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Tips for Making Comedy Sketch Videos for the Internet (and Finding the Right Collaborators)

03.4.12 @ 2:36PM Tags : , ,

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.

Writing

“I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you.”
-Ernest Hemingway

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.

Filming

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.

Subscribe to this newsletter. It’s called “No Film School” for a reason!

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.

Editing

“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 NoFilmSchool.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.

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We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Awesome article, I forwarded this to my team! I just started making sketch comedy this past month, and we wrapped up the first episode of our show. Here’s the link:

    http://youtu.be/MtkZlZJU4-8

    Any feedback at all would be greatly appreciated! Seriously :)

  • Jake Kilgore on 03.4.12 @ 4:54PM

    I disagree with “don’t shoot without a script”. All you need is actors with good improv skills, and you can get away with having a basic concept that you build on.

    • Hey, thanks for the comment. Everyone has different methods of working for sure, but I would highly advise not shooting without a script. Just did a shoot with some really top notch comics and it was pretty much all improv. Shots took longer than needed, and the narrative, well let’s just say I’m happy I wasn’t the one editing. Made it much tougher. That’s not to say all improv is bad though. Thanks for reading.

  • Danko bakker on 03.4.12 @ 7:32PM

    Some tips are good, but most of it is just common sense and obvious..
    To be honest, the film didn’t make me laugh too. But humor is most difficult of all, and very personal.

  • nice article
    I’d love to write and film comedy, but it’s just SO difficult!!
    (there are too many things that sound funny only inside my head…)

  • Good article. I would say that if you can afford $200 for Final Cut Express, you may as well get the latest version of Final Cut Pro for $300…

  • This was the right info at the right time. I am not quite doing a sketch show, more of a continuing dialouge between two characters, but I think alot of these notes are very relevent. Especially the three-minute length one, one most success has come from our 4-minute video, we are gonna try going even tighter for our next episode. Check out our show here… youtube.com/wheresmymacguffin. I’d love to know what nofilmschool followers think

  • Great Article!
    I want to be a professional YouTuber and I think I have a chance.
    Do you think you guys could take a look at my latest video and tell me what you think?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoQuP38a5sE
    Thanks!

  • Great information. My friend and I are in the early stages of our comedy sketches, and are working on streamlining our material for shorter run times. Please check us out and provide feedback and support. It would be greatly appreciated.

    youtube.com/marcnsamshow
    funnyordie.com/marcandsamshow

  • Great Stuff ! Check out my comedy youtube channel ! youtube.com/itstogolakes

  • romanbruni on 03.8.12 @ 8:09PM

    the article has a extraordinary good intention. it is almost ‘full’ good.
    being a pro screenwriting developer consultant i’d like to add a technical specification level
    to help the writing screenplaywriter get to the desired funny effect.

    ‘Establish the funny concept.’ is an incomplete formulation does not help to write
    because it is a phrase that assumes that the reader knows what ‘funny’ might be.
    so the whole purpose of the article slides away from the mark
    missing the practical point it intends to indicate.

    funny stories are engineered the opposite manner of real stories.
    real stories are made to respect the logic of the ‘real’ world
    demanding that the actors make an effort to be ‘inside’
    the ‘real world’ rules, for the real stories are an exploration of reality
    reinforcing whatever is that the viewer already knows well.

    funny stories have another intention and they have another goal:
    they are engineered to surprise the audience. funny constantly tryies
    to evade the rules of real world, demanding that the actors make
    a rythmic effort to let the expectations rise as a wave and that the surprise action
    or phrase comes from outside the rules forcing the viewer to realise instantaneously
    with a sudden perception that the reality is bigger than he-she was thinking.

    the first act of a dictatorship ruler (after killing enemies, of course)
    is to kill the comics, so the people will remain tense thereafter
    and within that numb feeling state is much more simple to control
    all the stiff tense zombies into an emotional state
    that will agree with the exploitation… because the people will be too busy
    obeying to those rules he has brought and inforced people will obey blindly
    without perceiving the rest of the world aside.

    Gianni Rodari, a brilliant school teacher from Italy, teaches that
    ‘the child goes to kindergarten also to understand that he-she is a student, a brother, a friend,
    and south american cousin, so that all those identities may work simultaneously,
    the child experiences are designed to present that he-she
    belongs to different identities groups that are conected.

    funny comes from the sudden perception that the rules we supposed
    when the scene started are not the rules that the characters are following
    hence our perception of the reality around us is enhanced and expanded at the same time.
    all funny are a zen artifact at heart.

    there is a biological aspect to it, but it will come in another page of my book about
    screenwriting when it finally gets the english version…

    thanks nofilmschool !!! cheers ! Roman from Rio de Janeiro Brazil

  • Is there an online meeting ground for comedy folks to meet up and think about collaborating?

  • Thanks for the tips guys…here’s the link for my first vid…working on the nxt one now…will take that on board…check this out…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7KYDOpQEmg

  • Brand new comedy! We just fiished a new episode! What’d'ya guys think? http://youtube.com/wheresmymacguffin

  • I really enjoyed the article. Besides being informative it gave me additional inspiration for my sports comedy site – http://weekendsportsupdate.com – if any of you have sports comedy clips I would be happy to promote on the site.

    • Hey Bill, thanks for the comment. Love the site! Feel free to check out our two Around the Horn comedy clips on our website, http://www.templehorses.com, and if they fit with your site’s content, promote it. Both are a bit topical though, so you should probably wait for the anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s kill mission to post.

  • To whom it may concern,

    It has been said many times “this stuff is so much better than what you see on TV, can’t believe he’s not famous”

    There are a million could have been comedy stars….

    But there is only one JERRY RIO!!!!
    This is some very entertaining comedy programming. Do yourself a favor and at least watch the some clips. There are many more.

    Watch Jerry do his “Man On The Street”…. Quick witted, engaging with incredible improv abilities. All live and unscripted.

    Interviews where he sometimes makes fun of people without them knowing it…..and still comes off endearing and lovable…perhaps a bit of a wise guy lounge lizard. Many sarcastic people play along and want to be funny….it is. Jerry’s engaging personality is highly entertaining. Not like anyone else, but a bit of Woody Allen, perhaps some Larry David type observations.

    Go to his site
    http://jerryrio.com/

    also check out all his clips on his Youtube channels

    Skits parodies and more live clips.
    http://www.youtube.com/THYRDEYE

    Live on the street
    http://www.youtube.com/user/mrjerryrio?feature=results_main

    Cartoons
    http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCw93NVE4C0jarwX-eWNdaAQ

    This is some very entertaining comedy programming. Do yourself a favor and at least watch the some clips. There are many more.

    These are vintage clips from his legendary 90’s cable access show from NYC called “New York Underground”. Lots of nostalgia and timeless humor.

    Jerry Rio is still writing, creating and doing animated comedy and parodies. He would like to get in front of a crowd again and is working on some new projects.

    He is available as a host, Voice Over guy, web site personality and comedic actor or help write and create some new project you are working on. Nobody can work a crowd like Jerry or come up with a million new ideas.

    If you are interested contact me Marc Baron at Bleep Productions.

  • really enjoyed quality of video..i preform stand up and want to start filming sketches. But dont know the first thing about it. i just have extremely funny ideas..What type of camera and what editing software did you use?

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