This Stopped Being Funny 3 Minutes Ago: Things I’ve Learned Writing Sketch Comedy.

Jon Wolanske

I’ve written a lot of weird short humor pieces in my 8-plus years as a member of a sketch comedy group. Some have made it to the stage, while many, many more still lay dormant on thumb drives and in dark, dank file cabinets. This has, essentially, been all the training I’ve had in this genre. And you don’t really need training to do this kind of writing. You just need to know what you find funny. Then you need to commit to a vision that’s clear, has some kind of driving force behind it, and is short.

The last word in the above paragraph is the most important. And most of the advice I have to give about writing sketch has to do with this word. Writing sketch is not like writing plays or even full five-minute dramatic scenes where you have to dive deep into the characters and refine the arcs and chart all the intersecting plot points. Your audience not only knows your sketch is gonna be brief, they expect it to be brief. In fact, it’s what they paid for.

So that gives you permission to take certain liberties—be it voiceover or breaking the 4th wall or sudden blackouts or the hawk attacks. Whatever is going to up the stakes for your characters or push you to make bigger comedic choices. Your scene doesn’t even have to be completely linear in its storytelling. Just make sure what you have to say packs a quick punch; then run like hell.

How Short Is Too Short?
I’ve heard a lot of criticism about my sketches over the years.

“Too weird.”
“You don’t need the first page.”
“Why a marmot?”

If there’s one comment I’ve never heard, especially if people have found the sketch funny, it’s this one: “That was too short.” No one has ever said that. On the other hand, I’ve heard the opposite plenty of times. I bet you’ve said the opposite plenty of times, too. How often have you been watching SNL or some other sketch show and said, “This sketch stopped being funny 3 minutes ago.” Make your sketches as concise as they tell you to be. Trust that it can be as short as a third of a page. It can be as short as a few seconds. (KML once did a show composed entirely of sketches that lasted as long as the amount of time it takes from one side of a wide doorway to another—and it’s one of the shows people talk about the most to this day). Basically, just think big and deliver short.

“I Have No Ideas.”
Whenever I feel like I have nothing to write about, I carry around a notebook and write down anything that makes me laugh. Really,anything. A joke. A horoscope. Something I overhear on MUNI (or smelled for that matter, it’s a ripe railway). I start a list and then try to plot out anything that still makes me laugh a few days later.

Can You Sum It Up In A Sentence?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned writing sketch is that you need to know what it is that you find funny about your idea. If you don’t or somehow forget through the course of writing and revising it, that’s kind of a problem. It’s sounds like a “duh” comment, but it IS possible to lose your way when writing a scene that builds to be gradually more absurd and more absurd, with layer upon layer of filthy ridiculousness.

What’s your sketch’s elevator pitch? Sometimes I’ll write mine down and keep it within arms reach. If “It’s a Leave It To Beaver-style family scene where all the dialogue is made up entirely of Mike Tyson’s most offensive interview quotes.” “A police interrogation where all the essential clues are replaced with the word ‘smurf.’” “An ultra-conservative White House staff hires an improv teacher to help them develop new ideas.” If you can translate your idea simply in conversation, and stick to the simple comedic thread in execution, it’s more than likely you’ll create an effective piece of sketch comedy.

Get To It
Once you know what you want to write about, get into it quickly. Is it necessary to know which region of the country the uncle’s ferret was born? Probably not. Audiences care about exposition only to the extent to which that exposition makes them laugh. If it doesn’t do that, leave it out.

Write It Out Loud
Before you share your sketch with your writing group or whomever you’re working with, read it out loud. Comedic dialogue is all about rhythm and surprise, and you can’t always tell what’s working if you’re only reading it in your head. Reading your scene aloud will tell you if the rhythm is right. It’ll also bring some other things to light. Is there a funnier word you can use here? Do the characters sound too similar? Do you really need all those stage directions?

To take it a step further, sometimes if you write sketch out loud—that is, if you speak the lines literally as you type them—it can lead to funnier, less expected dialogue. This trick can also backfire; if you’re at a hip cafe, people might just think you’re crazy. Then again that may cause them to finally leave and cede more table space to you, which would be a major victory.

Make Sure Its Relatable
Kerning is hilarious. But only if you know what the hell it is. If your sketch show were exclusively for graphic designers or typesetters, they’d love the sketch, “Dr. Kerning meets Professor Dumpydrawers.” So that it works for an audience of strangers, pick subject matter (even if you use it metaphorically) that your widest audience can follow.

When To End
If you’re having finding an ending, locate your scene’s biggest joke and plan your exit strategy accordingly. There’s no point going beyond the comedic apex of a scene if the characters don’t absolutely have to do that one more thing. And you don’t necessarily need a clever button or explanation for why the scene is ending.

Watch Monty Python enough and you’ll see that they rarely ended a sketch well—often they just cut to an animation or to another scene. Mr. Show also did this, and did it well. And SNL overuses the classic “that’s all the time we have for today” ending. The stuff before the ending should be what concerns you most. A “fade to black” or sudden bee attack is a perfectly acceptable ending—especially if your actors are committed.

Is Your Idea Even A Sketch Idea?
If you find that your scene just keeps going and going way beyond your intended page limit, it might be announcing itself not as a sketch but as a short story. Or a one-act play. Or a comedic adaptation of The Satanic Verses. Know if the thing you’re writing is best served by the sketch format. If it is, commit to it hard and keep it simple.

Use What Works
If you’re struggling with an idea or just wondering how to make your sketch better, you can always try any of ye olde tricks of the trade:

--Is it sane man/crazy world or crazy world/sane man? Often with sketch, it’s one or the other, and for good reason. Either of these two premises creates a ton of comedic tension and conflict potential for the scene. Just make it about one person being different from the world—and have that person’s bargaining with the world be the focus.

--Go for maximum destruction. Escalate your idea by starting off small and ending in chaos. Just keep making the situation worse and worse for your hero in every possible way you can imagine.

--Juxtapose new with old, big with small, bald with hairy. A lot of the humor of sketch comes from people feeling out of place or from the tension created from weird pairings.

--Put an ancient character in a new context, or vice versa. Have Queen Victoria guest judge US Weekly’s “hot or not” column. Could James Bond exist in medieval times? There’s a lot of fun you can have with the fish-out-of-water scenario.

--Place your characters in dangerous or improbable situations. Don’t just automatically choose a living room for a family scenario or an office for a workplace scene. Your choice of place can bring out a lot in your characters.

--If your scene isn’t working as a piece for live actors, use puppets. Would your sketch be funnier in animation? Try it as an audio piece, where you can supplement the dialogue with sound effects. Does removing something and reframing things help you at all?

There really are no rules to this kind of writing. That’s why people keep finding new ways to do it and break the doors down. Compare The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with The Tim and Eric Awesome Show—that’s some crazy evolution.

If you’re feeling confined by your scene, remove one element and see how things improve. If you hate page 3, end on page 2. If you want to write an interpretive dance to a transcript of last night’s local news, give it a shot. The only guiding rule is if it makes you laugh (and you keep laughing while writing it), it will make someone else laugh. And that makes it completely worth trying.

Jon Wolanske is a longtime member of San Francisco sketch comedy group Killing My Lobster. During the day, he is a writer at ad agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. He has a weakness for bad puns and homemade baked goods.