Refining my comedy sketch writing technique

The process of writing for Newsjack has made me reflect on my sketch writing technique. Up until now I have relied on bumbling about until an idea occurs to me for a comedy sketch, writing it, editing it manically through Sunday night and submitting on Monday morning.

But I’m not sure this is the most productive method of comedy sketch writing. Especially when ideas don’t just occur to me. In fact I think the ideas don’t occur to me because I am trying so hard to think of good ideas for sketches. I’m so desperate to make sure each idea is the best and funniest sketch idea that anyone has ever had in the whole history of funny ideas that I don’t let any ideas come at all.

So I’ve decided to change my method and try and build some explicit brainstorming into it.  I’ve been sitting down and trying to come up with as many different sketch ideas for a topic as I can; not judging any of them, just letting them flow. Once I have a big enough list, I pick an idea (or two or three related ideas) and run with them.

This way I avoid getting bogged down in the really obvious gags that everyone will have thought of, and so aren’t really that funny, and get through to the original and interesting ideas. Of course, some of them are a little too “interesting” to be any use!

Here’s an example. This is the list I wrote while trying to come up with a sketch about police privatisation (as everyone was!):

  • Thin Blue Line pastiche
  • Different police forces competing for criminals
  • Police owned by News International
  • You can’t arrest me. I’m a shareholder.
  • The Bill pastiche (do we remember the Bill?)
  • Midsomer murders/Morse/Lewis etc police procedural stuff
  • Police respond to highest bidder for 999 calls
  • Police introduce complex fare structure a la railways
  • Glossy adverts for police services
  • Police charge two grand to get back one grand’s worth of jewellery
  • Life on Mars pastiche (still topical?)
  • The triumph of ideology over common sense [more of a statement than a joke!]
  • Could we tie up with maths skills bit?
  • Or oil price? Can’t afford to fill up patrol cars…

As you can see that list of ideas has the good, the bad and the ugly. Not forgetting that, like Saddam Hussein, ideas have to be executed. (Sorry.) I’ve actually left out one or two ideas which I’m keeping in case they are useful for other sketches in the future, but you get the idea.

Then I actually write the sketch. I try and write fairly quickly so it flows and leave gaps if I haven’t worked out all the jokes yet.

Then, the hardest bit, going back and filling in all the jokes I left out. And looking at each line to see if it can be funnier and tighter. Basically trying to reduce the number of words per laugh.

Lastly, the final edit to make sure it still flows and makes (some kind of) sense. It shouldn’t sound like you’ve taken a plateful of one-liners, shaken them together in a plastic bag and then thrown them at a Velcro wall. And some of my sketches do sound like that.

To summarise my current technique for writing comedy sketches

  1. Brainstorm – let as many ideas out as you can
  2. Refine – pick one or two ideas to run with
  3. Write – the sketch. Make sure it flows.
  4. Tighten it up. Add gags. Make sure each of the gags in there is as strong as possible. Take out any extraneous words. (You may have noticed that my natural style is rather prolix!)
  5. Make sure it makes sense and still flows.

That’s me done. Anyone else out there willing to share their technique for comedy sketch writing? Please comment!

And now it’s time to go and write some one-liners for Newjack.

 

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