9 out of 10 Things You Write Are Crap

9 out of 10 Things You Write are Crap

In college playwriting, we only ever talked about the structure of a play and how to construct it. We approached it from the artistic point of view. What I've found myself longing for is an approach to writing from the business perspective. Second City, while also a very funny place, has been expanding and making money for more than 50 years. They know a few things about the business of writing.

9 Out of 10 Sketches Suck

Second City produces a lot of work. They have at least four shows running at a time. Each show has up to 30 sketches in it. That's 120 hilarious sketches. That means that about 1080 sketches were also written that really blew. Thinking of it that way, I feel a lot better about my own writing.

With that in mind, the focus of our class was on idea generation. We worked with various ways to come up with new ideas, individually and collaboratively.

The Del Close Set Up

Del Close was a Second City actor and director who put a lot of thought into how to come up with new ideas quickly. The idea of this exercise is to write the first three lines of a sketch and then move on. After you have a bunch of beginnings, you can choose a few things that are working.

Here’s the outline:

  • A: Who is Character B, and where are they?
  • B: Who is Character A, and what’s happening in the scene?
  • A: Raise the stakes and center it on the relationship between the two characters.

For example, here’s a bit that funny guy Mike and I put together.

  • Mr. President, we have a situation in the ball pit.
  • For the last time, you’re my Secretary of Balls, I need you to take care of this.
  • Fine, I’ll take care of it. But if you shaft me one more time, I quit.

From there, we both continued the scene and went in different directions. The Del Close set up inspired both of us with the first three lines, though.

Pitching in the Writer’s Room

Our class also worked on how to pitch a sketch idea to a group. This is great for sketch comedy companies and TV writing (SNL, 30 Rock). This was a pretty straight-forward way of thinking about a sketch.

Each pitch needs:

  • Set up - Who, where, what’s the relationship
  • Problem - What’s happening in the scene
  • Solution - What’s the end result

We briefly touched on structuring a whole show. For example, Saturday Night Live has most of the best sketches in the first half. These all have good solutions. Ending a sketch is the hardest part. So the sketches that are a little clunkier get relegated to the last half of the broadcast, when fewer people are watching.

Miscellaneous Concepts

Finally, a few random ideas for how to generate ideas for writing.

  • What’s Different? - Take something mundane and normal, then make it absurd. Example: a drive-through where you buy emotions.
  • Relationship Triangulation - Two characters against a third. The humor ensues when they take opposing sides. Example: parents vs. child.
  • What’s Before/Beyond? - Take an event we’re all culturally aware of and explore what happens immediately before or after it. Example: what happened to Lincoln on his way to the theater?
  • Clash of Context - Take two opposing ideas and merge them together. Example: we watched a sketch from Paradigm Lost (Second City) where office mergers change management style at work like a radio station changing its format (ie: country, electronica, hard rock).

Start Writing Now

…is a mantra I tell myself. It’s amazing that in five days of sketch comedy class, we covered something I was really craving in college playwriting and never got. Not to say that college classes didn’t teach me anything – they absolutely did. Studying under Wendy MacLeod was amazing. I’m just glad to have covered some idea generation concepts to bust through periods of procrastination.

With these exercises, I hopefully won’t feel a dry spell ever again.

How I won an individual artist grant, or "Use Your Words"

How I Won an Individual Artist Grant

If you haven't heard of them before, do yourself a favor and look up the Greater Columbus Arts Council. They do individual artist grants for a variety of things. The city of Columbus funds their programming (thanks, Mayor Coleman!). And, as grant goddess Alison told me this week, individual artist grants are pretty rare. Like many things, I decided to go into this head first.

Also luckily, I happen to be a copywriter (evidence here). Which essentially means that I spend hours and hours researching the temperature of the water when I could've just dipped my toe into it. With GCAC, I asked them directly for help. Sean and Ruby sat down with me and explained their process and what grant writing involved. I learned a couple obvious things.

To win an artist grant, you need to:

  • Use spelling and grammar
  • Add numbers correctly
  • Be able to articulate what you do as an artist

All three of these could be boiled down "communicate your ideas convincingly and concisely".

Spelling and Grammar

You already know how to do this. No matter how tough you think it is, you can spell words and use commas correctly. I didn't learn everything about grammar in school, either. I don't think anyone does. I learned everything I know trying to communicate with others through writing. Or, even harder, trying to write words for others to read out loud and still communicate my ideas to an audience.

Aka, playwriting.

When you're writing, think to yourself if someone could read that out loud without ever having seen it before and if a third person would understand what you wrote. We have symbols for pauses and stops -- things that break up a sentence. They're called punctuation marks. Use them, abuse them, don't be afraid to reuse them.

Writing is about transcribing not just the words in your head, but the tone. If you need to break English to accomplish that, make sure it's worth it.

Adding Numbers

You are an artist asking business people for money. Numbers are their language, so make sure you speak it well.

Think of all the costs you might need for this project and make sure they reasonably add up. Take screenshots of prices for classes and tickets on the internet, attach them to support your grant application. Bear in mind that some numbers change (e.g., plane ticket pricing). Build that into your proposal if possible.

Articulate what you do as an artist

Here's the hard thing to accept: you don't have to articulate why you're unique. In fact. Granters may be interested in knowing what other artists you are influenced by. If you can give them a name they know, they're more likely to enthusiastically support creating another one of... That person.

My example was Tina Fey for my Second City grant application. Everyone knows Tina Fey. Why wouldn't you want more funny people in the world? Let's give this kid some money for classes in a different city that Tina Fey also took.

Boom. Money.

Think of this like a pitch for a movie. Ideally, you're doing something new and interesting. However, you need to say what else it's like so that the investors know how to sell it. People will like seeing my work if they also enjoy Edward Albee, Tina Fey, and Dan Savage.

No one wants to give you money if they haven't heard of you. They will pay more money for something that resembles Robert Wilson in his formative years, but with a little more Liberace thrown in.

I got money for my education and so can you!

GCAC is an amazing resource for any Columbus area artist. They have a monthly deadline for three different individual artist grants: Professional Development, Performing Artist Travel Expenses, and a Supply grant. You can read more about qualifications here.

Why Don't We Encourage Kids to Mock Art?

Seriously. I am asking you to please, please encourage your children to make fun of art. Whether it's art on the street, commercials on TV, or in a museum. Everything is fair game. In fact, you should start mocking art, too.

Fresh from a museum trip to Chicago, I've returned with a small collection of photos orchestrated by a very good friend of mine. She loves to go to museums and take pictures of herself and friends imitating what statues are doing. Because we visited the Art Institute of Chicago, we abstracted the idea a bit further. Any art was fair game if we could think of an interpretation. This led to especially fun antics in the contemporary wing.

And only one security guard gave us any trouble.*


What I got out of it

Besides fun? A lot.

I'm a notorious museum browser. I loves me some art, but I move at a quick clip through exhibits so I can see it all. Kind of like flipping the channels on a TV. I move until I find something I like, snap a photo (no flash, when allowed), get a photo of the nameplate, stare a little more, and move on.

Even in the best museums (The Tate Modern!) and the ones I'm least invested in (The Louvre), all the art can start to look the same after awhile. That means I'm tired. Maybe not physically, but my brain just can't take any more art. Or history. Or science. Whatever kind of knowledge is in that museum, I can take much more.

Museum designers know this. That's why great places have great spaces. For example (because I'm also fresh from it), The Field Museum offers plenty of opportunities for kids to touch and play on exhibits. It promotes learning while keeping them engaged. The Art Institute, with its slightly older member base, is sprinkled with delicious and aromatic cafés. These engage senses that aren't already exhausted from the day. You can plan a route that lets you hit lunch at a reasonable hour and still hit coffee and dessert in the Mid-20th Century.

Mocking art between these artistic food oases helped me:

  • Slows down the pace
  • Break up the day
  • Get the blood pumping and ideas flowing
  • Help me remember art based on context
  • Start conversations


What your kid gets out of it

My list of benefits is exactly the same as what you need to get your kid behaving (running in the galleries, really?). Teachers and parents note that kids don't pay attention, don't take their time, and don't have meaningful engagement with art on field trips. They want to wander around and have fun with their friends.

So why not let them?**

'Mocking' the art helps kids (and adults) stay focused on long days of learning and get more out of the visit. Posing next to art to mimic it helps them cooperate and plan as a team in an artistic context, talk about what they want to pose with and don't want to pose with, as well as helping them remember particularly fun pieces.

Mocking arts helps kids by:

  • Making them take more time on a piece-by-piece basis
  • Keeps them from getting bored
  • Keeps energy and engagement up
  • Provides lasting memories of artistic experiences
  • Helps them talk to peers about art


Mocking is play; playing is fun

Similar to the NYTimes article 'In Defense of Teasing' from 2008, the moral here is that what kids already do is probably most beneficial for them. If it's fun, our minds get more out of the experience. Funny how evolution and socialization work.

Don't believe me? Try it the next time you're at a museum. Wait a few days, then try to remember pieces that you saw. I'll bet you mostly remember pieces that you imitated.

And please, please, please tweet your best picture at me (@MackWorrall). This is less of a shameless plug for my Twitter account and more an attempt to get an influx of funny art pictures to my daily social media rounds.


* To be fair, there was some lying down on the museum floor involved. ** Depending on age, I don't necessarily condone letting your kid run free in the museum. First of all, stranger danger. Secondly, art is expensive. Third, I'd love for you to not be banned for life from any one institution. It's not fun.