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Before Kids in the Hall made its way to HBO and CBS–and before Dave Foley was on News Radio and basically all over the big and small screen– he started taking classes at The Second City in Toronto.
Last week, Foley stopped by the Second City Training Center in Chicago to discuss his career and share some of the secrets of his success. Half of me went as the fanboy who in the mid-‘90s watched an episode of KITH before every improv show to help me play “realistic” women. The other half of me went as the sketch comedy teacher looking for pearls of wisdom to pass on to my students.
Both sides of me will now share what you may have missed. Here are Dave Foley’s 5 keys to comedy:
1. “Really intensely study what you love and understand what they did and why. And then throw it away so you don’t do what they did, so you find your own voice and path that represents you.”
Dave and his fellow future KITH members (Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson) were all huge fans of Monty Python and SCTV, but they didn’t want to seem like pale imitators. They were determined to come up with original endings to their sketches and to avoid doing parodies.
2. “The folks at HBO asked us what would make our sketch show different. What makes any sketch comedy show different is that we’ll be doing it.”
Years later, some of their biggest idols from SCTC came to their shows and told Lorne Michaels to check them out. Rather than break them up to become writers and players on SNL, he helped them get their own show on HBO. At first, they listened to advice about having to be different and came up with dozens of different narrative devices for the show. However, they finally decided to just do sketches like they always did– and that would be enough to make them unique.
3. “The key to good sketch comedy is all having a shared vision.”
Foley made it clear (on many occasions) that the members of KITH didn’t have a ton in common off-stage. But on-stage and in the writers’ room, they had a collective sense of what was funny. He felt that this has been the key to other successful sketch shows, such as Mr. Show and The Whitest Kids You Know.
4. “When it comes to ensembles, try to only go on stage with people you think are funny. And hopefully, other people will give you the same courtesy. Being polite doesn’t help anyone. Don’t waste your time.”
How do you win an argument about a sketch? “The best way to undermine the work is to destroy the human.” Not only did Foley emphasize that KITH weren’t always friends off-stage, but they were often at each other’s throats backstage, in the writers’ room and in the editing bay. (This article could have been full of very different quotes in large bold font if I had focused on that thread of his talk.) However, no matter how badly he wanted to toss each and every KITH member off of a building at some point, he was never so mad that they couldn’t make him laugh.
5. “There has to be clarity in comedy. New people’s biggest mistake is failing to understand that the people hearing the joke aren’t in your head.”
As the 90-minute Writer’s Salon discussion began to wrap up, the wisdom started spouting:
Improv and performing are great tools for writers because writers who have never performed don’t have an ear for what works… Cut funny jokes that don’t serve the scene… Jokes are disposable and can be replaced by thousands of more you’ll come up with… The best sketch ideas can come when you’re not writing and just joking around with the cast away from the writers’ room… Saying what you wrote and doing it the way you thought it should be done is the best feeling for a performer… No one ever steals your Twitter joke, you just wrote an obvious joke…When you’re struggling to write something, go do something else, and then the subconscious will let the idea out.
But #5 in large bold font above is what stood out the most to me since, as a teacher, it is the problem I see the most in class.
No matter how absurd his premises are, there is always a logic to the world and the joke. Comedy has to make sense for the audience. So you have to find a way to get the key information out of your head and onto the page (or the stage, or the screen) so that the audience gets the funny.
According to Dave.
Edmund O’Brien teaches improv, writing and songwriting at The Second City Training Center. He continues to try and play “realistic” women when improvising with his wife Dana in their duo, Sheila’s Sister. Learn about their current show Spolian Analysis and like them at http://www.facebook.com/sisterofsheila