Format & Layout
Layout is not as important as you might think, especially when it comes to sketch writing. As long as you follow a few simple rules, you should be okay. The idea of a standard layout serves merely as a guideline with regards to the length of the sketch. Usually, a page will equal a minute of screen time.
WITHOUT NEEDING TO REFORMAT A STANDARD WORD PROCESSOR PAGE:-
Scene headings stand on a separate line, and include details such as INTERIOR (INT.), EXTERIOR (EXT.), The Setting (A BAR), Time of Day (DUSK) and maybe Time of Year.
Scene description stand alone, and it may be good to distinguish it from other text by italicising.
Character names, either underlined or bold, on a separate line.
Character direction in brackets beneath this.
Int. Bar. Dusk. Winter.
The bar is quiet, and empty, with only a few lone DRINKERS slouched on stools, and a BARMAN idly polishing glasses. He is very bored.
Anyone want a drink?
It may sound stupid, but explore as many ideas and themes as possible. It doesn’t hurt to have a bulging file full of ideas, just so long as they are in some sort of written form. Even if you are unhappy with the sketch as it stands, atleast it’s written.
DON’T GET IT RIGHT, GET IT WRITTEN.
Once it is written, only then can you know if it is right. A written piece is much easier to re-write than an unwritten one (duh!).
A good tip is to write your central idea down, then brainstorm around it with other sub-ideas. For instance, you want to write about an Assassin who has become a pacifist. You might want to chart how he arrived at his new belief system, and brainstorm situations that lead him to the final punch line, where he kisses his potential target. I thought this sounded incredibly anal to begin with, but some cajoling from a potential producer endeared the idea to me.
Short of ideas? Listen to people and watch them. Even if they themselves are not funny, they might inspire you. Also, people in inappropriate situations are always good – e.g. Pissed Surgeons, Claustrophobic Astronauts, or Altruistic Lawyers.
Never set out to create catchphrases. These should be borne out of situations, never written around. Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield never do this. Character first, not catchphrase. Also, don’t be afraid to explore the tragic side of your characters – look at Ted and Ralph or The League Of Gentleman. This will make them more rounded and subsequently more fun to write.
It may sound trite, but re-writing is very important, if a little irritating. However, you can tinker with something too much, so be careful to strike the right balance. Graham Lineham and Arthur Matthews re-wrote every episode of Father Ted at least eight times.
It is much easier to revise something the length of a sketch. Not every line has to be a gag, but it helps if every line is working towards the gag. Don’t waste time on unnecessary material, even if it is funny – it must be funny in context.
Also, don’t try and drag out a sketch, even if it is tempting. Make it as short as it needs to be, not as long as you can make it. Sketches often lose their appeal if they are too long.
Context is very important. Whatever sketch show you are writing for will have its own themes and strands. The sketches written for Smith & Jones are much different to those written for Hale & Pace. If you are writing on spec, study old episodes, and try to emulate the style, but not rehash old ideas. If you are writing for a new show, you may have seen a pilot, which will help, but if you have a good producer, you will be given a good idea of what they are looking for.
Sketches are a useful tool for two reasons. One, they are a veritable mine of material, and the writing of a short sketch may be an inspiration for an entire sitcom. Absolutely Fabulous was based on a single French & Saunders sketch. I myself have written a speculative sitcom based on a sketch in a batch of material.
Second, if you are a new writer, the best place to find work is on a show that needs a good turnover of material. Sketch shows do – and often times, producers are very willing to look at material from new writers. Also, sketches don’t always take such an obvious form. Segments on The Big Breakfast or the Jack Doherty Show have to be written, and this is good breeding ground for new talent. Also, The Day Today was essentially a sketch show, albeit with a rather more structured format.
A batch of well-written sketches can also be a good calling card. I got my first commission based on a speculative collection sent to Talkback. A Producer (Victoria Pile) got to see a copy and invited me to write on Smack The Pony. I structured the batch as an episode of a fictional series – do not send Harry Enfield characters to Tiger Aspect for example, it may well not be read for copyright reasons. Everything I submitted was original work, and appealed to Victoria because it showed that I understood the notion of a show’s format. What I submitted had nothing to do with her show, but it did win a commission.