What I Learned from Writing Sketch Comedy

Chicago Writers Conference’s very own Amanda Claire Buckley shares how working with sketch comedy has influenced her writing process. Her company, Off-Color Comedy, will be performing “The Out of Tooners” at Sketchfest this week. 

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 Pitch Actions. Not Ideas.

Writing for sketch begins with pitches from the writers and actors: these can be characters, games, sticky situations, etc. Coming from a literary background, it took me a long time to understand what made a “playable” pitch. You see, when it comes to communicating with actors, concrete tasks are better than abstract concepts.

For example: “Lucy gets lucrative job because she’s smart and cunning” is not a playable pitch. Where do you go from there? However, “Lucy tricks her way into securing an interview by distracting the secretary” is a playable pitch. It gives the actor something to do rather than something to think about or be.

This is a variation of the rule “Show, don’t tell”. When you sit down to work, don’t ask yourself to write an idea. You’ll just freeze up. Instead, illustrate an action. The best way to combat an empty page is with a playable pitch.

Improvise. Then Edit.

The next step is often to improvise a scene for the purpose of experimenting—no one intends for this to be seen by an audience. After a scene goes on its feet, the director, actors, and writers talk about it. What worked? What didn’t work? What do they want to keep? How might they change it? After this, they improvise the scene again with different choices. They attempt to surprise themselves. Then, the process repeats and after a few times through, the writer will then walk away and solidify the final script on paper.

How can you improvise in your own writing? Give yourself a playable pitch and then go for it: ask only that you complete the action, writing from point A to point B without stopping or thinking. When you’re done, read it back out loud. What works? What doesn’t work? Then, write it again from scratch: start a whole new page. Try something new. Surprise yourself. This is about producing the clay, which you then can mold.

 Make your Collaborators Look Good.

 It’s unbearable to watch two performers or trying to out-do each other with laughs. Truly great sketch has performers working together to make each other look as good as possible. Sketch, at times, must be an egoless endeavor. As a sketch writer, I learned that it wasn’t about the elegance of my writing as much as it was about working with the actor’s strengths.

While writing isn’t always a collaborative effort, it’s always obvious when an author is writing to stroke his own ego as opposed to serving the demands of the stories and characters. Instead of asking if you’re writing is “good”, ask yourself what your story demands, what your characters ask for.

Have Fun!

Nothing kills comedy like performers not having fun. If the performers are having fun, the audience will feel it. Whether on stage or on the page, an artist’s joy is infectious, so have fun playing with characters, plot, and language. The more fun you have, the more fun the reader will have so give them what they want and enjoy yourself!

Amanda Claire Buckley is the Social Media Assistant for Chicago Writers Conference as well as a writer and senior staff member of Off-Color Comedy. Their show “The Out of Tooners” will be performed on January 18, 2015 at 2pm on Stage 773’s Thrust Stage. For more information, check their website or like them on Facebook

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