How to Rewrite Sketch Comedy

“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist” – Jane Smiley

Two different quotes, but they sort of say the same thing. A first draft is important, but the real writing whether it’s a book, an article, this blog post or a sketch comedy piece comes in writing the second, third and/or fourth drafts.

I just finished the fifth revision of my book, Keep Creating. In my mind, I’m done, but I have a sneaking suspicion that once I get the next copy, I’ll still find errors or paragraphs where I’m not quite saying what I want, the way I want. That’s what writing is though. It’s never complete.

Sketch comedy is no different. In fact, I would argue that sketch comedy pieces can never be finished. There are always better jokes. There is always a better game or pattern to develop. There are always tweaks to be made. Yet, when a lot of sketch writers write, they stop after the first draft and call it a sketch.

This is a mistake. At the very least, every sketch should go through a second draft. For Welcome Thru Effingham (our sketch comedy podcast)we write the first draft of sketches and then improvise when we get in the studio. It’s a little sloppy and sometimes we get real klunkers into the show. But, that’s become our process.

For STL Sketchpad, (our live comedy show in St. Louis, MO) the writers are expected to come up with a first and second draft and then we still provide feedback to make corrections to the piece throughout the month.

So, how do you rewrite a sketch anyway? I think there are three main ways to improve upon a first draft of a sketch:

  1. Improve your dialogue
  2. Get proper feedback
  3. Develop patterns

Improve your dialogue

The best way to know if your dialogue makes sense is to say it out loud as you read it. Look for where it doesn’t sound natural or feels forced. Think about how people really speak to each other. I do a lot of writing, so sometimes in my sketch comedy dialogue sounds too much like it’s, well, written. There is strong emphasis on sentence structure and speech isn’t broken off like people tend to do when they talk to each other.

So, first step – read it out loud.

Another way to improve dialogue is to think through your characters. Oftentimes as sketch comedy writers we get tunnel vision and tend to just give wants and strong voices to the main character, leaving everyone else in the sketch to just phone it in. This is a mistake. There are opportunities in those side characters to really have some fun. Also, if the character truly doesn’t matter, would it hurt to give them some wants and better dialogue?

I forget which one it is, (because I often mix up the two) but either director/writer Adam McKay or Judd Apatow have said that they give each character, no matter how small, a back story. This back story helps the actor to make internal choices that feed their actions and dialogue. Sketch comedy is a great opportunity to do that and if you do it, it will provide a lot of practice if you decide to write longer scripts for TV or movies.

Step two – give your side characters personality, desires and wants.

One of my favorite ways to provide scripts with better dialogue has nothing to do with speaking. Instead, it’s communication through physical movements. Over 55% of what we say is interpreted through our visual cues such as positioning of our body, hand movements and facial expressions. Yet, when we write scripts, we have a tendency to focus solely on words. There is a saying in writing that it’s always better to “show, not tell.”

Step three – when you can, show it – don’t say it.

Get proper feedback

When people ask for feedback it usually goes like this:

“Hey, will you read this and tell me if it sucks?”

“Sure. (two days later) No, it’s good.”

End of feedback.

What exactly does this accomplish? Not much. There are ways you can ask for feedback on your sketch that will actually allow you to write better. The more specific you can be in your request, the better feedback you are likely to get.

So, next time you need feedback from a writing partner or your sketch comedy team think about this instead:

  • Decide what kind of feedback you actually need. Are you worried about the ending, whether or not the game of the scene makes sense, are you curious if it heightens throughout, etc. Ask for that guidance specifically.
  • Decide who you want to give you feedback. If you notice someone on your team is better at dialogue then you are, ask that person about your dialogue. If someone understands game of the scene better than you do, then ask that person for that particular feedback. Cater towards your teammates strengths. It’s okay to ask multiple people for feedback.
  • Take feedback with a grain of salt. Not all feedback is worth incorporating into your sketch. In fact, sometimes people won’t understand your sketch at all. Instead of trying to force feedback that doesn’t make sense or that you don’t like – just thank the person and then move onto the next one. It’s not personal, maybe they just didn’t get it. Or maybe your sketch is complete garbage, in which case you’ll figure that out soon enough anyway.
  • Read it out loud. Whether you test it in front of an audience or read it out loud in a writer’s room, just trying it out will always be the strongest way to get feedback about your sketch. It’s usually pretty obvious after a piece is read whether or not it’s working. If people laugh, get excited or come up with more bits for you to try out – it’s a good piece. If there is silence or people are physically scratching their heads – it needs a lot of work.
  • Never take feedback personally. One bad piece of sketch does not make a person a bad writer. As long as you can see the errors and learn how to make corrections, you’re doing a great job. If a person is willing to give you critical feedback that comes off harsh, then they probably really respect you. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t even bother with you.

Develop patterns

Most sketches only last a few minutes. That’s not a very long time to set up and then explore a world. When writing your sketch it’s always better to go really deep into one thing than it is to go broad into a bunch of things. Watch any Key and Peele sketch and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. They hit one thing, one game, one pattern really really hard. I think as sketch writers (especially if we don’t get to do it a lot) we want to add every joke we can think of and don’t like removing hilarious lines of dialogue because we just love it. But, the truth is, if it doesn’t add to the actual sketch or the patterns you are setting up, then it should be removed. Save the line for another piece when it makes sense. Consider it an excuse to write another sketch.

Pattern developing or “gameplaying” truly is just a matter of repeating a weird or fun thing over and over again and heightening it each time you repeat it. When you build a fire you grab the small pieces of wood first. You start with a small flame. Then you add the medium pieces of wood and the flame gets a little bigger. Then you grab the big boy logs and toss them on top and enjoy the heat on your face. Finally, you dump an entire gallon of gasoline on it and blow the damn thing up (Disclaimer – don’t do that in real life -this is a metaphor).

Conclusion

Whether you want to admit it or not,  your first draft isn’t good enough. But, with these tips as a starting point you should be able to rewrite your sketch successfully. I mean, if a person like Kevin McDonald and the Kids in the Hall (click to read our Kevin McDonald Interview) still haven’t perfected first draft sketch writing, then it seems silly to think that you have. Get through the first draft, let it exist, accept that it’s shit and then rewrite the damn thing.

Then, let the hilarity ensue.

Keep creating. Keep writing.

-Jason

Sketchpad Comedy

PS – if you found this helpful you may like our Sketch Writing Cheat Sheet or our free ebook 3 Ways to Better Comedy

PSS- if you live in St. Louis, MO or the surrounding areas and want to write comedy with us, we take on new writers every single month. Just click Write With Us and see if it sounds like it’s right for you.

 

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