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]gmail.com