Sunday, February 1, 2009

SNL or Humana Festival?

Questions of categorization in the arts are notoriously tricky to answer. Where is the dividing line between a novel and a novella, between personal expression and self-indulgence, between comedy and farce?

Or, the question that prompts me to write this blog post: What is the difference between a short-and-funny one-act play and a comedy sketch?

You might say that comedy sketches tend to be more topical and up-to-the-minute--but while many sketches make fun of current celebrities or politicians, comedy troupes also perform material that makes fun of broader quirks of human nature or society. And yes, any one-act play that is longer than 10 minutes and/or features subtle characterizations is unlikely to merit the question "Is this sketch comedy instead?" But I've seen some pretty wacky one-acts in my time. What makes David Ives' hilarious "Words, Words, Words" (a conversation between three monkeys placed in front of typewriters to see if they will type the complete works of Shakespeare) a one-act play and not a comedy sketch?

Is it like what Sondheim says about Sweeney Todd: "If you perform it in an opera house, then it's an opera"? In other words, could the exact same script be considered both a comedy sketch and a one-act play, if in the first case it is performed by a sketch comedy troupe and in the second case by a cast of Equity actors? Is the author's intent the only thing that dictates whether it is "theater" or "sketch comedy"? (If so, damn, that makes me feel powerful!)

I'm asking this because on Friday I got an idea for a new one-act play, and I don't get those very often. But it quickly occurred to me that the subject of this hypothetical play is rather topical, and the conceit of it is extremely silly, and I probably wouldn't be able to sustain it for longer than 10 minutes. So, what's the difference between that and a comedy sketch? I think of myself as a playwright and would like to write a good one-act; it would take some mental adjustment to think of myself as a sketch-writer and I don't want to get led too far down that path.

I still think it would be a good idea for me to write this play, don't get me wrong, since it will surely teach me something about my craft. I just wish I knew what it is that I'll be writing!


tim said...

I believe that a 10-minute piece is a COMEDY SKETCH when it sets up a premise and then sticks to it, hitting that same note over and over. So, on SNL, the Penelope sketch is definitely a sketch. Anything someone says, she tries to top, and it builds, but it's just that same one idea.

A 10-minute PLAY has a set-up, then the characters go beyond the premise. They react; they change; they learn something; there's a beginning, middle and end; there's an arc; there's a story. It's truly a play; it's just shorter.

By the way, I really, really like your blog. Is there a reason you only post as "Marissa" instead of using your whole name? I've been wanting to link to you, but I don't know who you are!

Marissa said...

Hmm...according to your definition I guess I AM a playwright and not a sketch-writer, because I do believe in growth, change, reaction. If you're just hitting the same note over and over, how do you know when to end your play, how can you bring it to a satisfactory conclusion? Yes, shape and structure is the way to go.

P.S. check your e-mail :-)

Jaime said...

I wonder if it's more about the intended performance life of the piece? Or at least that there's tht aspect, too. I feel like a sketch is written for a certain performance (often for its performers, sometimes by them), while a play is written to be performed multiple times in the future, by various people. Just something that occurred to me. Interesting question for sure.

Marissa said...

Yeah, I thought of the shelf-life distinction too, and also what you said about a sketch being most likely written for/by a specific group of performers. (And they'd get mad if another troupe "stole" their sketch! I don't think a one-act play can be stolen in the same way.) Although in reality, not a lot of one-act plays get multiple productions; and besides, what if it is a fairly topical one-act?

It seems like the fundamental question here is: is the difference between a one-act and a comedy sketch one of structure and form (Tim) or one of intent and the circumstances under which it's performed (Jaime)? Hmm, this is getting very lit-crit...

sally said...

I love critical literary discussions such as this one. They allow us to expand our awareness of the works that we, as artists, are producing, and to place our narrow endeavors on the massive cultural stage where, and this truth is often disheartening, they ultimately play such a small role. Even the small parts can be memorable, though.

Despite my above comments, I find this discussion itself to be incredibly misguided. The reason for its derailment is the innocent mislabeling from the outset of the categories under discussion, which has led to an inability to distinguish fully between the two.

There is no difference between a comedic "sketch" and a comedic "one-act play." A sketch can see its characters grow by its end, and one-act plays can hit the same note over and over. Either form can possess any or all of the attributes that have been assigned to one or the other over the length of this discussion, and so the question of what the difference is between the two comes down to this point: there is no difference.

Now to strip away the mislabeling of these categories. Doing so, incidentally, will reveal a good deal about the positions of those engaged in this conversation, since "sketch" in this discussion is really "a bad, short comedic work," and "one-act play" is really "a good, short comedic work."

With these new labels assigned, a clear distinction between the two categories emerges, greater than any made when they held their previous labels. There is a privileging of the one-act over the sketch in this discussion, and there seems to be an ever-present, unarticulated danger of "falling into" sketch comedy writing, as though in writing a comedic one-act play, one is attempting to navigate a jungle path where many "sketch pits" are covered over with leaves.

Following along this line of thought, a reasonable assumption that can be teased out of the above comments: if those who made them were to attend a sketch comedy show that featured high quality work, they would likely leave the theater saying, "Wow, that bordered on being a series of one-act plays!" as opposed to making the comment, "That was excellent sketch." In other words, masterful sketch can’t exist according to the development of this discussion. It would reach a certain point of excellence and then move into one-act play territory. Re-labeling these categories makes this point more clear. "Bad, short comedic works" can’t be excellent, because once they are excellent, they become "good, short comedic works."

From this angle, the conversation to this point reveals itself to have become stagnant and repetitive because what is really being said is not being articulated openly, just approached over and over again in roundabout ways that don’t strike at the heart of what the participants really mean. They privilege the one-act play above sketch. It is a higher art form to them, something noble, unlike the lower form that is sketch.

And at this point I would like to mention that I am delighted to have stumbled across this conversation, because it encapsulates so much that can go wrong with academic and artistic discussion. When the academic or the artist is immersed in their own privileged view, so much so that they are barely, if at all, aware of their pretentiousness, that is precisely the moment that original, insightful critical discussion becomes a wasteland of regurgitated, empty chatter.

tim said...

I wonder where Sally got the idea of there being value judgments between the two. I, for one, spent many years as a sketch comedy writer, performed in several sketch comedy groups, and think a brilliant sketch comedy piece has just as much artistic value as a brilliant 10-minute play.

I was simply trying to point out what I see as the difference between the two, which I see as a story and structure difference. When I think of my favorite sketches, I see a premise being set up, and then that premise played out in more and more outrageous ways, getting funnier and funnier, until there’s a topper or an ending. For example:

The Dead Parrot Sketch -- A guy talks about a dead parrot, escalating the ways to say “dead” over and over.

Nudge, Nudge -- A guy makes innuendos, escalating the ways to “say no more” over and over.

More Cowbell -- A guy wants more cowbell, over and over.

Penelope -- A woman lies about her accomplishments, over and over.

Keep in mind, these are sketches that I would call “an excellent sketch.”

I say “over and over” to point out that a sketch tends to start with a premise and then stay with the premise. The characters don’t really have story arcs.

In fact, in a lot of sketches, the characters purposely stay the same, so they can appear in more sketches. Think of Penelope on SNL, Stuart on Mad TV, even Will Farrell as George Bush. If they grew and changed, they would ruin the potential for more sketches.

A 10-minute play, on the other hand, might start with a character who feels trapped in a relationship, and by the end of the play, they’ve made a decision to move on. You’re not going to see the character appear in a later play, trapped in another relationship. They’ve gone through a story, with a beginning, middle and end.

That, to me, is the difference. Not that one’s better than the other. That they are different.

sally said...

As I have already posted once in contribution to this discussion, I will keep my comments here brief.

The post after mine does nothing to address the issue I raised, and simply tacks on to the already stagnant discussion that was taking place. This new post only reiterates an already-made point, and then cites examples to back up this point. Unfortunately, these examples mostly are not "excellent sketch," but terrible sketch. While the Monty Python skits mentioned were well written, they are noteworthy primarily because of their positioning so early in the development of filmed sketch comedy. These skits were forerunners to the other works listed, which are all examples of cliched, poorly written sketch. "More Cowbell" became legendary due to its performers and for their inability at times to stay in character, not because of its repetitious building of a premise. "Penelope" is so poorly written and unmemorable that seeing it placed on any list of "excellent" sketches is embarrassing, and the same is true of "Stuart." Additionally, Will Ferrell portraying George W. Bush is an example of fine comedic acting, not fine comedic sketch. As is possible in all forms of art, to have been an artist of sketch does not mean one has any sense of what good sketch is.

As the examples of sketch given in the newer post indicate, this discussion is attempting to severely limit the capabilities of sketch, by setting sketch’s ceiling at the (sometimes) well-done execution of an incredibly clichéd and boring technique (the building of a static premise). This limitation, along with the mostly terrible examples given, confirms that sketch in this discussion is a stand-in for “bad, short comedic works.”

In the end, this newer post does nothing to address the crux of my argument, which is that there is no real difference between “sketch” and “the one-act play,” other than a tacit “value judgment” that has been placed on them by the previous contributors to this discussion.

Marissa said...

First, let me say that this is by far the most interesting discussion ever to have taken place on my blog, and for that I salute you all! Even if, to you, Sally, it is merely an empty echo-chamber.

I am unfamiliar with the sketch comedy examples that Tim mentioned except for "Dead Parrot" and Will Ferrell as Bush (and I agree with Sally that the Ferrell sketches are more noteworthy for their acting than their writing) so I don't think it would be fruitful for me to argue why each is or is not an example of good sketch writing.

Instead, Sally, I am curious to know more precisely where you stand in this debate. You can chastise us for our prejudice in unconsciously preferring one-act plays to comedy sketches, yet you don't seem to think any of the sketches Tim mentioned are much good. What do you consider some of the best recent sketch writing? And if, as you say, there is no real difference between sketches and one-acts, do you think that your favorite sketches would work equally well if performed in a festival of one-act plays, or would they stand out as somehow "different"? And if, so, what is that difference? And do you think that a sketch troupe could perform your favorite comic one-act play and not get heckled? Those are the questions I am trying to answer.

Now, have I been privileging the term "one-act" over the term "sketch"? Perhaps, but I am a playwright and suppose I have a natural bias toward my own art form. I guess I might privilege the written and published word (the one-act) over what is looser, more improvisatory and ephemeral (the sketch). But I see it more as a function of having less experience with the ins and outs of sketch comedy, than as any kind of real snobbery. As I said, I think the bigger question here is "if a good sketch were written down and published as a one-act play, would it blend in or stand out"?

tim said...

I hope Marissa doesn’t think we’re hijacking the thread. But I wanted to post one more time because Sally led to me an Oprah-style “aha moment.”

I was going to jump in and defend liking “More Cowbell” and “Penelope” for doing what I like in a sketch: taking a premise and pushing it to absurdity, and then not feeling constrained to have a big ending, or a character arc, or a blah blah blah.

Then I saw that phrase “what I like.” Uh-oh. So I stepped back for a moment, and thought of some short, comedic works I would define as plays and not sketches, and imagined them in a sketch show, and um....hmm, that would work just fine, wouldn’t it?

Then I went the other way. If I saw the “Dead Parrot” sketch in a 10-minute play festival, would I say, “No, no, no, that’s not a play, that’s a sketch”? Or would I say, “What a funny, absurdist play with a non-traditional ending and a refusal to fall into a cliched idea of character arc?” And, um...

I now think Sally is right that there is no real difference between a comedic sketch and a comedic one-act play.

tim said...

I meant to say "Sally and Marissa" led me to an aha moment, as it was both Marissa's thought experiment and Sally's argument that led me to reconsider.

Marissa, the one-act play dropped into a sketch show might seem a little long if it was surrounded by shorter, punchier sketches. But if you called five comedic 10-minute plays a sketch show, well, I now don't see why you couldn't.

Sally, like Marissa, I'd love to hear what you think are excellent sketches, recognizing there's a chance they've been onstage and thus we haven't seen them.

And, yes, I swear I thought the Penelope sketch I saw was well-written and funny. Maybe I was drunk at the time.

Taneisha said...

I just think that we should all take the time to recognize that Sally is the only person who has said anything true, relevant, and legitimate in this misbegotten discussion thus far.


sally said...

I found it difficult to come up with excellent examples of sketch that I could link to, mostly because SNL is a terrible source for excellent sketch, but I did find one that was, if not excellent, then original and well-crafted. Below are links to an admittedly poor video of the sketch and to an admittedly poor, transcripted version of it. I will withhold my thoughts on this skit, because it should speak for itself, although I will note that the audience is clearly stunned to be witnessing something of this caliber on the SNL set: