Comedy is a Trojan Horse

For the last few months, I’ve been coaching a team through the process of generating a ton of sketch material.  While most capable comic minds can come up with a funny premise for a scene, that alone doesn’t always provide enough material.

Before we proceed, it’s important to highlight this quote from the late, great Roger Ebert: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

That is to say Boogie Nights isn’t about porn stars, it’s about how all of us (even porn stars) can form a surrogate family.  E.T. isn’t about an alien, it’s about a longing to connect.  Citizen Kane isn’t about a newspaper baron, it’s about how adult pursuits are often just a poor substitute for the joys we had as children.

To create a scene that resonates, you need to speak to a larger issue.  Take Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.  On the surface, it’s just a scene about a guy who walks funny.  But the context of the scene tells the larger story.  It’s really about the absurdity of government interference and regulation.

Of course, there can be straight absurdist comedy, as in Python’s Fish Slapping Dance, but that lasts 15 seconds.  It’s merely a palate cleanser.

Being odd for the sake of being odd does have a place in comedy, but to build a sketch show, it’s probably wise to use that as a spice and not the whole meal.

One of the players I coach wrote a scene about a girl who travels back in time and is eating lunch with other girls in 1985.  While the ’85 girls talk about how much they love Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, the 2015 girl has to wrestle with whether to tell the truth about the 2015 reputations of the then-universally-beloved stars.

The first draft of this scene had the girl from the present spilling those stars’ secrets to the girls of the past.  Predictably, the ’85 girls refused to believe it.  But what are we saying about this situation?

The second draft of the scene focused on how the present-day girl was ostracized for what she said.  The ’85 girls hurled insults at her and forced her to sit at another lunch table.  Now we’ve got something.  The scene forces us to question which beloved stars of today could become tarnished in 30 years.  And we can feel sympathy for the character who says something unpopular and suffers the consequences, even though she’s right.

As artists, it’s our job to reflect the world around us.  As comic performers, we get to hide that reflection inside a Trojan horse of laughter.  Truly great comedy can change the world.

Take these two similar Key and Peele scenes…

The first is pure silliness.  I would argue the second is the stronger scene.  The idea that African-Americans sometimes have unique/unusual names is nothing new.  It doesn’t take a comic genius to point that out.  What’s great about the second scene is that it takes the same mechanism (mocking a group of people for their names) and flips it backward.  Yes, white people, that is how it must feel to have someone react strangely to your name.  This scene may make you think twice before mocking someone’s name in the future.  That’s comic genius.

When constructing a scene, select an observation about the world (e.g. the public school system is broken, wage inequality is a serious problem, racism isn’t going away).  Then decide what you want to say about it.  Then devise an unexpected way to make that point.  Getting back to Ebert’s observation, how are you going to convince the audience of your point?

When Jonathan Swift wanted to draw attention to Irish poverty, he wrote A Modest Proposal, wherein he advocated rich people should eat Irish babies.  Just imagine being a rich person 1729 and reading that suggestion.  “Eat Irish babies?  I would never!  Irish babies are people and they deserve to be taken care of.”  That quickly, your attitude goes from ignorance to caring.  And that’s the power of a well-constructed satirical idea.

Got an improv/sketch question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]


29 responses to “Comedy is a Trojan Horse

  1. Haha great work.

    Please check my blog too, new here

  2. This is amazing and applies to so much besides comedy. Well done.

  3. Awesome way to describe this! 🙂 haha love the analogy

  4. jhorel freeborn

    Reblogged this on Jhorel's Blog.

  5. I love this point about taking comedy and using it to create something much, much bigger. It is truly what the best comedy does. Very interesting concept about how we idolise celebrities

  6. you make me see things at a different point of view!👌

  7. I love the advice, because as an aspiring comedy writer, I am always looking for a way to put a unique spin on ideas that I write about. While some people find my writing absurd, what they don’t know is a lot of time there is an underlying them that I’m trying to write about and this has given me good advice on not only recognize that I do it sometime already, but what to look for in the future to make it stronger. Thanks for the great read!

  8. Just out of curiosity…which part of the MoSW skit is about government regulation?…

    • The fact that Palin’s character wants a government grant to help him develop his silly walk yet it’s not silly enough to impress Cleese. It’s a comment on how the government finds a way to regulate and interfere with everything, even something as trivial as a silly walk.

  9. > Of course, there can be straight absurdist comedy, as in Python’s Fish Slapping Dance, but that lasts 15 seconds.

    That was just an excerpt. The actual event lasts for three days, showcasing up to 300 regional dances over the course of the long weekend.

    > It’s merely a palate cleanser.

    To you maybe. A lot of country folk take it very seriously. Not all culture happens in the big city you know. To us ‘Stomp’ or ‘Cats’ is just a palate cleanser.

    Yes, we dance and slap each other with fish….. but you put sharks in tanks and put them in art galleries. Dancing is expressive and requires skill. Wearing trendy glasses, sipping white wine and talking pseudo intellectual nonsense does not take any skill. Perhaps you should take an objective look at your own absurd culture before making fun of other people’s?

  10. Pure silliness is pretty satisfying too…all great stuff. Such a fun, smart post. 🙂

  11. Reblogged this on Loredana and commented:

  12. “We look into things through comedy”

  13. This inspired me to and in future i may use your this analogy in practice for a better society…

    Thanks (y)

  14. Great post! An interesting read

  15. This is my first time stumbling upon your blog, and I want to say that this was a fantastic read, and the Key and Peele video made my day. I am a white substitute teacher at many all-African American schools and the kids crack up at the way I try to pronounce their names for roll. Too funny.

  16. I agree with your point about the two K&P sketches. The first one though, had me laughing immediately because it was just damn silly. The second is definitely digging deeper into the premise.

  17. Ah, satire. The highest form of funny to me.

  18. Well written and explained! I like how this is applicable to things other than comedy. I think it is true that having a moral or underlying theme is needed to truly captivate or interest the reader/listener.

  19. I have never seen the substitute teacher one. I love the way it flips it around! Nice!

  20. Great post, and I agree the second clip is stronger. It’s perfectly weighted: if you had cut any of the lines out of it, it would have been not as funny, yet you could probably edit out a few of the names from the College Bowl sketch and it wouldn’t lose any of its punch. I blog a comic strip every day, and have the constant challenge of making the joke work the most effectively WITHIN THREE PANELS ONLY. Glad I found your blog, I think it will be very helpful. Thanks!

  21. It all about comedy. We all love.

  22. This was exactly my thoughts about John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden. Oliver uses his comedy to show people – look at what your government is doing! It’s genius.

  23. Well written, glad I stopped to read

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