Ten easy steps to sketch comedy greatness
It seems like we're experiencing a renaissance of decent sketch comedy programming or maybe we're just reaching an Upright Citizens Brigade alumni saturation point in popular media. (Seriously, move over Second City, and SNL, your days are numbered.) It could be the internet's doing - between the amateurs on YouTube, Super Deluxe and VBS, there's no shortage of comedy gold out there in accessible, bite-sized nuggets. Rather than try to pin down how and why our airwaves are awash in sketch-length comedy goodness, I'd like to draw your attention to MTV's most recent offering - Human Giant.
Human Giant airs every Thursday night at 10:30PM. Honestly, it's the least crappy thing on MTV right now. The folks over at The Coming went so far as to say that it may reach levels of Mr. Show greatness. We'll have to wait and see whether or not I'll be watching the DVDs ad nauseum, but it's off to a respectable start. Much as nerds of yore relied on Monty Python or Kids in the Hall to form the basis of their inside jokes, I'm sure high school and college kids from coast to coast will soon be cracking each other up with Illusionator impressions. (Personally, I can't get the "Let's Go" song out of my head, and Paul Scheer was always my favorite VH1 talking head anyway.)
Watching Human Giant and knowing that many of its sketches go online before airtime got me to thinking. Any sketch comedy that airs nowadays will inevitably be compared to or, at least, have to contend with the presence of very funny, sketch videos done on the cheap and distributed online. Acceptable TV goes so far as to let viewers make their own mini-TV shows (glorified comedy sketches) that may eventually be broadcast. What I'm trying to say is that a sketch comedian nowadays has to compete with "you" - the "you" on Time Magazine.
You could be the next great sketch comedian, and you don't even need the MTV contract to do it. So, I watched Human Giant, and I thought about all the great sketch comedy shows - Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, early SNL, SCTV - in order to come up with a few simple guidelines to help you achieve sketch comedy greatness. Use at your own risk.
Don't worry about being great at impressions.
90% of resemblance is hair. A good wig goes a long way to making your impressions convincing. After that, it's all about latching on to one gesture or verbal tic and blowing it completely out of proportion. It's a caricature. Exhibit A. Dana "Master of Disguise" Carvey. Seriously, you can do better than that.
Be willing to remove your clothes.
This applies mostly to men, but ladies, I wouldn't rule it out. For some reason, the ultimate punchline seems to be removing all of your clothes. I have yet to see a single sketch comedy show in which some guy doesn't remove his pants. I'm quite serious. Sit through any show - Kids in the Hall, Human Giant, Mr. Show, MADtv. At some point, one of these guys will be in a diaper. Would Will Ferrell have a post-SNL career were it not for his penchant for dropping trou on film? And, did Sacha Baron Cohen not raise the potential of all-nude humor to new heights with his Borat wrestlemania scene? His hairy ass got an Oscar nod, people. I hope you're comfortable with your bodies, gentlemen.
If you can't be Canadian, then you must perform at either Second City in Chicago or Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. Exceptions will be made for British humorists once every ten years.
Don't be too good-looking.
This is a rule I've actually heard from many professional stand-up comedians. You have to be relatable. You want people on your side not hating you because you're too rich or too handsome. British scientists even posited what the funniest face would look like, and folks, it ain't pretty.
Get comfortable with senseless acts of violence.
If you're not sure where to take a sketch, you can always opt for sudden violence preferably resulting in large fountains of candy-colored blood spurting out of someone's body. I believe it was Monty Python that perfected this technique, but Dan Aykroyd took the gag to memorable heights with his Julia Child impression. If you'll refer back to your Human Giant premiere, you'll remember that all three troupe members died rather grizzly deaths at one another's hands. Just remember that the "spurting" element is key.
If you play an agent in an sketch...
...always pick up the phone with some sort of vulgar, frat boy greeting. When you're an agent in a comedy sketch, it's perfectly acceptable to call your colleagues "douchebags," "dicklickers" and "dirtbags." Wear a suit and shout a lot. I will, again, refer you to Human Giant's premiere episode featuring the sketch "Shutterbugs," in which they play merciless child agents or Bob Odenkirk's portrayal of Stevie Grant on The Larry Sanders Show. While Larry Sanders was not a sketch comedy show, Bob Odenkirk is the reigning king of sketch comedy greatness for participating in The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
Leak early, and leak often. This has worked wonders for The Whitest Kids You Know and Human Giant. Acceptable TV, which is arguably all "viral videos," is actually a pretty darn clever sketch show. Heck, the miracle that is viral video even made SNL relevant again for, like, five minutes.
Do You Need a Name?
Does your band of merry pranksters need a name? If so, they should have a cool, completely incomprehensible band-like name. Stella. Human Giant. Upright Citizens Brigade. Kids in the Hall. Monty Python's Flying Circus - what does that even mean? You get the picture.
When in doubt...
...make fun of local newscasters. It worked for Mr. Show. It worked for Dave Chappelle. It was an entire series - Dog Bites Man. The same premise can work for you. That deadly combination of forced repartee and big fish, little pond vanity never seems to get old.
If you're going to capitalize on your sketch comedy success and make a movie...
...make it a broad sports-themed comedy. I know we're running out of sports for successful former sketch comedians to satirize, but you're a creative person. Let's see. Sketch comedians have taken on dodgeball, paintball, figure skating, race car driving, soccer and ping pong. If you include Caddyshack, golf is out. I know there's a body-building movie in development with a group called Exploding Pajamas. Baseball and gym class are getting sent up by a new series in development called Gym - executive produced by who else, but Will Ferrell. So, that leaves curling, archery and Gaelic football?
Bonus Point: Ask Mary-Lynn Rajskub to guest star. Comedy fanboys (and Rush Limbaugh) love her.