Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch – one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated – to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with Emily Altman, who teaches sketch writing at UCB in New York and has written for MTV’s Hey Girl, Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, and the upcoming Tina Fey-created NBC series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Altman chose to take us behind the scenes of season 2’s Inside Amy Schumer sketch “Mom Computer Therapy,” in which Schumer learns through the guidance of a therapist (Kathy Najimy) how to help her willfully clueless mother (Deborah Rush) successfully email a photo to Amy’s uncle without going insane in the process.
Which Inside Amy Schumer sketches were you behind this season?
I think we all had about five that were on the show. Mine were “I’m So Bad,” which is the girls talking about eating, then “A Chick Who Can Hang,” which is about a bunch of guys talking about a tomboy girl that’s so hot and how they love girls who play Xbox then it devolves into them basically just talking about men…then “Mom Computer Therapy,” then I wrote a really sophisticated sketch called “The Shitter,” which is an interior designer giving Amy a tour of her new house but she keeps referring to the bathroom as “the shitter” and Amy just keeps trying to get her away from talking about it, but she won’t. And then I did another one called “Dream Boyfriend Search History,” which is a cold open with Amy searching through her boyfriend’s search history and expecting it to be awful but it’s actually absurdly wonderful with questions like “Too obsessed with my girlfriend?” or “She keeps looking more young, how does she do it?”
You’ve chosen to talk about your sketch “Mom Computer Therapy.” Why this sketch?
Just the question of talking about a sketch and where an idea comes from or anything like that, which is really fun and I like to do – a lot of times I wouldn’t even know where to begin, but this particular sketch has an extremely clear genesis in that it’s inspired exactly from conversations with my mother… [laughs] …so it’s not like a mystery. I’ve also been very happy to see all kinds of people talk to me about this sketch – kids, but moms too – so this one has been fun to watch as people have responded.
What was the process for writing this sketch? Was there a lot of collaboration in the writer’s room?
There’s definitely a lot of collaboration. The original pitch was the same idea but a little bit inverted – I pitched it as a commercial parody where there’s a service your mom can call and talk to another mom to figure out what’s wrong with her computer in that annoying language. When I pitched that idea people connected to it, and then we sort of landed as a group – it was either Amy or our head writer Jessi Klein – who had us talk about what would be the ideal situation to dramatize the level of annoyance about that, so that’s why we picked a therapist’s office. Basically the way it works on the show is we take our individual ideas and go off and write a draft completely by ourselves, then you come back to the room a week or whatever later, put it up on a big screen, we all read through it, and then we go through and pitch jokes. Amy or Jessi would say let’s punch up this or that particular section. Some sketches were completely transformed during punchup, some not so much – this particular sketch is pretty much the same structure from the beginning. And then when they filmed it, they improvised and added a couple things which was really fun for me to see.
Did you have any idea who would be cast as the mom and the therapist?
I didn’t. That was a fun thing to think about during the writing process – I remember us pitching actors who we’d think would be great – but I was absolutely delighted by Deborah Rush and Kathy Najimy. That was so exciting to me, and I didn’t know until they were making it that those were the people they hired. I didn’t have a part in picking them but I adore them, they’re great in it.
One of the reasons why I like this sketch is that even though it’s funny, underneath the surface it’s also really sad! It’s weird when you get to a certain age and start noticing that your parents are, well…turning into old people.
Yep, yep. And you know what? Honestly, not to get too deep into the psychology of the sketch, but I do think there’s something about when it’s your parents and you have to help them and guide them in some way and they seem somehow helpless – that’s emotional, and you get way more angry than you should partially because I think of what you were just saying, where it’s like you don’t wanna have to see your parent as somebody who’s heading towards helplessness. So not to get too heavy about it, but I do think that’s why there’s something emotional about it, because it is that thing a little bit, like I don’t like having to talk to you like a child, but this is what’s happening now.
How do you make sure to represent both sides in a sketch like this, where it pokes fun at both Amy and her mom without being mean-spirited to either?
I don’t want it to be mean-spirited because part of the frustration of that experience is Why am I so annoyed right now? So part of what I’m poking fun at is the daughter because just calm down, help her, you know? Like it shouldn’t be this situation where you have to go to therapy. But it was interesting in the writer’s room when we were talking about the relationship between the mother and the daughter; some people had more anger about it and some people had an easier, more laid-back attitude about it. It’s not funny to me if the sketch is just a mom that’s evil and can’t figure stuff out. It is important to me to keep it not mean-spirited, because the point of it is it’s every mom and every daughter – not a particularly weird, evil, strange mom or something. So yeah, I think comedically it’s important to keep it straightforward and not make fun of one particular person.
How did you end up deciding on the sketch’s ending?
That is either 100% Amy or half Jessi. The part right before that when the therapist figures out she can’t do anything – that was the tone we wanted to end on, but I do believe it was either Amy or Amy and Jessi who were very clear about foaming at the mouth, that’s what they wanted. So that I cannot claim, but yeah, I remember how when I was writing it, it occurred to me how my therapist I’d had in my life was also the same age as my mom and sometimes she would remind me of that, and how I was realizing in that moment a therapist who was also the same age and generation; it just seemed like a natural heightening at the end for her to also have that issue. But the foaming – that’s something else entirely. [laughs]
What other sketch shows have influenced your own TV writing the most?
I’m a huge fan of Mr. Show. I was a big comedy nerd growing up…I don’t actively think of those things when I’m writing, and yet I know that they influence me a lot. Mr. Show absolutely influenced me, and then there’s a show I started watching when I was becoming a writer called Look Around You, which is a British show that’s sort of like a fake educational video for kids. It’s not purely sketch, but it has very similar absurdist little twists and stuff that Mr. Show would have sometimes too. So those things I don’t actively think about when I’m sitting down typing, but whenever I rewatch them I’m like oh yeah, that’s why I like to do stuff like this, because I love these and they amazed me when I first saw them.
I also love great acting in sketch. I’m really inspired by, and write for, actors. I think some sketch writers are more interested in that than others, but for me I always find that my favorite sketches and favorite sketch shows are driven by people who are not just funny comedians but really competent, talented actors who can do a range of emotions. I really do think Amy is a wonderful actress, and I didn’t know before I started the show that her training is in theater and she has a degree in it and takes it very seriously. To me, I look to shows like that often because that’s the funniest and most satisfying to me – when people are able to portray an idea fully and be emotionally committed to it, and great acting helps with that.
Between you initially writing a sketch then seeing it air on TV, what have you noticed between the ones that transform into something new and surprising versus the ones that stick mostly to your original vision?
“Mom Computer Therapy” pretty much is exactly as how I intended, and that was exciting because of that. I went to the taping of “I’m So Bad,” and that one is exactly as written pretty much, but somehow in watching that it feels a lot darker and scarier to me than it was when we first started talking about it that I just didn’t foresee that happening. I’m very happy with it too, there’s just something in the performances from the actresses in it that really brought out this different…I mean it’s a dark sketch, it ends up with them eating this guy’s face… [laughs] …but somehow where on the page it was just women being like “Oh my God I’m so bad!” and then they say these terrible things, but somehow watching women actually say that, it seemed darker to me. And I really liked that.
What are your thoughts on the TV sketch show boom these days as well as Scott Aukerman’s recent call for the Emmys to add new categories to accommodate it?
Well I loved what Scott Aukerman said, he’s absolutely right. It always is this weird absurd area when you see the Emmys or something like that and the amount of different types of shows that are put under that umbrella. Of course Daily Show or Colbert are going to win that category always – they’re wonderful shows and they’re very funny, but I appreciated [Aukerman’s] call for a space for this kind of art form which we all enjoy and like, but it’s not exactly Daily Show kind of stuff.
It’s wonderful that there’s such a great amount of good sketch shows on right now. I’m a huge fan of sketch comedy, so to me I’m like great, bring it on, keep ‘em going. I guess I’m just hopeful that people continue to feed this, but I don’t know where it’s going except that I’m happy right now, and I’m happy that there’s so much good stuff.