The first time I got my hands on a documentary about Paradigm Lost, a sketch revue from The Second City in the 90s that included Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, and Rachel Dratch, and was directed by Mick Napier, it changed my life. In fact, I watched it a dozen times in the first couple months I owned it, and dozens more after that. Prior to this, I primarily knew about sketch comedy from watching Saturday Night Live and MadTV every weekend. But after doing improv for a couple of years, this documentary brought to light the myriad opportunities theatrical sketch could provide a comedian. Suffice to say, I became obsessed.
Years later, I found myself in the Directing Program at Second City, a rigorous program that only accepts six directors per year, and I was finally able to understand, on a much deeper level, the amount of subtlety and specificity sketch comedy demands of its creators. What solidified this understanding was the week we discussed a particular blackout – a short, very quick scene that primarily serves as a one-off joke in a revue.
Brian Gallavan (you may know him from his online videos “Sassy Gay Friend”) did a blackout that would crush night after night. Then slowly, over time, the moment that usually got the biggest laugh ceased to get the laugh. After several nights of not getting the audience reaction he knew he should be getting, Brian went back to the tapes to dissect the scene and discovered the problem. Brian realized his line originally ended with an inflection that went up, but the laughs dissipated as his inflection began to go down. He switched his inflection back to going up, and the laughs returned.
From that moment on, I knew the amount of strict specificity I brought to each and every process was not me being hypercritical of the writer/performers, or being an overbearing director…it was me being sensitive to the emotional journey needed to bring the audience to the desired result: a laugh.
Now for the most part, when it comes to comedy, we are looking to make people laugh. Laughter, a byproduct of our material (we hope), is simply the release of built up tension. Improperly executed, we don’t get the correct rush of neurotransmitters that generate a laugh. So it is up to us as creators to find the most efficient, unexpected way in which we are able to communicate a message, and then on top of that make it funny. We have to ensure we’re building and releasing our tension properly. In this way, we can take a subjective art form such as comedic theatre and make it a more universal experience for the audience.
Through these years of revelations, study, and practice, I further learned that sometimes the heartiest, most genuine belly-laughs came from the release of tension built upon the more dramatic moments within a scene. I learned that if I wanted to make jokes, I should be doing stand up, but since what I was creating was theatre, I should be taking the audience on a roller coaster of emotions – a journey. This gives the audience a full, human experience and makes those jokes even more powerful. It’s the difference between leaving a show and telling someone “it was funny” versus telling someone “it was incredible!”
Nowadays, I’m cognizant of the material I’m putting into a show, and make sure to incorporate a few dramatic and heartfelt moments. If you have never done that before, I encourage it. Case in point was a show I did in Austin, TX for an LGBTQ+ group I created and directed. We had a speed dating scene that was generally lighthearted for several minutes, then gradually became more serious until we were – rather unexpectedly – at the most pivotal, dramatic moment. You could feel the audience holding their breath it was so quiet. After building tension for a solid minute, we released that tension with a surprise callback in the scene followed immediately by a blackout. The laughter was deafening, more than any other joke in the show. It was because of the tension we built through drama that we were able to create this reaction.
With this in mind, and for the past several years, I set out to create a sketch comedy curriculum that had its foundations in powerful techniques aimed at structuring the artist’s writing and incorporating practices which, more often than not, result in a more proficient comedian. To accomplish this while concurrently giving artists the freedom to play around and discover their unique voice has been my goal for a long time.
I invite you to come along on a journey into The PIT Comedy School’s new sketch writing program. The only one of its kind in New York City, and one that is designed to give you a well-rounded education to prepare you for the world of creating your own, original comedy material. I am elated to share with you everything I have learned over the past several years to help you get to where you want to be. Whether your goal is to write for SNL, act in a movie, or become an educator yourself, my goal is to evoke and strengthen the skills you’ll need to get there.
I’ll leave you with this: as a collective, the audience knows more than you on what is and is not funny, what does and does not work. It is up to us as comedians, then, to decipher their responses to the art we create so we can present a final product they’ll feel was worth the money they spent, and give them an hour to escape from reality. If the audience can leave feeling more aware of the world around them, more aware of the variety of perspectives people can have on varying topics, and most importantly, leave in a better mood than when they came in, then we as comedians have done our job.
Director of Classes
The PIT Comedy School
|Check out Keith’s upcoming Sketch Class beginning Thursday, February 14th|