Here’s a puzzle.
You are making a sketch show. You want people to like it. Even if those people are just the man or woman across the street who choose to get undressed without closing the curtains. Oh yeah. They know what they’re doing. They know.
So the first part of the puzzle is a stack of scripts. A gleaming, glowing pile of promise. A jigsaw of japes.
The second part of the puzzle is your running time. It doesn’t really matter but let’s say you’re making it for BBC1. And BBC1 doesn’t have a proper mainstream sketch show at the moment. Which is a fucking disgrace. An absolutely ridiculous….aaaghh a rant for another time. But for now, it means you have to produce six episodes of 29 minutes.
And the last part of the puzzle is your filming schedule. Let’s say it’s thirty days, split into six weeks of five days. Like a normal job. You can pretend you have a normal job. Hurray! Get a pension!
Now here’s the bit you have to solve… How many sketches do you shoot?
Of course the actual number depends on the length of the sketches. A fast-paced mainstream show might have over forty per episode. A more character-based show might only feature a dozen or so. Over a series that can add up to quite a difference. Six episodes might have anywhere between 75 and 240. But for our puzzle the actual numbers are not relevant. Well what is relevant? Fuck sake Noddy, sort it out.
Okay, let me phrase it a little better… What percentage of the required duration of sketches will you shoot? Clearly you need at least 100%. Otherwise you can’t deliver six complete programmes. Then the BBC will call the fingersnappers and you’ll end up broken in a dark alley crying into a bin bag. Or the cheery continuity announcer has to talk for a little longer before your show. Either scenario is as awful to consider as a Twilight film.
Does the answer seem self-evident? Are you currently frowning and mumbling “Just shoot enough for your programmes ya fat dick. What’s the problem?”
Well, here’s the thing. There’s an awful lot that can happen between a funny script being written and the show being broadcast. I don’t believe there is a person on this planet that can perfectly predict the audience’s reaction to a sketch before it has been through the production process. Before locations have been located, props have been propped, lights have been lit, actors have acted, shots have been shot, edits have been edited. While, in general, you can be pretty accurate with your choice of sketches to shoot, you’ll inevitably be disappointed with the results of a few. Thankfully, you’ll also be clap-n-dance delighted with others. Because of this uncertainty, most shows I’ve worked on have allowed the playing of “jokers”. We shoot extra sketches that not everyone agrees on. We gambled. Because there is always the chance that these “jokers” pay off, sometimes spectacularly. Back in the mists of time, the Chewin The Fat team used to have little bets on which sketches would tank and which would work. As the live audience greeted certain sketches with laughter or silence, five pound notes were changing hands in the darkness behind them. The first sketch here, the shield, provoked a flurry of fivers
So, how many sketches do you shoot?
Do you play it safe, build in a bit of wiggle room, and shoot more sketches than is strictly required? That would seem sensible, wouldn’t it?
Except you have finite resources, a finite shooting time. Budgets are precious. Every extra sketch you shoot dilutes the cash. Do you want to do that sketch in the coffee shop? Then you can’t afford the crane for the fancy shot in the football sketch. Do you want to shoot the double decker bus joke? Then you can only have three extras in the coffee shop. Does the kung-fu sketch need a stunt man? Then you can only go to two pub locations rather than three.
The more sketches you shoot, the less time and money you can spend on them. And because you will end up binning some, that is money that will not make it to screen. Is that a worthy sacrifice?
One extreme gives a choice of sketches, weighting the probability towards hilarious.
The other removes choice in favour of getting every penny on screen.
And that’s the puzzle. That’s what you have to solve. What is important? How confident are you in the material? What do you want the final show to be?
Next time you watch a sketch show, and hopefully you’ll watch loads of new ones in the future, think about the puzzle. How well do you think it has been solved?
Which leads us to a contentious statement…The slicker and fancier a comedy looks, the less you laugh at it. My old boss never tired of saying “Every time I hear the phrase “production values” I reach for my revolver.”
Was he correct? Well that’s for another time.