A few handy hints and tips for the aspiring sketch writer, from an aspiring sketch writer.
A SINGLE CONTROLLING IDEA
The best sketches are generally those with a clear and simple purpose or idea behind them:
Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch: Cleese wants to return a parrot, Palin doesn’t want to let him.
Armstrong and Miller Fighter Pilots: Contrasting the stiff-upper-lip attitude of WW2 with the perceived lazy and entitled youth of the noughties.
Two Ronnies Fork Handles – Customer persistently asks for goods which sound like other good. Hilarity ensues. (For about the first two minutes of what is an eight minute sketch)
These sketches set out their controlling idea and stick to it, exploring the ramifications and never deviating. This is good.
Work out what your sketch is ABOUT, and if there’s bits of your sketch that aren’t about that, then maybe you’ve written two sketches which need surgically separating.
WHAT DO YOUR CHARACTERS WANT?
Unless you want your sketch to be a meandering bit of banter between two characters, you’re going to have to give those characters wants and/or needs. That’s what will drive your sketch, and how you’ll know you’ve got to the end, because your characters will either:
a) have what they want
or, more likely
b) have failed utterly.
With hilarious consequences, of course.
By which I mean, if the joke in your sketch does not arise from the character or the situation, and can stand alone, it probably doesn’t belong in there. Set it free.
AVOID CLICHED CHARACTERS. AND STEREOTYPES. AND CHAVS.
That last one is important. Comedy is too potent a weapon to be aimed at the powerless, no matter how annoying you might find them. Punch upwards! Fight the power! Don’t kick a social group when they’re down. If your sketch is about how stupid, evil and lazy chavs are, and look, they eat Greggs pasties and shop at Primark the idiots then well done. You just gave David Cameron an erection, and you know what he does when he has one of those. Your sketch just fucked a pig.
IMITATE LIFE, NOT OTHER SKETCHES
Keep your characterisations and references up to date. Shop workers don’t call customers “sir” any more. The police don’t say “ello ello ello”. Doctors don’t say “and what seems to be the problem?” any more. The great sketches reflect their times; yours should reflect our time.
HOMOSEXUALS ARE NOT INTRINSICALLY FUNNY
I don’t care how camp they are. This isn’t 1975. Gayness should no more be a defining character trait than straightness.
The punchline is in there, and it’s probably not a pun. Also avoid the following endings “I’ve heard of… but this is ridiculous”, “Get out!”, and “You’re fired!”. I’ve done two out of those three ad I still feel dirty.
AVOID SHOCK FOR SHOCK’S SAKE
Some of us have seen what happens when you stick a reference to a recent tragedy/atrocity into a sketch for shits and giggles, and it’s not pretty. Alienating an audience is easy. Getting them back onside is not, and if they feel you’re just pushing their buttons with no good reason they are going to hate you.
GET IT WRITTEN
This is really important. If you have an idea for a sketch, get it written. And then, and this is important, get it rewritten. This takes the pressure off the first draft. The first draft will most likely not be as funny as you thought it would be. And that’s fine! That’s normal. If you really want to take the pressure off, try to write the shittest version of your idea. Anything to get it down on paper. This will also allow the next few ideas to come bubbling to the surface of your mind. Then you can get them written too. And then rewritten. And so on…