Sketch Primer 0 – What is Sketch Comedy?

Part 1 – Mr. Show

Part 2 – The Fast Show

Before I go any further in the Sketch Primer series, I thought it would be nice to give some of my readers who don’t have a background in sketch, but want to learn, a little introduction to the world of sketch comedy. I’m going to cover the basics of what makes a sketch, then I’ll talk a little about what makes it good. Maybe they’ll even be a little history thrown in. And hey, we all just might learn something. Join in, after the break…

A “sketch” (a.k.a a “skit” or a “vignette”) is any short written piece of comedy performed like a play or television show or other 4th wall performance types. This means stand-up or one-man shows are excluded. Sketch comedy has been around for a long time, in some form or another. Short farces would be put on before longer, more serious pieces as far back as the middle ages. In the U.S., Vaudeville had a great many scenes which would be called “sketch” today, and many performers like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges got their starts doing these short skits in front of live audiences. And of course, some comedians did sketches in the golden age of radio. But for our purposes, sketch comedy was really formed as a seperate entity with the birth of television. With programmers struggling to find acts to fill so much time on the air, they turned to great radio comedians like Jack Benny and Sid Caesar to create variety shows that could keep audiences entertained. The most common act was the sketch. In America, shows with sketches have been running basically continuously since the birth of television, from Your Show of Shows to Carol Burnett to Laugh-in to Saturday Night Live.

A typical sketch runs 3-5 minutes. There is a great variety in length, however, and sketches can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as 10 minutes (or more). The great thing about sketch is that the only goal is to have a funny scene. If you can write a 15 minute long funny scene, it can be a sketch. British sketches tend to be shorter now. Mitchell and Webb’s usually run 2-4 minutes (except their parodies), while American sketches (nowadays mainly SNL and MadTV) run closer to 5-6. This wasn’t always the case. Monty Python did long sketches, and weren’t averse to running a sketch until they had played the entire game, while Laugh-In tended to do blackout sketches and one-liners.

This is a sketch. It happens to be in the running for best sketch of all time, but I’ll decline to comment on that for now. It is from season 1, episode 8 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and was written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. In it, a man, played by John Cleese, attempts to return his recently purchased parrot to the pet store, owned by Michael Palin, on the grounds that the bird was dead when he bought it. Hilarity, as they say, ensues. So what makes this a sketch? The answer is in the structure.

I was raised on Monty Python, but I was trained at UCB (or the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, a theater in New York). The UCB are a now mostly forgotten sketch group which is best remembered for giving the world Amy Poehler. However, their theater teaches classes on sketch writing, and their structure is a good starting point for the uninitiated. I have some issues with their conclusions, but we’ll leave those for now. Instead, let’s talk about the structure of a sketch. The game of a sketch is simply the funny thing that is central to the sketch’s premise. A man doesn’t understand innuendo, a women keeps getting bad fortunes at a Chinese restaurant, 2 kids accidentally wind up in charge of the military, etc. Game is simply a useful way to talk about the central idea of the sketch. If a joke is “on-game” it means the joke is made about the central premise, or comes from the situation, while an “off-game” joke is a side joke that does not have much to do with the game. In general when writing a sketch, writers try to limit the number of off-game jokes because although they may be funny, they tend to take away from the flow of the sketch. In the Dead Parrot sketch, the line “Excuse me, Miss?” at the beginning is off-game. Some teachers talk about a writer “earning” an off-game joke by having won the audience to the point that any joke will be well-received. In general though, people try to stay on-game.

Within a sketch, there are what they call “beats.” A beat is simply another word for a bit, as I learned from the great Michael Delaney, a teacher at UCB. Simply put, a beat is a funny exchange or joke in a sketch. Generally, there are three beats in a sketch, which “heighten,” or become more absurd or funny, as the sketch goes on. Take a look at this:

Mitchell and Webb are really good. This sketch, in which David Mitchell insists that Lindsay Davenport is the best candidate for Robert Webb’s corporate opening, shows a pretty typical structure. He starts by suggesting Lindsay Davenport, moves on, suggests her again, moves on, and finally tries to sneak her in the back door. Each attempt is different enough to keep the sketch funny, and each joke is basically on game. Best of all, it’s over before you get sick of it. If a sketch doesn’t heighten as much, it’s best to keep it short rather than continue making parallel jokes, for which there are serious diminishing returns. As a side note, the advantage TV sketch has over live sketch (one of the advantages, anyway) is that you can cut in and out of sketches quickly, which basically does away with the need for a punchline, or “button,” to end the sketch with. When I do Monty Python (probably number 4), I’ll talk more about ending sketches.

There are two general types of sketches: premise sketches and character sketches. At least, that’s what you learn at UCB, and that’s what American sketch tends to emphasize. The famous “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” (Van Down by the River) sketch is a classic character sketch.* Chris Farley’s performance is the only reason that sketch is funny. It’s a relatively mundane situation made interesting by the addition of a wacky character. These are a staple of SNL sketches. From John Belushi’s Samurai Tailor to Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella to Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s Spartan Cheerleaders, SNL has made the character sketch its bread and butter. This is a great sketch to have if you have the actors to pull it off. SNL draws from some of the best comedic improvisers and actors in the world, many of whom are looking to show off so they can land better jobs, so character sketches are a natural fit. In general, British shows tend to have few pure character sketches, instead inserting funny characters into premise sketches.

*I’d love to put a Youtube of it here, but NBC is ridiculous when it comes to copyright and the sketches aren’t on youtube. So fuck ’em, they don’t get the publicity.

A premise sketch is a sketch in which the situation is funny, rather than one character. Both characters can be totally normal people doing something weird.

In this, the famous “Argument Clinic” sketch, the people are all simply doing their jobs, which happen to be extremely silly. The premise is simply that there is a company to provide these rather ridiculous services to the public. The game is “what happens when a normal fellow goes in to try this company out?” Sometimes, premise sketches have silly characters, although this is more common in England than the U.S. For example, Monty Python’s “Dirty Fork.” This why sometimes people say the two types of sketches are “one funny person” or “many funny people.”

This definition leaves something to be desired, however, as it implies that “straight men tell no jokes.” This convention used to be true, but it comes from the time of double acts. Maybe it was OK for Costello to be the funny one and Abbot to set him up all the time, but Monty Python effectively destroyed that convention by putting interesting characters as straight men. Look back at the Dead Parrot sketch. Who’s the straight man? It seems like it’s Michael Palin’s shopkeep, since he doesn’t have the weird coat and accent, and he doesn’t yell at all or smash the bird on the counter. But it’s actually John Cleese’s Mr. Praline. Think about it: John Cleese is in the right. He bought the dead parrot, and he has a right to return it. The situation is imposed upon him, and it is from his perspective we see the events play out. In the argument clinic, the roles are reversed, but Michael Palin’s straight man still gets some funny lines. They key to a good sketch is to make your straight men as interesting as possible without going too far off-game. This is where most mediocre sketch groups fail. Too often, the straight man ends up shrugging his shoulders and saying “boy, what a predicament this is! You guys are acting crazy!”

Of course, at UCB they sort of pretend Monty Python doesn’t exist. They say that Monty Python did what they did, and they were really funny, but there isn’t anything to be learned in it. They would rather that every sketch have it’s own nice three-beat structure, heighten properly, and end with a lovely button. This is my main area of disagreement with the UCB philosophy.* They tend to emphasize accessibility at the expense of zaniness (or for some people, being interesting at all). They aren’t exactly wrong, either. With the exception of Mr. Show, American sketch has always tended to be less silly. For many people, that’s preferable. People I like and respect in comedy actually despise British sketch. I don’t understand why. Secretly, I think it’s because they refuse to admit how good it is, because it validates the British method, of which they will never be a part, over the American one, in which we’re all stuck. Whatever, it isn’t important. The main thing to remember is that there is always room to innovate in sketch Never let anyone tell you to do what you don’t think is funny for the sake of some rules.

*It’s useful to remember that UCB is an improv theater. Sure, they have sketch shows, but by and large they’re pretty average. The reason people go to the theater is to see great improv, which they certainly have in bunches. When they wrote the sketch rules, they simply ported over many of their improv rules. “Game” is a term directly from improv, for example. They didn’t have any reason to think sketch would need a special set of rules or a different set of core beliefs. It’s my humble opinion, which means nothing since I’m not successful and they are, that they are 95% wrong in their entire sketch philosophy.

Finally, a blackout sketch is a short, one beat sketch that is a simple set-up and punchline. It ends after the joke and there is no development. It is called a blackout because it tends to end (on stage anyways) with the lights coming down after the joke to heighten the punch. This is not to be confused witha  runner, which is a sketch broken up over the course of a show. Each section may only have one beat and a blackout, but the sketch is still a normal sketch.

So there you have it. A brief(?) synopsis of what sketch comedy is. Hopefully you’re interested enough to go out and try it for yourself, either writing it or watching it. I assure you, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s very rewarding. So go watch Monty Python, Mr. Show, SNL (the early years, please), or Mitchell and Webb, armed with information you now have to impress people at parties (very specific parties, and very specific people at those parties). So let me leave you with one of the classic sketches of all time, performed by comedians for years and years, and a perfect example of all the basics: heightening, beats, great writing, terrific performances, and all that. Monty Python performing the classic “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Enjoy.

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3 Responses to “Sketch Primer 0 – What is Sketch Comedy?”

  1. come to my improv to sketch show and you’ll see an (unwitting) homage to four yorkshiremen.

  2. also,you need to get more people reading these sketch primers. they’re very fun. also i hate non-commenters, who just comment in person. if you’ve something to say, say it to everyone.

  3. Excellent write-up, sir Kantrowitz. An excellent primer for Jesus-joke enthusiasts to experienced UCB alumni alike.

    Where do I find these parties where people are impressed with sketch knowledge? Are they coming to Seattle anytime soon?

    I’m looking forward to Sketch Primer 893: MadTV.

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