Writing comedy is no laughing matter, but these important tips can make it easier for you.
Sketch comedy is one of the most popular formats for content creators looking to flex their funny bone. Sketches are short, comedic explorations of situations, characters, and ideas. Its a fantastic place to start for all kinds of video producers because it teaches skills like storytelling and timing, which can apply to much larger projects.
These 3–10 minute comedy vignettes are ingrained in our culture from Saturday Night Live, Key and Peele and Portlandia among other shows. Stars such as Amy Poehler and Donald Glover made early moves in their careers as members of sketch groups; the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and Derrick Comedy, respectively. So, where do you start?
First is finding something funny to explore. Inside jokes about your friends aren’t gonna cut it if you want to appeal to a wide audience. You want to find something that other people will relate to — something funny or strange that some people do — for example, someone who gets on an elevator before letting other people off.
The truth is funny. Honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention.
~ Del Close
Del Close was a teacher to many of today’s comedy greats, including Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and many more. He taught that comedy is best when it articulates simple universal truths that everyone has experienced but seldom comment on. People laugh most when the joke is “funny because it’s true.”
Writing a Sketch
To write a sketch from the idea of someone who gets on elevators before letting other people off, we explore what is the truth of that individual — they are selfish and don’t wait their turn. Next, apply those truths about the character to other situations that would accentuate the ridiculousness of the behavior. The sketch isn’t about getting in or out of elevators, it’s about an aspect of human nature — selfishness.
This character trait becomes the joke of our sketch. We can make it funny by applying the behavior to a series of worsening situations. So, we ask, what are a few occasions you don’t want to find a person who is selfish and doesn’t wait their turn? Among others, playing a game of chess, in bed with a partner, and driving in front of an ambulance all come to mind.
Cut everything that doesn’t feed the core joke.
Once you have a few good ideas for ‘hits’ on your joke, you want them in an escalating order; the biggest laugh should be last. Start with a relatively normal situation as a hit on the joke, something small, like playing chess. Then explore the idea a few more times, each with a progressively more ridiculous situation. After your craziest hit on the joke, go out. That’s it. Don’t linger.
Just like other forms of screenwriting, don’t add little details that don’t support the overall sketch. Have a funny hat a character can wear for an added laugh? Don’t use it. Unless the hat relates directly to the premise, it’s only going to distract from the joke.
Timing is everything in comedy. A sketch that starts too slow loses the audience’s interest, as does one that lingers too long in between hits on their joke, keep it fast paced. Cut everything that does not feed the core joke. There’s a saying among picture editors: “The difference between comedy and tragedy is 10 frames.”
Types of Sketches
While sketches can take on any number of forms, there’s a few general types that sharp viewers will begin to notice. Writing a sketch that fits one of these styles is a great way to get started.
A Parody makes fun of a specific work or style. Song parodies are always popular, but the genre doesn’t end there.
Satire is ridiculing an idea or social convention to draw attention to an issue in society. Satire has a long history as a weapon against tyranny.
Fish Out of Water
A character is completely out of their element. The fun here is in playing with how different the character is from the environment you put them in and how they react.
Clash of Context
The context makes it seem things will go one way, but they end up going another.
A character doesn’t react to a normal situation the way we’d expect them to. Here it’s not just random responses, but responses that are true to the idiosyncrasies of a funny character.
Simple But Impossible Task
A character has to do a seemingly simple task, but things keep getting in the way. Start with simple obstacles and get more ridiculous.
Farts, poop, etc. — there’s nothing wrong with them. In fact, great fortunes have been made from fart jokes. (I’m looking at you, Kevin Smith.)
Sketch comedy is a fun and fast genre of video to produce. It may take some practice to get it right, but it builds useful production skills and brings a smile to people’s faces. What more could you ask for?
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