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How To Write Sketch Comedy
Dead Parrot Sketch John Cleese and Michael Palin
Sketch Comedy Techniques
Sketch Comedy: A series of short comedy scenes of between one to ten minutes designed to prove a case to be true despite the humourous conclusions proposed.
It is important to appreciate that Sketch Comedy involves constructing a scene based initially on story telling principles. Introduce the characters and situation, develop the story, reach a mid-point where the central character dilemma is revealed, resolve the problem of the central character, conclude with a commentary on the dilemma and the relevance to the audience.
Sketch writers should probably begin at the end. What is the idea that they want the audience, or "all of us" to appreciate? Comedy has the power to shape and mould opinion by subverting it.
Paul Reiser, US Actor and Comedian with his own show called The Paul Reiser Show, says that he: "...always loved comedy, but I never knew it was something you could learn to do. I always thought that some people are born comedians ... just like some people are born dentists."
Reiser's ironic statement creates the comedy, after all, who is born to dentistry? And it is here that they key to successful sketch comedy lies. Take an assumption commonly held by people everywhere, or common to your audience country or culture, and subvert it with comparision.
One common misconception about sketch artists is that they invent a new comedy every night, rather than honing routines over weeks or months. If you have every followed a comedian's work over time, they will have a wide repertoire including sketch, stand up and some form of comedy theatre. One thing that all successful comedian's have in common is that they have their own "voice" or "flavour". You don't get that all at once. You develop your voice over time. So get writing and put something out there.
Entire Dead Parrot Sketch
Sketch Comedy Structure
Sketch Writers Have Superiority Complexes.
Woody Allen said: "Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes, comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue."
The Dead Parrot Sketch from "Monty Python's Comedy Circus" is considered a masterful piece of Sketch comedy, containing all essential elements. Watch the video and consider this list below.
A good sketch contains:
Superiority: In this case the premise is "the customer is always right". The customer, Praline brings back a dead parrot to a pet store which he purchased half an hour before. All sketch comedy takes a common assumption and subverts it.
Slapstick: As Praline tries to prove the parrot is dead, he begins to smash it over the counter creating much humour as the conflict between himself and the shopkeeper escalates. The shift between superiority and the deception of the trader is noticeable. In the minds of "all of us" we relate to situations in our own lives where we have found it difficult to get refunds.
Deception: The Shopkeeper is caught and has to admit he nailed the parrot to the bar to improve sales. The Sketch builds its case for "the customer is always right" by alleging that traders promote products that are not worth paying for by using shocking selling tactics.
Repetition and Distraction: The Shopkeeper tries to deflect Praline's anger and requests for refunds by saying "beautiful bird, lovely plummage" often. This increases Praline's anger and causes "all of us" to empathise with Praline. We are now fully engaged with the problem he is experiencing. This is the mid point of the sketch.
Cliché and Exagerration: Praline describes the parrot's demise using a series of cultural cliche's and exagerrations. The end result of this aggressive emphasis is to get a promise from the shopkeeper that his brother's shop in Bolton will refund the dead parrot for Praline. This is the start of resolving the problem for the central character.
Face to face appeal: Praline exits the shop using for the first time commentary on the situation for "all of us" in the audience. He says "to get anything done in this country you've got to complain until you're blue in the mouth." The political purpose of this sketch is realised, clearly, the customer is not always right, and often is intimidated into accepting shoddy products. This was a hot topic in the early 1970s when the sketch was made, as the rise of consumer TV shows with conveyor belts loaded with supposed "quality" goods entered the homes of everyone. Mass consumerism was on the rise, along with retail snobbery and a reluctance to exchange or refund faulty goods.
Repetition with Scene changes: Used again as Praline searches for the alternate pet store to refund his goods. The scenes change now as our character explores their dilemma and attempts to solve it.
Disguise: The shopkeeper wears a moustache and various other characters thwart Praline's mission to get a refund. There are some comments on the unreliability of British Rail and the unhelpfulness of a service that was previously high quality. This repetition and disguise sequence further emphasises to all of us that things have changed. We feel superior and with Praline.
Signs: The use of words on signs to emphasise the point of a sketch is poignant towards the commentary the sketch writer wishes to point to. "A similar Shop" is a comment that all shops are getting this negligent, and "Later on ..." emphasises the frustration of consumers everywhere.
The successful Monty Python script using sketch comedy makes a case and uses comparison to subvert, communicating a political view that is unique to the comedy artist and writer.
Little Britian USA Vicky Pollard
Sketch Comedy in the 2010s
Little Britian USA - Vicky Pollard
Watch the video and compare the sketch comedy structure above as you view. It moves through exactly the same structure and technique. The only difference is the use of signs at the end, where the girls themselves become a sign, albeit a semiotic one.
Slapstick battle - using catchphrase
Deception of authority - counselling young girls in boot camp?
Repetition and Distraction - character (Vicky) forced to engage with authority
Cliché and exagerration - Vicky's life and the other girl's costumes
Face to Face appeal to all of us - uses voice over and sarcasm
Repetiton with scene changes - character explores camp counselling
Disguise - David Walliams disguised as a woman
Signs - girls become babblers
I hope you now understand the techniques and structure of sketch comedy and can go on to write one of your own. Resources for further study are recommended below.