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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Saturday (1/3/09) 9:00pm - ... wherein Peter posts thoughts about the "3:34" Sketch War.

Hello -- looks like I've fallen a bit behind in writing commentary on the Friday Sketch War.

On December 19th, we all handed in sketches based on the theme "3:34am".  I had suggested "Santa", "The Recording Studio", and "3:34am" to Mr. Porter, and he opted for the weird one.[1]

We had three sketches that week.  I wrote this one, Mr. Porter wrote this one, and Mr. Robertson wrote this one(I also wrote that week's summary.)

There is one and only one thing I was happy about with my own sketch.  Specifically, I think I hit upon a structure for a comedy sketch that I'd like to use again.

First, I need to back up and explain:  sketches are different from scenes.  Scenes are about a character who pursues an objective and overcomes adversity.  Sketches are about something funny that happens, something funnier that happens, and then something even funnier that happens.  Sure, you can write an amazing miracle-scene that does both, but it's damn difficult.  When scenes try to be sketches, they feel shallow and stupid.  When sketches try to be scenes, they feel unfunny and pretentious.

This structural difference makes scenes rather easy to end:  you resolve the central conflict and the scene feels 'done'.  Sketches, on the other hand, are an absolute bear to end.  All you have is a chain of funnier and funnier events, but nothing the audience cares about is at stake, so nothing you do will resolve that and make the sketch *feel like* it's over.  The best you can do is just write a hilarious joke, bring the lights down, and move on to the next thing before anybody notices.[2]

But I think I did something clever with this.  I introduced a situation:   Sanjay is trying to make a presentation.  Then the janitor comes by and interferes in ways that are increasingly wacky.  And then the payoff at the end is that you realized the executives are preparing a LARP session.  Suddenly the wacky janitor-actions all fit together, and that resolution makes the sketch feel like it's finished.

But like I said, that was the *only* thing I liked with that scene.[3]  The topic just kicked my ass that week, I ran with the best idea I could cough up, and... meh.  None of it made me laugh [4] -- unlike my entries the previous two weeks, which had me giggling like mad.

The previous two weeks were easier to write, too.  The tragic thing about sketch-writing is that when I'm writing something funny, the first draft just 'happens'.  When I'm writing something lame, the first draft passes like a recalcitrant kidney stone.  This was the latter.

Anyway, the structure shows promise.

I was happy to see Mr. Porter trying a "list sketch" this time 'round -- I'd given it a shot for the "First Dates" round, and I was curious to see how the other sketchwar types might handle it.  Instead of dates going wrong, Mr. Porter has a protagonist (Jared) who keeps getting woken up at 3:34am in various ways.

I liked that it wasn't totally a list sketch.  It's not just a list of ways to get woken up, it's a series of wakings-up in chronological order, so we follow Jared through one damn thing after another, and the sketch has a through-line with Jared getting more and more frustrated.

I think it generally works.  There's a solid button, with Jared cooped up in a loony bin, but happy.[5]  The 'traveling to various quiet parts of the world' is a nice way of upping the ante.

Yet I found myself wishing that the things that went wrong for Jared would get crazier.  Basically, I want the audience thinking two things:  (1) "Surely *nothing* can go wrong *now*", and (2) "Oh, god, there's no *way* he would have thought to guard against *that*!"  I think we've all had that moment where we've made perfect plans to stave off some Horrid Thing That Keeps Going Wrong, and then the universe still finds a way to screw us -- so there's something deeply satsifying about seeing it happen to a protagonist.[6]

No word from Mr. Robertson about wanting sharp and/or pointy criticism, so I'll kick back and make a few vague statements.  I love the situation:  Santa gives up on just knowing which kids are naughty and nice, and commences hard-core interrogations.  And turning it political ("I pop down the wrong chimney one night and BOOM! I’m a hostage with a ransom video showing 24/7 on Al Jazeera.") is perfectly appropriate.

I think it just needs paring down -- sketches longer than a few minutes tend to get stale (y halo thar Saturday Night Live).  Go over it, make it two-thirds as long, and it'll get 50% funnier.

On a technical note, its prose is too novel-y and needs to be more screenplay-y.  Any decent screenwriting book should have pointers about that.

And that's it for the 12/19 edition of Friday Sketch War.  I am now one week closer to being caught up.

[1] Side note:  I like this method of picking a topic, though -- that is, having several people throw out suggestions and one person pick from those.  It makes the eventual topic no one person's responsibility, and by "responsibility" I mean "fault", and by "fault", I mean, "It's bloody difficult to come up with something funny to say about 3:34am."

This way, it's kind of like giving only one real bullet to a firing squad.

[2] See also:  Monty Python, who almost never ended their scenes, but just segued through from one to the next.  Side note:  even with comedy sketches that I love, I can rarely remember how they end.

[3] Okay, and I was happy with the voice for Mr. Abbas.

[4] Also, this stage direction was 'for the lose':  "A wall clock tells us it’s 3:34. The darkened windows along the wall tell us it’s 3:34am."  Too precious by half on that bit.

[5] ... though I might have reversed it -- shown the clock at the nurse's station first, *then* revealed happy!Jared in his padded cell.

[6] It also sets up a game between the audience and the writer -- the audience tries to guess how the writer can possibly screw over the hero *now*, right up to the point when the screwing-over transpires.

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