If you’re a sketch comedy performer, this post is for you. If you’re not, I imagine you have watched enough SNL and Key and Peele to enjoy this conversation.
#TheEarlyDraft is interested in comedic components sketch comedy performers don’t do enough of. Sketch writers and performers spend so much time focusing on aspects such as premise (this sketch is about a detective who…get this…is a mouse) and game (he will continuously get distracted from the case by the smell of cheese or the sound of…you guessed it…cats). In an attempt to nail our premises and heighten or games, what else are sketch performers leaving out? After watching a week’s worth of sketch comedy shows at The New Movement’s New Orleans Fringe Fest, I have identified three performance components I believe most sketch performers forget to emphasize.
The final sketch of Vanessa Gonzalez’s solo show, “I Don’t Know Dating” is silent. She stands on stage — a jilted lover — holding up a series of notecards which reveal messages to the audience and her fictional ex-boyfriend, one sentence at a time. The audience’s thundering response to this sketch was a reminder: great comedy is about reveals –the tension between what the audience does and doesn’t know.
Fellow performer Tami Nelson executes this masterfully in her solo show “Oakwood Glenn.” With essentially no props or costumes, Nelson keeps her audience enthralled by using each sketch to unveil an endless number of dark secrets about her characters, their world, and even the ground upon which the audience is standing. After the show, I watched fans mob both performers with praise like “My god! How did you do that?” and “Your show was like you were reading my mind.” Praise like this is earned not simply by their performance power, but also by their mutual obsession with the question: What am I revealing? About my characters. About their world. About myself. About being human.
2) Make the audience feel
Audiences come to comedy shows expecting to laugh. So it was with a perplexed, breathless quiet they watched Mike Spara stage one of his final sketches in his show “Conversations with Body Language II.” The sketch was one of those unexpected voyages into poignance that Spara has become known for. Set to the music of Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife,” Spara stands on a chair and projects onto himself a five-minute slide show of family photos. We see his father as a young man, posing proudly in his West Point uniform. We see Spara’s parents, young lovers on their wedding day. We see the his siblings grow into adulthood. We see his grandparents pass on.
The whole piece delivers an old-school intimacy that is somehow non-existent in our world of online photo sharing. As the sketch unfolded, I observed the audience not quite knowing how to react. Some folks sat unimpressed and impatient, waiting for Spara to get back to the funny business. Others sobbed as they remembered their own loved ones, contemplating how quickly life moves for us all. Spara has made his comedy home in that gray space between performance art and indie comedy. Whether or not this type of comedy is your cup of tea, one thing is true: for a comedian to reach into the hearts of strangers, past all of the defenses and actually generate emotion within them takes a level of courage and risk I applaud. To then transport that audience from a place of vulnerability back into the rocking pace of a comedy show requires a level of mastery I aspire to and one that Spara is clearly reaching for.
3) Act your ass off
So much of sketch comedy falls flat. The performers get up there and deliver the premises they’ve written. Get it, the detective is a mouse! And as a mouse, he get’s distracted by cheese! Watch all the ways he get’s distracted. Crazy right? He would make a terrible detective!
If this award-winning sketch were in fact a real one and not something cooked up in one of my fever dreams, chances are the performs would have run through it maybe three times total before staging it. The rest of their time would have been spent hurriedly gathering mouse props, memorizing mouse lines and nailing down the run order of the whole show. The result: a mediocre sketch in which the comedians go through the motions trying to convince the audience of the humor they once saw when writing the sketch which shall heretofore be known as Mouse Detective. Thus in this world where premise is king, strong acting stands out like…cheese to a mouse detective.
Watching New Orleans performer Valerie Boucvalt in her sketch group Table and Carlos Velazquez in Drunktoons, reminded me Oh right, acting! Boucvalt performs with an energy and presence that injects life into any sketch she is a part of. No matter how small her role, she brings full commitment to the character. Similarly Velazquez performs with a guttural power and man-on-the-edge instability that makes every one of his characters a wonderful time bomb you can’t look away from. I’m not asking us all to magically become better actors; I just want us to remember that we are actors! The audience doesn’t pay for a memorized reading. They pay for a show. They pay to see that indescribable thing that takes place in the space between the page and the lights.
For those who have seen little sketch outside of The New Movement or outside of New Orleans, permit me to make a sweeping generalization. There’s a lot of live sketch comedy out there, and — at the risk of sounding arrogant — so little of it is incredible. I have been performing sketch for ten years. I’ve performed in most of the nation’s major sketch festivals and sat like a hungry student soaking up shows at comedy theaters big and small across the country. Yet, the number of groups I’ve seen that have left an impact on me can be counted on one hand.
Sketch is a genre buckling under the weight of bulky premises and tenuous group chemistry. It is a form all too often clogged with lazy writing, cardboard performances and jokes about low hanging fruit like Kim Kardashian’s butt or Miley’s twerking (the kind that “funny Jeff” at your office would make).
Dear reader, you are not funny Jeff. You don’t happen to be “pretty funny.” You work at it. You care about it. It’s not a party trick; it’s your craft. That’s why you made it this far reading this post. Whether or not you are making money at it yet, you want to be the best comedian you can be. So let us commit to doing the work it takes to rise above the noise and actually make something memorable. Let us do the things most sketch performers forget to do or are afraid to do. Because when we really put in the work – when we reveal something, when we challenge the audience to feel, when we act our asses off – we give our audience something they get few other places: a reminder that they are alive.
What have I missed? Is there something that else that you think other sketch performers often forget to do? Drop me a reminder in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.