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Answer by Dan Knight:
I can only speak from a U.K. perspective, so I’m not sure about the state of sketch shows elsewhere in the world. I’m with you to a degree when you say most of them are awful, but this isn’t necessarily true for everyone. Just because you (and I) think they are bad, it doesn’t mean everyone does. So this is the crux of the problem.
The sketch show has been crowded out with a plethora of panel shows, made and kept varied with different guests each week, and stand-up shows, where a group of comedians in teams answer questions from a host. They are easier to write and cheaper, and comedians can share some of their material, which normally ends up in their Christmas DVDs. Again, the comedians write their own material (mostly), so it’s cheaper to make and there’s enough weekly variance. To make a good sketch show you need:
Originality. This is hard to come by because the decent sketch shows started in the ‘60s—Monty Python, The Benny Hill Show. This is where you start. You need to immerse yourself in the history. Take notes. What works for you? What doesn’t work? Are there recurring themes? Avoid them. Sit and deconstruct a funny sketch and work out what exactly made it funny.
A premise. Are you going to use multiple characters? Where is it set? An asylum? Space? Is there just one setting? Just how surreal do you want to go? Currently there’s a situation comedy called Bluestone 42 set around a bomb disposal squad in Afghanistan. The premise is very edgy at the moment, but it works and has become successful because of its edginess. Inspiration for a premise can come from anywhere—make sure you have a notepad with you at all times.
These are a few formats used over the years:
- Escalation: An insignificant situation grows until it blooms into chaos on a large scale.
- Lists: This angle grows simply from a list of items, more ridiculous and surreal the better. A good example of this is “Cheese Shop” from Monty Python.
- Mad man, sane man: Or funny man, straight man. This is a tried and tested format seen everywhere. The challenge here is to make it original.
- Dangerous situations: For example, squeezing humour from a highly stressful situation such as defusing a bomb. Combined with “mad man, sane man” and “escalation,” hilarity will ensue.
- Amusing words and turn of phrase: This format uses language and in particular puns and onomatopoeia. It’s an age-old format used through-out history. Proponents of this style were the Two Ronnies and Fry and Laurie.
- Out of context: Using a prop or person in an unusual setting such as Brutus receiving phone calls just before killing Julius Caesar.
- Scale: Try using scale for comedy effect. For example, cleaning a palace with a teeny tiny vacuum cleaner or making someone look incredibly small by using oversized props.
A decent cast. Who are your stars? What are their history? Can they act humorously? Would you use tried and tested funny people or a cast of unknowns? Both? Simon Pegg is now an internationally known film star, but he started in his TV career in sketch shows (Six Pairs of Pants, Big Train). Stephen Fry began in sketch shows (Al Fresco, A Bit of Fry and Laurie). Having people with a bit of provenance in comedy goes a long way.
Development. The key to a good sketch show is to develop. So you’ve thought of a set of characters, what are you going to do with them? This is where improvisation is key. You’ve thought of a premise. You have a collection of people willing to give up their time for you. Now what? Time for some improv. The best inspiration and concept development comes from getting a group of funny people together and talking rubbish for a few hours. You then strip away the excess and hopefully what is left is “comedy.” This is much better than shutting yourself away and coming up with comedy in your bedroom (this harks back to the subjectivity of humor). As the saying goes, “Two heads are better than one.”
Write, edit, write, improv, write, edit, improv … You need to be prolific when it comes to writing sketches. The Mitchell and Webb show had some 500 sketches, of which only 70 were actually used. The key is finding something everyone finds funny. This is no easy task. If you’re not sure if something’s working, take a long hard look at it. Seek advice, crowdsource opinions. Sleep on it. If you have your doubts, throw it away and start again. Eventually, with enough dedication you’ll end up with something sellable.
The problem is (and it’s a big problem) is that if you’re writing for TV, everything you do is being scrutinised by the big wigs, the guys who hold the purse strings. If they don’t think it’s funny or it’s potentially too expensive, or they don’t think the world is ready for your amazing sketch show because they don’t find it funny: It’s going to be shelved. This is the problem with shows made for TV. These days one way around it is to take it online and get a virtual following. It’s a tough way to do it, many hours will be lost, but with enough dedication anyone can do it. Which sadly is also a problem.
Chances are that the sketch shows you see on TV these days have been heavily edited and watered down to fit in with the ethos of the prospective network. For example, sketch shows on BBC1 will be family-friendly and have hardly any swearing or adult subjects. They are more fun for all the family and will garner a greater audience. Because this is what it all boils down to: viewing figures and ultimately money. Unfortunately, comedy is more about the money than the substance, and less risks are taken than ever before.
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