How to use improv to write sketch comedy
Yeahhhhh! Finally cracked it. I’ve run this workshop a few times before but never felt like it reached it’s full potential, but this Saturday sketch comedy course there were some amazing sketches popping up one after another – blam blam blam! Here’s a collection of things that we found helpful:
Explorer, Artist, Judge, Warrior
This is more of a concept than a technique, it comes from Roger von Oech’s ‘A whack on the side of the head’ and is for any creative project. You basically have to take each of those roles as you go through the process. As applied to sketch comedy using improv and other techniques:
Explorer: Goes into the world. Reads about subjects. Absorbs information. Writes lists of things. Doesn’t worry about what’s funny and what’s possible. Explore a subject before you know what’s funny about it.
Artist: Plays with the information from the explorer, plays games, mucks around, haves fun, turns things on their head. Takes it to new dimension. Doesn’t worry about what’s funny and what’s possible. Play with a subject before you know what’s funny about it.
Judge: Picks out the funny bits, best bits. Decides what is going forward. Decides what could be done with being played with more. Any clown can tell you what’s not working, the more experienced people will be able to spot what is working and build that up instead.
Warrior: Making it happen. Driving it through to a finished product. Getting scripts, props, actors, venues, audiences etc.
In reality they actually overlap more than that, but that’s the general idea. The process freezes up when people accidentally act in one role too early – as in judging their first thoughts before they’ve done any exploring, or trying to be funny before they’ve actually explored a subject to be funny with, or being a warrior with a project that hasn’t actually got any content yet.
So explore, play play play, spot what works, build that up, play play play, record, refine, rehearse, produce, perform, re-evaluate.
We employed a few different writing techniques throughout the day, even though the workshop was predominantly about the improv and using scripts as the inspiration for performance rather than the be all and end all.
Write a Sketch in 10 Minutes – did this right at the start of the day. No warm up, no guidelines, no help. I think writing is held under some kind of mystical reverence sometimes so I like to get rid of this right at the start and just get people doing it no matter what. Fastest way to learn is to do. Some people were in judge mode, even though it’s an impossibly difficult task, and were then surprised that actually really good stuff came out. There’s a hidden gem in all writing when you are improvising from it, and actually this technique produced one of the funniest sketches of the day. Do NOT judge or critisize these pieces, that’s not the point of the exercise.
Break The Rules – write down at the top of the page a well known situation, occupation or location. Underneath write down all the rules that make up that thing. Social rules, legal rules, unsaid rules, etiquette, professional rules, whatever the concept means to you. What’s the essence of that thing? What is the normality for that thing? Be obvious and write out loads, the more obvious the better. Now take the rules and write down in a line the breaking of each rule one be one. What’s the opposite of that thing? How can that truth be reversed? Now go through the broken rules and exagerate and extrapolate, and then write down a sketch based on this.
Who What Where Relationship Attitude Objective Situation – making sure your sketches and characters have these things
Repeating and Escalating – start with a subtle pattern of behaviour, repeat and escalate
Reversal – what usually happens in this situation? What’s the normal process? Reverse this, make a sketch out of it. For instance fireman usually get called out to put out fires with water that comes out of their hoses. Reversing generating a sketch about arsonists that get called out and have fire coming out of hoses.
Ridicule – ridicule someone famous who deserves it!
Switching – switch a well defined character to a different situation in life but keep the same behaviour from their normal situation. For example two doctors doing the washing up with the same care as an operation “spoon. Spoon. Sponge. Sponge. I need 50mg more fairy washing up liquid.” You can also just switch the patterns of behaviour across characters.
Exaggerating – Exaggerate a well known character, situation, relationship etc.
Role Reversal – take well known groups of characters and switch their normal roles. For instance parents start acting as children. Sitcoms do this all the time.
Improvising from the Scripts
We learnt this from The Penny Dreadfuls when they came to do a workshop. It feels like it shouldn’t work but it actually works really well. Once some scripts are written it’s tempting to sit down and go through them and re-write, but actually at this stage this is putting you into Judge mode way too early and it’s better to just keep playing. The writing techniques are Explorer and a bit of artist, the improviser in charge is full Artist and loads more stuff comes out. Also surely it’s best to see the sketch live on stage earlier rather than later? We can then play with real actors and laughter rather than intellectulising it.
So, actors get into pairs. One runs over to the piles of scripts and picks up one sketch that’s been written by someone else. DO NOT pick them or judge them or choose them, just pick one at random otherwise you slip into judge mood.
They then learn the lines without talking, don’t even decide who is going to do what part, don’t talk about the sketch, just learn the lines.
Then they go on stage and with 100% commitment just launch into the sketch. They probably don’t know who will play who, or the lines, but by going for it with commitment the sketch idea jumps to life. Random ad hoc lines happen, characters form and suddenly we have a real thing we can play with! You can then later re-write, add bits, and play with it but the important thing is PLAY PLAY PLAY don’t think think think. When you do see it pick up on what’s working what is funny and expand that, picking up on what isn’t working is easy and meaningless. So pick up on the bits that take off, what’s behind those bits, is there a deeper game or concept, expand that stuff.
Game of the Scene
This was by far the most helpful and fun bit. I do whole day workshops on game of the scene but we just gate crashed it into an hour, it produced some awesome stuff.
1. Director gives the actor the situation so they don’t have to worry about that. Where they are, who they are, what they’re doing, locations, occupations etc.
2. Actors play that as dead obvious and normal as they can, just do the normal situation.
3. Stop after 4 lines or so. It’s tempting to do more but with experience the game always presents itself accidentally within about 4 lines or so, and if you go past that in this exercise the actors end up putting little fake games in and it gets mushy.
4. Get the audience to state what already happened in the scene, be obvious. They’ll tend to intellectulaise and come up with theories straight away, but really get them to just be obvious and stick to the facts. It’s amazing that even with just 4 lines most people won’t actually remember what got said.
5. Get them to then express this as a game:
– What was the first unusual thing that happened?
– What are the rules of interaction and behaviour that have popped up in this scene?
– What repeats and escalates?
– What do they want?
– How are these games and rules connected?
– If this person does this, what does the other person do, and vise versa?
6. Get the actors to do the scene playing the defined game hard, and let the game escalate.
7. Ask the audience what was working for them, simplify the game, and do it again.
8. Repeat. Play. Have fun.
9. Record and refine etc.
The ones that worked best were when:
– The game was interactive and connected between the characters. One effected the other to do something, which made the other do something else. If the game was just in one direction it didn’t feel as alive.
– The game could be summed up and explained in one simple line. Simplifying became an important skill. Too many games and too much explanation and it becomes mushy, one simple line done well and expanded made captivating stuff.
Going to do more of it now, more workshops like it, and also use it in a YouTube sketch project I’ve got going on.
Next sketch comedy courses starting soon.