15 Steps to Building a Sketch Show

Building a sketch show is an art unto itself.  While there’s no bulletproof way to pull it together, this is how I’ve done it while directing five different shows in Chicago.

1. Find a director.

As much as you trust your own brilliance, you need another set of eyes watching the product.  Ask friends for recommendations.  If you really loved another performer’s sketch show, ask who directed that one.  Invite directors to come to your rehearsals to see if you like their style.  Pick someone you respect (and admire, if possible).  You need someone who can be honest without crushing your artistic spirit.

Protip: There are lots of terrible directors out there.  Find one who will dedicate themselves to your project.

If you’re in Chicago and need a director, I’m available. boilingpointimprov [at] gmail.com

2. Pick a deadline.

Without a deadline, you will write forever.  In my experience, it takes at least three months to knock out a decent sketch show.  Four months is better.  I’ve done it in one month, but that was an awful experience.

Secure the theater where you want to perform.  If you have to put money down to reserve a performance space, that’s even better.  Now you have to grind with a date in mind.

3. Write.  A lot.

Depending on your number of writers, you may only perform about 10 percent of the scenes you write.  Most of what you write will be derivative or simple.  That’s fine.

KC Redheart’s “Town Hall Meeting” (Directed, 2012)

The more you write, the more you’ll find yourself working in new territory.  Most of us write variations on the same scenes and themes.  Force yourself to try something new.  Don’t worry if your scenes are perfect on the first shot.  You’re looking primarily for the ideas.  You can always rewrite.

When writing, feel free to borrow/steal ideas you’ve seen elsewhere.  Of course, don’t just put up a word-for-word recreation of something you’ve seen on SNL or Inside Amy Schumer or Key & Peele.  Just consider why you find those sketches funny, deconstruct them and see if you can apply the same mechanisms to another situation or character.

Also be aware of time.  In screenplay format, one page of dialogue usually equates to one minute.  Most sketches feel really bloated beyond five pages.  Try to hit your premise as quickly as possible (by the end of the first page).  Don’t overstay your welcome.  If you have lots of great material, you can always do a callback with the same characters/premises later in the show.

4. Improvise.

Improvising tends to unlock the scenes your brain would never discover if left to its own devices.  One of my favorite tricks to build sketches this way is to use an exercise I learned at The Annoyance Theatre.  Gather your group and have each person write 10 adjectives (words like “big,” “hairy,” “quick,” or “blind”).  Then have them write 10 archetypes (like “fireman,” “vampire,” “car salesman,” and “priest”).  Cut or tear the paper so you have all the adjectives in one pile and all the archetypes in the other.  Select one paper from each.  That’s your character.  Now do a scene with it.  (You’re a hairy priest or a blind vampire or a big fireman.)  See what discoveries you make.

At Second City, I was taught that even a stereotype plus one interesting character trait can make something original.  A yokel, a jock and a politician are nothing new.  A philosopher yokel, a timid jock or a penny-pinching politician might be more interesting.

While you may choose to record your improvisation, the chances you would transcribe an improvised scene and use it verbatim are very slim.  You’re looking for the essence of the scene.  Boil it down to the fun idea and build a sketch around that.  Look for the kernel of truth or the interesting spin you can extrapolate.

5.  Do a sketch inventory.

After a few weeks (or months) of writing, you’ll have a stockpile of scenes.  Do you have multiple versions of the same kind of scene?  If so, stop writing those and consider selecting the best of the category for inclusion in your show.

SNL writers often say there are two kinds of sketches: Crazy World and Crazy Character.  In Crazy World, you usually have one sane character interacting in a world populated with goofballs.  (My favorite of these scenes is the Chorus of Fools, described in a previous post.)  In Crazy Character, it’s reversed; one crazy person interacting with a sane world.  (Matt Foley, Belushi’s Samurai, The Falconer and every character from former Groundlings Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Molly Shannon and Kristen Wiig.)  They say writers prefer Crazy World sketches, while the performers prefer Crazy Character.  A good sketch show features some of each.

Taco Tuesdays’ “5 Girls, 1 Cup of Cheer” (Directed, 2014)

Do you have scenes of varying length?  Do you have any physical scenes?  Do you have any silent scenes?  Are you using music, video or other media in your show?  How can you add more variety?  Do you have full group scenes?  Monologues?  Are there moments built-in for improvisation?  Do you have blackouts?  Do you want to do a song?  A dance?  Callbacks are the easiest laughs you’ll ever get.  Are those in your show?

Be honest in your inventory.  It’s really easy to throw up a show of ten scenes with two people simply talking to one another.  Challenge yourself to go beyond that.  Ask yourself what moments the audience will remember a year later.  Ninety percent of the time, they won’t remember what you said.  They will remember physical scenes (often silent, but underscored by music).  They will remember unusual costume or props.  They will remember almost anything new or unique.  The words, unfortunately, will fade quickly in their memories.

I like to write the names of the sketches on index cards.  Include the cast size and time it takes to perform each scene.  Put them in groups accordingly.  Variety will help you and the crowd from getting restless during the show.

6. Write what you don’t have.

You may need to force yourself to do this, but it’s vital.  I guarantee there is some sort of hole in your show.  Often, we forget to include any scenes with genuine emotion.  Sometimes, we avoid sad scenes.  Maybe we’re too flippant on a topic that deserves some heft.  Not every scene has to be funny.  Remember, an audience can still love what you’re doing, even if they’re not laughing.

Consult that inventory and make sure you’ve got killer scenes representing lots of different experiences.  If the variety isn’t there, go back to your computer and write.

7. Set up a rough running order.

After Step 6, you’ll probably find you’ve just written some of your best material.  Look at your sketches and pick the best version of each type of scene.  Have six scenes of people standing and talking?  Pick one or two.  Find a balance between Crazy World and Crazy Character scenes.  Do you have some moments of pure weirdness and play?  Smart humor?  Dumb humor?  Varying cast sizes?

When I direct, I give each cast member five votes for the scenes they want.

Geek Show (Directed, 2012)

I’ll have them close their eyes and raise the number of fingers (votes) they wish to give to each scene as I read the titles.  If someone wants to allocate all five votes to one scene, that’s fine.  Most performers spread their votes over several scenes.  If a scene gets two votes or fewer, you can probably kick it aside.  You want the cast to be excited about their choices.

Once you’ve narrowed down your favorites, take the index cards and start putting them in order.  Consider cast balance and time for costume changes.  You don’t want one person in the first five scenes, then backstage for the rest of the show.  Each person should have a moment to shine every 3-4 scenes.  Work in short blackouts or energy bursts to keep the audience engaged.  Have a fun opener and closer.  (I usually direct my teams to wait until the end to create the first and last scenes.)

Now comes the tough part…

8. Kill your babies.

Now that your focus is on a smaller group of scenes, it’s time to get nasty.  How much can you cut out of each script?  What can you clarify?  Can you make something funnier, faster and smarter?  Look over each script and sharpen it until you can’t think of any other way to improve it.

As you start rehearsing, you’ll probably learn that you have too many scenes.  It’s time to dismiss a few.  There’s likely a scene you love, but it’s just not whole.  Your director may have to break the bad news: That scene is stillborn.

Get really vicious with your material.  Don’t put up anything you wouldn’t send out on an audition tape to represent you.

9. One last inventory.

At this point, you should have worked out an opener and closer.  Consider everything in your show.  Is there some way you can set up the audience to notice any recurring themes?  The first and last scenes are great places to highlight those.

Look at all your rewritten and edited material.  Is it still fun?  Do you hate it?  Is there something that’s still too long or unclear?  Now’s the time to finalize the running order and lock things in place.  It’s almost showtime.

10. Rehearse it hard.

So many teams breeze past this step and it results in a sloppy show.  Don’t do it.  Know your lines.  Know your blocking.  Practice with costumes and props!  (Who brings what where?  Who strikes it?  Can you make that costume change in time?  Which door provides your entrance/exit?  Are you just going to leave all those chairs on the stage from the last scene?)

You should have enough rehearsal time that by the time you perform, the physical business of props, costumes, entrances and exits are second nature.

Lady Parts (Directed, 2012)

Work on your acting.  Are you being truthful in your performance?  Lazy?  You must be able to perform this material as freshly as if you were living as that character the very first time they encountered the scene.

Tech rehearsals are almost always the weak link in the sketch show process.  Don’t make that mistake.  Have your director in the booth to go over the lighting and sound cues.  Tech guys are wonderful, but they’re juggling a lot in the booth, so it helps to have another set of eyes and ears.  It really sucks when the lights don’t go on or off when they’re supposed to.  You’ve got months of work at stake, so make sure it’s not derailed by sloppy tech rehearsal.

11. Find the fun.

By now, you are so far removed from the fun part of your creation, it may look like you’re going through the motions.  Remember, the audience has never seen this.  There’s a good chance they will never see you again.  Your reputation rides on every single show.  Do you want to be the kind of show they recommend to their friends?  You’ve got to bring the fun.

Specifically, you must find the music of the scene.  Every scene has a rhythm and energy that is more important than the words.  If you’re riding the rhythm and energy, the crowd will be with you.  If you forget them, it doesn’t matter how great your dialogue is.

In a perfect world, each sketch is now like a trail in the forest.  They’re well trod and you know where they go.  You can put your feet in the footprints left before.  But also allow yourself the chance to take a quick jump off the path if you want to chase a butterfly that appears during a live performance.  If you know your scenes well enough, you can play off something unusual you notice about your partner, then circle back with them to the path without losing the momentum of the scene.  Remain open to discovery at all times.

12.  Promote your show.

In 2015, why the hell do I know performers who aren’t on Twitter?  Social media is a godsend for performers.  Use it.  Instagram.  Facebook.  All of it.  Ring the dinner bell and make sure your friends know it’s important that they come.

It’s actually easy to promote these days.  When I put up my Second City Conservatory show in 2002, I had to create a Geocities website by hand-typing HTML code.  Its URL was about 200 characters long.  I even tried writing on sidewalks in chalk to bring people in.

Before he went on to Saturday Night Live, I remember Mike O’Brien wrote up individual emails to all the people he knew, asking them to come to a play he’d written.  It wasn’t a blast email to a ton of people.  He wrote one specifically with my name in it.  It worked.  I’ll respond to a friend’s email.  I’m less likely to pay attention to a Facebook event invitation.

Taco Tuesdays’ “To Infinity and Beyonce” (Directed, 2015)

Have a cool show title.  Get some eye-catching artwork.  Put up posters.  Post on message boards.  Leverage any media connections you have.  Make some promotional videos.  You can do that simply with your phone.

Promotion sucks and it’s a ton of busywork.  Your show will also fail without it.  What’s the last time you randomly stumbled into a theater and paid money to see something you’ve never heard of?

13.  Perform.

You’ve got a show you’re proud of.  You’ve got it memorized backward and forward.  You let everyone know about it.  Now, get up there and do it.

This is actually the easy part.  By now, you’ve done so much heavy lifting, you can just play with a clear mind.

Monitor that first show closely.  If something’s not working for you or the audience, consider killing it or fixing it.  Not all crowds respond the same, so you may get huge reactions to a sketch one night and tomb-like silence the next.  If two nights go by without any sort of reaction, you might want to consider making a course-correction.

14.  Thank people.

Another overlooked step, but it’s one that matters more than you know.  We get so wrapped up in celebrating our show with the friends in the audience who came, we neglect the people who really deserve the love.

Thank your director.  Thank your tech guy.  Thank each other.

On opening night of the last sketch show I directed, I gave each performer a white rose and a handwritten note, thanking them for all their hard work.

Remember that your shows will fade much faster than the impressions you leave on your colleagues.  Be kind, courteous, professional and gracious and you will find more opportunities awaiting you.

15.  Repeat.

The process of putting up a sketch show is so time-consuming, most teams never do it again.  Some teams “take a break” that never really ends.  It’s a shame.  You’ll only get better by doing this multiple times.

By all means, take a month or so to let your brains cool, do some traveling and reconnect with everyone you shunned while creating your old masterpiece.

Just know that your team will remain stagnant until you reboot the process.  Select a deadline and prepare for your next adventure, be it sketch, improv or something else.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to get back in the groove.

Got a question about building a sketch show?  Need a director?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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