Comedy Is Sketchy

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As might be evident by some of the references, this entry originally appeared elsewhere a couple of years ago.

In order to succeed at writing, we’re told, you’re supposed to focus in. Concentrate on one type, one genre. Don’t spread your interests too thin. I’m not sure I agree: there are many people who succeed while writing film, and novels, and television programmes. Then again, I’m not writing any of those things, so it’s possible I’m not the best person to judge.

One genre I’ve long wanted to crack is sketch comedy. And it has largely eluded me.I do earnestly think its about the most difficult type of comedy to get right. At least with a play, you have a certain amount of wriggle room while you lay down aspects of plot and character, and even in stand up, the audience will often allow you a surprising amount of time in which you don’t tell a joke as long as you’re engaging enough. But with a sketch, there’s no such freedom. You only have one mission – get in, be very funny, get out. Preferably in four minutes or less.

I should know, I suppose. I myself have utterly failed to produce good sketch comedy. It was a few years ago, and the comedy group I was with at the time decided in a fit of foolhardiness and hubris to produce their own hour long sketch show. Due to a mixture of time and life constraints, the writing duties didn’t get shared out as equally as they should have done. My memory dictates that I ended up writing about 80% of that show. In reality, it was probably only 60 or 70%, but you get the idea: I was stretched, and it made the material that I produced was weaker as a result. Having said all that, there’s no accounting for taste: I wrote one sketch which involved Mary and Joseph being visited by Social Services, who were disturbed by the fact a baby was being brought up in a stable. I thought it was a bit of a hack job, and very likely an idea that had probably been explored by someone else already, in a much better way. But it was actually an audience favourite. Sometimes you shouldn’t be allowed to critique your own work.

I remember reading an article years ago that opened with the rather bold claim that the Beatles had killed pop music. This doubtless confused the many thousands who had previously been labouring under the delusion that the combo had in fact invented pop. The argument after the contentious opening salvo went something like this: the Beatles come along at the tail end of the fifties, when the very concept of a teenager had not itself reached double figures. Pop music is only just beginning to kick in, after about a decade of rock. Then the Beatles comes along with their perfectly formed pop songs – three minutes, chorus, verse, chorus – and the pop song stops growing, right there, before it’s even had a chance to from past an embryonic level – there’s no need to develop it any further when the Beatles have already got it so right.

the-beatles

Famous people can only walk together in the street if they’re blocking you walking the other way.

It’s a compelling argument, and I think it can be somewhat reasonably applied to sketch comedy via – somewhat predictably – Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That team, and also Spike Milligan at roughly the same time – were infamously disinterested in the so-called ‘punchline’, and began to dismantle the very workings of the sketch within the shows themselves, meaning that sketches could be very long (the entire length of the show, even long after the title credits), or very short (but repeated, cropping up at random points later, sometimes only glimpsed in the background). But the fact is, sketches as we recognise them today hadn’t really been around that long at that point. Even The Goon Show, and across the water and within a few years, Laugh In, don’t precisely deliver sketches, as such: what those shows (and arguably, the entire satire movement of the following decade) have more in common with is the music hall and burlesque acts of the preceding fifty years or so. Then Monty Python comes along and literally puts a foot in to all that, a kicking that sketch comedy has struggled to recover from, although in the US, the torch has been carried on an almost weekly basis by Saturday Night Live.

In the UK, though, sketch comedy still can come in for a lot of flack. the Two Ronnies and Morecambe And Wise are still more closely akin with vaudeville – the latter going so far as to insist that their TV shows opened in front of theatre style curtains – while, perhaps surprisingly, the better Carry On films are really a collection of loosely linked sketches threaded together by a narrative plot.  Fans of sketch comedy will state that the last good sketch show in this country was Big Train, and while that show was indeed excellent (and contained some of the finest single sketches ever, while rarely resorting to the easy shorthand of repeated characters), it ignores – unfairly – sketch group duos like Mitchell And Webb, Armstrong And Miller, and, for much of the eighties, French And Saunders.

The last pair on that list is very much worth a mention, because there’s something of a dearth of female sketch comedy on television at the moment. When F&S were on TV, the tired old argument about whether or not women were funny was irrelevant – French & Saunders were never sold as a ‘female’ sketch group: they were just funny. It’s a pity that whenever a sketch group that contains only women happens to get anywhere near a TV show these days, that’s very often what they’re sold on, which seems to be counterproductive. Even the excellent Smack The Pony fell to an urban myth suggesting that their name was euphemism for female masturabation. The boys never had to put up with this kind of pony.

It’s odd, actually, because away from the TV, on screen, a good deal of my favourite sketch groups are all-female. Partially it’s because there’s too many less confident boy groups who resort to be quite shouty, and joke about willies a lot (seriously), whereas the women will more often display a generosity of spirit, and celebrate something I’m increasingly thinking is vital to sketch comedy: joy. This harkens all the way back to the Goons, who delighted in being silly and smart at the same time, and, while their DNA is entirely different, that same joy can be found in the shows of groups like Lady Garden and The Boom Jennies. The joy is, I feel, really important to the success of your comedy sketch show. Even in sketch shows that purport to be ugly and dark benefit hugely from displaying a delight in the characters they put on stage. There’s an excellent group (this time, all male) called Casual Violence! who, despite mining some very deep furrows of dispair, score very highly over other teams that attempt material about death, abuse, and imprisonment, simply because it’s very clear that the writers genuinely like the characters they’ve created, and want the best for them, even if their lives are like something out of a 1950’s Brand X Comic book. At a Casual Violence! Show it’s not uncommon for audience members to be calling out a ‘aawww,’ pantomime like, when a grotesque villain has finally met their (well deserved) come-uppance.

I’m still considering hauling out some of the sketches I’ve already written,and coming up with some new ones (because, you know, I’m not quite busy enough already), but the near impossibility of the task gives me pause. Three minutes – be very funny – end. With, I’m now realising, characters that the audience can genuinely connect with and even love. Even if they are refusing to refund a dead parrot.

 

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