How Comedy Sketches Work
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
In this blog I describe how the classic comedy sketch works. It is a form that has endured. You can hear examples from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore through to Monty Python, into Not the Nine O'Clock News to Mitchell & Webb, SNL, Key & Peele, Catherine Tate, right up to more offbeat shows like Jam, Cowards and Cardinal Burns.
A clash of points-of-view
The classic sketch has a clash of perspectives. Essentially:
* one character has a normal point-of-view - that we the audience understand and share.
* and the other character has an abnormal, conflicting point-of-view (POV).
The comedy comes from the clash of perspectives and watching the two characters dancing around each other, trying to get their way, both stubbornly sticking to their own point-of-view. One entirely rational, one entirely irrational – but both believing they are reasonable, or at least acting as if they are reasonable.
This is the classic “funny man/straight man/”, although a better way of putting it is we have an unreasonable and a reasonable character, essentially a:
The protagonist is the character with the unreasonable POV and the foil is the one who highlights their strangeness by maintaining a reasonable POV. The foil is often a funny character in their own right, albeit maintaining a rational POV. An extreme example of the rational POV foil is in John Cleese & Graham Chapman's Monty Python Parrot sketch, Cleese's character has the reasonable point-of-view but is the funnier character. He is rightly outraged at being sold a dead parrot! It is an entirely normal, rational point-of-view. It is the pet shop owner played by Michael Palin who has the unreasonable point-of-view - believing that he can get away with it. Cleese is actually the foil to his madness! Sketch ideas are essentially games. Mike Orton-Toliver of Free Association described the Parrot Sketch to me as "trying to defend the indefensible", which is a succinct way of boiling it down to its essence. This game can be played in multiple different ways. For example, in an earlier version of the sketch (written for the show How to Irritate People) an obviously broken car was being returned to a garage. It was only later when the sketch was re-written for Python that Chapman suggested changing the car to a parrot. Different purchase, same game.
In the parrot sketch, the customer returning the dead parrot is also playing a game: to find as many different ways of saying "it's dead" as possible. These 'games' are played out in the writing but they are very much like games that might be played in improv, and indeed improv can be a great way into sketches.
Observe that the emotion of the protagonists are often out of synch. For instance, one person can remain calm, while the other gets angry. Or one can be embarrassed while the other isn't. Often it is the character with the normal worldview that is getting emotional. And the emotions tend to build through the scene.
Watch the following classic Fry & Laurie sketch where we see:
* a normal, reasonable police officer (foil) trying to deal with the peculiar point-of-view of the member of the public (protagonist).
* his peculiar perspective being that names can be non-verbal.
* note that the character with the odd POV feels that he being entirely reasonable - if anything he believes it's the policeman who is being unreasonable.
* and notice that at the end of the sketch the policeman suddenly buys into the strange point-of-view of the other man. (This is a common strategy for ending sketches as we shall see.) In this case the normal character is buying into the strange character's perspective in order to turn the tables. * in the writing, the game here for the 'names' man is to act as if these weird names are entirely reasonable and to be baffled by the policeman's lack of comprehension.
* the game for the police officer is to stay normal, professional and straight (at least until the last).
Here two characters embody the two points-of-view. With sketches where there a number of characters the two points-of-view still applies. Eg – a normal couple and a mad marriage guidance counsellor. Or a normal football coach and a mad five-a-side team. In this great Key & Peele sketch we see an unreasonable teacher and an entirely reasonable class. The game is for the teacher to mispronounce the kid's basic names - and the character game is for a teacher formerly from a tough inner-city context failing to adjust to his new class.
It is possible of course to have sketches where the everyday reasonable point-of-view is not represented – basically everyone in the scene accepts the mad perspective. I call this a 'one point-of-view' sketch and we will explore this below. There will usually still be conflict of some sort though – conflict is a key engine of comedy.
Over many years of directing, script-editing and coaching sketch comedy I have developed my own model for how comedy sketches are structured. This is a very effective way of looking at sketches in
terms of quickly being able to write clear, well structured material. You still of course need the spark of comic inspiration and writing flair but this approach gives you the framework in which to be brilliant.
The above sketch - and all sketches that follow the classic format - follow this structure:
In the above sketches:
FRY & LAURIE
SET-UP: A man wants to make a report to the police. The policeman asks for his name.
REVEAL: The man's name has the sound of a dropped lighter as part of it.
ESCALATION: They go round and round the issue of the name and then a variation is introduced - his address has a tap dance in it.
PAYOFF: The reasonable policeman takes on the behaviour of the unreasonable man - in order to turn-the-tables and get revenge. (This is a common kind of sketch ending - the reasonable character taking on the behaviour of the unreasonable one).
KEY & PEELE
SET-UP: A teacher from a very different, tough inner-city school takes an inappropriately hard line with his new pupils.
REVEAL: He gets the first name wrong.
ESCLATION: He gets more and more names wrong - and become furious. Eventually he sends the boy to the headmaster - also getting the head's name wrong.
PAYOFF: A boy does pronounce his name as the teacher does. (same kind of ending as above - someone from the hitherto reasonable side takes on the unreasonable behaviour).
Let's look more closely at this structure:
Structure 1: Set-up/ Reveal
A one liner joke consists of:
a SET-UP and REVEAL (usually called set-up/ punch in the stand-up context but 'reveal' is more useful here, especially when we considering longer sketches.)
E.g.: I hate people who think it's clever to take drugs...like customs officers. (Jack Dee)
The classic comedy sketch follows a similar pattern:
1. SET-UP (creating expectations/ giving information/ setting the scene) 2. REVEAL (the comic concept is revealed in one clean hit)
In a quickie sketch (anything up to around 30 seconds), the twist is revealed and the sketch finishes. Here is an example from Smack the Pony.
Note that there can be laughs in the set up, often character-laughs, but the crux of the comic idea comes in the reveal. A set up without laughs tends to be three or four lines, and can be as short as one line or even half a sentence.
In the previous Fry & Laurie policeman sketch the set-up is visually seeing the police station, officer and man then the words "your name please sir". That's all that's needed to set it up. Then the man says his name "Derek" (DROPS LIGHTER). That moment is the reveal.
Structure 2: Escalation
In longer sketches, like the Fry & Laurie one, after the set-up/ reveal there is then a period of escalation. Escalation is where the comic idea builds in absurdity.
Note that longer sketches nowadays tend to be around 2 to 2.5 minutes. Anything over 3 minutes feels very long. There are exceptions though and you can find longer sketches - for example in Amy Schumer's show - but they need to keep developing the idea to retain our interest.
Sketches often tend to escalate through one or more of these common devices:
* Repetition * Variations * Revelations
Repetition The situation gets stuck around one problem and the same issue repeats over and over again with the absurdity being upped each time. Here is a great example of this approach, staged and filmed in a novel way.
Variations There are new versions of the original reveal. The policeman name sketch features a variation - his address also contains non-language elements but this time it is dancing and physical contact, thereby upping the ante.
We discover more and more about the situation as the sketch develops. A classic example of that is Not The Nine O'Clock News Constable Savage sketch. As you watch this notice how what we know of the situation is incrementally increased through a series of revelations, in effect a sequence of further reveals:
Here's a more recent sketch where more and more revelations fuel the escalation:
Structure 3: Pay-off
I tend to use the term pay-off for the ending of a sketch as the word 'punch' tends to imply one line or one quick bit of action, whereas sketches can often enter a pay-off section that is a number of lines.
* a very common pay-off in the classic comedy sketch is what I term the reversal.
* where one character suddenly reverses their position to buy into the perspective of the other one at the last.
* we saw this in the Fry & Laurie policeman sketch. The above Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch also has this kind of ending - in that the senior police officer at the last agrees that there is a place for the constable in the police (just in another division - the then notorious SPG.)
As well as being a reversal the Fry & Laurie policeman sketch ending is also where the normal character turns the tables on the difficult one. Here is another example of that kind of ending from a Mitchell and Webb sketch. Observe too that it's set-up/ reveal/ escalation/ payoff and that there are two points-of-view despite their being more than two people. (The worldviews are one guy thinks he's great, no one else does.)
Another common ending is what I term the false dawn – where it seems for a moment that everything is resolved but then at the last we discover that it isn't. Here's another Rowan Atkinson sketch, this time live on stage, that exhibits a false dawn ending - the normal father briefly believes everything is all right again... but it isn't. (Note the set-up/ reveal, escalation/ pay-off structure again too.)
Sketches are built on one-idea!
Classic sketches are built on one idea, basically one clear game. In a quickie, you hit the audience with the idea and you’re done. For example the idea in the Smack the Pony swimmer sketch is that a nervous, incompetent swimmer does a very impressive, posing warm-up.
In the longer sketch you escalate the game through the scene, introducing no totally new ideas. The Fry & Laurie police sketch is about a man with a name that has a physical action and sound as part of it. It then escalates with the address but this is not a new idea just a variation of the original one.
You don't need to reveal the entire game at the outset as we see with the Constable Savage sketch reveling more information as it develops but it is still based around the one idea of the blatantly stupid and racist police officer. This 'one idea' aspect is key - a common failing of new sketch writers is that there are simply too many ideas. An exception to this 'rule' is when you get into more surreal or anarchic sketch comedy which also tend to have multiple points-of-view.
One point-of-view sketches
All of the previous sketches take place in the world we all live in and the funniness comes from someone behaving bizarrely in our world (usually with others trying to deal with them.)
* some sketches though take place in an alternative world where the bizarre is normal - and there is no sane or everyday voice querying the the central oddity.
* for example, the acclaimed Armstrong & Miller Airmen sketches are one point-of-view sketches.
* the characters all buy into the airmen talking as they do. There is no normal person in the scene confronting them about their bizarre speech.
The following is is one of a series of sketches, but taken as a stand-alone piece:
* the set-up is the German officer entering and speaking to the British pilots.
* the reveal is their bizarre speech.
* the escalation is the increasing absurdity of the conversation.
* the pay-off is a reversal pay-off where one of the Germans (the guard in the background) suddenly joins in with the absurd speech of the airmen.
* and note the whole thing is basically one idea - WW2 airmen inexplicably speak like modern youths. This is the game of the sketch.
In my model the classic sketch structure is:
SET UP REVEAL ESCALATION PAY-OFF
Often built around a clash of two point-of-view and developing one game.
Eg: Sketch idea: Customer wants to buy condoms but the shop assistant won't serve them for their own prudish reasons about sex out of marriage.
The set up is CHEMIST/ MAN WANTS CONDOMS Reveal is: YOU CAN'T HAVE THEM BECAUSE OF MY PRUDISHNESS Escalation is: THE ARGUMENT THAT ENSUES
They dance around this situation, with each trying to get their own way.
PAY-OFF: A ‘reversal’ pay-off could be the hitherto normal man suddenly joining in with the prudishness at the end.
And as we have seen you can also have one perspective sketches where no one is querying the central madness. Let's say the comic idea with our example chemist sketch is that the man wants to buy condoms for his dog.
• In a two point-of-view sketch in our world the chemist would find this odd and would be struggling to deal with the man.
• In a sketch in a parallel mad world, the chemist would find this perfectly normal, and there could even be a whole range of condoms for dogs. But there would be some other issue creating the conflict.
Keeping this structure and dynamic in mind, and adhering to the one idea discipline, and keeping in mind the game that is being played, will ensure that your own sketches are clear, well structured and in a form that audiences and industry script-editors will recognise.
For more on creating and writing sketches, read this blog I wrote for the Comedy Crowd.
And for a whole lot more on sketch plus sitcom/ comedy drama - with stand-up and improvisation too - see my second book Creating Comedy Narratives for Stage & Screen.