Over the years I’ve read a lot of sketches from new writers wanting to make a name for themselves in comedy. It’s a good aspiration as getting on the writing team of an established sketch show – or entertainment format – is still an excellent way to break into the serious business of comedy writing – and earn some money.
Now, if you think this post is going to tell you what will work in the funny stakes, you will be sorely disappointed. Whilst there are those who make entire careers out of backing comedy horses, nobody really knows what’s going to work – let alone know why – what’s funny to you (or to me, to you, to me…) is, for the most part, pretty subjective. That is also true for your producer and your audience. And what will be funny for millions of people, with an ever-evolving palette, is the multi-million pound question comedy producers and commissioners spend a lot of time, and get paid a lot of money, attempting to answer.
You. Yes, you, the person reading this post might well be The Next Big Thing we didn’t see coming.
But then again, you might not.
Although, I can’t tell you how to be The Next Big Thing in comedy writing, I can tell you a bit about the 5 most common and garden mistakes aspiring would-be sketch writers frequently make in this super-efficient, short-form, gag-machine format. And that’s got to be worth at least a couple of minutes of somebody’s time? So pull up a chair – and stop me if you’ve heard it already…
Not funny! Okay, we’ve already established that what I might find funny and what you might find funny might be in two very different ball parks but the point of a sketch is to make people laugh. So do you find the idea funny? And, if so, do you know why? Does your idea actually generate jokes? Does it take a familiar notion and push it to a comic conclusion? Will your audience be able to relate to it? I recently asked a writer if they thought a sketch they had recently submitted was funny. The response was a somewhat neutral “it’s okay”. If you don’t find it funny…
Too abstract! However gloriously outlandish the initial conceit, audiences like to be in on the joke. Laughter tends to come from a place of recognition and so requires a certain grain of truth (an internal logic) even if it appears, on first glance, to be very well-hidden.
Too clichéd! Lazy generalisations raise cringes more than laughs (which is not the same as sending up a cliché and subverting expectations). Don’t be lazy in your observations.
Too long! Like house-guests, sketches can outstay their welcome. It’s not unusual to see a sketch from an inexperienced writer containing one joke hidden in a set-up that is several pages too long. That one joke, lonely and broken, suffocating somewhere on page 5, bludgeoned to death by over-writing – much like this sentence – stops being funny. Jokes work best when they’re not over-fed (or over-delivered cos this ain’t no panto, this ain’t no country club either…) Come into your set-up as late as you can and leave as soon as the joke has been “got” – unless there really are more (ie different) gags to be had or your comic conceit can be taken into a new or surprising direction.