So lately I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions about sketch submission packets and auditions. It can be a confusing process, especially if it’s your first time submitting, and there are a lot of mistakes that people often make, so I decided to put some stuff down in a helpful little list that you can refer back to whenever you like. Keep in mind that a lot of this stuff is based on my own opinions and experiences, but seeing as I’ve read hundreds of packets, watched hundreds of auditions, and will be one of the ones grading them at iO this go around, I don’t feel like TOO much of an asshole when I say seriously, do these things.
YOUR WRITING PACKET
1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, FORMAT IT PROPERLY. Look, I get that not everyone wants to shell out the dough for Final Draft. It’s expensive, and we’re broke comedians. Celtx, however, is totally free, and formats scripts in almost the exact same way Final Draft does, and once it’s switched to a .PDF, you can barely tell the difference. You should never ever ever ever be writing scripts in word, or notepad, or any other weird program. It is off putting to look at and screams amateur. Also, if you have any desire to be a writer for a living, just shell out the money for Final Draft.
2. A PACKET SHOULD BE 3 FULL LENGTH SKETCHES. What this means is, you may think you have a hilarious blackout, and maybe you do, but the people reading packets typically want to see three fully fleshed out sketches. Three is not a lot, and we want to get a feel for what you can do. Throwing in a blackout is only hurting you. I am also not a fan of runners in packets, but that’s more of a personal preference.
3. "FULL LENGTH" DOES NOT MEAN 7 PAGES. The sweet spot in terms of sketch length for me is between three and four pages. Anything longer than that, and it better be the best damn sketch I have ever read in my life. I understand that SNL does 10 minute sketches, but really, have you ever seen an episode and genuinely wanted the sketches to be that long? Also, there is a difference between a show on tv that’s an hour and a half and a live sketch show that lasts 20 minutes. More than four pages and the readers WILL get bored. Trust me.
4. CHARACTER SKETCHES DO NOT READ WELL. Look, I’m sure you have an amazing sketch where you do an impression of French president Francois Hollande riding a pony during a snowstorm, but if the funny parts are overly dependent on your performance, it’s probably not the best thing to submit when people will just be in their apartments, reading them quietly to themselves. Stick with premise stuff that’s funny on paper.
5. OVERLY VISUAL SKETCHES DO NOT READ WELL. Again, I’m sure you have a great silent sketch ready to go, but keep in mind that seeing funny visual stuff is vastly different than reading funny visual stuff. If I write “Charlie Chaplin does the dance of the rolls by putting two dinner rolls on the ends of forks and using them as tiny legs and feet,” you might be thinking “What the hell does that even mean?” However, when I show you the link:
you suddenly get it. Stick to sketches that don’t need to be seen to get a laugh. Which leads directly to my next point
6. TAKE OUT ANY UNNECESSARY STAGE DIRECTIONS. In a sketch packet, stage directions should be minimal. If it needs a ton of stage directions to be funny, don’t include it in your packet.
7. IF YOU ARE AN ASIAN FEMALE LESBIAN, DON’T MAKE EVERY SKETCH ABOUT BEING AN ASIAN FEMALE LESBIAN. Before you start sending me angry emails, what I mean by this is that your three sketches should be varied. A LOT of the times, a female writer will include three sketches in her packet about what it’s like to be a female, a gay writer will include three sketches about what it’s like to be gay, a Latina writer will put three in about what it’s like to be Latina, and so on and so forth. I get the whole “write what you know,” thing, but keep in mind that a sketch team is a team. You will be writing for other people, and audiences don’t care who wrote what. I would never put three sketches in one show all about an Italian girl from New Jersey and her adventures. If this is what you write, write a sitcom, or a movie, but sketch packets need to be diverse. I want to see three different sketches with different games and different kinds of characters.
8. RAPE, RACIAL HUMOR, AND AIDS JOKES ARE BEST LEFT TO THE EXPERTS. You may think your sketch about rape is absolutely hilarious, but I bet you 100 dollars the people reading your sketches won’t think that. I am of the mindset that nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy, but let’s face it, you’re not Louis C.K. I have read SO MANY packets with these above three elements in them, and I have, without fail, always found them to be in poor taste as opposed to “edgy.” If you think being a racist is edgy humor, time to take more classes.
9. DON’T FORGET TO DELETE THAT TITLE PAGE. Once again, nothing screams “I don’t know what I’m doing” faster than someone accidentally leaving a blank title page at the beginning of their packet. If you don’t know how to get rid of it, Google it. It’s very simple.
10. SHOW A CLEAR UNDERSTANDING OF GAME, BEAT, HEIGHTEN. I saved this one for last because it is by far the most important. While some coaches may disagree on what exactly it’s called, whether it’s “game” or “direction” or “thrust of the sketch,” trust me when I say every sketch MUST have a game. You should be able to pitch your sketch to me in one sentence. The pitch is the game of the sketch. What this means is, if I have a sketch about a janitor who loves ham, I can pitch that to you as “there’s a janitor who loves ham.” If you can’t easily pitch and summarize your sketch, it probably means you don’t have a good grasp of what it’s about, and the people who are reading it sure as hell won’t either. Get out the game of the sketch, and then heighten it to make it funnier. Almost all of the time, the notes coaches give on packets that they like are “Strong understanding of game. Good heightening.” If you don’t know what these concepts mean, or have no idea how to implement them, you should take some classes and wait to submit until you do.
YOUR PERFORMER AUDITION
1. DO YOUR AUDITION SEVERAL TIMES FOR A FRIEND BEFORE YOU FILM IT. Having someone watch you is beneficial for a lot of reasons. The more you do it, the more comfortable you are, they may notice things you were previously unaware of, and they may have some good pitches or advice. You should ideally be hiring someone who knows what they’re doing to coach you a bit first. There are a lot of GREAT sketch actors in the community with reasonable rates for this kind of coaching. Ask around and you’ll find them.
2. SHOW YOUR PERSONALITY. Whenever I coach people, I tell them that yes, the people watching these videos want to see your characters, but we also want to see you. Even something as simple as how you introduce yourself tells us a lot. Do you seem nervous? Shy? Bubbly? Warm? I have seen the note “likable” a lot when it comes time to grade auditions, and it has never hurt someone to be labeled as such. Treat the camera like a friend in the room with you. Engage with it. We want to know if the audience will like you, and this is the easiest way to tell.
3. FIND SOME WAY TO MAKE IT PHYSICAL. The truly great sketch actors I have seen use everything at their disposal. They not only change their voice or their accent, they change their physicality. If you’re playing a blue collar dock worker on an episode of Law & Order who just found out he’s married to a giraffe, I want to see you be that character. If your three minute audition is you standing stock still in the same pose and position, you’re not utilizing everything you could be to make it great. Move around a bit, shift your stance, make big hand motions if that’s what your character would do. This keeps it visually interesting.
4. ACCENTS DO NOT EQUAL CHARACTERS. Look, everyone I know can do an accent, whether it be Russian, German, Southern, etc. This doesn’t mean everyone I know would make a great sketch actor. If your character hinges solely on the fact that you’re doing an accent other than your own and that’s all, it’s time to take some more character classes.
5. STAY AWAY FROM RACIST OR HOMOPHOBIC STEREOTYPES. If you are a white man, and you intend to play some form of black stereotype, I can tell you right now, you aren’t going to make a team. Ditto for gay stereotypes. If your idea of a character is affecting an effeminate lisp, making your wrist go limp, and talking about what you and your bitches are going to do at the club this weekend, you should not audition. No one thinks it’s funny, and it will result in you getting a rep, so that if and when you do wise up, no one will want you on their team anyway.
6. JERSEY GUIDO, MINNESOTA MOM, SORORITY/VALLEY GIRL AND KRISTEN STEWART SHOULD BE ILLEGAL TO DO FOR AUDITIONS. Seriously, I have seen each of these so many times that it’s not only not funny anymore, it actually just makes me angry. Once again, these are voices/characters almost every human being can do. We don’t want to see them again. All it proves is that you’re a limited performer who sticks to tired old tropes.
7. FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT DIFFERENT. We want to see what you, as a performer, will bring to a team. What unique role will you be able to fill? I have seen people make teams who weren’t necessarily the strongest sketch actors simply because they were so different from everyone else. This doesn’t mean you have to gain 800 pounds and dye your hair pink to stand out. It means that whatever you’re doing, try and look at it from a unique angle. Bring something to it that no one has thought of before, and trust me, it will pay off.
8. WATCH AS MANY AUDITIONS AS YOU CAN. Someone just recently asked me “What should go on a sketch audition reel.” I asked him how many he’d watched, and the answer was clearly zero. The internet is a bottomless resource. Google “SNL auditions” or “Maude auditions” or “character reel” and then watch, watch, watch. Do NOT watch them to copy, but to see what you personally find funny and interesting. Take notes. Watch good ones and bad ones and figure out what makes the good ones good and the bad ones bad. You can’t watch too many auditions. It’s not possible.
9. IF YOU HAVE A SPECIAL SKILL, SHOW IT OFF. If you’re an amazing singer, make sure one of your characters sings. If you’re an amazing juggler, make sure one of them juggles. If you studied mime for years, there had better be a mime character in that reel. This is a no brainer. It will make you stand out.
10. VARY YOUR CHARACTERS. The number one negative comment I see given to performers is that their three minutes of characters were “too one note.” I don’t want to see you play three mush mouthed singer songwriters. I likewise don’t want to see three sassy loudmouths or three Russian mobsters. If I had a nickel for every time I have seen a girl do Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Taylor Swift impressions in her reel, I’d be rich. The characters should all be very different, in every aspect. Start making a list of characters you often do in improv shows, or when joking around with friends. Then eliminate those that are too similar.
FINAL ADVICE FOR EVERYONE
Don’t be bummed out if you don’t make a team the first time you try. The first year I submitted for a Maude team at UCB, I didn’t make it. I set up a meeting with the AD to get notes on the writing packet that I had submitted, and then asked what he recommended I do for the next year to get better. Then, I took classes, wrote as many sketches as I could, put them up at Not Too Shabby and some indie sketch nights, and wrote a Spank show. The next year, I submitted again and got placed on a team as a writer. There are a lot of talented people in this community, and simply not enough room for all of them on teams. A lot of people don’t make it. The smart ones work their asses off and get as much experience as they can. The dumb or lazy ones lay about, wait for the next round of submissions to roll around and submit again, having not gotten any stronger. Not making a team isn’t the end of the world. There are tons of opportunities to get your stuff seen. There are a slew of indie venues that incorporate sketch. Again, ask around and you’ll find them.
I’m sure there are a lot of great coaches out there who could tell you what other stuff I’ve left off this list. Ask them their advice. I’m sure they’ll be happy to share it. That’s all I got for now, so good luck!