Friday, June 20, 2008

The Sketchy Approach

Adam writes: I'm about to make a big move either to NY or LA. I know you're more into straight television writing, but I was wondering if you knew anything about the sketch comedy scene. I have a great interest in being a sitcom writer, but a greater one in sketch. That being said, I'm not a performer. I know you never lived in NY, but do you know from a sketch perspective which city has better training/opportunities/reputation?

First off, I did live in NYC for a summer, interning for a movie studio run by some Steins and defying warnings not to live above 96th Street (woo Morningside Heights!).

But since this isn't a biography quiz: Wow, good question. Lots of comedy writers start in standup or sketch comedy. I've never really considered it because, like you, I don't see myself as a performer or a comedian, and I prefer hourlong "dramas with comedy" or "comedies with heart" (depending on my mood). I don't have much experience with the sketch scene, other than having gone to a few friends' shows. I do have to say that if your ultimate goal is TV writing, I feel like you have to come to LA at some point. That being said, there is definitely a healthy comedy scene in NY, and shows like Letterman, Conan, SNL and The Daily Show are all based in NY. It's just a very small percentage of TV shows in general.

I asked a friend who is more involved with the scene, and he was unable to say much about NY except that he attended Sketchfest NYC 2008 and loved it. In LA, he's taken classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade, a theater that boasts the beginnings of many successful comedy writers, and has found it to be the most supportive welcoming and inspiring environment he could imagine. UCB also has a theater in NY. It actually began in Chicago, and my friend says that he's also heard about a fun scene there.

Other comedy avenues in LA include IO West, Garage Comedy LA and Steve Allen Theater.

Feel free to comment if you have sketch/improv insight!

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8 comments:

Angela said...

Hey Adam,

if you move to NY definitely take Amanda's advice and check out Upright Citizens Brigade. I took a class there last summer. Great people and you'll learn a ton. Comedy Central is a great place to intern too to get your foot in the door.
Good luck wherever you go.

Adam said...

thanks for the advice. Do you have to pay to take these classes?

sandofsky said...

I've done improv for 8 years. I've had fun, but you've got to be careful to avoid the cult.

Once you find a "home theatre," you'll find yourself going a few nights a week. You'll run into the same people. Why? Mediocre improv is painful to watch, but you can't get good without feedback from a crowd. "Hey, let's support each other!" Good intentions, but you end up with improvisers performing for other improvisers.

If you keep perspective, you pick up desperation. I'd get three emails a day inviting me to terrible shows. I've started deleting improvisers from my facebook account because all i get is show spam.

What are you working towards? Well, all theatres have house teams. Students would kill for... a weekly show Tuesdays at 11 pm? Wow, maybe you'll get discovered by that agent... in the group sharing your hour?

But if you spend 20 years at it, you'll learn to deliver consistently funny work. You get the great time slots, and everyone (at the theatre) treats you with respect. Of course, your real acting career is limited to a cameo in a Will Farrell movie. Turns out there isn't a lot of work for white guys who can play old-black women.

I spent a year on a house team at one of the major improv theatres in LA. I had fun, but if you see it leading to anything beyond teaching classes, you're fooling yourself.

"What about people like Mike Meyers and Chris Farley?" They used improv to generate sketch. That's where they made it big. So, sketch comedy...

The Upright Citizens Brigade will teach you a concrete method for writing sketch. It expanded my toolbox, but you end up a carbon copy of the UCB. The same can be said of The Groundlings or Second City. That's why you're taking classes, right? To learn a specific approach?

Make a firm decision on where you want to go. Second City or Groundlings is the accepted path to SNL or MadTV. That's respectable, but not my cup of tea. I look up to trailblazers like The State or The Kids in the Hall or (get ready...) the Upright Citizens Brigade. They skipped the waiting-in-line strategy and ended up defining their own style

Find passionate people who share your comic sensibilities, work hard at it, and the rest will take care of itself.

Derek said...

Ditto on what Sandofsky says. UCB has some of the best sketch comedy in LA. Be wary of the classes, there are a lot of actors who take them to beef up their resume or network over actually learning anything.

These places will teach you sketch writing and the improv classes will show you how to take the random misfiring of nurons in your brain and put them on the page to make them funny. But don't count on it leading to a job on a sketch show unless you make the right connections. You'll have to work your way up another way.

Also, LA over NY for anyone interested in getting into TV/Film sketch comedy. If your dream is to write for SNL, going to NYC isn't going to make it easier for them to find you, they scout all over, and I've personally seen many cast members at UCB LA.

Good luck!

Mitchell said...

Sorry for being nit picky but I think you had Leno mixed up with letterman on Leno being based in NYC.

Adam said...

There's already a good deal of info here, but as I know a handful of people trying to get into this area, I'll add my two bits:

LA over NY for sure. If you even look into SNL, they definitely like to fish outside their own waters. And if you want to write for TV, well, LA's it for comedy unless you're SNL inbred.

But if you're really interested in just learning sketch and improv and finding a great scene, I wouldn't overlook Chicago. It depends on your immediate goals. Chicago is the heartbeat of improv. Look at the biggest stars of comedy over the last few decades who started in improv -- an incredible number started in Chicago, well before they got the big-lights attention in LA or NY.

But if you're looking for a faster track to TV, it's still LA.

aldentre said...

Seems like some good info...

I currently work on a Comedy Central sketch show, so i suppose that lends me a bit of insight on the production side of things (which also may bloat this post).

A lot of the writers on our show happen to be stand-up comics (or were), but I think it may be a byproduct of the host being a stand-up himself. He handpicked a lot of them when it came time to staff the show. But I was also around when they were filling a couple of writer positions at the beginning of the season.

All they people they were looking at seemed to be repped by agencies (mainly the large ones). They each submitted a packet of their best sketches (and I think they even wrote some pitches specifically for our show to submit as well).

From that point, I think it was a similar process to sit-com or drama staffing procedure. The EPs would look at the material and do some interviews, etc.


In LA, there are also a lot of renowned sketch programs, including 'groundlings' which I don't think was mentioned. I've got a couple friends in the classes and they seem to be genuinely pleased with them. But, as someone mentioned, the 'second city' program in Chicago is the best that I know of. They have paths for both writing and performing. It may be worth looking to train there first before moving to LA.

katiesprobablybored said...

NYC can be awesome for sketch, and as everyone's already said, it really all centers around UCB. I haven't noticed the "actors who take [classes] to beef up their resume or network over actually learning anything," phenomenon there - maybe that's more UCB LA?
Anyway, the classes and shows are great and are fantastic places to meet people, both industry professionals (I was recently hit on by a 'Daily Show' correspondant there, not a joke) and other young, aspiring writers/performers. A lot of the latter form sketch groups either at UCB and elsewhere, and in general there's pretty communal feel to the whole sketch scene - lots of cross-promotion of shows, etc. A lot of people I know wound up writing/performing with sketch groups, starting web shows, maybe writing bits for Daily/Colbert, Letterman, etc. NYC may not be the place for you if you want to be writing for 'Lost' or executive-producing your own cable show, but I think it's a generally looser community of funny people, in contrast with the red tape that can be all over LA.