How Comedy Sketches Work

Updated: Jun 6

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:

Protagonist/ Foil

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.

Sketch structure

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: