How to write sketches (Part One)

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.

Balls.

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.

Be funny.

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.

Be funny.

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.

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Categories: My Way, Sad Bastard | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “How to write sketches (Part One)

  1. Excellent advice, Phill. Pretty much on the money. If I could just add a couple more tips to the mix (4, to be precise, which I guess makes 2 couples, which reminds me of a night with my wife’s sister and her husband, but that’s another story).

    1. I’ve always found it beneficial to have a gag as near to the top of the sketch as is humanely possible. It doesn’t matter how silly it is, or even if it has bugger all to do with the sketch, if it’s funny and it gets a laugh, it breaks the ice for what follows. An example: I once opened a sketch with the following lines:

    ASSISTANT: Professor, you’ve done it!
    PROFESSOR: So I have. Sorry about that, I’ll clean it up in a minute.

    It had nothing to do with the sketch (a true story about a professor who claimed to be able to cure gay sheep – honestly, you can’t make this stuff up), but because it was silly and vaguely rude it got a big laugh and got the audience in the right frame of find. Likewise, a sketch I wrote starring a fictional detective, Sam Shovel:

    SAM: My name’s Sam Shovel and I’m a PI. That’s right, I’m peanut intolerant.

    The quicker you can get an audience on your side, the better. If there are no funny lines within the first 30 seconds (even if you’re taking time to set things up), the first funny line still won’t be as funny as it could have been if delivered earlier.

    Like everything though, there are exceptions to this rule: lengthy, non-verbal comedy, a funny premise that doesn’t need a gag, and just bloody good, and funny, actors. But, as a guideline, I find it invaluable.

    2. Puns. That’s right. Puns. Use ’em. Don’t abuse ’em. Unless, of course, your entire sketch revolves around them. When done well, a clever pun can turn a sketch. When done badly, it can turn a stomach. But really, what comedy writer worth his salt can fail to feel proud when a whole audience groans in unison (we’re back to that night with my wife’s sister and husband again)?

    3. Punchlines. A handy tip for punchlines is to bear in mind what’s gone before. Yes, the majority of punchlines for topical sketches will be based on the target in question, but for times when this isn’t possible (or you’re still pissed from the night before), a fallback option is to do the old repitition trick (like I did with my wife’s sister earlier). It could relate to something you mentioned at the top of the sketch, or in the middle of the sketch, or nearer the end; it doesn’t matter. Just as a song is often better after a second listen, so a funny line is often better a second time around. And if it’s funny, why not use it as a punchline?

    4. Punchlines (reprise). It’s incredibly tempting (I still fight the urge) to end a sketch with a self-defeatist “Fuck” or “Bugger”. While this almost always sounds hilarious in your head, witnessing it live can be a bit of a hit or miss affair. While still funny (mostly), it lacks the satisfaction of a truly well rounded off punchline, and can oftentimes signpost a weakly-crafted sketch. It’s also a bit lazy, and I think (although I don’t know) that script editors pass on these as soon as they see them.

    Everyone will have their own tips on how to write comedy sketches; what works, and what doesn’t work, for them. The best thing you can do, as Phill rightly says, is watch how sketches go down with a live audience; see what makes them laugh. With a particular crowd, smut may be the best way to go. When performing in front of a bunch of religious fundamentalists, however, you may want to reign in your cock and fanny gags a little.

    Or at least learn to run like fuck.

  2. Damn it again, Gordon. I’m in the middle of writing tomorrow’s exciting installment and you’ve gone and given half the game away.

    I’ve a good mind to censor you for being too clever for my own good.

    All good points, Mr Robertson, ones I really should have included. I might just delete your post and paste your comments into mine.

    Did you really read that post all the way to the end? That’s a lot of reading for a … what day is it?

  3. Yup, read it all the way to the end. Right after I wrote a full 16-page short script from scratch after getting about six hours sleep due to my son being up half the night with bouts of asthma.

    Note to self: must become more human soon.

  4. John Kelly

    As someone who’s recently started writing for both shows, but with only a few sketches used, I just wanted to tell you how helpful I find what you and Gordon Robertson have been saying. With all the people trying to write comedy and particularly sketches nowadays, and the lack of decent books on the subject, it’s really useful and very interesting. Maybe you should do a book together?

    Can’t believe you broke your first rule and have never been to Newsrevue. I did follow that rule and though it’s the same set-up of two men and two women, the venue is totally different. Just a small room with about 50 people over a pub with very basic production values. Very different to the vast space of the Komedia with almost 300 people sometimes and the performers all miked up. I’ve seen the same sketches go totally differently in the two. As Newsrevue also changes the whole cast every six weeks the quality of the acting and directing is much more variable.

    Personally I’ve found Treason Show has taken what I think is my best stuff. I’ve got in Newsrevue by responding quickly to their requests for specific material, following your tip on this blog that often speed is more important than perfection. They took one where I pinched the Bush idiot child character regularly used in your and Gordon Robertson’s sketches. Sorry, I saw it more as a tribute than theft.

    Anyway, I look forward to the next instalment.

    Gotta go, my son’s woken up

  5. Glad you found it useful, John.

    Gordon’s got a good excuse for none attendance – he lives in Scotland. I have no defence to offer other than laziness and a general inability to get myself together for a planned night out.

    To be honset, NewsRevue have been using quite a lot of my material since the very beginning. (They didn’t tell me for six months, though. I thought they were ignoring me.) My high success rate meant a trip up from Brighton wasn’t a priority, especially since I was seeing the same material performed at The Treason Show.

    I am ashamed though, and intend to sort it out.

    Probably.

    The speed tip, responding to specific requests is a big advantage. I’m going to cover that in part three. At least I am now you’ve reminded me.

  6. Oh, by the way, I’m not sure if I came up with the George W. idiot child thing anyway. He’s always been portrayed as stupid and I may have copied someone else’s format for my version.

    I do remember the first one I wrote had him more like the Dead Ringers version, before I decided to go with the way which has stuck. I wouldn’t like to claim credit for it though.

    I don’t think copying the style of existing sketches/characters is theft. It provides continuity for the show and it’s all in the spirit of competition. If we both write a Bush sketch and yours is better than mine, then it deserves to be performed – end of story.

    Plus, a good idea is a good idea – people seem to like it, give them more of what they want.

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  11. stevolawspam

    just looked at your IMDB, where do you get ‘9 feature films produced’ from? At most I can see 2 and one of those was Just For The Record, so it hardly counts

    • Weird, I can count seven mentioned on IMDb – not sure why you can only see two. Details for those seven plus one of the others is on the FILMS page of this blog (the menu’s at the top left). The ninth was called Mixed Up and was abandoned three-quarters of the way through filming for fairly stupid reasons. Which is a shame because it had a lot of potential.

      If you’re discounting Just for the Record on grounds of quality, I’d be hard pushed to argue with you.

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