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What I Learned from Sketch Comedy

I’m two sessions away from finishing Sketch 201 with DSI Comedy Theater. Since January, I’ve spent most Saturday afternoons sitting around a table with other sketch students, talking about what makes comedy work and figuring out how we can make ours better. Why am I doing this? One, because Tina Fey is my hero. Two, because I’ve always liked writing funny stuff. Three, because I felt like it.

But more important than why I’m doing it is what I’ve learned. I’m not done yet, so I’m sure I’ll learn more, but here are some of the things I’ve taken away, that aren’t necessarily about the mechanics of sketch writing.

I can sit down and write if I must. I’ve always been that idiot who thinks academic writing can absolutely be forced, but creative writing can only happen when the muse strikes. All of the writing books will tell you that you just need to put your butt in a chair and write, but like many people, I always thought, Maybe that works for you, but not for me. Nope. Turns out it works for me, too. But what I’m writing at that first pass might not be great, and that’s okay, because…

Sometimes the first draft is really the outline, and that’s okay. In addition to taking this class, I’m working full-time, taking a graduate level Digital Humanities course, and just finished performing in an operetta. That means writing time must be squeezed out, and there was one day when I had about 45 minutes to get my sketch done. This meant I didn’t have time for careful planning and brainstorming. It meant the writing was the brainstorming. I weekly send my instructor a note that says, “This is a very rough draft, I’m so sorry, I’m still working out my ideas.” But of course, that’s what drafts are for. In a research paper, you might be able to create a detailed outline before you sit down to write, but you’ve done a lot of the intellectual work already. In creative writing, the writing is the intellectual work.

The best comedy comes from pain. The funniest things I’ve written have consistently been when I’ve taken on something that depresses me. A sketch about how desperate librarians are to prove their relevance – how hard they are working to demonstrate their natural awesome – while at the same time not losing track of how much they really love the work? Hilarious. A commercial parody recruiting teachers to work in North Carolina, taking every change the legislature has made to gut the career and making it sound like an enticement instead? Priceless. Sometimes I actually feel worse after writing these – but they’re still funny.

I’d rather write satire than anything else. I’m very content to view fluff, but I want my comedy to mean something. I’d rather be South Park than Family Guy. (Which is not to say Family Guy is never satirical, but I think if you run the numbers you’ll find South Park is satirical more often.)

Specific = funny. A librarian pulling her pants down to show people her hip tattoo? Funny. A librarian pulling her pants down to show people her hip tattoo of Ranganathan’s laws of library science? Funnier.

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