I Did the Mash (And So Can You): One Man’s Take on Sketch Mash-Up

Sketchfest’s own Randall Cleveland participated in the March Sketch Mash-Up, where anyone – even YOU! – can write, rehearse, and perform sketch comedy in just one weekend! Stave off your stage fright: come see Sketch Mash-Up unfold THIS SUNDAY at the Seattle Creative Arts Center, then sign up to participate in the next one!

Somewhere, at some point, you’ve thought to yourself, I’m pretty funny. I bet I could write comedy. It’s okay. We’ve all done it. Maybe with your friends, maybe alone where no one else can see, or maybe in front of a room full of strangers. Maybe you’ve got notebooks full of ideas waiting to be fleshed out, maybe you’re not even sure how people actually write sketches, or maybe you’re an old pro who’s looking for the next outlet to create something. The Sketch Mash-Up welcomes everyone of all experience levels, crams them together in a room for three days, and demands that they pitch, write, edit, rehearse and perform an hour-long (-ish) show. Why? Just to prove it can be done.

I signed up for the Mash-Up at the recommendation of Sketchfest’s Artistic Director Clayton Weller, who assured me, “It’ll be fun.” At only $25 for three days of fun and writing, how could I say no? (Full disclosure: yes I write for Sketchfest, which puts on these Mash-Ups, but I volunteer so they don’t pay me jack and therefore are not forcing me to say $25 is a good deal. It just is.) I figured it’d be a breeze! I’ve written sketch comedy before. It’d be a great way to meet people in the scene, since I’m relatively new to Seattle. They’ll probably think I’m super hilarious and awesome and I’ll have a new best friend by the time this thing’s done!

As Friday night approached, though, my bravado turned to dubiousness. What if I’m not funny? What if everyone else is funnier than me? What if they’re all somehow writers for SNL just doing this on a lark and I’m going to be the worst one and they’ll hate me and I’ll be terrible? It was every first day of school all over again. I briefly considered blowing the whole thing off, but thought better of it. After all, they were providing Thai food. I could endure a weekend of shame for some Pad Thai. I headed to the pitch meeting, notebook in hand and stomach growling for peanut sauce.

Friday. It starts.

The 10 (-ish) of us gathered in a conference room while Clayton and Dan, the show’s producers, started off with introductions and explanations as to how this whole thing would work. The group ran the gamut, from seasoned sketch pros to first-timers to a woman who literally was dragged along by her friend and wasn’t 100% sure she was ready for this. After learning everyone’s names, the pitch session began in earnest. The pitch brainstorm is always my favorite part of any writers’ room, because it’s basically a room full of people trying to crack each other up. For a week prior to the Mash-Up, we’d been submitting one sentence ideas to a shared document. Now we got to read them off, one at a time, and riff on them to try and flesh out the idea. It’s a very welcoming, “no bad ideas” kind of vibe. The stronger stuff kind of floats to the top via laughter or people adding more and more ideas to it.

Friday

Clayton finds that wild gesticulation always helps convey an idea.

After the initial onslaught of ideas, we took a quick break to feast (finally!) while Clayton and Dan narrowed down our extensive list to sort of rank the ideas they thought had the most potential. Everyone seemed to be on board, engaged, and excited; even the nervous first-timers. The intimidation I was worried about never materialized; the atmosphere could not have been more inviting and collaborative. It was great! It made me miss my sketch-writing days of old, and I swore to get back into that. After stuffing our faces with noodles, we reviewed all the ideas pitched and people called out the ideas they wanted to write. You only get one sketch, and it’s first-shout-first-serve, so you can’t be bashful. I missed out on the sketch I really wanted because I didn’t want to seem too eager, but I happily took my second choice before it could be snapped up.

(It turns out my second choice was sort of a joke suggestion that Clayton throws out for every pitch meeting to kind of get the juices flowing. He was surprised someone actually picked it, but he was excited to see what I could do with it.)

With our choices made, we broke camp and headed home to generate first drafts and show up with them for review in around 12 hours. I wasn’t worried as I drove back to my house; I was brimming with ideas, and I had all the hilarious feedback from the group to incorporate! This would be easy!

I stared at my laptop for about an hour before I started drinking.

But the words came. Slowly. Haltingly, even. But they came. The goal of the first draft is not to deliver a comedy masterpiece; the goal is to conquer the very act of writing a first draft. Put (digital) ink to (electronic) paper. That’s all you have to do. And reminding myself of that fact took a lot of the pressure off. I finished my first draft around midnight and went to bed shortly after to rest up for our Saturday editing session.

Saturday. When First Drafts Are Trimmed of Comedic Fat.

Saturday began with coffee, or would have had we not failed to figure out the coffee maker for roughly three hours. Instead we munched donuts and drank water while the shakier of us forged across the street for some espresso. We read our first drafts in front of the group, casting them on the fly with a hurried, “Uh, what was your name? Can you be the guy with the arrow in his face?” While the characters read, we all took notes on what we’d change, add, subtract, etc. Once all the sketches were read, we broke into teams of three or four and started editing.

Clayton and Sunny direct one of the sketches in rehearsal.

Clayton and Sunny direct one of the sketches in rehearsal.

Editing’s a neat process, because you go from a large group dynamic to a smaller, more intimate duo or trio. You get to know your sketch-writing compatriots a little better, and you have to navigate how to dissect a sketch, find the game, and heighten that until it’s side-splittingly funny. Some sketches need little if any touching up. Others require slightly more assistance. It’s a balancing act, but it’s crunch time so you can’t spend all day daydreaming about a possible change. If you’re going to cut something, you’ve got to do it and do it quickly. Think the third beat would benefit from some good ol’ “guy gets hit in the junk” slapstick? Better make a strong case for it. Our helpful producers Clayton and Dan would pop by every hour or so to check in on our progress, answer any questions or help us overcome any writers’ block. Suddenly the afternoon had passed, it was time to go, and we had finished drafts.

Late that Saturday evening we got the email from our esteemed directors with the final casting for the show. Along with that came the caveat: we’d be performing these sketches tomorrow night, so we had to get to memorizing lines with a quickness. It’s a weird sort of panic that hits you (or maybe it’s just me) when you realize you have to memorize something in a short time. It’s sort of like cramming for a test, except the test is in front of a bunch of your friends you invited and if you fail it’s going to be very embarrassing.

I was cast in three(!) sketches, but one of the roles only had one line. I pored over my scripts for most of the night, until I started to wonder if I was doing more harm than good by trying to memorize three separate pieces simultaneously. I decided to pick one, my personal favorite, and hammer on it until I had it perfect. I worried the others might suffer, but I would rather turn in one amazing performance than three middling ones. I crammed and I crammed and I crammed before it was late enough that I worried I would feel like crap the next day, so I went to bed.

Sunday. Fun Day?

Sunday was a blur of activity, and started with all of us arriving at the performance space to rehearse. With 10 or 12 actors and two producers we had to improvise, dividing into smaller groups to read lines while each sketch was read, rehearsed, and blocked out (a Latin term meaning “you should stand here when you say this”). As I read the lines again and again I realized they had clicked; I wasn’t going to go up there and blank, I seemed to know my lines! All of them, not just the one sketch I’d focused on. This was going to be easy! I got the call: time to rehearse my first performance in front of the producers. No prob, I thought as I strolled to the stage.

And then I blanked.

Not completely. But enough. Enough that my newfound confidence was suddenly and rapidly receding. I fumbled through my lines once, twice, and a third time before wrapping up the scene and going back to my script to cram. But there was no time! I had another sketch to rehearse! In an instant I was back onstage, transformed from diabolical mastermind to cantankerous old man. I think the frenetic pace really helped me, to be honest: it kept me from fixating on the stuff that wasn’t perfect (something I’m known to do) and kept me in the moment, working on whatever the scene at hand was. It’s also a kind of reassuring mantra to tell yourself: It doesn’t have to be perfect, we did all this in three days.

But soon enough the music came up and the lights went down and people were filing in to take their seats. Real, actual people! All of them were surely invited by us, but still! I ducked out to say hello to my friends who graciously came out to support me before hiding backstage to go over last minute choreography and changes. Then the show started.

You can't know what to expect, other than you'll enjoy yourself.

You can’t know what to expect, other than having fun.

I absolutely love the feeling of performing, and not just for the obvious “Gimme Attention” thrill everyone assumes (although that certainly helps). It’s a feeling I first got performing improv onstage, and it’s like gossamer: sure, it’s a little different from improv in that the sketch is written and rehearsed beforehand, but the audience has never seen it before. You’re sharing something completely new and unseen with them and you get to witness them experiencing it and it’s this shared moment that will never really ever exist again because the characters will change. I can get all sentimental and quasi-metaphysical about it, but that’s the gist.

The show was a blur of adrenaline, nerves, bright lights, and (thankfully) laughter. There were a couple hiccups, sure, but overall things went great! Having a supportive audience made it much easier to go out on stage and be silly for a bit. Afterwards we met in a giddy, giggly heap and congratulated each other on a job well done. We’d done it! We put on an entire sketch comedy show just days after meeting each other! It was time to do what anyone in this situation would do: we headed to the bar to celebrate.

All this is to say that I would recommend the experience to anyone looking to write, perform, or just meet some cool people and have a fun weekend doing something different. Drop us a line if you’re interested in attending the next one!

Want to try YOUR hand at producing a sketch comedy show in just a weekend? Check out our Classes page for opportunities like the Mash-Up, SketchWriting Thunderdome, and more!

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  1. Pingback: Moving a Big Idea from My Brain to the Real World | Finding It at 40

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