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Ideas Instructional Design

5 Lessons from Sketch Comedy

Interesting ways to tell people about the weird situation you want to explore.

Chicago is 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.

Cheerful, young African man holding digital tablet and looking at it with smile while sitting beside his work place.

1. Get to the Premise Fast

The urge to carefully set things up is understandable. Letting characters 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 premise—but you can typically establish those things right at the top. The sooner the characters can start speaking and doing funny things, 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.

Setup is important—you don’t want people to miss an important detail of the premise—but you can typically establish those things right at the top.

3. Edit Like Hell

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 cutthroat 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!

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 intentioned in a performative context. If it isn’t, it’s gone.

4. Ensure Everything Adds Value

There’s no such thing as filler in great sketch comedy. Every character and every line they speak should be in the service of one goal: making the audience laugh.

The usual comedy trope is that there is a straight character who plays things seriously to make another character seem extra funny in comparison. 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 gets to pitch in on the task of making something funny happen.

Once you’ve ensured that every character is valuable, the next step is trying to make every line have an impact. Flat or repetitive dialogue should either be removed or replaced with something more interesting that offers a peek into the character’s backstory or agenda.

The traditional stand-up comedy joke format of setup, punchline has long given way to setup, punchline, tag. (Or tag, tag, tag.) The notion is that your setup is straight or even innocuous, thereby heightening the contrasting humor in the punchline you’re about to deliver. But ideally, even the setup should be funny. And your tags, which push the punchline to even further extremes, give you even more mileage.

It’s all about finding a way to make every line perform the work of telling people about the weird situation you want to explore in a way that makes the audience respond.

Training your reductive eye is one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself in the cutthroat sketch game.

5. 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? Let’s have some garbage filler text to really let the audience know about it!

Spare us. Just get a good button on the end that triggers a final parting laugh and 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.

Bringing It All Together

These principles apply to creating great custom eLearning, too. You have an 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. And once you’ve made a strong case, leave them feeling energized and wanting more.

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