The Influence Of Sketch Comedy Experience On Film Directing
Sketch comedy challenges the audience and explores unconventional ideas; this pushes directors to bring this mindset into feature films.
I have always been interested in comedy, especially sketch comedy. The more time I spend watching these shows, the more I’ve noticed people moving from writing and acting in sketch comedy to directing feature films.
Harold Ramis is one of my favorite comedy directors and he started on SCTV during its early years before moving towards primarily writing and directing. This made me interested in seeing which other directors came from a background performing and writing sketch comedy.
Seeing the range in styles, tones, and genres in the films I discuss was a welcome surprise. Most of what I discuss is comedy, but it all derives from different places and explores different elements of the human condition in ways most commonly associated with more dramatic films.
SCTV: Harold Ramis
Harold Ramis was only on SCTV from 1976 to 1978, but his work on this show helped him break into the film industry where he directed comedy films such as Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, and Multiplicity. Even though he spent much of his career directing, his work writing and starring in Ghostbusters is his most frequently discussed work.
Groundhog Day is the film for which I will always remember Harold Ramis. He managed to create a memorable romantic-comedy loved by fans of comedy as well as countless religious groups, all finding their own view of life present throughout the film. The film is memorable in its use of a structure based on the same day repeating, with similar events taking place. Groundhog Day manages to change each repeat just enough for the film to work as both a comedy and a character study examining its main character, Phil (Bill Murray) and his view of life and death.
Seeing the same actions over and over again could very easily have made the film feel flat, but Harold Ramis works well in directing each day to show its subtle differences as well as utilizing each day as its own segment. Each day starts off the same way, but twists into the fantasies of our main character once he realizes he can’t die. For a comedy, the film examines our societal views of death.
By the end, Phil learns to care about others, but Groundhog Day is memorable for showing the thought-process someone would go through if they thought they were truly immortal and able to do anything. The current comedic television show The Last Man on Earth explores this similarly in the way it shows the fantasy of the main character, also named Phil and also played by a Saturday Night Live alum, Will Forte.
In The Last Man on Earth, the main character thinks he’s the last man alive after an outbreak, but in addition to worrying and driving across the country writing on billboards looking for anyone else who is alive, he indulges in fantasies such as bowling over aquariums, stealing priceless artifacts, and moving into a mansion.
In both The Last Man on Earth and Groundhog Day, the main characters discover a life spent alone indulging in endless fantasies is hollow. Both characters decide to commit suicide once they realize an existence where they care only about themselves is not as fun as they expected. In both cases, the main characters turn their lives around by finding a glimmer of hope in another person. Seeing this similar examination of life, death, and fantasies in a modern television series shows how memorable Harold Ramis‘ directorial work is to this day.
Taika Waititi: New Zealander of the Year
While studying at Victoria University of Wellington, Taika Waititi was a member of five-person group So You’re a Man along with Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, David Lawrence, and Carey Smith. After this group broke up, Waititi and Clement formed the comedy duo The Humourbeasts while Clement and McKenzie formed The Flight of the Conchords. The Humourbeasts received the Billy T Award, the highest comedy honor in New Zealand.
After his early comedy work, he focused more on writing and directing, especially by making short comedic short films, which was a good transition from his work in a comedy troupe and his work directing and writing feature films, such as Boy (2010) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), in which he also acted in fairly big roles.
His short film Two Cars, One Night was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. This short film, along with Boy, explored Taika Waititi‘s childhood growing up in the Raukokore area of the North Island of New Zealand as well as in Wellington during his teen years. His father is Māori of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and his mother is of Russian Jewish heritage.
His films often examine his Māori heritage. Waititi plays the father of the main character in his film Boy, which explores the relationship between a young boy and his estranged father. This film does a wonderful job exploring the relationships between family and how fantasies can shape a child’s view of their parent, especially in times of distress.
The film explores what happens when a child grows up and begins to realize their parent is not as wonderful as they always imagined. The fantasy is lifted, replaced with a harsher reality. Boy overtook the title of highest grossing film in New Zealand, which had been held by The World’s Fastest Indian for five years. This record has since been broken again by Taika Waititi‘s 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement came together to direct the 2014 comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which received critical acclaim. This film was an exceptionally witty take on the vampire genre. Its use of the mockumentary genre to focus in on the mundane lives of the supernatural is a wonderfully unique way to build a world only slightly removed from our own.
The mixture of horror and comedy works wonders in this film. Some of the best moments focus on the slightly different ways the vampire characters go about ordinary everyday tasks such as daily chores, getting dressed, and going out with friends. The film does a wonderful job at giving humanity to the undead. Sketch comedy can frequently utilize parody and genre tropes, which can help a director create something unique and interesting by utilizing existing genre tropes to create something fresh and new.
Taika Waititi was chosen to direct Thor: Ragnarok, his first major Hollywood film, which is scheduled to be released on November 3rd 2017. Hopefully, Waititi‘s unique vision and directorial talents will shine through in this major Marvel film.
Mr. Show with Bob and David
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross both went on to direct films after their time with HBO creating Mr. Show with Bob and David, which became a staple in American sketch comedy, influencing many of the current sketch comedy programs and their performers. The episodes of Mr. Show always felt like the sketches flowed together, connecting to create something especially memorable, even if the sketches themselves did not feel particularly connected.
This talent of connecting seemingly dissimilar moments of comedy with such ease helped both Odenkirk and Cross in their own directorial work. Bob Odenkirk has had more of a directorial career, but David Cross‘s film Hits was an interesting mixture of comedy, social issues, and the culture of internet fame.
Hits was a wonderful film to showcase the talents of Matt Walsh, a character actor who has been in countless television shows and films, frequently in supporting roles. He also had his start in sketch comedy, most notably as part of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe. He is also fairly well known for playing Mike McLintock on the HBO show Veep.
Hits explores the culture behind videos going viral and how that influences the way people view somebody who they have never met. Dave, Matt Walsh‘s character, rants about potholes during a meeting at city hall, creating a frenzy when his rants go viral. His talentless teen daughter, Katelyn, wants to become famous quickly through television, much like the way her father does during the film. Over the course of the film, more people take notice of Dave and want to support his freedom to rant, without knowing anything about his views about anything expect potholes.
When he finally gets the chance to rant at length, his opinions go against those of everyone standing up and supporting him throughout the film. The comedy of the film comes from examining current internet and fad culture, especially surrounding how people endlessly support others they only know from their online presence, without realizing fully who they are supporting.
Bob Odenkirk directed the films The Brothers Solomon, Let’s Go To Prison, and Melvin Goes to Dinner. These films all have their own unique comedic sensibilities. Melvin Goes to Dinner is a simpler film with the comedy rising up from awkward conversations between friends and strangers. Over the course of the night, secrets are revealed.
The film is based on a play, which is why the plot is so localized to the main characters eating and conversing during one dinner. The film mostly sticks with this bottle set up, but it also takes specific breaks to see how some of the stories might have come about and how these characters ended up having dinner together.
During one scene a character is describing a story as it is being shown using still photographs of the night. This technique helps the audience realize this particular story is important through its use of mystery by simply seeing photographs without details of who the character telling the story is with. This works well to add a level of mystery, which remains present through the remainder of the film.
Melvin Goes to Dinner takes the frequent challenge found in sketch comedy of filming live on stage and in small sets to the realm of feature film. This was a good way for Bob Odenkirk to transition from sketch comedy to feature films, since he was used to working in smaller settings. Even the scenes not set in the restaurant are set in fairly small sets, somewhat similarly to how Mr. Show would focus on sketches which are loosely connected and would return at times to a central sketch. In Melvin Goes to Dinner, the film cuts away to small scenes setting up why each person is at the dinner, but always returns to the central story of secrets being uncovered through stories and conversation about everything from sex, ghosts, and religion.
In addition to this, Odenkirk‘s other directorial works The Brothers Solomon and Let’s Go To Prison are broader comedies, which still manage to incorporate unique and at times, surreal comedic sensibilities. The Brothers Solomon follows John and Dean Solomon (Will Arnett and Will Forte), brothers who want to please their sick father with a grandson. They try to meet a woman who is willing to provide them with an heir. They end up finding Janine (Kristen Wiig) on Craigslist.
The characters are exaggerations of men who are awkward around women. By exaggerating the characters so much, the film develops its own type of odd charm. At times, the film goes for gross-out humor, but in the end, it’s one of the tamest and most heartfelt from that genre.
Bob Odenkirk does not try to reel in the performers to create something more easily palatable, but instead pushes further into the strange corners of comedy. The film manages to push its unique comedy sensibilities past the levels commonly accepted in mainstream comedy, yet understands when and where the film needs to pull itself back and indulge in its unique charms.
Will Forte and Will Arnett work wonders in their over-the-top roles, providing the audience with a different view of the typical romantic comedy. In a typical screwball fashion, the romance is pushed behind the comedy and focus on family relationships and friendships. The film was both a critic and box office failure, but has become something of a cult comedy hit in specific communities, especially fans of the main stars.
Kids in the Hall: Bruce McCulloch
Along with Mark McKinney, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch is a part of The Kids in the Hall, which garnered their most reception from their television series from 1989 to 1995. In 1996, the comedy troupe came together for the film Brain Candy. Bruce McCulloch has a full comedy career with and without his fellow group members. Bruce McCulloch recently created the television series Young Drunk Punk based on his autobiographical theatrical show of the same name. He plays the father in the series with his real-life wife Tracy Ryan playing the role of his wife.
In 1998, he wrote, directed, and acted in the comedy film Dog Park, which also starred Luke Wilson, Natasha Henstridge, Janeane Garofalo, Kathleen Robertson, and Mark McKinney, in a memorable performance as a dog psychologist. The film examines a dog park as a new hub of the dating scene. The story lines between all the characters connect, surrounding the titular dog park.
Bruce McCulloch takes his experience in the sketch comedy genre to create a film based on separate, yet slightly connected plots all surrounding around a singular element, much like when the sketches of an episode reference each other and pool into a slightly bigger sketch at its center. This form of plot structure helps create more opportunity for comedic moments with individuality and comedic styles.
The Kids in the Hall member Mark McKinney was given a role in Dog Park as a dog psychologist, which ended up being one of the best elements of the film, even though the character did not have as big a role as the others involved in the central plot and its connections.
A year later, Bruce McCulloch directed the Saturday Night Live film Superstar, focusing on Mary Katherine Gallagher, a character Molly Shannon crafted during her time on Saturday Night Live. Mark McKinney had a small role in this film as well. The film expanded the popular sketch into a feature length film. Superstar was not a hit with critics, but the film worked for some audiences and became a cult comedy hit.
The comedy in the film takes on a more irreverent style, which works well for a story surrounding socially awkward characters and their journey to connect and show everyone their worth. The film ends with our protagonist underwhelmed by the kiss of her high school crush and instead going off with her friend, who was their for her through most of the film.
Bruce McCulloch does a great job of making the comedy in every scene go as far as it should, without feeling overdone. Superstar is a wonderful blend of moments of more restrained comedy peppered in throughout moments taking their punchlines to the very end, crossing lines while remaining true to the characters and their world. Molly Shannon shines in this film, because she is given the chance to take her character as far as she can go, without losing her heart and charm.
The Idiot Box: Alex Winter
The Idiot Box was a sketch comedy series created by Alex Winter, Tom Stern and Tim Burns. The show aired on MTV and was primarily a segment showcasing the best music videos of that week, with various comedy sketches breaking up the music coverage. The idea to sprinkle in comedy sketches, parodies, and fake commercials throughout the half hour block was an interesting way to blend music and comedy culture, much like the other MTV sketch series, The State, which heavily used music in their sketches, some of which could not be licensed for the DVD set of that series.
The Idiot Box was a hit for MTV, but Winter, Stern, and Burns quit production after six episodes, wanting instead to accept a film deal with 20th Century Fox, which lead to the 1993 underrated comedy Freaked. The humor style of The Idiot Box is very similar to the humor seen in this film.
Alex Winter and Tom Stern directed Freaked, which was a welcome start to Winter’s more prominent career as a director. Alex Winter also starred in and wrote Freaked with his Idiot Box collaborators Tom Stern and Tim Burns, but directing is where he has been working most often. He has directed multiple documentaries as well as a few other narrative films.
Freaked was initially going to be a wide release from 20th Century Fox, but after multiple negative test screenings, it was pulled from its wide distribution and ended up only playing on a handful of screens in the United States. The film has since become a cult hit because of its mixture of black comedy, practical effects, and its use of music. The film was also heavily influenced by the 1932 horror film Freaks. Both films follow an outsider going to a freak show with the intentions of disrespecting the community.
In Freaks, a trapeze artist plans on marrying Hans in order to gain access to his inheritance. When the community performs a ritual to accept her, she is frightened and reveals her plan. The film shows her as the true villain, by using people of which she thinks she is better. When the community of freaks exact revenge on her, turning her into a freak, the audience does not see the freaks going after her as the villain. Throughout the film, segments showing the daily life of the freaks are presented, giving the audience more background for those characters rather than for the trapeze artist who tried to use them for her personal advantage.
In Freaked, the main characters Ricky, Ernie, and Julie (Alex Winter, Michael Stoyanov, and Megan Ward) are transformed into freaks after coming to the freak show for entertainment. In this film, the narrative does not completely vilify these newcomers and instead offers them a chance for redemption. Ricky is shown going through a journey towards being a better person, which differs from Freaks, but shows a similar trait in humans of disliking anything with which they do not instantly relate.
Winter and Stern managed to create a film which effortlessly combined absurdist humor with an enormous amount of heart. The film is as much about its titular freak characters and corporate satire as it is about finding your family when you least expect it. One element of the story involves Ricky having a platonic soulmate connection with his number one fan, a young boy who ends up saving the day.
The film creates humor out of its unique world, but the characters always feel fully realized and important to the journey of self-discovery. Even when the characters feel like they were just made for one visual gag, something happens bringing them into the foreground and adding more depth to their character. Freaked mixes so many different types of comedy into something with a laugh in every scene, ranging from irreverent and absurdist humor to unexpected puns and witty dialogue between all of its characters.
The film featured an uncredited performance from Keanu Reeves as Ortiz the Dog Boy. Ortiz was the leader of the freaks before Ricky, Ernie, and Julie arrived. The character steals every scene he is in, thanks to Reeves‘ dedication and charm. Julie is instantly interested in Ortiz, even before fully understanding where they are and what is happening. The two characters have an easy chemistry, even though one of them is melded to somebody else and the other is completely covered in fur.
Freaked is based around small moments made to convey the world of a freak show, while telling a basic story of self discovery. Similarly to a sketch comedy series, this film creates unique and interesting characters who show up sometimes for only a few scenes, building a connected world of surreal comedy surrounding its central plot.
In Freaked, the characters and their interactions with each other seem to be of bigger importance than the plot. This works well, since the film is working to build a world fully in order to tell a story primarily surrounding its main characters. If this film focused too much on solely the plot and those few main characters, we would not be able to fully appreciate the freaks and their daily lives. The characters built the film, instead of being moved around solely to fit the plot.
Freaked deserves to be remembered as the intensely enjoyable film it is and not because it was a failure when initially released. In 2005, the film was given a DVD release filled with special features, but when this was out of print, the film was released on DVD again with none of these features. Freaked deserved that initial release, which showed all the love and support this film has gotten from its resurgence as a cult comedy.
The State: Michael Showalter and David Wain
The State was a sketch comedy show which aired on MTV from December 1993 to July 1995. The cast consisted of 11 comedians, who worked together to write, act, direct, and edit the show. The humor ranged from parody to absurdism, always using the energy and talent of its actors to create unique characters. The cast has all gone on to success in all areas of the comedy industry. David Wain and Michael Showalter both took to directing, and often times these films included other members of The State in small roles.
David Wain and Michael Showalter co-wrote They Came Together and Wet Hot American Summer, while David Wain co-wrote The Ten and Wanderlust with Ken Marino, another member of The State. David Wain directed all four of these films. Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten had generally negative reviews when first released, but have become somewhat cult classics in the comedy genre. David Wain‘s directorial films have all utilized the talents of his fellow cast-members of The State.
Wet Hot American Summer has spawned two shows on Netflix, First Day of Camp and 10 Years Later. The film has struck a chord with audiences with its nostalgic view of summer camp and its absurdity and silliness. This film is one fans can watch over and over again, never getting tired of its mixture of teen summer camp films and absurdist humor. The film can easily flit between scenes of characters making out over-zealously and scenes of a can of vegetables talking (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) while its metal lid flips open as each word comes out.
The Ten is the most closely related to Wain‘s sketch work. The film examines the ten commandments through comedy shorts loosely connected by a narrator played by Paul Rudd, who occasionally shows up on screen between the segments. The film was not well received, partially due to the different types of comedy and changes in quality between its segments. For fans of The State, the segments are reminiscent of their sketch comedy work, which always pushed the envelope and taking chances, which sometimes worked wonderfully, but occasionally fell flat or went too far.
Michael Showalter‘s directorial career has also frequently welcomed the talents of his friends from The State. In 2005, he directed the romantic comedy The Baxter, a film taking romantic comedy cliches and exploring them from different directions. The film focuses on the popular romantic comedy character of the person left behind at the altar while the main character finds her true love. Michael Showalter wrote, directed, and starred in this film. He played the main character, Elliot Sherman, who was left at the altar. The film goes back and tells the story, up until his doomed wedding day.
The Baxter feels more closely related to a 1930s or 1940s screwball comedy than its modern romantic comedy relatives, yet examines cliches found in all eras of the romantic comedy. The film is a very subtle parody of the genre, which is filled almost entirely with affectionate examinations of the typical characters found in a romantic comedy.
What makes this film different from They Came Together, which David Wain and Michael Showalter wrote together is its sincerity in its lead romance. They Came Together and The Baxter are both parodies of the romantic comedy, yet the subtle nature of The Baxter lets the audience engage in the romance at its center, while still enjoying the playful digs at its genre. Both films are funny and show the mark of creators who are fans of the genre of which they are poking fun.
Michael Showalter followed up The Baxter with the 2015 comedy film Hello, My Name is Doris. This film again follows the style and formula of a romantic comedy from an unlikely, yet immensely charming character. Showalter co-wrote the film with Laura Terrusom who’s short film Doris & The Intern was the inspiration for this feature film.
The main focus of Hello, My Name is Doris is not romance, but the film is structured in a way reminiscent of the romantic comedy. Sally Field‘s performance as the central character is a welcome break from lighthearted films such as this only ever focused on twenty-somethings. The film is an endlessly charming character study of its main character.
When Hello, My Name is Doris came out, I was glad I managed to see it in a theater with a friend. The Baxter has been one of the films I’ve watched the most often in my life. Whenever I feel a little down, it will always bring up my spirits. I was excited to see Michael Showalter direct another film, and now that I’ve seen his three directorial efforts, I have never been let down.
Recently, Michael Showalter directed The Big Sick, which has been receiving positive reviews. Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani‘s autobiographical screenplay is a charming addition to the romantic comedy genre. The film is a wonderfully honest story of love, illness, and family. The film follows the romance between Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan), which is seen as something casual from both sides because we see how Kumail is not ready to be disowned from his family, which would happen if he doesn’t marry a Pakistani girl.
The film focuses strongly on the ways people evolve through the hard times they share together. Kumail and Emily’s parents help each other figure out their own issues, and realize what matters to them. Kumail realizes he does not want to continue lying to his family, but he does not let his family disown him, knowing his family and his relationship with Emily are both extremely important to him.
Showalter‘s direction helps blend the films moments of sadness and humor. The Big Sick manages to find the humor in its most heartbreaking moments. Comedy can feel the best and most cathartic when it comes from the bleakest of moments.
The performances, especially when noticing the comedic details in awkward and dark situations, never feels forced. The delivery of every joke is fitting of the scene it is within, which gives the film its natural and charming tone. The Big Sick will charm audiences and show the importance of family, love, and not giving up.
SNL: Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer
During their time on Saturday Night Live, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg created a collection of wonderful videos and songs through their band The Lonely Island. Jorma and Akiva directed the work the three did after their Saturday Night Live success.
Most recently, they co-directed Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which is the best showcase of their sketch comedy talents. The film is a mockumentary based around the dissolution of a pop band, and following the disastrous solo career of its lead member. Andy Samberg plays Conner, who goes by the stage name Conner4Real during his solo career.
The film has a soundtrack of comedic takes on all types of modern music styles, and the songs are presented as short sketches in the form of music videos, much like the work they did on Saturday Night Live. In addition to making good quality songs in multiple different styles, each song is filled with comedic lyrics, telling different types of jokes in each song ranging from parody of popstars and their worldview surrounding helping others without really helping anyone to songs telling more specific and absurdist jokes.
Jorma Taccone also directed the Saturday Night Live film MacGruber with Will Forte reprising his popular Saturday Night Live character in this wonderfully irreverent comedy. The film cleverly mixes its central MacGyver parody with moments parodying other shows and films of the same era.
Everyone involved in MacGruber seems to have an affection for the action television and films they are parodying, while also wanting to find new and clever ways to push the envelope, creating something unique and memorable.
Jorma Taccone‘s work as a director keeps the film centered, while also letting it go as far as it needs in order to be the remarkable exploration of absurdity mixed with familiarity and nostalgia. The film takes typical action cliches and pushes them just far enough to be immensely enjoyable, and maybe just a little too far for some people, but this push to go just a little further is why MacGruber lands itself in the category of cult comedy classic, like so many other films from sketch comedy directors.
Sketch Comedy & Directing: Conclusion
After looking into the films sketch comedians have made as directors, I see the influence of the freedom found in sketch comedy present in their films. So many of the films on his list were not mainstream hits, but found their audiences and are remembered fondly by their fans. Sketch comedy experience helps a director of comedy know how far an idea can go before crossing too many lines. If these films had been directed by more mainstream comedy directors, we might not have gotten films as unique and challenging. Sketch comedy is all about challenging the audience and exploring all those ideas deemed too strange for a feature. Having this experience pushes directors to bring this mindset of creative freedom into feature films.
Do you think directors with a sketch comedy background are more likely to let their films express creative freedom, go further, and cross lines? Which sketch comedians do you think had the most successful directorial career after their sketch work?
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