Writing 2 with Nate Herman, How to Develop an SNL Writing Packet

Sketch Comedy’s history is old, in the past couple of hundred years coming from schools and colleges, the end of term skits used to rib the teachers and institutions. Modern sketch really started in 1959, simultaneously out of the University of Chicago in the US, and in the UK from Oxford and Cambridge.

Sarcastic, anarchic, “Beyond the Fringe” was the forerunner for all modern UK sketch. This was very verbal and was followed very soon after by the similarly verbally anarchic “Goon Show”.

Saturday Night Live is also verbally anarchic, and this 8 week course was an exercise in learning how to write and writing an SNL portfolio, with the aim that ultimately it will be better than an SNL show itself. The reason we were able to put together such good material was because we had certain advantages, a particular one being that, as writers on this course, we are not in competition with one another; we each want everyone’s work to improve and so are happy to say which bits we like and offer constructive criticism and ideas to help improve each others’ work. This is particularly important when it comes to the endings of pieces, and some of the best ideas on the course have been in the brainstorming of ideas to make these strong. Also, as each portfolio is our own, we also have the luxury of through jokes and call backs to previous sketches.

Things we learnt on the course…

That moment during writing when you ask yourself if you are through and then write more, often, yes, you were through. Keep these bits short enough and sharp.

The course broke down the show in to parts and we then wrote for it like that. If you go to the SNL website, you can watch the show in its constituent parts, which makes this easier.

Try to write a blackout or two every week. A blackout is a short, often visual joke, a “left turn” or misdirection where we think the actor is doing one thing and it turns out they are doing something else. These are used as pace changers on the show and also to change around the running order. British show “Man Stroke Woman” is all blackouts.

We started with the host monologue, also called homebase. This can be a version of what and actor / celebrity is known for, a sort of self roast. It may be comprised of questions from the audience. It might be a monologue on “something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance to”, followed by the monologuist doing it.

We also thought about backstage monologues, which normally start as on stage monologues and have the cameras following the celebrity backstage, where they get hampered or helped by the rest of the crew.

The first week, we picked our host, and part of the brainstorming of the first session was of picking someone who we wanted to write for. Our guidelines were to pick someone new, alive, and not necessarily an actor. In terms of writing for the crew, we are advised to use the current staff.

An onstage monologue was aimed at being 2-3 pages long, a backstage monologue, 3-5 pages long.
If the monologuist was there to promote a movie, we could bring in someone from the movie or have someone on the cast portray another actor from the movie.

30 August
We are highlighting our writing, so the host we choose for our SNL package is arbitrary.

The host monologue can do many things such as:
Take questions from the audience
Talk about what always wanted to do
Talk about what secret thing we didn’t know they can do
Be mistaken for a character they play
Have a dream sequence, thinking back to “I remember when…”

The show wants to see something different, something brilliant, but that is also at the same time, the same.

So, the parameters. 4-5 basic premises, 4 minutes.

Show what is the real character of the actor that we don’t know. Think Road to Damascus moment.

The opening monologue turns out to be the obvious.
Keep the pace slow enough. Use little trick to show a pause.
Give the audience breathing room.

When doing this, speak it out loud before showing it.

Generally a backstage monologue starts on stage.

6 September
The Cold Opening. This is the piece before the credits.
This is often political, and doesn’t feature the host.
This is a blackout, designed to get the audiences attention right at the start of the show.

Our aim was to write a 3 page political / topical piece. Write it as an actual scene.

Using specialist software, Final Draft has a sitcom format, this would be what we should use if we are not formatting via Word ourselves.

Stage directions – All caps, single spaced
Actors – give their own names rather than the names of their characters (otherwise they won’t know who is who). Then indicate who the characters are in the Stage directions.
The Actors’ Names – in caps, tabbed over 4
Tabs are 5 spaces each
Use only simple stage setting, don’t teach the set designers to suck eggs.
All pieces have to be cast – use the word “extra” if necessary.
Each scene should have its pages numbered individually within the portfolio.
Put this in the footer, with the sketch name on the left, my name on the right.
SFX = Sound effects
Say if it is filmed, do not say if it is live.
Last line – Fade
With the backstage monologue, simple sets are also usually better. Use of cameos is fine. We can also cut to a pretape for part of it

For blackouts, see “Man Stroke Woman” and “Robot Chicken”

13 September
Main note for our work “tighten up”. Think of starting our scene further through (as in, knock off the start)

For next week we were to produce two comedy commercials. Think green screen and costumes.

1 is live, simple, cheap. Last about 90 seconds.
1 is recorded, is a filler, and has a film budget (often quite large). Last about a minute.
They tend to be parodies of existing commercials, parodies of the style or whatever.

Ideas that we came up with:
A house mobile phone that you can’t lose because it has a cord attached.
The iPlate, that gets children to eat by playing with their food.
The cum face mask.
The flattering coffin.
Multisize orafice cleaner – use on your pets too (“miawarrg” – Ah, too tight!)
Burglar eating curtains
Construction workers’ workout
Google app for wife – Wifepedia
Scratch ‘n’ sniff STD cards
Hair eating ants – confident guy slaps ants onto his face. The come with ear guards and a warning. “Honey, did you use my ants again?” – cut to a dried up corpse in the corner.
Angry monkey babysitter – establishes dominance within 10 minutes
Prostitute babysitter. Prostitute anything – “Ever fancied your babysitter, but didn’t want to take advantage? Well our Eastern European range of babysitters…”
Anti-masterbation pants (trousers). Wife has the remote control.
An app, where everytime he searches for porn it come up with gift ideas for his wife. “Oh, why don’t I buy her a bracelet / pillows / a massage”

21 September (class had to be moved)

There are a bunch of ideas for making “peanut free axe handles” a better piece

For next class, we are to write the Weekend update piece. The jokes are visuals, shown above Seth’s shoulder – either the visual is the punchline for the joke or a accompanies it.
We want 4 of them
Also a short rant (like the Seth Meyers “Second Amendment” rant), which is a short stand up piece , about a minute long, on some news topic
Also, write two guest slots, one of whom is a made up guest of our choice, one of which is written for one of their characters (such as Drunk Uncle). These can be either interview or editorial.

For the sketches, remember, must have a Beginning, a Middle and an End; Relationships; Premise; Characters; Location; Resolve the scene.
These are like short stories – think heroes journey.

Ideas for my own character here:
47% man, where we only see half of him (the other half is green screened) “I know I look 50%, but I’ve no genitals, I’m like Ken”
The camera that filmed the 47% gaffe – it could also have been on the grassy knoll, “most videos are just at bars”
The burglar eating curtains
The rat
A jetpack “I thought I was supposed to be the future!”
A Myantologist
Rabbit in the headlights  – have a massive light on it, it is always surprised.

Capitol Dome Oil of Olay advert
Capitol Dome – patched up by Trump (it has its own toupee)

28 September

Set a weekly deadline – and commit to it publicly, on blog, to friends, to mother.
Copy / write as if writing for shows seen on UK TV. Commit to what I will do, let my audience know each week what the following week’s aim is. Do edits with the writing group.
When editing my Edinburgh show, do so like I did for Solo Performance.

Treat writing as though I were taking a course on a particular show. None of this is that difficult. Treat this like a job – but one that I enjoy, I want to get up to do, to feel excited about.

Write a daily short podcast / video log. Take an hour to write.

Commit to myself – stop when my workload is done. Do other things in town. Give myself until the time I set myself, after that time I have other tasks to do – including days when it is difficult. No excuses.

Write on paper; write up on computer.

Think of offering laughter / joy therapy.

4 October

The character editorial has an internal logic of its own

We were advised to get our packets up to date with what we’d done so far.

For next week we’d to do a film parody and a TV parody.

Film parody can often be a scene of the film or genre, or different ending of the same.

Ideas for films to look at:
The Hobbit
Looper
Men in Black 43
Dr Seuss’s the Lorax
Prometheus
Skyfall

Programs:
Dexter
Spartacus
Britain’s got Talent

11 October, final class…
Various notes about Chiefed – such as break up blocks of text a little
and other writing – burglar eating curtains, peanut free, monologue, rat fighting (make sure the set up is there for the dialogue piece)

For our portfolios, put as many sketches as possible into it. Put together entire episodes, constantly update and expand. What people will want to see in a writing package is quantity, history and current.

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