Kissing Family – A Breakdown of the Game of the Scene

Recently, some friends brought this SNL sketch to my attention. It’s an excellent example of what we mean by Game of the Scene, with many moments that illustrate different features of games.

What do we mean by Game of the Scene? The game is the part of the scene that makes the scene fun, unique, interesting and probably most of all, funny. Games are usually an aspect of the scene which strikes us as inappropriate, weird or in more subtle cases, just a bit more heightened than real life.

It’s probably a good idea to watch the sketch before you read my breakdown of it:
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Game of the Scene – Examples in TV Sketch Comedy – Portlandia

I’m finishing up a Game of the Scene class through Under the Gun Theater this week and I have often found myself using examples of sketches from TV sketch comedy shows. Once you know what to look for, the Game of the Scene is easy to spot.

This Portlandia sketch has an extremely simple game: two characters ask each other over and over if the other has read something, to which the answer is always yes. What’s unusual or funny about this? For me, it’s satirizing the idea that being the best read is a competition. They don’t bother to actually discuss any of the articles, underlining that they are only mentioning the articles to score points, to find that one thing that they have read, but the other has not.

The “if that, then what” is very straightforward. They pile on the examples, heightening the absurdity by generally making each subsequent article more obscure, and by speeding up the tempo so fast that they can barely hear what the article is before they claim to have read it. There is some nice misdirection twice where Armisen almost sounds like he is going to say that he didn’t read the article, but instead says, “I did not… like the end of it.”

Finally they exhaust the questions part of the game and then add a few variations, first by Maggie bringing in a new copy of Portland Monthly that neither of them have read yet. They attack the magazine like animals in order to prevent the other from reading it and pulling ahead in the competition. This leads to them devouring newspapers on the street and getting run over by cars on the way to ripping apart of phone book across the street. The final tag is just a voice of someone on the street saying, “Hey, it says, ‘Don’t Walk.’ Can’t you read?”

Once again, it’s a very simple game, hard to miss. But they pack in a lot of heightening in a very short amount of time. Improvisors might look at this and think that this is too simple. But in order to play more subtle, nuanced and/or complicated games, you have to be capable of executing the simpler ones first.

How to Start a Sketch, Part II, Lists

Lists are very similar to free writing, but a little more focused. You give yourself a question or category and then as quickly as possible you write a list of answers. Here is a list of categories you could use to generate lists:

  • Everyday locations
  • Things that people do that seem strange to you
  • Examples of everyday hypocrisy
  • Characters that you are well suited to play
  • Characters that you are not well suited to play
  • Characters from fiction, film or history that you would love to play

You can use lists to flesh out a sketch idea before you set down to write it. For instance, first come up with a list of ordinary situations, ones with which you have a lot of experience or ones where you have seen lots of examples in plays, films or TV. Next pick one, and make a list of all the ordinary things that you might expect to happen in that situation. Then, make a list of extraordinary, unusual, strange or weird things that rarely happen in that situation. Finally, pick the one unusual thing that you find most funny and brainstorm a list of examples and variations of this out of place element in an ordinary situation. You now have a premise for a game and lots of ideas to heighten that premise. The actual writing of the sketch should flow fast.

How to Start a Sketch, Part I, Free Writing

National Sketch Writing Month (NaSkeWriMo) begins tomorrow. In past years, I’ve not done too well. I’ve signed up at least twice before and I’ve written a few sketches, but I haven’t come close to writing 30 sketches in 30 days. I think this year will be different.

I’ve had two problems in the past. On the one hand, I often wait for inspiration before I start writing. Unfortunately, inspiration doesn’t come very often if you just wait for it. I’ve heard it over and over again that you just have to force yourself to write. Inspiration comes to those who sweat. So in the past, when I’ve tried to follow that advice, I’ve sat down with a blank piece of paper and just started writing dialog. Basically, I improvise with myself. It rarely goes well. The dialog I end up with is small talk peppered with conflicts over trivial matters, precisely the kind of improv scene that I would try to steer my students away from.

Still I think the best sketches I have written have come from an idea, a game I’ve thought of before I put pen to paper. So how do I get to that idea besides writing aimless dialog? This series of posts will outline a few ideas that I’ve learned or that I’ve thought of recently which have helped me. The first one I learned on the first day of my first writing class at Second City. It’s called Free Writing.

Free Writing

Get a pad of paper, a pen and a timer. Set the timer for 10 minutes. Start the timer, put your pen on the paper and start writing. Write anything. Don’t worry about having a plan or writing anything specific. Just spew out whatever is in your brain and keep writing until the timer runs out. The only rule is keep your pen on the pad until the time is up. This is free writing.

When your done, your hope is that you will have an idea, a little sliver of inspiration and now you can write your sketch. One method I’ve heard is simply this. Set a timer for 30 minutes, start free writing. Stop when you have an idea for a sketch and switch to writing that. If the timer runs out before you have an idea for a sketch you like. Set the pad aside and come back later or the next day and start again.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

IRC Podcast with Caitlin Tegart

Episode #6 of the IRC Podcast has just been uploaded to the site. This week, I talk to Caitlin Tegart, a sketch writer and director who teaches for the UCB Theatre in NYC. We discuss how sketch writers can help themselves by not worrying about how good an idea is, that instead they need to simply get their ideas onto the page. We also discuss the process of taking a bunch sketches and turning them into a show.

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