by Jonas Polsky
If you’ve found this article, you’re probably staring at a blank document titled “Comedy Sketch”, with the insistent cursor blinking back at you. You need to complete this sketch, you want to complete this sketch, but for one reason or another, you’re stuck.
I’ve probably written three dozen sketches, so I’m by no means an expert, but if you’re a beginner, and writing your first or second sketch, you may find this guide to be helpful.
I can’t tell you how to be funny, or how to write a funny sketch, but if you already have a funny idea, and know how to write jokes, I can nudge you in the direction of completing a sketch.
Writing sketches can be daunting at first. If you’re a stand up comic, you’re used to assembling one-liners, and the thought of filling up six pages with comedy seems like a marathon. I’m going to share a few tips for amateur sketch writers that will hopefully help you transform an empty document into a completed sketch!
I’m going to assume that you’ve done stand up comedy at least once or twice, or you’re the cut-up in your college dorm, or otherwise interested in comedy. If you don’t regularly write jokes or funny essays, you’re skipping a step and may not be ready to put together a sketch.
What is a Sketch?
Let’s talk about what a sketch is for a moment. A sketch is a lot like a stand up comedy act, only the jokes have been split in half, with one person saying the setup, and the other person replying with a punchline. One character acts as the “straight man”, and says something serious, while the other character responds with something silly.
Excuse me, do you know where the subway is?
Of course, we’re standing in the subway right now.
Uh, no we aren’t.
These roles can reverse during the exchange, with characters alternating between silly and serious, but ultimately a sketch is a series of comic interactions that follow a setup/punchline format.
Excuse me, could you please not put your feet on your desk?
Oh, this isn’t my desk.
Well, could you please take your feet off of THIS desk?
These aren’t my feet — they’re prosthetics.
The Golden Rule
When you get stuck, remember that the only thing you need to do is write another line of dialogue or action. If you keep writing characters talking and responding to each other, pretty soon, you’ll have written the entire thing.
Here are some tips that I recommend for knocking your sketch out quickly.
Start Writing NOW
The best time to write a sketch is the moment you come up with the idea. When inspiration strikes, start writing. With the idea fresh in your mind, you’ll find that whipping out a three to five page sketch only takes around forty-five minutes. If you put it off until tomorrow, or stop after writing only a few lines, it’s likely that you’ll never get around to finishing it, so strike while the iron is hot.
If you come up with an idea when you’re in a situation where you can’t physically write, like if you’re stuck in an elevator, or on the Moon, jot down as much of your idea as you can on your phone, or some scrap paper. Hours later, the great opening line that inspired a sketch, or the sketch’s ending that you came up with will be completely forgotten. Take notes.
Outline as You Write
Don’t think that you need to construct a rigid outline, or even come up with the sketch’s ending before you start writing. Just write the first line, and as you go jot down ideas and bits of upcoming dialogue at the bottom of the page. Each time you pause, or need inspiration, go through the notes you’ve written to see if the answer is there.
When the sketch is finished, read through the notes a final time, and make sure you used everything that you wanted, then erase the list.
Trim the Fat
Take a look at every joke you’ve written, and every bit of dialogue and remove anything that isn’t required. You’ll often find that out of a handful of jokes on a subject, there will be one that’s not quite as funny as the rest, or appears late enough that the point has already been made and you don’t need it. Yank that dialogue.
I read in a book that in a script, “every line is on trial for its life.” Your sketch should follow the same rule. If a character walks in and announces he’s from Chicago, and it doesn’t serve the sketch, rip that line out. Sketches need to hum along and get from joke to joke, and get the audience to the sketch’s ending without any lulls.
A lot of the technical elements of a sketch can throw you off on your first few attempts, so here are the most common speed bumps, and how to get past them.
People will stumble at the very first stage of their sketch, when they try to come up with a hilarious title. Most of the time, I give the sketch a generic name, and two or three lines in I go back and replace it with a joke, or pun. “Restaurant Sketch” is a perfectly good title. The title is there only to amuse you, not the audience, so save your energy.
Yes, a professionally formatted script will have concise slug lines that set the scene. They look like, “INT. BEDROOM - NIGHT.” If you’re writing your sketch for fun, or you’re going to produce it in a high school gym, you don’t need a slug line, because there’s no lighting or even a set.
Slug lines exist in scripts to let the production know what set to prepare, and how to light it for photography. If you don’t plan on filming your sketch, feel free to ignore them. Opening a scene with, “It’s a teenage girl’s bedroom, at night” is fine.
You know your character is at an airport, but what should his name be? “Tim”?, “Clarence”?, “Albert”? Okay, Albert, but what’s his last name? “Albert Smith”?
You don’t need to decide what a character’s name will be as soon as you start. If you have a man and a woman in your sketch, it’s okay to call them MAN and WOMAN. If by the end you’ve thought of names you like, use CTRL+H to replace “MAN” with “ALBERT.”
If you pause, you’ll probably stop, so don’t fret over character names, when you need to focus on the hard part, writing a funny scene.
Coming up with an Ending
Every exchange between your characters should end with something funny, likewise, the sketch itself should have a punchline. Your sketch’s ending doesn’t have to be “The Sixth Sense”, and it shouldn’t be so bizarre that it undermines all the actions in the sketch, but just a funny “tag”, that ends the scene on a laugh.
I frequently don’t have an ending in mind when I begin a sketch. As you’re writing, you’ll come up with several different ideas on how to end the sketch. Let it come to you.
If it’ll get you to shut up, I’ll sell you my baby.
"SELL?!" I just wanted to rent it!
Writing is Rewriting
Keep the cursor moving. Your masterpiece won’t be completed in one draft, so you don’t have to type up a polished joke on each line. You’re going to do several revisions until the sketch “sounds” just right, so don’t spend too much time on each joke during your first draft. The most important thing is that you keep moving forward and filling up the pages.
Once you’re “done” writing a sketch, you’re going to go back and read the finished product. You’ll notice a line, or word that needs to be changed, and once that’s been revised you’ll read the finished product again. Then, you’ll find something else you want to change.
Keep revising the sketch, looking at each punchline and action until it’s as funny as it can be. When you can’t find anything to improve, it’s time to hit “Save” and toss your computer out the window, ‘cause your sketch is finished!
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