Sketching is hard

SCENE ONE: A manger.

A baby is in a crib, his parents cluster around him. There is a knock on the door, through which three mafioso walk in. They look around the manger.

Over the last few weeks I have been working in a ramshackle fashion with a number of others to create some comedic undertakings. I like to think I have the potential to write funny things, so teaming up to write things and then film them into funny creations seemed like a great idea to me, but it has taught some truths: Some terrific, some terrible.

1) My friends are quite extraordinarily adept at the technical processes involved in filming.
2) My friends have some ingenious concepts for sketch comedy.
3) I am incapable of writing sketch comedy.

For as long as I can remember I have been a critic of Saturday Night Live, (or as the cool kids refer to it, “SNL”) in that I said SNL was not funny. This criticism I stuck to, even after watching parts and finding myself to be amused. Sometimes I even chuckled. I did. But still, I stuck to my guns, because I knew that there was something I was still not keen on. My comedy sense was tingling, and it was not all together a nice feeling. My experiences over the last few weeks have helped provide me the insight I was needing to define this lacking factor, and that factor is…punchlines.

There’s a moment in this video that eluded me, but now makes perfect sense (I linked the video to the precise moment, so go watch it. And if you have 80 mins and a love of cartoons/Star Wars, watch the whole thing.) It’ll take about ten seconds at most. Billy West’s statement about comedy structure struck me as just a pithy gag, but I now realise what he meant – a comedy sketch will have a beginning (the concept, often quite silly), a middle (the unfolding action of the scene) and an end (the punchline). SNL excels at concepts, and plays out the middles, but their ends are dramatic endings: someone leaves a scene, the status quo returns, the cameras pan out. They do NOT know how to end sketches. And sadly, neither do I.

The entire realisation has initiated flashbacks to my first school camp. This was my introduction to what I would soon learn is a staple activity on camps of all kinds – the “talent night”, where people assemble an act and perform it. I had a collection of superhero masks with me (don’t judge), and a friend and I put together a very simple sketch involving said masks. It was a riff on that joke about a school kid going home and getting homework answers from their family, which when assembled makes a funny/rude sentence. We were running that, but we forgot to rehearse the ending. Then, during the performance we reached that pay off point, and…nothing. It was dead in the water.
I have documents filled with short concepts, a few lines describing the setup, and even ideas as to how the middle unfolds. I have other documents that are pages of silly script, banter between ludicrous characters and caricatures, but I don’t have endings – my writing always lacks the punchline that everything else is setting up. I have become SNL.

But the bright side to it all, is that I don’t find this to be an issue as much with long-form comedy. Whether it be a blog post designed to amuse, a short story unfolding in a setting of fantasy and absurdity, or even as part of a short movie script, I can write the wit into one-liners and direction, because each of these is it’s own joke – it’s a comedic creation that can survive on it’s own merit without the overall structure being required to make it work. And INVERSELY, the overall structure can then utilise these little jokes into a larger, funnier idea. Like Voltron, only involving more laughter and less robot lions.

But a short sketch about three wiseguys that visit a manger on the inauspicious evening that the saviour is born? I’m still stuck at the made men looking around the manger, and trying to decide what kind of offer they can make, that shan’t be confused.

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~ by nick on April 9, 2014.

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