Inside Mike Upchurch’s ‘The Poetics of Sketch Comedy’

As comedy has become more popular, the demand for books about comedy and/or comedians has increased immensely. Besides the many memoirs, there has been a glut of books about improv, from the comprehensive Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual to Will Hines’ excellent How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth. However, in this golden age of books on comedy, there has surprisingly been almost nothing written about sketch comedy, despite it arguably being a more accessible art form to the mainstream. A history and analysis of comedy from an academic perspective is even rarer, so I was surprised to learn of The Poetics of Sketch Comedy, an over 20-year-old master’s thesis by former Mr. Show writer Mike Upchurch.

Upchurch, who won an Emmy for writing on The Chris Rock Show, enrolled in the Masters in Communications program at the University of Nevada in 1990, because he wanted to have a teaching career to supplement his income as a comedy writer. “And I thought, well, I wanted to write comedy – that was my goal,” says Upchurch. “So I thought, if I could just write something on sketch comedy, then I could know more about it.” With that goal in mind, he interviewed professional sketch writers, including Al Franken. “Initially, I asked Lorne Michaels,” Upchurch says. “His secretary said, ‘He’s too busy, he can’t do it.’ And then I said, ‘Well, maybe Al Franken.’ And he came out and took me out to sushi.”

At 92 pages and over 60 sources, the thesis, which was finished in 1992 after nearly four years of writing and research, is both an exhaustive history of sketch comedy and a guide on how to actually write it. While there’s very little writing on sketch comedy now, there was much less in the early ‘90s. “Through the years comedy in general has received short shrift from academicians,” Upchurch writes in the introduction. “This work will, it is hoped, continue a recent trend in the exploration of comic forms by analyzing the narrative structure of sketch comedy, something which has been done in earnest only in non-comedic forms for thousands of years.”

Upchurch begins the thesis with the historical origins of sketch, starting with the first comedic performance that was referred to as a sketch – 1789’s Darby’s Return by William Dunlap – and working through burlesque, vaudeville, and radio, showing the evolution to the (then) modern shows of the ‘90s – Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, and Kids in the Hall. After the historical background, Upchurch goes into structure and breaks down sketches into three categories: classic, revue, and modern. The classic sketch is a singular premise that ends in a punchline that gives a new context for the scene. Upchurch asserts that it came from vaudeville and burlesque and was adopted by the British, which Monty Python upended, in part because they linked all of their sketches. The revue sketch has a beginning, middle, and end. Instead of some sort of punch, it has a resolution – basically, a short play. The modern sketch is a direct descendent of the classic sketch – more freeform and little to no attention paid to the plot.

After detailing the history of sketch, the thesis turns into a very practical overview of sketch writing. “I’m kind of amazed now,” says Upchurch. “I had to write a thesis to find out a lot of this stuff, but I go to The Pack Theater or UCB, and these kind of concepts, they’re very familiar with.” In fact, Upchurch writes “Sketch = Premise + Escalation,” which pretty much describes UCB’s core tenant of “game,” years before the UCB Theatre opened in New York. “To ask, ‘what is the premise’ of a sketch,” writes Upchurch, “is to ask ‘what is the plot’ of a novel.”

Even professional sketch writers struggle with ending a sketch, so Upchurch spends a good chunk of the thesis discussing the various endings he found in his research and how they evolved. He first discusses the “punch,” which is a laugh-point that is the end result of the action in the sketch. To illustrate his point, Upchurch uses “The Garbage Sketch” from Your Show of Shows:

Upchurch writes: “This is a punch because it evokes a laugh at the end of a sketch and relies upon the previous narrative for its humor. Since the sketch was an argument about garbage being thrown out a window, the last joke – the garbage being tossed out by the judge – takes on special significance.”

This was the required ending in sketch comedy, until Monty Python’s Flying Circus used animation to link their sketches. Upchurch writes, “In the post-Python era the punch-line is avoided unless done self-consciously, and the laugh potential is a determining factor in whether a sketch is done, not whether it can end with a punch.”

Upchurch ends the thesis with reservations about continued study on comedy, writing, “To legitimize comedy is to risk making it pompous. Pomposity is the antithesis of comedy, and the enemy of comedy.” Today, Upchurch agrees with that sentiment. “Usually, comedy is anti-establishment in some way,” he says. “You need something serious to make fun of. Our culture hopefully isn’t going to become just all comedy, because then what is there to make fun of?”  

After the thesis, Upchurch would go on to write sketch professionally for shows like Mr. Show, The Chris Rock Show, and MADtv, but he doesn’t think he’s actively used his knowledge in his own writing. “I don’t think about it quite so intellectually. I think of a premise, I write it. I’m not super analytical.” As of now, the only way to get the book is either from the UNLV library or Upchurch himself, but that might change in the future. “People keep asking to buy it,” says Upchurch, who currently teaches sketch writing at The Pack Theater. “If I were to make a book out of it, I’d probably add a lot. Maybe I should. I could make it three times as long.” He adds: “It would be nice to be freed up from doing footnotes and endnotes for every single thing I said.”

Alan Johnson is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the podcast On Comedy Writing.

Inside Mike Upchurch’s ‘The Poetics of Sketch Comedy’