Peter’s Commentary on the “Silent Scenes” Edition
21 April 2009
by Peter Rogers
Here’s my commentary for the latest round of Sketchwar, which had the theme “Silent Scenes.”
I admit, this time around, it’s a little bit like kicking a three-legged dog. “Silent Scenes” was a brutal topic for pretty much everybody. We seem to do well with content topics; even if it’s a topic we know nothing about, or a topic that’s infuriatingly abstract, we can all still come up with something. If the topic is ‘write something in this format,’ then we (okay, I) get flummoxed. Odds are I should have imposed further restrictions on the topic for myself: “This will be a silent scene about <x>.”
Anyway, on to the scenes:
“Girth of a Nation of Dozens”
Wow. Well, this one takes the prize for “longest duration of time where I’d keep watching just so I could find out what the hell is going on.” Nothing funny happens for the first minute or so, and there’s no comprehensible conflict — I just see one weird thing after another. But it’s enough to hold my interest until the real fight starts. And then once the fight starts, it’s a simple, comprehensible conflict — group A versus group B — and it’s just surreal enough to keep me intrigued to the end.
It’s weird — this is a style of scene that just shouldn’t work for me at all. I don’t know if I’d say it was funny (although “yo mamma” was a great punchline), but it was worth my time to read it. Congratulations?
The nice thing about silent scenes in improv is that they force you to go simple. If you can’t *talk* about the conspiracy to hide the magic phlebotinum from the Rosicrucians, then, well, odds are your story isn’t going to be that detail-y. Instead, you’ve got simple, clear goals without a lot of distractions. This is often a good thing for improv — improv tends to get lost in details and tangents — but working silent might be an impediment to scripted sketch comedy, since killing the dialog removes one of your main tools, and nobody can *see* the performance in your script.
In any case, this one goes the ‘simplicity’ route: it’s just two people playing pranks on each other over the course of their lives. As it is, it doesn’t really work for me, but I think it might be really close to being really funny. I think it just needs a slightly different arc. As it is, we arc from a very slight prank (glue in hair) to a slightly worse prank (cutting a hole out of jeans) to one substantial prank at the end (the condom). Maybe a different arc could work better?
One option would be to raise the stakes ridiculously over the course of the sketch (at the end, a medium-sized city gets nuked). Another option would be to get progressively more surreal, perhaps? Heck, even pranks involving increasing numbers of ferrets might could work.
And yes, I imagine the author of the sketch was thinking hard along those lines, but just didn’t find a way to make it work by the deadline.
“Ire with a Muffin”
This one just confused me.
I never sorted out why Ben was staring at the clock or why he had this peculiar blind spot for the section of the table immediately in front of him. I never sorted out why the waiter was repeatedly ignoring Michelle and then refusing to give Ben water. Maybe if I re-read it a few times I could puzzle out what was going on with all of that — as is, I spent the whole sketch in a state of “Huh?” — and not in a pleasant, surreal sort of way, like with “Girth”.
Again, the silent format generally forces people to go really, really simple. In this case, we’ve got one joke: “speed controlled by aircraft” means “there’s a harrier jet waiting over the next hill to shoot any speeding cars”. The joke is perfectly paced, so it’s all down to whether you find that sight gag funny or not. It didn’t do much for me when I read it, but that’s just me, and maybe I’d like it better onscreen.
“Caffeine is a Helluva Drug”
Hooray for a simple conflict! A guy wants his mug back. That sounds like a good silent scene to me.
I admit, I’d expect the scene to do some classic sort of heightening — the mug gets harder and harder to reclaim; the two men do ever-more devious things to reclaim the mug; different people wind up making off with his mug on a series of days — I was actually pleased that it took that left turn into “Barry has to hide a body” territory. I wasn’t 100% sure *why* Barry was hiding the body, but I was entertained enough not to care. Similarly, I wasn’t 100% sure why Hank was suddenly trying to kill Barry, but again: fun to watch, ergo don’t really care.
And yeah, having Hank head off to Starbucks at the end made sense. So it was a simple litle sketch with a few pleasant left turns. I enjoyed that.
Quick note: I like the “this is not his mug” beat on the *page*, but I’ve got a feeling it would look pretty confusing *onscreen*. Anyway, bits like that that aren’t quite cinematic should be easy to fix.
I’m of two minds about my sketch.
I like that I wrote something simple, and I feel like I’ve written something that *could* be funny. It could give a few performers who were gifted at physical comedy a chance to shine.
On the other hand, I’d rather write a sketch that’s funny on the page, so that it doesn’t *matter* if the performers are any good, and they can just rely on the quality of the material. As written, I think this sketch is elegant but not particularly funny.
The other problem is that radios are old technology. The audience will still understand what’s going on, but the more hipsterish types would never laugh at the sketch, because they’d be too busy signifying to their friends that they have *so much* contempt for something as embarrassingly ancient as a *radio*.
Priorities, don’t you know.