Tips for Making Comedy Sketch Videos for the Internet (and Finding the Right Collaborators)
This is a guest post by Ryan E. Hoffman. Note: it contains NSFW content.
"If you build it, they will come."
-Field of Dreams
Has a friend ever sent you a comedy clip on the web, and you thought something like, "I want to do stuff just like that!" or "That’s not that great. I could do better." or EVEN "How do I do something like that?" The truth is simple: just get out and do it. Bust a move! My goal with this post is to give you a few tips, in layman’s terms, on how to create dynamic comedy web content and skip over a few of the mistakes that my fellow comedian Nick Ruggia and I made. That way, you can do it better and shoot your own hilarious web series or sketch.
The first step is finding some people you riff well with. I had made a couple of attempts to make some online content with fellow stand up comedians, which fell through, but when I met Nick, a hippy mountain man, with curly hair, a full beard, and a Holden Caulfield hunter’s cap, it was clear that we had something going on. We swapped scripts for short films, traded ideas, and riffed on possible joke lines to insert into each other’s work. It became clear within ten minutes that we were digging each other’s stuff, and decided to shoot our first web video, "Aquarequiem for a Dream."
But it was on Nick and I, two comics from the stand up scene, to do everything on that shoot. We knew no filmmakers who owed us favors. We each had a pretty good camera, and a rudimentary understanding of Final Cut Pro, but other than that we were winging it to the best of our abilities. Eventually, we started adding pieces to the puzzle -- DPs, costumes, equipment, accessories -- all the while learning by reading books, Youtube tutorials, and of course, experimenting ourselves.
So what makes good, engaging content as opposed to mush?
In our experience it’s been shot selection, continuity, sound quality, and appropriate special effects, but everything starts with the script and your ability to tightly get the premise across.
"I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you."
The trap that most first time web sketch comedy writers get stuck in is lateral heightening. The video has one funny concept, stays about the same for three minutes, and then has a nice joke on it at the end (a button). A lot of places teach good sketch writing. I’d recommend taking a class at the UCB or somewhere comparable just to get the basics under your belt. It can really help to get the structure, and once you know the rules, you can break them in creative ways. Or, you can learn through osmosis by associating yourself with people who have taken the classes and taking what you can from them. Getting tips, tricks, and structure is probably the smartest thing you can do. Go to sketch shows. Volunteer to read for sketch teams. But if you want to jump right into it, just start watching well-crafted sketches on Youtube. This will cut your learning curve in half.
Don’t shoot without a script. Guys like Larry David and Christopher Guest can improv a script, because they’ve written so many that they’ve internalized the structure.
As my writing partner says, writing sketches is like writing an essay:
Introduction – Establish the funny concept.
Beat A – Heighten.
Beat B – Really Heighten.
Beat C – Screwball heighten (something out of left field)
Conclusion – Wrap it up with either an even more insane heightening or another joke that buttons up the scene.
Upright Citizens Brigade
Ass Pennies is a classic sketch from the original members of the Upright Citizens Brigade. See if you can identify the beats.
Writing for web is a completely different animal than television or film. You have four minutes (AT THE ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM) to say what you want to say. The best teams do it in two and a half. If your script is longer than five pages, then it’s too long. These are things to which you should take the delete button.
1 Page Set ups: If you’re not hitting your first beat, or inciting incident by line five (I now try to do it by line three), you are taking way too much time and have lost most people in the Internet Generation.
Side Jokes: No time.
The Awkward Ending: How many times have you seen a web video that had something huge just happen and then the characters hang around awkwardly trying to make up something witty for thirty seconds? Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t. Leave them wanting more.
If you’re like me, you want to be a filmmaker, but are not well versed in the vocabulary of film. There are a few things that you can do to help yourself out before you go out into the world with your camera.
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Buy a book. A lot of filmmakers out there have tips and tricks for the newbie who wants to make their stuff look good. Like writing, you should absorb anything from anyone who has something to teach you. I highly recommend Setting Up Your Shots by Jeremy Vineyard. The title says it all. It has great illustrations to talk you through everything that might not be clear from the text.
Don’t blow your load on an expensive camera. If your goal is to make funny Youtube or Funny or Die videos, you should not be spending any money you don’t have to spend, and that includes cameras. The iPhone shoots HD. Use it. I’m not kidding. ALL THAT BEING SAID, production hardware is probably the single best investment that you can make. If you’re going to spend money, hardware and editing software is where I would suggest spending it. A DSLR camera with HD video capture or something comparable will greatly expand your possibilities. So will a green screen, and they’re really cheap.
Your goal in the first four or five web videos should be to make as many mistakes as possible, then learn from them, and create better content. With every video you make, you will get better. Don’t be hard on yourself, but don’t expect it to be amazing either. Take an earnest approach to your work. What worked? What could have been better? Those two questions are how I workshop every script, every sketch, every project I’ve ever taken part in, and I got it from, yup, a very talented fiction writer by the name of Rashad Harrison.
"Perfection is not reached when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take out."
In our first sketches, our shots went on too long, there were too many lines to the punch, and a lot of our comments, although people did not know how to phrase it properly, were along the lines of, "It’s funny, but it went on too long." Now we’ve gotten to the point where we can edit our stuff down to less than two minutes and hit a five beat sketch. Challenge yourself to cut out as much as possible.
Along the same lines as film, if you don’t have Final Cut, don’t feel pressure to go out and get it. Build with the tools you have. If you’ve never used Final Cut Pro, tutorials are available for free at the Apple Store and on Youtube. Ask a friend who has an extra license key and you may be able to get it for free. If you don’t have the money for a $700 program, try Final Cut Express. It’s only $200, and a lot of the functionality is there, allowing you to get your feet wet. All FCE files are readable in Final Cut Pro for when you do decide to make the switch.
Building a Team
This is the most important thing never to rush. Work with as many people as you can, and you will know who your partner is meant to be. If you already have a best friend and do everything together, that’s great! Start pitching ideas and get to it!
People always want to be involved with others that they think are doing something cool. You may find it difficult to do everything on your own at first, but trust me, that will only last a few times. If you put content out into the world, people notice, and pretty soon they will tell you, "Hey, next time you’re shooting, I’d love to help out." You never know who wants to keep their skills sharp.
Go to mixers. The IFP has great mixers every couple of months. Go. Meet people in the industry. Make connections.
Keep up with new positions in the industry. The Producer of Media and Distribution is a new development that I actually heard about through a blog on No Film School.com! Now we have an amazing PMD (Dennis Velasco), who has helped us publicize our Kickstarter, and increased our web presence dramatically (including this guest post) as well as social media!
Before I end, I would like to request that you watch the Kickstarter video, and if you think it’s funny, to donate a few bucks. Every dollar helps, so even $1 donations are appreciated.
Starting with nothing is exciting. You can either stay there, or take a step forward, but nobody is going to make you do anything. I hope one day we can all work together.
Ryan E. Hoffman is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts via the Atlantic Theater Company. He has appeared in the hit shows, "The Sopranos," "The Bronx is Burning," and "Mercy," as well as various independent films. His short film, Venice Love Story, is currently available as part of the Potty Mouth Film Festival in a Box product offered in Urban Outfitters around the country.