This will be a UCB-specific post, as the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is where I’ve had my experience. But I hope a lot of what I write can be useful to anyone writing sketch comedy or submitting writing packets.
This is all based on my personal experience. I don’t work for UCB, I’m not a spokesperson for them, and nobody told me to do this. (Honestly, I started writing this because I’m procrastinating writing other things.)
I was first placed on a UCB Maude (house sketch) team in early 2008. I’ve decided my last show will be August 2014. I took a year off in that time period so my Maude experience is a cumulative five and a half years. I’ve been on five teams. I did my first 14 shows as a writer/actor and the other 50 (?) as a writer. I don’t know if I’m the best writer at the theatre but I’ve learned a few things over the years, so I hope I can offer some sound advice.
I’ll break these up into different posts. This first one will be about submitting to Maude as a writer. I’ll write other ones about submitting as an actor, being on a team as a writer, being on a team as an actor, and not getting on a team. And maybe other stuff too. We’ll see where the wind takes us.
I should credit the directors I’ve worked with, as a lot of what I’ve learned has come from them. They include (in the order I worked with them) Will Hines, Amey Goerlich, Greg Tuculescu, Greg Burke, Julie Klausner, John Frusciante, Jim Santangeli, Justin Tyler, Alden Ford, John Flynn, Neil Casey, Mike Trapp, Matt Fisher, Emily Altman, Lauren Adams, and Mike Scollins. And, of course, my UCB sketch teachers Curtis Gwinn and Michael Delaney. And I’ll always be thankful to Anthony King, the artistic director who put me on my first two teams, and Nate Dern, the artistic director who put me on my last three teams.
SUBMITTING AS A WRITER
1.) Know the basics. Since there’s currently a prerequisite at UCB that you have to take a few sketch classes before you submit to be a writer on a Maude team, I assume that once you submit, you know the general guidelines about game, heightening, and proper formatting. If you don’t, take another class. I’ll go into a little more detail about game in a bit.
2.) Go to Maude Night. This is a no-brainer. You’re required to see a few sketch shows for your classes, but go to Maude Night as often as you can. Obviously, if you want to be on a team, you should familiarize yourself with what it is. It’s good to see what kind of sketches are done at UCB. It’s a school and theater with a specific voice, and the more you see there, the more you’ll understand that voice. Sometimes this has to do with what not to do as a writer. There’s a reason why there aren’t any sketches on Maude Night where “being gay” is the game. Being gay is not an unusual (or funny) thing and therefore isn’t a strong game and wouldn’t result in a good sketch. So once you see enough sketches at Maude Night, you’ll know not to even think about submitting (or writing) a sketch where “a flamboyant guy talks with a lisp!” is the “funny” thing.
Also, pay attention to what audiences laugh at. Notice what they don’t laugh at. And remember that they are much, much smarter than they are sometimes given credit for. And for god’s sake, try not to end three sentences in a row with prepositions.
3.) Have clear, simple ideas for your sketches. What’s the game of your sketch? Can you state it simply in a sentence? Here’s something I think about a lot: is the idea of your sketch itself funny enough to make someone laugh or say “Wow, that’s a funny idea”? If so, you’re off to a good start. If you can’t state the game in a simple sentence or two, or if when you do people are confused, then your idea is muddled and you need to clarify it. Practice this with friends. Describe your games and see how they react.
If you have three unusual ideas in your sketch, that’s too many. Pick the one you think is funniest and rewrite it. One idea blown out in as many directions as possible is better than several ideas blown half-assedly.
Starting with a good idea isn’t all you need, but it’s more important than some people might realize. One of my favorite sketches I’ve written is “Lee Harvey Oswald at the Dentist.” (Also one of the darker sketches I’ve written, which tend be my favorites.) I wrote it in 2009 while on Thunder Gulch, a silly, high-energy team where a lot of my current friendships were formed. In the sketch, it’s early morning on November 22, 1963, and Lee Harvey Oswald is a nice fellow with a dentist appointment. He is greeted in the waiting room by a precocious little boy (expertly played by Leslie Meisel) who slowly annoys the hell out of him to the point where Oswald leaves in an angry huff. I left it up to the audience to decide what happened next. It went over really well. And the idea of the sketch alone – just describing the premise – has made people laugh. I remember coming up with it as I was getting out of the car one day. I knew it was a darkly funny idea and I couldn’t wait to write it.
Contrast that with another sketch I wrote called “Lady Guitar,” also for Thunder Gulch. The idea process for this one was different. I was trying really hard to come up with ideas for a first writers meeting, and I remember doing that thing where you look around the room, see a lamp, and you’re like, “Lamp? What’s funny about lamps? Let’s see…” There was a guitar in my living room. I thought, “What if there’s a guy… and he has a guitar… and he treats it like a lady?” And that was pretty much the sketch. A guy invites a woman over and all he can talk about is his acoustic guitar, which he calls “she” and treats like his “real” girlfriend. There wasn’t anything more to it. I kind of knew all along it wasn’t a great sketch and honestly I’m not even sure why it went up at Maude Night. It didn’t go over well. The actors were great, but it just wasn’t a good, funny, unique enough idea.
This isn’t to say you should sit around and wait for ideas to magically appear in your brain. Sometimes you do have to sit down and think, think some more, jot stuff down, think some more, and then an idea comes to you. I’m also a fan of keeping a notebook (or note app on your phone) and writing down ideas as they come. Not even full sketch ideas, but any funny or unusual thing you notice. It could be the way a stranger orders coffee. Or a confusing interaction you have with a bank teller. Or the way your mother tells a joke. Anything. Write it down. They might become great sketches later.
A kind of “cheat” way of doing this is by tweeting jokes. Look over some of your tweets and see if there’s a kernel of an idea you can expand into a sketch. Still keep the idea notebook, but this might be another way to generate ideas.
4.) Explore the game in as many ways as you can. It doesn’t have to be just three beats. Explore it in ways the audience might not be able to see coming, but once it happens, it makes complete sense to them. Michael Delaney has used the term “use the whole buffalo” to talk about ways we can use up every last bit of “meat” the sketch has to offer. (You can think of a block of tofu, vegetarians.)
I’ll give an example. I wrote a sketch for The Prom called “Law Firm Commercial Acting Class” (which is exactly what it sounds like it is) that was a lot of fun. In the sketch, a group of actors learn how to read copy for law firm commercials, which, as you may know, tend to have very bad acting. In the sketch, the only one in the class with any real acting talent (played by Siobhan Thompson) was reprimanded by the teachers for being too “good.”
I could have had the actors simply read commercial copy the entire time, one after the other, maybe heightening the ridiculousness of the copy. But instead I had them do different things: first they read copy so the audience could get on board with what was happening. Then I had them act out a scenario (witnessing a car crash). Then they all had very quick lines to read, kind of like a game show’s lightning round. There was physical stuff they did too. (John Milhiser, Sasheer Zamata, and Justin Brown played the other members of the class.)
There was also a sub-game with the teachers: the man (Stephen Soroka) was constantly hitting on the woman (Amber Nelson) and getting rebuffed. Sub-games aren’t always necessary but if they add to the sketch in a fun and surprising way, why not?
5.) Edit. (That was originally “Edit, edit, edit" but, you know.) I’m a big fan of editing. I love it. It’s like vacuuming up cobwebs, something else I love to do. Read your sketch over and over. Delete any words that aren’t needed. Make sure your dialogue doesn’t have a lot of long chunks. If it does, I bet you don’t need a lot of it.
Here’s an example of how I edited from first draft to last. This is from a sketch I wrote called “Family Cooking.” It was performed at Maude Night by my team Dinner. It’s about a woman who goes on a talk show to demonstrate how she cooks meals for her family at home, only to soon be interrupted on set by her demanding husband and annoying children – just like at home. The fantastic Cody Lindquist pitched the idea and she starred as Shelby O’Loughlin. (That last name came from my sixth grade teacher Douglas O’Loughlin, one of my all-time favorite teachers. Shelby, I don’t know. She seemed like a Shelby.)
Here’s the first draft of the very beginning of the sketch:
Welcome back to “Good Morning New York.” We are so excited to have our next guest: mother, wife and cook extraordinaire, Shelby O'Loughlin!
Shelby waves to audience.
Thanks. I’m happy to be here.
Now, you’re going to show us a special chicken recipe that you often make for your family.
Yes. Family is so important to me, and I get so much pleasure out of preparing a wholesome, delicious meal for my husband and children.
Wonderful. And what you’ll be showing us is pretty much exactly how you do it at home, correct?
Yes, exactly the same.
Great! Let’s get started.
And here’s the same segment from the sixth and final draft:
Welcome back to Good Morning New York. We’re so happy to have our next guest. Mother, wife, cook, and author of Family Cooking. Please welcome Shelby O'Loughlin!
Thanks Rhonda. Happy to be here!
Now, you’re going to show us a special chicken recipe that you make for your family.
Wonderful. And this will be exactly how you do it at home, correct?
Exactly how I do it at home!
Great! Let’s get started.
Here are the main things I changed. It doesn’t look like much, but it adds up:
a. I named the host. Not necessary, but sometimes I feel bad handing a sketch to an actor saying “You’re playing ‘Woman’ [or ‘Cop’ or ‘Host’].” This isn’t a hard rule, just something I like to do. Also, names are specifics. And specifics are good.
b. I deleted “Shelby waves to audience.” I could have totally left this in. I think I really wanted to get the page numbers down so I was eliminating everything I could. Cody is a very talented actor and I knew she’d remember to wave if I told her to. And if she didn’t, it wouldn’t affect the sketch. You should only write stage directions if they’re completely necessary, like if an actor needs to get up and walk across the stage, or punch someone, or dramatically rip off a mustache.
c. The biggest change was deleting Shelby’s lines about how family is important to her. Not necessary. She wrote a family cookbook and is on a talk show about it. We know it’s important to her. Better to get on with the sketch.
d. I streamlined Rhonda saying “And what you’ll be showing us is pretty much exactly…” to “And this will be exactly…” This is a good example of what I mean by deleting unnecessary words. It may seem like a tiny change, but it really does make a difference if this kind of thing is done throughout the sketch. Little tweaks can make the difference between a sketch that seems to slog along to one that moves at a brisk pace.
e. In the final draft, I had Shelby say “Exactly how I do it at home!” instead of “Yes, exactly the same.” I really wanted to emphasize the “home” part, as it’s the basis for the game of the sketch. So I had her repeat Rhonda’s “exactly how you do it at home” to really hit it, um, home.
6.) Follow the submission process guidelines. This seems obvious but it’s worth stating. If they don’t want a sketch longer then five pages, don’t submit a six-page sketch, even if you think it’s great. Actually, don’t submit a sketch longer than five pages anyway. Not to say you should never write a sketch longer than that, but for the submission, don’t. Show them your editing skills as well as your writing skills.
7.) Have variety in your sketches. If you’re submitting three sketches, don’t have all of them be political monologues, or all of the characters in every sketch be men, or every game centered around how funny mustaches are (only two of your sketches should focus on this). Show them you can write for anyone and about anything.
While I’m at it, make sure you have a good gender balance in your characters. Don’t have all your crazy characters be men and all your straight characters be women. Don’t do completely the opposite either. Mix it up. Don’t have all the bosses be men. Don’t have all the receptionists be women. Maude teams are always pretty balanced, typically with three male actors and three female actors. If 95% of your characters are men, that’s a problem. Be creative. Be open. Have fun.
8.) Put your name on each sketch. Double check that you did this.
9.) Once you hand in your submission, try to forget about it. Seriously.
10.) Keep writing! Keep taking classes if you want to get better. Form sketch groups with friends. Put up shows at small theaters. Shoot videos. Write funny blog posts. Submit your writing to humor websites. Tweet. Write as much as you can, and I promise you will get better.
Thanks for reading this very long post. I hope it was helpful. I don’t know when the next Maude submissions are but it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about this stuff now. Now go write!