For the students in our current Sketch Writing Workshop (Sorry everyone else, it’s sold out!) here are the sketches we looked at in class, plus a bunch more to give you examples of character, relationship, and genre games. (Click on the screenshots below to link to the sketches.)
“Samurai Delicatessen” from Saturday Night Live in 1975. Buck Henry plays a customer in the deli. John Belushi plays the samurai. You can move the samurai from the delicatessen to any unsamurai-like venue and have him interact with other customers. That’s what makes it a character game. Notice how the customer always stays a customer and the samurai-deli-person always stays a samurai-deli-person. There’s no time wasted on “Oh wait, you’re a samurai, what’s going on here? This is crazy!”
“Wayne Brady” sketch from Chappelle Show. The scene is organized around the ostensibly non-threatening Wayne Brady actually being a violent sociopath (with echos of the movie Training Day) But the driving energy of the scene, the game, is Brady gleefully bullying Chappelle for thinking he was non-threatening. Notice how their relationship intensifies as they go through a series of incidents. Think of the incidents or ‘beats’ as ways of showing the relationship play out. Like the Samurai sketch no time is spent on, “Wait, Wayne, I thought you were different from this! This is crazy!”
Parody or Genre Game:
“No Makeup” from Inside Amy Schumer. The game is to parody spunky, uplifting boy band songs, in particular sentimental all-women-are-beautiful kitsch. As in the other sketches the characters still play themselves. Sketches follow the rule of, if that’s true, what else is true? If Amy stops wearing makeup because the boy band tells her to, then she’s going to start wearing makeup again because the boy band tells her to.
More Character Sketches
Subsitute Teacher 3 by Key and Peele. The substitute stays true to himself and the students stay true to themselves. The scene moves through a series of ‘beats’ that heighten the contrast. Notice how we (the viewer) are able to sympathize with both points of view simultaneously. That’s part of the fun of sketch. We can enjoy being the samurai and the customer; we can be Dave Chappelle wanting to get away from a dangerous lunatic while enjoying the excitement of being a dangerous lunatic too.
Chris Farley as the “Motivational Speaker.” Originally a Second City stage sketch that was later on SNL.
The Wayne Brady sketch above has two characters in conflict, but most relationship sketches use matching energy. Two Wild and Crazy Guys, the two SNL weightlifters, the Coneheads, and so on. The characters have basically the same point of view so they can intensify one another.
Fast forward about 7 minutes for a long sketch from the Carol Burnett Show, part of a regular sketch setup called “The Family.” (Later there was a mediocre sitcom called Mama’s Family that spun off from it.) This sketch uses the cleaning out of an attic to organize the action. First one box, they find something that sparks a story, then another box. Other sketch episodes with these characters would have them playing a board game or getting ready to go to a movie or ordering a dinner. The steps of the setup and the entrances and exits keep the sketch flowing in place of a formal plot.
More Genre or Parody Sketches
“Pre-taped Call In Show” from Mr Show. Another name for Genre or Parody sketches is ‘Idea Sketches’ because while they still need the characters to be strong and suited to the world they’re in, the sketches are really about the funny idea.
“Are We the Baddies?” from Mitchell and Webb.
The problem with idea sketches is that ideas come when they come. You can’t make yourself come up with brilliant ideas. On the other hand you can always create characters for character-game sketches by using the peeve exercise* that we used last session.
Finally here is one more idea sketch that I’m including because of how it hits the game ‘hard’ with nothing else in the scene. Notice how much it heightens in three beats. Contrast this to the long Carol Burnett or Chappelle show sketches that have lots of smaller games and callbacks playing out along with the main game.
*Peeve Exercise created by New York improv teacher and theater impresario Armando Diaz.
If you missed this go around of Big Blue Door’s Sketch Workshop and want to be on the mailing list for future workshops, email classes@bigbluedoor.