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.

A Full Week of Improv Training in 4 Quotes

A Full Week of Improv Training in 4 Quotes

I had the pleasure of putting my GCAC grant money toward classes at Second City. I'm not an actor. I sort of used to be, but I'm not any more. I was very worried about spending a week learning improv with people far funnier than I am. Luckily, I learned that I am a funny guy. The instructor was full of wisdom. So much so that this is at least a two-part article. One is about the actual 'practical' things I learned about the techniques of improv. This one is about the soul of it.

Here's a 15-hour class distilled down to 4 quotes from John Hildreth.

“You're an improv actor. Your job is to get out there and make a scene."

Use your sense of urgency and get out there. The audience doesn't want to watch you saunter up to the front of the stage, tag the other actors out, and then think for a moment while you decide what to do. Keep the momentum going.

You do this in a scene by committing to the first thing that comes to mind. Improv is spontaneous. Part of the fun for you and for the audience is figuring out how to make ridiculous things that come to mind work in the context of your scene.

"An improviser is not second to go, they are first to support."

Leading a scene is easy. You can say whatever you want to kick it off and it will be true. You don't have to react to anything. Being the other person on stage who has to take your words, agree to them, and add to the scene has the hard job.

When you're an improviser, you can't say whatever you want. Your line must organically add to the world that's already being created. It can be a weird world, but it has to fit together.

"Make it worse."

If the first character is at their father's funeral, be their birth dad. If someone sees a rat, you see ten rats and they're combining together to form some kind of rat king. Leap on any conflict to heighten the situation and really highlight what's going on in the scene.

"This isn't a class on how to be funny."

John told us this on the last day. When I signed up for the class, this was exactly what I'd hoped he'd say. While going to see improv is usually about the comedy, creating it can't be. If you're trying hard to be funny, then you're not following the three rules of improv.

Trying to come up with jokes makes you think ahead and prevents you from being spontaneous. Sometimes, comedy won't organically fit into a scene. And if someone heightens your scene, you might not be able to use the same joke.

Like many arts, you can be born naturally funny. You can also cultivate a good sense of humor, but that takes a lot more work than covering the basic structure of how to improv.