel good about yourself.
  • [2] How to React:
    • Identity with your motivation: to be a good collaborator. Don’t identify with your fears: of failure, not being funny, what you don’t know, etc.
    • Always smile and be having fun.
    • Never turn angry, if you do, mock yourself afterwards.
    • Take notes with a smile and act confidently (like Seth Meyers, John Mulaney, Colin Jost) not arrogantly (like Steven Colbert).
    • Don’t defend your sketch or your ideas, ask questions if you’re not sure what the note is about.
    • Agree with the notes.
    • Make your superior feels great about themselves. This will get you promotion opportunities.
    • Your teacher is not an expert, but you should still take their advice. Don’t read-into their bad IMDB credits (or lack thereof). 
    • Don’t let your teacher’s negative attitude affect you.
    • Don’t mirror their annoying traits back to them.
    • You can’t change others, only yourself.
    • White lies are absolutely necessary.
  • [3] Giving Notes:
    • Remember two genres of funny: silly and structured. Many novices are all about the silly. Recognize that so you don’t say, “it’s stupid”.
    • Always be positive. Never be negative, even if they suck.
    • Focus on your feelings, and don’t say things in absolutes or state your opinions as facts.
    • Ask questions or ask leading questions rather than give advice. ex: what’s the game?
    • Pitch beats, do not expect them. Don’t say “you should”, instead try “how about” or “what if”.
    • Don’t preface your story pitch with a qualifier. Pitch it with energy and like you believe in/are proud of it.
    • Never appear like the smartest man in the room. (comes from all major writers I’ve heard from: Brent Forrester, Mike Judge, Conan O’Brien).

Hard Skills:

At-Home Writing:

  1. Create and Evaluate separately. Creativity comes from a lack of criticism.
  2. Creativity comes from Lists. Brainstorm 10 ideas to get one workable one.
  3. Write “the funny” (your game) as a sentence before you write your outline.
  4. Outline your sketch. List your beats before you write.
  5. Your outline ending can be different than your final ending.
  6. A satisfying ending is a twist, reveal, comedic irony, and/or callback. Comedic irony: in attempt to get something the protagonist gets the opposite.

Glossary Of Comedy

Questions to ask about your sketch:

  1. premise or character? premise sketch — the situation is funny, rather than one character. Both characters can be totally normal people doing something weird. ex: argument clinic. | character sketch — one character is funny/weird
  2. crazy character vs normal world? or normal character vs crazy world (or world of same-type of crazy characters).
    • Peas in a Pod: UCB Sketch phrase where the two protagonists have the same comedic perspective. Therefore, they must be in a world that challenges that comic perspective.
  3. behavior or exaggerated? behavior comedy: normal people projecting one image of themselves but coming across as the opposite. lying can also be behavior comedy. naturalistic in nature. exaggerated comedy: not grounded in reality and benefits from classic jokes and gags, animation style of comedy: The Simpsons, Always Sunny.
  4. who can be your straight character: “it’s not funny to watch someone be weird. it’s funny to watch someone watch someone be weird.” — John Cleese.
  5. X struggles with Y. Often the “Straight Character” is the “normal” character whose role in the sketch can be phrased “X struggles with Y’s crazy behaviors/beliefs.”
  6. reaction beats: are you showing some character react off the weird to give the audience a moment to laugh?
  7. inconvenience, obstacle, or conflict. is the situation a true conflict? if the normal person can walk out, it’ll feel forced. if your normal char needs something from the weird person, it’s conflict.
  8. opposites: what are the opposites of your funny?
  9. dichotomies: sacred/profane, smart/dumb, sexy/unsexy, popular/unpopular, dangerous/harmless, high-class/low-class, proper/improper, powerful/powerless.
  10. expectations: what are the expectations of your scene, premise, occupations, setting, etc.? funny is to invert the expected.
  11. exaggerations: can you make anything MORE exaggerated? further from normal?  
  12. lying. characters who need to or decide to lie are cringe behavior comedy funny.
  13. mismatch of attitude.
  14. mismatch of reaction: overreacting or underreacting.
  15. comedic irony: getting the opposite of what you’re trying to get. what is your character trying to get? how can they receive the opposite?
  16. as-if: creating parallels can be funny: playing an office betrayal as-if it’s a mob betrayal. asking for a raise as-if you’re a child asking for a later bedtime.
  17. What type of sketch is this idea?
    • premise sketch: based on funny scenario or idea. ex: 24 is the highest number. truth-detector sketches. scenario could be a location or setup.
    • character sketch: based on funny/weird character with a unique/funny perspective on the world. ex: Stuart by Michael McDonald, Homey Don’t Play That, Fire Marshall Bill, Matt Foley Motivational Speaker.
    • Comic Behavior Sketch: One where a character is trying to project one image while coming across as the opposite of that. trying to be suave, but appearing clumsy. trying to be sexy coming off repulsive.
  18. What’s a good sketch FORM for your idea?
    • mapping: finding the parallels between one thing and another. similar to playing something as-if, but more about writing a scene as-if it mirrors some other scenario. ex: the “iRack Sketch” is really about America’s role in Iraq.
    • pastiche: a work that mirrors an existing work/genre/etc. except for one change to highlight the absurd of the original or highlight the absurd of the deviation. ex: Reggie scene with trashy-gays instead of trashy-blacks. “copy-and-pastiche”.
    • parody/spoof: taking an existing form and making fun of it or fun with it. ex: Spaceballs, Scary Movie, Blazing Saddles.
    • satire: making commentary of an existing work/form/subject, not necessarily keeping its form and not necessarily being funny. ex: The Office, Scientology episode of South Park, Starship Troopers.
  19. unfulfillable need: can your character have an unfulfillable need: like having your workers love you as boss (it’s impossible!). or a need to be loved by EVERYONE.
  20. occupations: they come with expectations. use those expectations to find how your funny plays against it. recall opposites.
  21. stereotypes: similar to occupations. often come with (stupid) familiarities/expectations that you can play against.
  22. racism/sexism: it’s funny to make fun of someone who’s racist, sexists, any-ist. not to simply be racist/sexist/etc.
  23. punching down: funny to make fun of powerful [punching-up] not powerless [punching-down]. funny to mock privileged (president, whites) rather than under-privileged (homeless, blacks). should-know-better stupid, not actual retards. abusive priests, not good priests. cultish religious, not all religious.
  24. punch-up: exaggerating or improving existing draft/joke to make/find better jokes.
  25. beat (move): a beat in comedy is usually one funny bullet point on an outline of the script. ex: in sketch of a uncreative captain naming discovered lands, two beats are (1) naming snow-white land Greenland (2) naming island across from South Wales “New South Wales”. Beats are sometimes called a comic “move” by improviser.
  26. Motivation: what do your characters want in the scene? (see inconvenience/obstacle/conflict) Are the two leads goals conflicting?
  27. Punchline vs Play-out. Punchline is the ending to a joke. Play-out is usually an extension of the comedic moment. Ex: Peter says, “This is the worst thing that ever happen to a Japan!” Cut to: [punchline:] flashback to title: “Hiroshima Japan, 1945” a man stand next to his car and looks up. [play-out] A bird shits on his car “Oh man, and I’m already late to work.” (the nuke is the worst thing, bird shit makes it worse, being late makes it worse, etc.)
  28. Play-out/Act-out. A Stand-up comedy term. Usually stand-up performance jokes are structured: setup, punchline, act-out. Where the act-out is a physicalization or scene acting out the comedic premise of the joke. It’s not what made you laugh initially, but what keeps you laughing by escalating from intellectual to physical. in improv and writing, it’s a play-out: continuing on the same joke for another laugh.
  29. Justification. to UCB, a character must have a reason to behave the way they are behaving in the sketch. often on page one, this “justification” is called out and stated explicitly.
  30. Plot Vs Game: Plot is about getting what you WANT. Game is about setting up the funny and TAKING ACTION to play it out.
  31. framing / calling out the joke: the act of stating something to make what’s funny clearer. ex: “what?” or “you open the door to help the velociraptor get in?” or “I think he’s a little young to be called an great artist.”
  32. dream logic: in an exaggeration sketch, the unreal logic (or absurdly exaggerated logic) that is assumed to allow for the joke. ex: in Taco Town, “bigger is better in a taco, so let’s add the whole kitchen.”
  33. schmucks, schlemiels, and schlimazels: Yiddish words. see this article “Etiquette for Schmucks, Schlemiels, Schlimazels and Schmendriks”.
  34. mistaken identity (under-cover): a form of behavior comedy: projecting one image but coming off not that.

Types of Sketches:

  1. Character: one based on a character with unusual/funny behavior or perspective.
  2. Premise: one based on an unusual/funny situation or reality.
  3. Political/Topical: makes fun of a topical issue. Contrast with “Evergreen” which never gets old.
  4. Commercial Parody: takes the form of a commercial, lasts 2.5 pages/minutes.
  5. Genre Parody: takes form of a genre/show.
  6. News Parody: Onion style articles or videos. News to the extreme/absurd.
  7. Blackout: one that fades out on the first punchline/laugh.
  8. Runner: one that is split throughout a show.

List of Sketch Writing Schools

  • The Groundlings
  • Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB)
  • The Second City
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