Chicago has a long, illustrious career with comedy. I’m confident calling it a world capital of sketch and improv comedy. I’d say that under oath and not even quiver. Just like training, the most effective sketch comedy is a product of fine-tuned collaboration and creative--yet disciplined--development. Let’s look at some secrets that make sketch comedy hit on all cylinders and how they can apply to your training initiatives.
1. HIT THE PREMISE FAST
The urge to carefully set things up is understandable. Letting characters kind of hang out and discover the bit naturally seems fair and gentle. But eh, nah. The audience wants to laugh pretty fast, as it turns out. They want the writer to have already determined what the main funny premise of the sketch is and to present it quickly. Setup is important--you don’t want people to miss an important detail of the setting or character relationship--but you can typically get those things out effectively right at the top. The sooner the characters can start speaking and behaving funny, the better.
2. RAISE THE STAKES
Once you have your premise established, you want to keep attacking it, exploring it, and building it up for comedic effect. This can be very enjoyable for an audience, who, feeling confident now that they understand the basic source of the humor, starts to feel a kind of narcotic anticipation for how it will be portrayed next.
3. EDIT LIKE HELL
Also tricky to embrace but very satisfying for writers and fans alike. Things often get funnier when you take pieces of them away. Training your reductive eye is one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself in the lurid sketch game. Here’s an example you see all the time.
DOUG: I’m not going diving today. The water is way too cold.
CELESTE: You’re not diving today?
DOUG: No way. It’s too cold!
OK we know that Celeste heard what Doug said the first time. Why does she have to repeat it? Just so she can have a line to say? And why does Doug have to then repeat that it’s too cold? This might seem like a natural way for humans to interact, but dialogue should be efficient and heightened in this performative context.
Sidenote: From an acting standpoint, it is also really uninspiring to have all your lines be variations on “What?” “Are you serious?” “That’s crazy!” or “I don’t know about this!" That character has said literally nothing of substance and feels stupid being out there. Not to mention it's a boring nightmare to memorize.
4. ADD VALUE TO EVERY CHARACTER
The trope of stock characters is that there is a straight character who plays things seriously to make another character seem extra funny in his or her behavior. This contrast is pleasing to see acted out, which is why is it’s been a successful comedy formula for centuries. Like how babies prefer black and white patterns, people are drawn to contrast in comedy. But why not make sure the straight character is also killing it, through funny dialogue or unexpected depth of character? The best sketches are the ones where everyone participating gets to pitch in on the task of making something funny happen.
5. ADD VALUE TO EVERY LINE
If you agree that every character should be valuable, the next step is trying to make every line have an impact. Flat or repetitive dialogue can either be edited out or replaced with something more interesting that offers a brief peek into the character's backstory or agenda. It doesn’t have to be a non-sequitur, just a small offering of character development to enrich the overall premise.
The traditional stand-up comedy joke format of setup, punchline had long given way to setup, punchline, tag. Or tag, tag, tag. The notion is that your setup is kind of straight and even innocuous, thereby heightening the contrasting humor in the punchline you’re about to deliver. But a lot of times, even setup should be funny. And your tags, which push the punchline to even further extremes, give you even more mileage. Find a interesting way to tell people about the weird situation you want to explore. Maybe just the wording is unexpected or maybe you can use that dialogue to build in an amusing subplot that is only implied.
6. GET OUT OF THERE
Most sketches end terribly. Having exhausted all the humor from your premise, you strand the characters to wrap things up awkwardly with some boring denouement. Oh everything is great in the produce store again? The folks in the office are still weird but for now they’ve reached an uneasy peace? Let’s have some garbage filler text to really let the audience know about it! Spare us. Just have everyone say funny things the whole way through, get a good button on the end that triggers a final parting laugh, and then hit the lights. Otherwise it’s like saying goodbye to a friend, giving them a big hug, then sheepishly walking the same direction for another block.
If your sketch is too long people will readily forget all the good will they invested in the earlier, funny parts and start to resent the present moment. Not a great way to leave an audience, particularly if you are about to show them another sketch.
These principles apply to creating great custom e-learning, too. You have a (potentially captive) audience you want to connect with, that you want to respond a certain way. Let them hear and see the important, most affecting stuff right away. Edit out the content that distracts from your most compelling takeaways or makes the experience monotonous. Use every bit of text, audio, animation, and imagery to support and enhance your message. Once you’ve made a strong case, leave them feeling energized and wanting more.