Make ‘Em Laugh

Online comedy as an alternative to short films ☛

Despite their length, short films can take as long as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to get made. Raising the money is nigh-on impossible; even if you do get funded you’ll never get quite enough money, so you have to finagle favours. Those take months to come through, then when you do get it finished you have to hold off showing it to the public while you wait to see if Cannes is going to bite. While you’re waiting for your local screen agency to come good or your wealthy relative to die, there is something you can do that will get you behind a camera and bolster your body of work: online comedy sketches.

Why would a comedy sketch be any easier than a short film? Partly because most take place in one location and they’re rarely more than 5 mins. long, so they can be shot quickly and easily. The real difference, though, is down to production values. The audience has no reason to expect a short film to be any less polished than a feature film. Lights, professional cameras, sound mixes and grades all cost money or take time to cadge. With a sketch, however, we expect little or no polish – we’ve all seen prime-time TV shows where sketches are made with the simplest set or no set at all. Sketches don’t invite you to get lost in a world of almost tangible reality, they ask you to suspend your disbelief while we run a crazy idea past you.

Last year after a drunken dinner, my friend and colleague Gavin Boyter showed me an online sketch made by Will Ferrell. There’s a reasonable chance you’re one of the 77 million people who’s seen The Landlord sketch on Funny or Die. In case you spent 2010 in a Tibetan monastery, here it is:

You don’t need me to tell you that the reason it’s been seen by more people than live in the British Isles is as much down to the appearance of Mr Ferrell as the quality of the writing or concept. Ferrell or no Ferrell, Gavin and I decided to make a sketch to put on that site. We came up with an idea with the help of our friend Selena before the last bottle of wine was empty. The sketch was duly written and then shot a short time later, in a single morning, with comedy actor friends Dan Mersh and Jeremy Limb at a grand cost to the exchequer of £9.84. You can see the result here:

CLICK ON IMAGE to link to sketch

As you can see, we’ve not quite managed to compete with Mr Ferrell’s viewership, but the ‘funny’ rating helps to make up for that. It was also nice to be able to come up with an idea and just make it happen, without having to wait for the money.

Meanwhile in another part of London, two of our friends had struck on a similar idea. The Blaine brothers had all but forsworn short films, but they too recognized the virtues of the comedy sketch and gave the world ‘0507’:

They too managed to make the film using friends and available resources, although they obviously took a lot more time on lighting. The results of both ‘Creation” and ‘0507’ exceeded our expectations. Despite the films being slapped up on the internet as soon as they were done, they both managed to make it into reputable film festivals – ‘0507’ even got approving words from Mr Rob Brydon on something called Twitter.

So what’s the trick? What makes a good sketch? An online sketch is much like a TV sketch but with the added challenge that you have to hook your audience harder. If you’re watching a sketch show on the telly, some of the sketches will make you laugh, others will feel weak, but you’ll probably keep watching. The online audience is far less patient – if you haven’t promised them something funny within the first minute, they’ll not sit through to the punchline. For this reason it’s important to get to the point where we understand the central idea of the sketch pretty fast. This idea is the one-line pitch of the sketch: in the case of ‘The Landlord’ it would be ‘a man tries to negotiate with his problem landlord who’s a two year old’. The premise isn’t exactly a joke and may not even raise a laugh in itself, but it has to promise laughs. The moment the audience hear that this is what the sketch is about, whether by being told about it or just through watching it blind, they need to think ‘yeah, that’s going to be funny’.

The current fashion is for most sketches to have a central idea that is observational in nature and often mundane. While a feature film looks for the universal in grand themes – lost love, revenge vs. forgiveness, the need for personal sacrifice – a comedy sketch will speak to more day-to-day shared experiences – forgetting a chore, pitching for a job or even taking faulty goods back to a shop (the Monty Python ‘parrot sketch’). It’s a much more disposable format and can afford to be specific to a particular country or community or even to a moment in time – like how we interact with a new piece of technology. Sketches don’t really aspire to be timeless works of art.

A Norwegian Blue, pining for the fjords.

So how do you turn ‘changing a fuse’ into comedy gold? This usually comes in the way you escalate the situation, often to absurd levels. John Cleese is not just taking back any faulty good, he’s taking back a pet that was dead when he bought it: surely no shopkeeper could argue with that? But Michael Palin’s pet shop owner has the audacity to try, and comes up with the craziest excuses. A metaphor turned real can also be a good strategy – Will Ferrell’s nightmare landlord is not only as unreasonable and demanding as a two year old: she actually is a two year old.

As with any drama, conflict needs to be at the centre of the situation, and that conflict must be emotional in some way. For this reason, many sketches are two-handers with a protagonist and an antagonist or a funny man and a straight man – two opposing forces. Given that sketches aren’t trying to sell themselves as real, you can really push the emotional conflict to unnatural heights; the bolder the emotions, the funnier the sketch will be.

The other key thing is to make most of the comedy spring from behaviour, rather than jokes. If you look at classic sketches there are comparatively few where the characters are being deliberately funny. As with farce, much of the comedy arises from the characters’ genuine emotional reactions to a crazy situation; in fact the less they see the funny side of it, the funnier it will be for the audience. This behavioural approach has become even more dominant since the ‘The Office’, ‘Marion & Geoff’ and Sacha Baron Cohen’s various characters.

Of course if you have no particular interest in comedy, making a sketch isn’t going to help your career much. But if you are heading that way, or even if you simply crave the satisfaction of coming up with an idea and just making it without having to wait for the money, then why not? Even if you just like making people laugh, you could do a lot worse than spending a few days making a sketch then putting it up for the world to see.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

Dan Mersh and Jeremy Limb are appearing live in ‘The Trap‘ from tonight until Sunday 28th Aug. Click here for details.

Click here to see the sequel to ‘Creation’, directed by Gavin Boyter

Click here to see the latest sketch from the Blaines’ (edited by yours truly)

To be sent my articles as they come out, hit ‘sign me up’ under the photo of my happy smiling face at the top of this page.

4 Responses to “Make ‘Em Laugh”
  1. Carlo Ortu says:

    Good article and couldn’t agree more. Check out my sketch ‘The Last Man On Earth’ if you get a chance.

    The last man on earth decides to take some drastic action.

  2. Gavin Boyter says:

    I second (or third) that… shooting God: The Appraisal was a comparative breeze and seeing the results so quickly online and receiving positive feedback was a boost to the confidence as well as, potentially, the career.

    And crucially it gives you camera time with actors. Would you trust a pilot who’d only flown for 10 hours in a year? Probably not so much. We all need to earn our wings.

    Thanks for writing this!

  3. As usual I agree with everything you say… just wanted to add the delightful coda that Cariad Lloyd who you’ve hopefully just watched in 0507 has just been nominated for the Best Newcomer at The Edinburgh Comedy Awards.

    Those are the ones that used to be the Perrier’s. But which are now sponsored by Fosters. And remember, every time you call them a Perrier Award a tiny Australian fairy dies.

    I mention this not just because we’re all delighted for her much deserved award, but because whilst making this film was not a direct influence on her Edinburgh show, her sketch work with us has been of a lot of value to her in pushing her career forwards. Not least because the first sketch we made together “Kitty, Kitty Romford” was highly praised by Rob Brydon who then gave her a quote which up until a few weeks ago was one of the key press tools she had to draw in an audience.

    So it’s not just directors who benefit from these things, a good sketch is of great value for everyone involved.

    And in case you’re wondering what Mr.Brydon loved so much, have a look here…

    much love

  4. Joe Tunmer says:

    Another salient posting, Mr Ducker – keep up the good work. And if a 2-minute comedy sketch sounds too much like hard work, this site provides many funny (and some not-so-funny) reasons not to try harder:

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