How to come up with funny ideas for sketches & scenes using "As if"

That Mitchell And Webb Look. Image shows from L to R: David Mitchell, Olivia Colman, Robert Webb

Comedy writing coach and director Chris Head says: "Looking for a funny angle for a sketch or sitcom scene? Try an 'as if'". And see below for links to his inspiring sketch and sitcom courses where you get to work with this technique and more.

How do you come up with ideas for comedy sketches? I know when I was writing sketches with Angel Comedy founder Barry Ferns, for example for our show The Leisure Virus, we'd just wait for a funny idea to come up - which would often be in conversation.

But there's another way of coming up with a comic angle - you can start with a setting or a context and apply a comedy technique and see what that throws up. This is great for writing scripts but even more so if you are filming sketches and you have a location you can use but no funny idea to go with it!

Let's say I'm wanting to write a sketch set in a swimming pool. My daughter is just about to go back to her swimming lessons and this makes me think of the situation, but I don't have a funny angle on it.

Well, one comedy technique I can use is AS IF.

Two young kids in a swimming pool

In an 'as if' sketch or scene you have a character or characters act as if they are in a different situation. Now when I think about my swimming pool situation, a couple of ideas immediately arise:

- The swimming instructor acts 'as if' the kids are Olympic level swimmers and demands a level of fitness, commitment and training that is entirely OTT for kids learning to swim.

- Or maybe the instructor is normal but one of the kids acts 'as if' the pool is the sea and is freaking out about sharks, sewage, ships...

So I went from having a situation but nothing comic, to two potentially funny angles by looking for 'as ifs'. Of the two, I think I'd go with the first one. I can really picture the intense Olympic swimming coach shouting at the kids and treating them as if they are professional swimmers. In fact, let's make them little kids. The smaller the better!

Now let's see some examples of this approach in action, sticking with the swimming theme, one from sketch comedy and one from sitcom.

Mitchell & Webb have a sketch set in a swimming pool which is a great example of an 'as if'. All the characters in the pool are treating it as if it's a property for sale. It's also structured as a SREP (my model to describe how scenes and sketches can effectively unfold) - SET-UP/ REVEAL/ ESCALATION/ PAYOFF:

SET-UP: Estate agent showing a couple round a swimming pool as if it's a house.

REVEAL: They question how damp it is.

ESCALATION: The estate agent's attempts to sell the pool as a property.

PAYOFF: The lifeguard catching them at it.

In this sketch we seem to be in a weird world situation where it's quite reasonable for the pool to be treated as a property for sale, but the payoff brings us abruptly back to normality with the lifeguard's reaction. (This 'back to normality' is a classic ending device.)

And our sitcom example comes from the Friends episode The One at the Beach, where Chandler and Monica are sunbathing and bantering about whether Monica would go out with Chandler if he were the last man on earth (no). Meanwhile, Joey has dug a huge hole that he is proudly standing in. Monica gets up, steps into the sea, and is immediately stung by a jellyfish. This is all set-up. Joey then recalls from a TV show on the Discovery Channel that to deal with a jellyfish sting you need to pee on it. This is the reveal. Monica is aghast. The payoff to this scene is Joey offering the privacy of his large hole for Monica to do what needs to be done.

Now we come to the 'as if'. The game of the next scene (which also has a clear set-up/ reveal/ escalation /payoff) is a deeply troubled Chandler, Monica and Joey talking to the other Friends about what happened on the beach as if they are in a war movie talking about the horrors of combat and the inhuman depths to which they were forced to sink. In the payoff to the scene we discover that Monica didn't actually pee on her own foot. An initial misdirection makes us think it was Joey until we discover that Chandler did the deed.

These two examples show the versatility of the approach. The Mitchell & Webb idea is a real absurdist sketch with an outlandish idea, whereas Friends is aiming to be more true to life. So when you're looking to find a funny angle for a sketch or a scene from a sitcom script, try asking yourself:

What if one or more of my characters behaved as if they were in a different situation?

For more great sketch and sitcom comedy writing tools, check out Chris' live Zoom courses:

Write Inspired Comedy Sketches! For TV, Social Media, Live Performance, Radio

Sitcom & Comedy Drama - Essential Writing Tools

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