Thursday, March 08, 2007

Gags to Go launch - notes on comedy

Last night I went to Glasgow for the Gags to Go launch, an initiative by Channel 4's 4Talent project and production company The Comedy Unit. You can read the official news release by clicking the link in the previous sentence, but the essence is you've got until the end of March to submit a sketch of up to two minutes in duration.

If you're a writer, send in your script. If you're a performer, film your sketch and submit it. The best material will be performed and filmed at showcase events round Scotland in April. The ten best sketches from these will be sent out via mobile phone and email to subscribers. From there four writers or writer/performers will be selected for a four-week paid placement at The Comedy Unit, working with producers and script editors.

Among the most useful elements of the launch was a brief talk by script editor and producer Niall Clark from The Comedy Unit. He offered some technical hints and tips about writing sketch comedy. I was scribbling as fast as I could, but struggled to keep up with him, so my notes are less than perfect. Such as they are, here they are:
Most great comedy comes from characters and from situations. For example, one person explaining something to another person can be funny, if one of them is stupid. It’s even better if both of them are stupid, but the stupider one believes they are cleverer than the other.

You must never puzzle an audience in sketch comedy. Always let the audience know where they are and who they’re watching. You need to establish the situation and characters in the first few seconds. Set up an instantly identifiable situation, and then give it a twist. A good way to do this is taking people by surprise.

You have to provoke the audience into the physical act of laughing within 30 seconds. One quick method is through parody or impressions, they’re a shortcut to comedy and can be very successful. Try applying different values to a familiar world. Juxtaposition is another method e.g. sock puppets in a parody of a kids’ TV show discover drugs.

The Rule of Three is a good way to set up jokes. Have characters say two sensible things before saying the funny thing third. If you went straight to the gag, it wouldn’t be as funny as it is when following two sensible things.

Gags to Go has a maximum length of two minutes. That’s very short is sketch comedy, less than two sides. If you’re writing a two-minute monologue, that’s less than one side. You must always write to the brief. We’re looking for sketches of up to two minutes in length, nothing longer and nothing else.

Remember, each piece needs to have an instantly identifiable situation and clearly recognisable characters. There should be a story to tell or a train of thought, both of them escalating towards your ending. And you need a funny tag to finish. If you can work bathos into it, that’s good too.

For Gags to Go, you can only submit one item, so make it your best. And remember, this is for an all-ages audience, so think pre-watershed: so swearing, no nudity, no violence.

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