Let me clarify that: how I write sketches for The Treason Show and NewsRevue. I’m not saying this is the only way, I’m not even saying it’s the best way; but this is the way I do it and it seems to work for me.
When I have time to write sketches, they always appear to be well received; both in the number of sketches performed by each company and by the general reaction of the audience. Within the satirical revue world, or at least the two shows I write for, I’m almost confident I know what I’m doing.
You’re never going to get rich writing for these shows; but you will get your material performed (if you’re good enough), you will get to hear people laugh at what you’ve written (if you live nearby) and you will get paid. It may not buy you a fancy car, or even a fancy remote controlled car, but the little bits do add up. So for anyone who fancies having a go, this is how I go about it.
First, a few basic rules:
Watch the show you’re writing for. This is really important. If you haven’t seen the show, how do you know what type of sketch they want? You need to see what works well within the constraints of the show, how the cast perform, what the audience laughs at and more importantly, what they don’t.
I have already broken this rule. I’ve never been to see NewsRevue; but I have seen The Treason Show fairly regularly and since they both use a lot of my material, I’m assuming the shows are fairly similar.
Gordon Robertson (who writes more for each show than is humanly possible) has never, to the best of my knowledge, seen either show. This hasn’t affected his ability to write fantastic sketches, but from what I can gather (and I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong) it took him longer than me to zero in on what material does and doesn’t make it through the selection process. This had nothing to do with talent; I just had access to better research.
Read the papers/watch the news. This is topical satire, if you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t take the piss out of it. Fairly self-explanatory, I think.
Watch, read and listen to as many comedy sketches as you can. Doesn’t matter what type of comedy, they all have certain universal truths. Pay attention to the structure, the rhythm, the number and placement of the gags. Writers like to think of themselves as artists, and artistic creativity knows no bounds.
There’s a very definite pattern which underlies most successful sketches. There’s a formula, one which can be replicated. Most sketches have a beginning, middle and end – the ending being the punch line. You have to introduce your characters and the situation at the beginning, be funny in the middle and finish off with a big laugh at the end.
True, not all sketch shows have a punch line. Monty Python didn’t bother, but a lot of their material still followed formulas. One of the most obvious ones, one I use a lot, is two people arguing: one reasonable, one a total, wrong thinking, idiot. Think of the ‘Argument sketch’, or the ‘Dead Parrot sketch’. An important thing to consider here is your target market: both shows want sketches which have punch lines – give them what they want.
Other general points to consider:
This is satire, having a point helps. Wikipedia has this to say about satire:
“Although satire is usually witty, and often very funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour but criticism of an event, an individual or a group in a clever manner.”
Satire can be silly and should be funny, but more than that, satire is comedy of criticism. Pick someone you think is being stupid, foolish, ignorant or just plain wrong and make fun of them.
Both The Treason Show and NewsRevue only have four performers, sometimes they need to change costumes (or completely remove them) for the next sketch. Sketches with two people in are easier for them to do. The easier something is to do, the more likely it is to be used. Sketches which require a huge cast just aren’t going to happen. If you have to have someone addressing a crowd, get them to address the audience.
The shows tend to have their own point of view on things: at The Treason Show, David Cameron is portrayed as an upper class layabout, a Lesley Philips style character; Tony Blair is an attention seeker who toadies to George W. Bush. George W. is a complete moron who can barely remember to breathe. These things may not be true, but the papers like to portray these images and the shows ramp them up to the next level. Because these are recurring characters, if you choose to portray them in a different way, your material may stand less chance of being accepted.
Seriously, be funny.
There are less women in the news than men, hence less sketches get written for women. Both shows have two female and two male performers, material written for the women is scarce and therefore likely to be accepted. If a sketch contains characters who aren’t famous (such as ‘scientists say’ bits, skits which happen at a newspaper, anonymous civil servants, etc …) I don’t specify a gender. Leave the parts open to either sex.
In my George W. Bush sketches, almost all of which are an AIDE talking to the President, I forgot this rule and had George calling the Aide ‘son’. Whenever The Treason Show perform these, the Aide is played by a woman. This adds an extra level of humour into the sketch, and I keep it up. NewsRevue may use a man in this part, I don’t know.
No really, it has to be funny.
Be a little bit tasteful. Taking the piss out of someone who’s been raped and murdered is unlikely to go down well. Taking the piss out of the way the media portrays their fate does much better. At the moment, The Daily Mail seems to be running a competition with itself to find the sexiest photo it can of Lindsay Hawker. I find this shameless attempt to glamorise her death appalling, so I’ve written a sketch about it.
That’ll teach ‘em. Cunts.
Which leads me neatly to swearing. Contrary to what you may have been told, swearing is big and it is clever. You can have an intricately crafted sketch with amazing dialogue, supremely clever word play and a poignant message which changes the way people think about the world; and it still won’t be as funny as one person saying ‘fuck’.
Sad, but true.
Swearing, however, is like Golden Syrup – a little goes a long way. An audience becomes numb to it pretty quickly and it loses its impact. Almost swearing before being interrupted gets a big laugh – the ruder the word, the better. Use swear words wisely and you can have an audience rolling around on the floor.
Lastly, watch the length. Keep it short, there’s a lot of news to cover in each show; a half hour sketch is unlikely to get accepted. Thirty seconds to a minute is best, two minutes is a long time; but okay if it’s really good. Longer? Forget it.
So there you go, an incomplete list of rules to break when it suits you. I know I’ve broken most of them.
Tomorrow I’ll go through the process of writing a sketch, using one of mine as an example of: where I got the inspiration, how I wrote it and what I was thinking.
Whether anyone wants me to or not.