Stories and Sketches: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

Posted on 21 May 2012

Last year I taught a course in standup and sketch comedy to an adorable bunch of primary school kids. One of the things that suprised me was their inability to grasp that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. They understood that stories have characters and events, which are the elements for a beginning and a middle. They didn’t understand that events needed to be brought to a conclusion.

Jokes and one-liners really only have two parts, even if you take a few steps to build up the tension to a punchline.

Setup + Surprise = Laughs

Setup: What’s grey and goes round and round?
Surprise: An elephant in a washing machine!

In this case we have a character and a situation, the beginning; and a conclusion, the punchline; but no middle with events, interactions, and changes. We might call this a proto-story.

A story always has the three parts: beginning, middle, and end. This seems self-evident, because we exist in time and as adults we have experienced many beginnings and endings. But story is a refined representation of life, not life itself. Certain elements have to appear at certain times in a story, whether or not the story is told chronologically. Beginning, middle, and end have to do with story processes and not a simulation of life at all.

So, this is what we really mean by those three parts.

Beginning + Middle + End = Story

Beginning: if…

  • Characters
  • Somewhere
  • Doing something

Middle: then…

  • Life changes
  • The characters change things

End: resulting in…

  • The character(s) are changed
  • The situation is changed
  • We understand why they changed

In comedy we add an extra layer to this.

Beginning + Middle + End + Absurdity = Comedy Sketch

Beginning: if…
(establish absurdity or normality of each)

  • Character
  • Somewhere
  • Doing something

Middle: then…
(inversions from normal to absurd, or absurd to normal)

  • Life changes
  • The characters change things

End: resulting in…

  • Surprise (always)
  • Recognition (sometimes)
  • Insight (sometimes)

School for Comedy has a sketch with a group of children pretending to be criminal investigators at a murder scene.

Characters: criminal investigators
Somewhere: at an outdoor crime scene
Doing something: performing forensic investigations

Part of the absurdity of the situation is that all characters are adults being played by children. Otherwise, the situation is put forward in a naturalistic manner.

A photographer appears in order to take photos of the crime, but he is clearly the wrong sort of photographer, since he is dressed for a wedding. He treats the situation and the investigators as if he’s still at a wedding.

Life changes: A wedding photographer arrives
The characters change things: The wedding photographer starts redirecting people’s behaviour to match the sort expected at weddings.

The photographer manages to completely subvert the investigators by getting them to pose for a group photo and say “cheese”. The sketch ends when he delivers the line: “You’re killing these pictures.”

Recognition: The photographer finally converts the investigators into a wedding party.
Suprise: The photographer delivers a cheesy punchline.

Monty Python notoriously claimed they were terrible at endings. I would dispute this claim. Take a look at their “Spam” sketch.

A couple are in a cafe where only Spam is served. The wife wants to change the menu and have a meal that doesn’t include Spam. This causes the cafe owner to argue with the woman and vikings to sing the Spam song. Eventually, the husband offers to eat the Spam for his wife. The story ended just fine. The sketch just didn’t end on a big joke (aka capper). So, they turned the concept of Spam into a running gag that bled over into another two sketches, which is a surprise and bought them time to find other places where they could engineer a big laugh.

“The Lumberjack Song” on the other hand ends with a lovely young lady crying, “And I thought you were so rugged.” A neat capper. Nevertheless, the Python crew continued their tradition of sketches running into one another and we are subsequently treated to a funny letter about transvestite lumberjacks. They were very good at milking the absurdity of the situations they created.

Not all sketch endings have to include a pithy one-liner, as illustrated by Monty Python. Sketches are a combination of joke and story. So, you will want some sense of closure in order to justify the story and make the sketch memorable.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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