So far, so obvious. A sketch without characters would be,um, a very long joke or a short stand up set. And even then the persona of the performer gives you at least one character to play with. So sketches need characters. So what?
Well, they need funny characters. Again, obvious. We’re trying to write comedy sketches here. So obviously funny characters. Except it isn’t obvious, it is. I mean it’s obvious we need them. It’s not always obvious how to get them. Certainly not to me in the heat of sketch composition.
Writing topical comedy many of the characters come ready made. We’ve already got some idea of what Cameron, Boris, Clegg, Milliband etc are like so this gives us their comic angle on a story. But to take the last series of Newsjack, many of the best sketches introduced new comic characters we had never seen before – like the Downing Street cat diary sketch.Others gave a new angle to a public figure and got that ideal “ah yes, that really is the comic truth about so-and-so” reaction.
I look around at the best sketches and sketch writers and they are getting character right in their sketches. They have characters with their own unique comic angles on the story, who thus bring out or even counterpoint the premise of the sketch. Often character and premise are so intertwined as to be indivisible. The funny lines then arise naturally from the comic characters, stuck in that comic premise. No need to shoehorn jokes into a dull interview format.
It’s said the late Eddie Braben (prolific joke writer for Morecome and Wise amongst others) treated each joke as a miniature story. That should be even more true of a sketch. They need to want something and they need their own way of looking at the world they are in. For minor characters, there may not need an elaborate back story, but you should still think about them as a character. Each character has to have a reason to be.
Which means sketch writers have to put almost as much thinking into their characters as sitcom writers do. (Sitcom characters have to more range, and more places to go, I admit). This is why parody (using characters someone else has created) is so often used by beginning writers. (Not saying it’s a bad thing or that I haven’t done it myself, just that it can be a short cut.)
But it does mean that writing good sketches is excellent preparation for writing good sitcom (and vice versa). All the more reason to do it well. Remember it’s not meant to be easy. But it is meant to be fun.