Chicago Sketchfest 2009 #3: Building Comedy Groups
How do you evolve and succeed as a comedian or a comedy team? Comedy can have a very short shelf life as evidenced by one-hit wonder stand-up artists and the very small number of television sketch comedy shows to last more than a season or two. Also, every year thousands of students graduate from various comedy programs around the country. It is not an easy thing to stand out from the rest of the pack. One way to grow as a comedian or comedy team is to attempt to perfect one comedic method. After you’ve accomplished that, you can move on to mastering a variety of styles of comedy. The beginning and the end of this path was evidenced quite well by the North Brighton Theatre Company and Summer of Tears at the 2009 Chicago Sketchfest.
A great style to start a comedy group with is the simple setup and punch line. Too many groups will immediately resort to scenes about sex or telling raunchy jokes. These “bits" aren’t challenging for the audience or the performers. The jokes coming without any kind of lead-in don’t feel as though they’ve been earned by the performers. A simple setup and knockdown may not wow an audience, but it is a great place to start for a sketch group.
North Brighton Theatre Company is a comedy team of high school students from Manchester, UK. They were the youngest group in the festival and I wondered how they would hold up against the older and more experienced. They surprised me with their simple elegance. I wasn’t blown away by the group but they definitely demonstrated a fantastic way to begin a comedy group’s career.
Right from the fade in, North Brighton told us what to expect. Literally. At the top of every scene, the first few lines revealed the premise that would unfold before us. From a Jack the Ripper Disney Movie to a Political Optometrist; from apology greeting cards to crimes of the English language. We knew what to look forward to as if given a topic sentence of a paragraph. At first, I believed that this style of the show would be a fault of the group. Later, looking at them in context changed my mind.
By sticking to such a strict formula, North Brighton ensured that the show would be successful. Like training wheels on a bicycle, there was little chance that any scenes would tumble as long as they were executed properly. The impeccable vocabulary and the developing comedic chops of the young actors kept the success rate high and allowed the laughter, albeit mild, to continue to flow. Personally, I loved a scene where a high school student was interviewing for a college program that focused on Scottishness. Like all of the scenes, it started with a setup and then they executed.
Doing a show in this style is potentially a great development tool for any group, especially one as young as North Brighton. As they continue to grow in their careers they can learn to take more and more comedic risks. That same night I was able to view a show chock full of those risks with the group Summer of Tears.
I was a very lucky man the evening of the show at Chicago Sketchfest. I’d felt like going home, but my girlfriend convinced me to stay. Summer of Tears was the show we stayed for and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Well, more like everything I’d ever seen but it was done better and all in one show. This was a team of seasoned performers from LA and I had heard positive whispers around the festival about them. I was not disappointed.
Aside from the hilarity of the writing and actors, the name of the game was variety. The only through line being some humorous set-changing dance moves, the audience had no idea what to expect from scene to scene. From a revelation that Denzel Washington is white to a lip synced spaghetti western, each scene featured at least one comedic risk. It was a show that was willing to take chances, try different forms, and give its actors the opportunity to show a roulette wheel worth of skills.
I won’t spoil the surprise of my favorite scene, but let’s just say that the twist about half way through pretty much cemented it in my mind for all of time. The audience spread laughs throughout the theatre for every scene and Summer of Tears earned every one of them.
Now, there is a path between these two groups that few performers are willing to take. If you have a group like North Brighton that has thoroughly mastered one style, you can take a new style and attempt to incorporate that. And then another. Rinse and repeat until you have an entire tool belt worth of comedy styles. Then, or while working on the various forms, start taking risks. Be willing to attempt the kind of scenes that will either get a standing ovation or fall flat on their faces. Learn and grow from taking those risks and hone your craft. At the end of it all, you will have a group with variety, power, and experience.
The problem that most groups have in achieving this expertise is not a lack of talent but an unwillingness to take on this process that may require years to accomplish. Many comedians believe that being in multiple groups with lots of performances is best. It’s good to get time on stage, but at some point if you want to be successful with a comedy group, you need to join one that’s willing to master one or many styles. This is the surest path to success.
To be a part of a dedicated group willing to master a particular comedy style is a great start. If that group can grow to encompass many styles and learn to take chances, there is an opportunity for greatness. Don’t you want to be great? Good. Then start working :).
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.