Sketch Anatomy: 2014 in Review

brian_stack_traveling_salesmanThis year we launched a brand new column called Sketch Anatomy, in which we spoke with a dozen comedy writers and producers from shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Conan, Broad City, and more to delve deeper into some of their favorite sketches, performers, and sitcom episodes. From Andy Kaufman’s early ’80s television appearances to Lonely Island’s 2003 breakout web series The ‘Bu, the sketches and shows analyzed so far have included Alex Blagg’s take on the honesty behind Key and Peele’s humor to how Emily Altman turned a conversation with her mother into a hit Inside Amy Schumer sketch. Here’s a look back at the 12 writers who took us behind the scenes of the comedy process in 2014:

Bill Oakley on SCTV’s “Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Pancakes”
So it was parodying the crummy late night horror movie host and the crummy movies that he’d show. Again, as a kid at that time I had never seen any of those things but I still found it hilarious. Looking back on it, one of the things that’s crazy is I don’t think I even realized that first of all, Joe Flaherty is supposed to be a vampire but he’s howling like a werewolf. [laughs] I just took that for granted, and it must’ve been years until I saw it and was like “Wait a minute, that’s a joke!” Furthermore, Count Floyd’s always wearing a turtleneck which is the least vampire thing ever. So it was just a number of things I didn’t get the first couple times I saw it, and it didn’t dawn on me until years later about all the layers of humor that’s in it. (Read More)

John Levenstein on Kroll Show’s “Niece Denise”

When she appeared on set that first day with the braces and in wardrobe, there was such a hush over the set — it was like magic. They’d never seen Jenny play another part, let alone this part. It was so realistic, and I’d never heard until she played it that day that thing where she was sort of gasping for air between her lines of dialogue. Literally everything about the performance was a surprise to me. So it was interesting as a writer how you can play a part in creating a character but still at the end you’re on the outside and the actors have to do it. There were just things that happened with Nick and Jenny in the scene that still seem more like magic to me. (Read More)

Emily Altman on Inside Amy Schumer’s “Mom Computer Therapy”

But it was interesting in the writer’s room when we were talking about the relationship between the mother and the daughter; some people had more anger about it and some people had an easier, more laid-back attitude about it. It’s not funny to me if the sketch is just a mom that’s evil and can’t figure stuff out. It is important to me to keep it not mean-spirited, because the point of it is it’s every mom and every daughter — not a particularly weird, evil, strange mom or something. So yeah, I think comedically it’s important to keep it straightforward and not make fun of one particular person. (Read More)

Jeff Loveness on Lonely Island’s “The ‘Bu”

I guess that stuff, more than anything I even saw on TV, encouraged me to become a comedian because it wasn’t professional, it was made with home video cameras probably similar to the ones we had at home, and it very much had a vibe of bored friends having fun with a camera, and it showed me that it wasn’t impossible to get a job in comedy — you just had to go out there and try to make something with your friends. (Read More)

Andy Cowan on Seinfeld’s “The Opposite”

Seinfeld was an interesting hybrid as it continued, because it had so many sets and it had little snippets of outdoor scenes, simulated New York streets, all this other stuff — so it was really the best of both words, in a way, and I think it helped open the doors further to the single-cam world. But we had single-cam shows in the ’60s with that obnoxious laugh track, so single-cams are not anything new. Larry David was never concerned as much about the jokes as much as servicing the characters and the story, and the story being fresh — the jokes were the cherry on top. So you got the sense that wow, these people exist, they’re like my friends, I want to hang out with them for a half hour every week, I don’t really buy that it’s a script, I don’t hear the familiar rhythms or setup-punch, setup-punch… it’s just inherently funny. And a lot of the magic too has to go to the casting. It goes without saying that the leads on Seinfeld were incredible, but every single character just had that idiosyncratic, interesting, human feel to them that didn’t seem cookie-cutter, and the characters in and of themselves were funny before they even said a word. (Read More)

Alex Blagg on Key and Peele’s “Insult Comic”

Almost no comedy will be inoffensive to everybody, and if it is it’s probably pretty boring. With comedy you’re relieving tension by saying and doing the unexpected, and a lot of times that by its nature will lead to people not liking the results or saying it’s offensive to them — that your representation of their particular experience is unfair or inaccurate. That will always happen, but I think the likelihood of that happening is so greatly diminished when you’re setting out as a performer or creator to try to be honest. Instead of just saying Okay, what’s the first thought that comes to my head — what’s the easiest stereotype I can make fun of? and then just going with that, thinking a little bit deeper and trying to understand the real motivations and attitudes and behaviors that make us human, and then looking at those things as the material you can focus the joke on — I think that’s where the best comedy comes from and that’s why people like Key and Peele are almost infallible. It’d be really tough to put together a legitimate case about them being lazy or insensitive comedians. They feel like humanists to me. (Read More)

Brian Stack on the Traveling Salesman and his other Conan characters

I always really enjoyed punching the card away at the end and saying things like “Cash or credit?” as if it was just a given he was going to buy them because they were such great jokes, but they were obviously horrible. It was always really fun. You know, as a comedy writer you spend so much time agonizing over trying to make stuff funny, so it’s really fun to write deliberately bad material… [laughs] …where you can just relax and go okay, let’s make this stuff as bad as humanly possible. (Read More)

Jason Woliner on Human Giant’s “Shutterbugs”

But looking back at those, I didn’t know anything about making a TV show. I look at Human Giant now and to me it it just feels like home videos or what you would do in film school. I didn’t ever really go to much film school, so I feel like I learned a lot from it. But now I would never in a million years operate a camera on something now that I work with people who are much better than me at doing those things. But back then I would hold the camera or one of the cameras for all of it, and during the Bobb’e J. thing there’s some stuff that he’s saying where the camera’s just shaking because I was laughing so hard, and we just left it in. That was pretty amazing to watch that kid work — you felt like you were seeing something really incredible. (Read More)

Phil Augusta Jackson on Key and Peele’s “Alien Imposters”

Being a new writer and writing for Key and Peele is the ultimate master class. Not only for endings — I think the endings end up being so good because these sketches end up getting worked to a point where the idea is so singular and so simple that they become really smart as a result, and because of that you have an idea that ends up being so clear it’s easy to figure out how to zag from it because there’s no confusion as to what you’re zagging off of. So I think, to answer your question, yes — it does help with figuring out how to end sketches, but it’s also just a great place to learn how to take everything you need and leave the stuff that you don’t. There’s sometimes a lot of funny stuff that isn’t always on-game and you don’t necessarily need in the interest of keeping things streamlined and getting to the most fun as quickly as possible. (Read More)

Adam Conover on CollegeHumor’s “Why Engagement Rings Are a Scam”

And that’s the case for most of these topics: Now that you know the truth, you can go off and make a better decision as a result of knowing it. It’s like salty and sweet — if you mix the intense devastating information with a big dose of comedy and lightness, you get something that is very delicious to people. The combination works really well. If you are just intense you end up like Al Gore and most people tune you out, and if you’re being totally light you end up like Jerry Lewis and it’s just sugar-coated and forgettable, but if you combine the two of them, you get something that makes people listen then really sends a dagger right to their heart. (Read More)

Matt Besser on Andy Kaufman’s Late Night Appearances

My favorite moment maybe out of all these clips is the one where, I think it’s the Letterman one, but it’s the one where he’s talking about getting a divorce and then he turns to the audience and goes “I don’t know where you guys are coming from,” and he’s incredulous like “What’s wrong with you people? I’m telling you about my divorce and you’re laughing at me?” It goes against every comic instinct to tell an audience to stop laughing, and that’s just fucking hilarious. (Read More)

Lucia Aniello on Above Average’s “Ghost Tits”

From my limited experience, the thing I’d say a director tends to do even if they aren’t on the writing staff is getting the scene as scripted, but then once you feel like you know that you have it, to spend a little bit of time in the scene. There’s no way that you could ever totally prepare yourself for the funniest reaction or different take on the scene in the writers’ room as you could if you’re on the set, because you have the actors there and everybody in costume, on the set, living this scene, figuring something out…I think you’re able to sometimes get to a place in the scene — whether it’s comedically or emotionally or whatever — that I think a director is obligated to explore and figure out and find if there is a slightly better version of the scene that’s not on paper. (Read More)

From Our Partners