Newsjack: Comedy Jazz

Monday 8 February 2010, 16:10

Dan Tetsell Dan Tetsell

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Ok, in memory of Johnny Dankworth, here's how a sketch is like a jazz tune.

Say you're listening to Coltrane play 'My Favourite Things'. He'll start out with the basic tune, and then he'll take it and muck about. He'll take that tune all over the shop, he'll noodle, he'll swoop, he'll throw it over to the piano, maybe the drums will get a solo. For most of the track, he'll do all the things that jazz lovers love and jazz haters hate. Then he'll bring it back. The basic tune reasserts itself and... finish.

A sketch is like that.

I've said elsewhere that a sketch is one idea. It can have as many twists and turns, as many opposing viewpoints and (must have) as many jokes as you like, but at heart it is one single idea. The opening of a sketch sells that idea, gets a laugh, sets the tune. From there on you can take it anywhere as long as, like Coltrane's rhythm section, you have the basic idea backing you up. A sketch can, and should, be as surprising as you can make it but every twist is just a variation on the central theme, an improvisation around your tune. Look at how Fry & Laurie play around with the information desk idea here.

The punchline, then, is the tune reasserting itself. It's the payoff - the ideal finish that the start promised. Everything in the sketch is pointed towards this moment. That's why a satisfying punchline gets such a big laugh - it's a Freudian release moment, with everyone getting there effortlessly at the same time.

Of course, you might not like punchlines. A lot of people think they're old fashioned. These are people who have to put stings between their sketches to cover the lack of laughs. A punchline doesn't have to be a badum-tish gag, it shouldn't inspire a wah-wah-wah from the trombonist. It does have to tie up the sketch. A sketch always has to have a last line, obviously, so why not make it funny? Otherwise you might just find your producer cutting out on the last big laugh.

So there you go: Thesis, Antithesis, Conclusion. Oh, wait, no. That's why sketch writing is like A Level History essays. I think my basic point is this: I like jazz.

Well, its just a bit-of-fun theory, thought up over an idle hour on the tube reading Newsjack submissions - and anyway I'm more Ornette Coleman than Wynton Marsalis, so feel free to go your own way, play whatever tune you like.

Which sounds like as good an excuse as any to listen to this.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I agree. Especially since bad comedy can be just as annoying as bad jazz. Geesh, where is this SNL sketch going and when will it end?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Any suggestions on where to submit our topical material to once Newsjack finishes its current run?

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Ah well - it's the end of Newsjack and I've sent nothing. Distractions are a pathetic excuse but I lost all power, got snowed in and then had to go to Scotland to bury a man (it's alright - he was dead).
    I'd just like to say how useful your blogs have been - and entertaining in their own right, which is always a big bonus. So - when's the next Newsjack? What else is coming up for writers? ... and do you blog anywhere else?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Ooh, I got rule breaking comments. That means I've arrived, blogwise.

    Anyway, to the politer members of the online community...

    @dthepen - not sure where else one can go with topicals. I'll ask around and come back, but I can't promise anything. Open door opportunities are thin on the ground. I'll try a final Where Now? blog this week but now the series is nearly over they might take my official BBC blog login away and return me to the swamp where they keep jobbing writers.

    @Clare Kirwan - I think they're discussing the third series now and it looks like it'll be around June/July, maybe later.


  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Hi Dan (and everyone else),

    Sadly, nothing in this series at all but thanks for the opportunity to submit. Looking forward to hearing if else is out there.

    Is it me or do Scotland and Wales seem more focused on national writing opportunities than England?



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