When done well, sketch comedy can feel like smooth, effortless magic unfolding in front of your eyes. But the process of how to write an autobiographical sketch or how to write a character sketch is one that’s actually quite full of helpful structure.
Whether you’re learning how to write a sketch for the stage, television, YouTube, or even TikTok, it mostly comes down to the same thing: isolating your own voice and what you find funny, plugging those ideas into a set but flexible format, and then reps on reps on reps.
It’s a foundation adhered to by sketch performers from Monty Python to Saturday Night Live to CollegeHumor, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Key & Peele, and it’s all within your grasp. Read on for tips and tricks for how to write and pitch your very own sketch—or even a whole sketch show.
What is a Written Comedy Sketch?
A comedy sketch is a piece of writing, typically between two to five minutes in length, that’s designed to make audiences laugh. There are as many different types of sketches as there are sketch writers, but in general, they all fall into two categories: autobiographical and parody.
Autobiographical comedy sketches are based on observational humor—situations or character traits you’ve witnessed or experienced yourself, heightened for comedic effect. Parody sketches, on the other hand, are takes on existing popular content like songs, movies, or TV shows.
11 Hilarious Examples of Sketch Comedy
When starting to write comedy sketches yourself, the best place to begin is by watching successful sketch shows that are already out there to see what resonates with you. Here are some popular (and hilarious) examples:
- Saturday Night Live
- Key & Peele
- I Think You Should Leave
- Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show
- Monty Python
- Black Lady Sketch Show
- Inside Amy Schumer
- Upright Citizens Brigade
- The Eric Andre Show
- Sesame Street (yes, really!)
While you’re watching, make a note of when you’re laughing, and try to break down what precisely you found funny. Was it a character heightening? A play on words? A moment of physical comedy? An unexpected line or action? Doing this work will help you narrow down your own comedic likes and dislikes and guide you as you begin to put pen to paper.
How to Write a Comedy Sketch
From your watching homework, you’ll learn that sketches come in all shapes and sizes. But when it comes to writing your first one, we’re going to start with the basics. This is going to be a single location, two person autobiographical sketch with one game—the repeated unusual behavior your sketch is built around—and a maximum length of two minutes. Easy peasy!
Step 1: Brainstorm
Start with a situation from your real life that stood out to you in some way. Maybe it made you laugh, maybe it confused you in the moment, or maybe it made you get right on the phone to rant to someone else about it. (Carry a notebook around with you or use a note-taking app on your phone to jot these half-ideas down in the moment.) Try to isolate what it was that made the incident stand out in your mind, and that’s the nugget of an idea that you’re going to explore in the sketch.
Let’s take, for example, the sketch “High-Stakes Ice Breaker Questions” from former CollegeHumor cast member Tao Yang, which was part of the sketch packet that got him hired at CH.
This sketch was inspired by a real-life experience at a new job: one hiree was asked easy, softball questions, while Tao felt the questions sent his way were much harder. It was a small, low-stakes moment that no one else even commented on at the time, but he filed it away in his memory as the germ of an idea.
Step 2: Blow Out Your Premise
Take that nugget of an idea and expand it into what’s called a premise. The easiest way to do this is to phrase it as a “what if?” For example:
“What if one new hire was asked substantially more difficult questions than another?”
This becomes the game of the scene, and you can get game moves—moments that activate or “play” your premise—by answering your “what if” in creative, escalating ways.
First, write down all the connected ideas you can think of: questions that might be asked of both parties, items your characters could interact within the office, potential rewards for right answers, and consequences for wrong answers. Aim for a minimum of 10, but write down as many as you have, because you won’t be using all of them; what we’re focused on right now is exploring the world of possibilities contained within your premise.
Step 3: Outline
Once you have a list of game moves, pick out your favorites and arrange them in order from smallest to biggest. For “High-Stakes Ice Breaker Questions,” the first game move is the fact that Tao’s questions come out of the spooky box, while Lily’s have stickers on them, and the final game move finds Tao holding a gun and being asked to pull the trigger. In between are a series of moves that justify that escalation, spaced out throughout the body of the sketch.
For a two-minute sketch, you should be playing the game a minimum of three times, but ideally between five and seven, with moments of rest in between where you reinforce the base reality.
Also, notice that the scene doesn’t jump right into the unusual behavior. First, we’re introduced to the who/what/where: the CollegeHumor offices, where two new cast members are being introduced to their coworkers. Without that introduction, there’s nothing for the premise to play off of, so make sure to write a few lines—no more than half a page—to orient your audiences up top.
Step 4: Fill in the Dialogue
During the outline phase, the structure of your sketch can be loose, but now it’s time to fill in those cracks. It’s time to flesh out the environment, name your characters, and give them a voice and a personality all their own.
If you’ve inserted any placeholder notes like [ADD JOKE HERE]—which is a perfectly respectable part of the process, by the way—this is the moment to, y’know….add joke here. In a short sketch like the two-minute one you’re writing, aim for a laugh every 15 seconds or so, with your biggest and best game move at the end to serve as the blackout line.
Step 5: Edit and Polish
Make sure you fully complete your draft before starting to edit, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy and never finish anything. But once you’re there, read the sketch aloud to yourself multiple times, focusing on factors like flow, laugh lines, and the smoothness of your dialogue on each pass.
This is the moment to do everything from fixing typos to switching game moves around. You can even swap them out altogether if you’re hit with inspiration about a move that would play your game better.
How to Create Your Own Sketch Show
If you’ve followed the instructions above, then congratulations, you have a sketch! But how do you now make a sketch show? The answer is pretty simple: write a whole bunch of sketches and either find or choose some element that unites them, creating a thru-line that draws your show together.
That could mean following one character through a variety of situations, exploring different areas of a single location, working within a single theme like “impatience” or “first date,” or parodying a series of existing pieces of content.
Or honestly, none of those things! The world is your oyster, and it all comes down to your own preferences and what you want to write a show about. As long as you personally have an answer to the question “Why are these sketches paired together?” you’re good to go.
How to Pitch Your Sketch Show
The best way to pitch your show is actually by pitching yourself—by finding a unique point of view and a distinct voice. When you’re first starting out, your work will likely have a lot in common with the types of sketches you already love. This is a totally natural part of the process, and one most people need to go through rather than around. Don’t overtly steal ideas, of course, but it’s very okay to borrow styles while you figure out your own voice.
Your second step is just to start putting stuff out there. Working with an agent or manager who can pass your work around is a huge bonus, but you don’t need to wait for permission to create something. Utilize platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, Instagram, or TikTok to get eyes on your sketches. That way, if an opportunity does come along, you’ll have lots of material to show the interested party. And whether it’s an immediate yes or not, you’re sure to get some helpful feedback that will help you in your next pitch session.
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