How to write sketches (Part Two)

Today I thought I’d walk you through a sketch I wrote.

This is a risky strategy for me, here I am telling you how to be funny (within certain restrictive boundaries) and now I’m laying my work open for a collective chorus of:

‘That’s not funny.’

But what the hell? That’s what being a writer’s all about.

So, bearing in mind all I talked about yesterday (if you haven’t read it yet, what are you doing here? Go and read part one), let’s get cracking. This is the sketch I’m going to be talking about; none of the rest of this post will make sense without reading it. For those of you outside of the UK, this is what it’s all about.

Read it? Digested it? Think it’s funny and want to know how/why I wrote it? Then read on.

Alternatively, if you think it’s a pile of shit, you can stop now and go and watch the telly. The Simpsons is bound to be on somewhere.

This is a really long post. I apologise now.

THE IDEA

I was driving along, listening to the news. They were talking about the fifteen British sailors captured by Iran and how the negotiations were breaking down. The phrase they kept using, every half an hour on every station, was ‘if Iran failed to return the sailors, we would have to move to … THE NEXT PHASE!’ The newsreaders kept using this ominous voice, without once saying what the next phase might be.

This amused me, it sounds like such an empty threat. A political version of ‘let me go, or else’. ‘Or else what?’ ‘Erm, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.’

This dialogue unfolded instantly in my head and I knew I had the kernel of a sketch. I was listening to the news with an ear for something funny, I knew the captured sailors is a big story and has to be covered. Both The Treason Show and NewsRevue will be looking to pay someone for a sketch about it. My job is to make sure that someone is me; but since satire involves taking the piss, I didn’t want to have a go at the Naval personnel involved – it’s not funny for them or their families. The bureaucratic nonsense of THE NEXT PHASE is a good way to cover the story without getting personal.

Apart from about Tony Blair; but then, he’s in the public eye and deserves it.

FRAMEWORK

The next step is to choose how to present this idea. Who performs these negotiations? Is it some faceless person in the Foreign Office? Is it a Navy officer? A team of diplomats? What’s the framework I need to contain this single joke?

The bottom line is, this is Britain talking to Iran. I don’t know whose job it is, but then neither will a lot of other people. The audience will be fairly well versed in current events, but they’re not experts. As discussed yesterday, I try to stick to two characters in a sketch; and to me, it seems obvious to portray the leaders as a representation of their countries’ points of view. Plus, the performers portray Tony Blair as ineffectual anyway, so it fits. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn’t a regular character, and isn’t really in the public consciousness (although he’s working on it) so I can portray him in a way which suits the sketch.

PUNCH LINE

Sometimes I start writing a sketch before I’ve got a punch line, but it’s never a good idea. Luckily, the punch line here just leapt out at me. If the joke is: Tony’s using an empty threat; then THE NEXT PHASE has to be something crap. Any kind of muscle or display of force goes against the premise of the gag and is actually what we all expect THE NEXT PHASE to be anyway. Reversing it seems to be the best way forward. Instead of shouting or shoving, THE NEXT PHASE is to beg some more.

GETTING STARTED

First thing I do when I open a new document, is put my contact details in the header. This does two things: it puts something on the page, so you’re no longer staring at a blank expanse; and it prevents me from forgetting later on, when I’m excited and eager to send it in. Forgetting to put your contact details on a sketch is silly, how do they know who to pay?

Plus, it’s all a little bit more self promotion. Hopefully, the cast get given a print out of my sketch and who knows who they might bump into whilst reading it? These people may go on to direct/produce something in the future, I want them to recognise my name.

Next step: a title. Again, it’s breaking up the blankness. You’ve actually started writing the sketch, keep the momentum going. I like to pick a name which means I can easily identify it on the provisional running orders The Treason Show produces.

I should probably explain here: for The Treason Show, you submit sketches all month; they rehearse them and whittle them down until they’ve got a show at the end. During the process they send out a provisional running order which shows you, roughly, which topics they’ve got covered. There are a lot of writers covering the same stories, so you can’t always tell which sketches are yours. With both NewsRevue and The Treason Show, they don’t actually tell you they’ve used your material until after the show. If you want to know if they might use your material, you have to be able to identify it in the provisional running order.

Gordon once mentioned he knew how many sketches I had on because I always use -ing words in the titles. I’ve since tried to keep that to a minimum, just to confuse him.

Assuming several other writers may have had the same idea as me, and not wanting to raise false hopes, I opted to corrupt THE NEXT PHASE and call the sketch A NEW PHASE. The slight difference means I should be able to identify it if necessary.

Either that or I just made a mistake when I was jotted down the title.

Whilst writing this post, I’ve just received the NewsRevue running order for this week. They’ve used the sketch, but they’ve renamed it: BLAIR AND AMADINEJAD. All that thought for nothing.

LOCATION

Where does this sketch take place? What’s going on in the background? How many extras do we need?

Nowhere, nothing, none.

There are no sets at these shows. At The Treason Show, you can create a limited impression of a location by flashing up an image on the TV over the stage (a picture of the Whitehouse and a snatch of American bombastic music), but that’s about it. Does it really matter where this sketch is set? No. It’s about two people arguing, it could happen anywhere. It’s going to be done against a black background anyway, and if either director wants to set it somewhere special, let them.

Obviously, you need some kind of stage direction, if only to let the director know who’s on stage. I try to keep these as minimal as possible, hence:

TONY BLAIR and MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD.

That’s all I feel this needs. Who’s there, nothing more.

BEGINNING

There are three things you need to do at the beginning of any sketch of this type. One: establish who these people are; two: establish what story we’re satirising; and three: as Gordon commented yesterday, get a joke in as soon as possible.

The performers do these impersonations with very little in the way of props or costume. How do you convey, without words, that this is Tony Blair and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Tony Blair is well known enough to be recognisable, he has a silly voice and weird hand gestures. The performers usually add an ‘Aha’ kind of thing onto the beginning too.

The audience does tend to recognise Blair straight away, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? I don’t want to leave the audience struggling to work out what’s going on; not when it isn’t necessary, so I always get the characters to call each other by name in the first few lines. Some people hate this, but I think it’s essential. Otherwise, in this case, the audience would have to try and guess who Blair’s talking to. They’d probably get it when I identify the story, but then they might spend the rest of the sketch trying to remember what the leader of Iran’s name is.

Which leads to point two: what’s the story? Not everyone in the room will be bang up to date with current affairs. Almost everyone in the room will be drunk. I want them all to enjoy the sketch, so I make it easy for them. I tell them who’s speaking and what they’re speaking about; but, and here’s the trick: make it funny.

I’m fairly certain Tony Blair knows Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name; but there are two gags here. One is he’s too stupid to remember it (I know I am) and the second, the English have a habit of assuming anyone foreign is stupider than us.
That takes care of the first seven lines and look! We’ve already reached the point of the sketch. The empty threat has been made and Blair has had to admit he’s got nowhere to go. Just as the first paragraph in a newspaper article tells you what the whole story is, the first few lines of a sketch reveal the whole point of the sketch. Now we can move onto the:

MIDDLE

Now we’re working towards the punch line. The punch line which at this point I thought was going to be Blair falling on his knees and begging for the release of the sailors. I want to get there reasonably quickly, but there’s time and space to play with a few more gags first.

The line:

MAHMOUD: Your threats are meaningless.

Is a great ‘bad guy’ cliché; it’s a Bond villain’s line and identifies Mahmoud as the villain of the piece. This may or may not be true, but we’re satirising British papers and they insist he was in the wrong. For the purposes of the sketch, I’m choosing to adopt that point of view.

I also want to further elaborate on what the story is, for the benefit of those who have had their head in a bucket of pig shit for a month. I don’t want this to be boring for the rest of the audience, so I try to make it funny.

The nature of this argument: the sailors were in our waters, no they weren’t, yes they were; just reminds me of a pantomime, so I write it up as one. Tony thinks he’s clever and uses the classic Bugs Bunny reversal, which does sometimes work in real life. Here though, I want to keep up the standard portrayal of Blair as an ineffectual idiot – plus my own personal opinion of Brits abroad. So Blair tries it and it doesn’t work.

This leads to the next bit: Tony’s admitted he was in the wrong. Mahmoud would never let this go, so I put it in. Now I need to correct this odd turn before the sketch drifts off course. Tony tries to get back into the pantomime chorus, but it’s already boring me, so I get Mahmoud to knock it on the head.

Must get back to the plot. What might THE NEXT PHASE be? Would we invade Iran? Probably not, we can’t afford to fight the war in Iraq and in Iran simultaneously; Tony might try this threat though, so in it goes. This gives me the opportunity to have a dig at a different subject – the idea the government has whittled the armed forces down to next to nothing. And there it is: the budget cuts line.

Now I’m running out of space. I don’t like to write more than two pages and I’m getting perilously close to the middle of page two. I know I want a bit of back and forth; building up to what I still think will be the punch line, so I need to get there now. Tony’s got nowhere to go here anyway and his silence on the budget cuts speaks volumes. I can also get one more dig in at his inability to remember Mahmoud’s name.

We’re on the home straight now.

END

This is the build up to the punch line. Tony’s made the BIG THREAT and Mahmoud knows, as we all do, there’s nothing in it. Tony tries to bluster it out, he doesn’t want his bluff called. Mahmoud is calm, but childish (all politicians sound like children).

Tony has no choice left; he has to go to THE NEXT PHASE.

Hopefully, the audience won’t know what’s coming next. A percentage of them will have guessed, but the anticipation of the delivery will keep them entertained. I hope.

And we’re there – we’ve reached the punch line. Only, on reflection, it isn’t good enough. What happens now? Do we just fade out? The end’s not good enough. Damn.

THE PUNCH LINE

So it needs something more. It needs a better, funnier punch line.

I initially headed for the obvious one, the one Gordon warned us all about yesterday:

Bugger.

To get there is quite simple. If you had someone clinging to your leg, in floods of tears, wouldn’t you want to get away? Mahmoud extricates himself and simply leaves the stage. Tony’s made a fool of himself and it didn’t work.

A bit like this new punch line. It’s an end, but it’s a bit lame. I need to push it on one more step.

It doesn’t take me long to work it out. One of the other common portrayals of Tony Blair is of him as George W. Bush’s lap dog. In the Treason Show sketches, George thinks his name is Terry and feeds him dog biscuits. Also, the media perception in recent history is Britain has either followed America around, doing what it says; or turned to America to bail it out of trouble.

Aha! There’s the new punch line, not where I thought it was. When I first started writing these sketches, I would have specified ‘Tony whines, like a child to a parent’ or something. Now I don’t feel the need, I trust the actors to perform it properly; or even find a better delivery.

And it’s done. It’s slightly over my self-imposed 2 page limit, so I need to tweak the margins to fix it. Then I give it a quick read through and touch up. Is it funny? I think so. Is it consistently funny; a gag every couple of lines or so? Yes, seems to be. I check the spelling, check I’ve included my contact details, and it’s winging its way through the ether to the two shows. Time will tell if it gets used. NewsRevue are using it as I write, it remains to be seen what The Treason Show will decide.

So there you go. Fancy giving it a go? Want to get paid miniscule amounts for the joy of seeing people laugh at your work? Want to sit smugly and anonymously among the audience as they discuss how clever your writing is?

Please don’t, I don’t want the competition.

Here are some more examples of sketches I’ve written this month:

TONY ISN’T BOVVERED

HERE’S ONE I FIXED EARLIER

And there are older ones here on my website.

Happy writing.

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Categories: My Way, Sad Bastard | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “How to write sketches (Part Two)

  1. He shoots, he scores! With clinical precision. Excellently outlined, Phill. Each step covered succinctly, and every opportunity to shove a gag in there taken. With a classic double punchline at the finish. Re-sult!

    But before you start rubbing yourself all over with a jar of smug oil, get thee to the stupid step for not setting up a template document with your contact details already pre-filled. I have a blank document in my ‘Treason Show’ folder specifically called ‘Template’ for that very purpose.

    You twonk.

  2. Cheers, Gordon.

    I only put my email address and website address on my sketches. I don’t know why, but I never bother with home address or telephone. If I did, I’d set up a template.

    Anyway, I like typing them in every time. It’s a little extra time, a repetitive action which helps me martial my thoughts. I guess I use it as a key to tell myself my brain is now in sketch writing mode.

    Either that or I’m too fucking stupid to set up a template and I’m desperately scrambling to cover my idiocy.

    One of the two.

  3. Danny K

    Good fun reading your blog this morning Phil. Hope you can can post the sketch in full, on here, after it’s had it’s public airing. You mention sending it to both shows:

    “News Revue are using it as I write, it remains to be seen what The Treason show will decide”.

    Won’t one of them go ballistic if they find out the same material has already been performed by one of their competitors?

  4. The sketch is already up here, click on the link in the sentence:

    THIS is the sketch I’m going to be talking about;

    The two shows have always used the same material, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with it. There’s no contract signed, no assignation of rights, hence I feel the sketches are mine to do what I want with.

    Plus, the shows are in different cities, they’re not really competing and I doubt there’s much cross over in terms of audience.

  5. Danny K

    Ahh… Yes, got it now. So much for my speed reading!

    Excellent sketch Phil! Really superb! Right on the money.

    That’s good news about making material sweat to earn double-bubble for only half the trouble.

  6. Well, if NewsRevue always paid on time. Or at all. They still owe me and Piers some money from over a year ago.

    Bitter? Me? Don’t be silly.

  7. I had the same concerns; however, I’ve had all my back pay now. Get on to them, Christine; they seem in a writer friendly mood at the moment.

  8. Hello. I am definitely fascinated on this subject. Could anyone be composing something also regarding it?

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