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The Down-Low: Notes from a Comedy Sketch Writing Workshop with Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall

Many of you know that I write comedic horror, but I’m deeply influenced by all kinds of comedy in pop culture. I’ve also been studying improv intensely for the last year and a half, to boost my writing skills and my public performance skills. So when my improv school, Unexpected Productions in Seattle, offered a comedy sketch writing workshop with none other than Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall, YES THAT KIDS IN THE HALL, I dropped whatever was doing and was all like:

YEAH, GOTTA RUN!

Seriously, what FOOL comedy writer wouldn’t take this workshop? You’d have to be insane. I’m so glad I did. It was LIFE-CHANGING. Here are some of the highlights:

Workshop day:
The impishly adorable Kevin arrived at our classroom stage at U.P. last Saturday morning wearing peppy blue running shoes, and holding an aqua blue cup of hot lemon ginger tea. We were all a little like this:

If you’re a hardcore Kids in the Hall fan, then you’ll know how hard it was to resist the urge to shout, “LICK MY BAG!” at the sight of his teacup, but I held it together. He apologized for his slightly strained voice, sipped his tea, then began his workshop by saying this about his own advice, “I wouldn’t say it’s exactly bullshit….” We all chuckled, and leaned in. Thus began a mind-blowing two days learning what makes a successful sketch comedy.

The very next thing Kevin said was, “My notes are sometimes wrong…” (in the improv and sketch comedy world, a note is a bit of feedback given by a directorish type to help the writer or actor perform better), then he continued: “…but let some guide you. The best thing about a workshop like this is that you can fail.

Wow. YES. A safe place to fail. What every emerging creative individual (or aspiring bowler) needs, right? How can we create breakthrough work if we don’t take risks? Fear of failure breeds work that doesn’t push boundaries.

The next thing Kevin said was effectively this:
You need to learn the rules in order to break the rules. You break the rules when you find your voice. That’s when the really interesting stuff happens.

Oooooh, voice: The squishy, abstract thing that makes your writing uniquely yours. When you have have a unique voice, you’ve got that special something—others can try to imitate it, but will likely fall short. And, according to Kevin, the really juicy stuff happens when you find your voice.

Rules, then. Because every dominatrix dungeon *I MEAN* sketch comedy has rules. While Kevin and KITH were famous for breaking the rules of sketch comedy, he stressed the importance of why they came up with their own rules, mantras that helped them create the funniest, most successful comedy sketches possible. Here’s a quick sampling:

  • Once you find your idea/premise, protect that premise! Paraphrasing what Kevin said: Find the best vehicle for your premise, find the straightest path to drive it safely down the road to its destination: until you have a fully formed comedy sketch that you’re proud of. An idea can get terribly lost and fall off a cliff (Aiyeeeeee!) on the way to becoming a fully-formed sketch, if you don’t make the best choices for presenting it. As Kevin said, “How do we get the most laughs?”
  • Each sketch must have its own rules. What works best for presenting one comedy sketch may not work for another. YOU get to figure out those rules.
  • Timing of hook: Within the timing of your sketch, you have to figure out the best place to locate the premise, or the hook. When will your audience know what it’s about? Twenty seconds in? A third of way through? Right after the fart jokes? The middle? The end?
  • Climax: Like any good story, your comedy sketch must have rising action to keep viewers engaged, and a climax, ideally the funniest scene.
  • Information: The biggest challenge of writing any comedy sketch is communicating enough info so that the audience “gets” your sketch. (This is the benefit of workshopping with fellow writers—they can see what’s missing.)
  • Write all the time. This goes for comedy sketch writers, novelists, ANY kind of writer. The more you write, the easier it gets—like building muscle at the gym. Work it, girlfriend! Those writer muscles will be buff in no time.

He gave a TON more advice, but the most life-changing part of the workshop was when Kevin broke down the mechanics of famous comedy sketches, so we could see what made them work. That was a huuuuuge A-HA moment for me. When I’m watching a funny sketch, I can’t always parse the mechanics, as in, how does the structure make it funny? And Kevin, an experienced pro, did that for us. This enabled me to quickly rewrite the sketch I brought to the workshop (Shiny Happy Grocery—about food shoppers who unwittingly join a cult). It was a good idea, as Kevin said, but in its current form, took too long to get to the point and withered on the way there. After Kevin‘s talk and feedback, I immediately knew what to do to solve it. I rewrote it in an hour and a half—all the time that was left that day. Kevin loved the rewrite and we even performed it onstage the next evening. When those actors took the stage, I smiled so hard I thought my face would snap. Having Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall love and produce a comedy sketch of mine onstage was a dream come true.

So, YES, Kevin’s workshop was mind-blowing. Thanks to him, I have much better tools to write comedy. I’m immensely grateful for his gracious teaching, and enthusiastic coaching. I’m going to keep writing funny things, and I really hope I cross paths with Kevin again. Working with him again would be nothing short of amazing.

If you love writing comedy and Kevin’s workshop comes to your town, TAKE IT, FOOL! The feedback alone is well worth the price.

Plus, it’s Kevin! SQUEEEEEE! HE’S SO ADORBS!

Here are pics from the workshop and performance. Because without pics, it didn’t happen.

Kevin giving his amazing talk on what makes great sketch comedy. Note the teacup.

Kevin and our class going over the scripts. Whose scripts will make the final cut for the show?

My comedy sketch script, “Shiny Happy Grocery”—about food shoppers who unwittingly join a cult— was chosen by Kevin to be performed Sunday night! Classmate Leah C, on the left, was spooky-amazing as the wife, and Adam Dow, to her right, was hilarious as her husband.

Kevin (right behind me in the center) and my fellow writers and actors, who all wrote amazing comedy sketches and did a great job acting onstage Sunday night. Love them!

Me posing for a pic with Kevin McDonald after our show. He is seriously the nicest, funniest guy.

All of us writers and actors take the stage with our fearless leader Kevin McDonald at the end of the show. Photo credit: Joey Barlowe. Used with permission.

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Posted in Comedy, Writing and tagged ,

About G.G. Silverman

G.G. Silverman is an award-winning writer living just north of Seattle. Her first book, VEGAN TEENAGE ZOMBIE HUNTRESS, a comedic Y.A. zombie novel, is available now on Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com, and at indie booksellers through Indiebound.org