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What Does it Take to Be a Sketch Artist?

Date: Dec 31, 2015

A sketch-comedy nerd shares some of his secrets


Welcome to Behind the Scene, TDF Stages' ongoing series where theatre artists write about their creative process.

For 10 years, until parenthood ruined me for comedy, I was a writer and performer in an award-winning sketch-comedy troupe in Texas: the Latino Comedy Project. We put on full-length original shows every year, toured, performed in festivals, and even had a few viral videos, notably an immigration-themed parody of 300.

If your only experience with sketch comedy is TV shows like Saturday Night Live or Inside Amy Schumer, you may not realize that there's a thriving international scene of live troupes that play institutions like The Second City (with outposts in Chicago, Toronto and Hollywood), LA's The Groundlings and, right here in NYC, Upright Citizens Brigade (also in LA). Furthermore, you might not know what sketch comedy is all about. Here are six secrets we sketch-comedy writers and performers live by but don't share (unless you ask --- we're nice that way).

Sketch is not improv and improv is not sketch. Plenty of performers (see Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell) can move seamlessly between improvisation and scripted comedy. But sketch-comedy groups and improv troupes are completely different with their own ways of generating long-form material and their own stage tricks. Sketch troupes typically love sets and costumes (when feasible) while improv performers eschew any extras. Sketch performers sometimes think improv people are just comedians who can't memorize lines while improvers wish sketch nerds would stop agonizing over whether saying "pickle" is funnier than "corn on the cob" in some lame script about a lawyer's bathroom habits.

Sketch comics listen for laughs and revise accordingly. If you see a sketch-comedy show one night and then return to watch it again a week later, you'll probably notice huge differences. That's because sketch writers take out jokes that don't work and constantly tighten up material. "Faster, funnier, shorter!" is the sketch-comedy credo.

We love running gags. Nothing pleases sketch-comedy performers more than recurring threads in seemingly disparate bits, or callbacks to jokes earlier in the show. We want to make sure you're paying attention!

A good sketch is timeless. A well-written comedy sketch can be performed again and again for years… assuming the material doesn't feel more dated with every passing week. That's why political sketch comedy has such a short shelf life and why using current news as inspiration is risky if your troupe doesn't perform frequently.

YouTube is the greatest thing to happen to sketch. Just as the advent of TV did in the '50s (Your Show of Shows, The Ernie Kovacs Show), the rise of internet video has created another golden age of sketch comedy. See Key & Peele, Funny or Die, and all those Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show bits everyone posts on Facebook. Online video has made sketch comedy instantly sharable and just the right length for a work break or smartphone quick browse. Bonus: YouTube gives you a chance to watch classic sketch shows from eras gone by.

Don't call them "skits." Ever! They are sketches. Skits sound like something you put in your pants to hide underwear lines.


Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer and sketch-comedy nerd in Texas.

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