It was December 2018 and I was scrolling through my inbox, clearing out marketing emails.
Delete… delete… alright, let’s see who’s coming to town.
I opened an email from Arlington Drafthouse, a Washington DC-area comedy venue I regularly patronized. A blurb towards the end of the email newsletter caught my eye.
Drafthouse Comedy Level 1 Sketch Writing and Live Audience Performance: This course in an introduction to sketch comedy, writing short comedic scenes, rehearsing and working towards building a show that the students will perform in…
I cannot explain what compelled me to sign up for this class -- I was not a “comedy nerd” nor a “take classes at night” kind of person.” On the contrary, I was often busy responding to work messages or putting together decks during my evenings. I mentioned enrolling to a friend of mine over a Slack conversation one afternoon. Maybe there was something in the water that week, but he was game, too.
And so in January 2019 I walked into a small theater at the corner of 13th and L NW in Washington DC. A small group sat in chairs assembled in a loose circle, and our instructor wore a Bufallo Bills cap as he took attendance on his laptop.
If you had asked me then to define the difference between improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy, I would have shrugged sheepishly. If you are also unsure, hopefully this helps: sketch comedy is comedy performed in a series of scenes or vignettes called “sketches” -- usually only a few minutes long. If you’ve ever seen Saturday Night Live, you’ve seen sketch comedy.
I had seen my share of Saturday Night Live sketches, but I wasn’t that person who obsessed over the classics -- nor did I really know anything about sketch comedy. To underscore this point, I was only vaguely aware of Monty Python and embarrassingly just learned about Second City TV when I fell in love with the television show Schitt’s Creek (sidenote: do yourself a favor and watch both of these). But sitting in class that first night, surrounded by strangers and motivated by the chance to get good at making other people laugh, I felt like I was made for this medium. Funny voices, the opportunity to write ridiculous things and spin them into silly gold, getting on stage and acting out absurd premises -- this was great. I was hooked immediately.
Embarking on a sketch comedy hobby in your thirties is a thing that begs questions. What kind of people enroll in a two month evening sketch comedy class that costs a few hundred bucks? It turns out, people like me: people who were stressed or unsatisfied in their day jobs and seeking an outlet. People who wanted a creative challenge. Moms, dads, students. Young people, people with comedic backgrounds, people who were serious about potentially changing careers. There were even people who were happy in their day jobs and saw sketch comedy as an opportunity to grow into more confident speakers, develop better stage presence, and become more effective collaborators. We came from all walks of life, ready to laugh.
The first sketch I wrote was about a woman named Kelly who was trying to buy lipstick last-minute for a job interview. The salesperson, Greta, was an over-the-top older woman with an indecipherable accent and a penchant for royally screwing up the makeup samples she was carelessly applying to Kelly’s face. It was a visually funny sketch, and we ended up including it in our class show -- I can still hear the audience laughing after each of Greta’s rogue makeup applications.
I continued with sketch comedy classes after that two-month introductory course. I went on to take another class, joined a troupe, and got into a performance rhythm at local comedy clubs. My life was different now: it included more laughter, not just for myself, but for others.
That’s the thing I love most about comedy: the opportunity to help others laugh. I say “help” because the more life experience I have, the more I’m convinced laughter is truly the best medicine. Life can be hard. Whether it’s a difficult work environment, an unhappy home situation, or a down period where you’re in the dumps, comedy is this sparkling, magical elixir that serves as an escape -- a bright buoy in a sea of stressors and fear. Hearing an audience laugh at our jokes, at our performance, at our stories was one of the most satisfying and meaningful experiences of my life. If that sounds hyperbolic, believe me -- it’s real. Knowing that I can do that, that I can help lift someone’s spirits by taking the time to weave together a silly idea -- that propels me.
Sometimes a sketch doesn’t land. Sometimes you think it’s hilarious, and then you do a read-through and realize it’s not funny at all. Worse, sometimes you think the read-through is funny, you put the sketch up in a show, and it… falls flat. A joke doesn’t work. Maybe the whole premise doesn’t work. The silence can be deafening -- and confusing. Wait, this is supposed to be hilarious! And in those moments, the only thing I want to do is get the sketch over with and pretend it never happened.
Those moments are important. Writing and performing sketches is a master class in risk and trial-and-error. I’ve encountered few feelings more vulnerable than being in a blinding spotlight on stage telling jokes that no one is laughing at. Being able to push through these moments, adapt, and get back on your feet are invaluable lessons well outside of comedy.
I don’t know about access to comedy classes in your city or town, but if you ever have the opportunity to lift someone up through laughter, I highly recommend it. It doesn’t need to be on a stage; it can be in your home, on a Zoom call, on a walk -- wherever. Life is short. We can all use an extra dose of this elixir.
Written by Emily Schwartz