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.
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.