By Mike Corbett As a writing student, I’m constantly looking for different examples of sketch comedy to increase my understanding of the many directions the medium can go in. As a person with an almost unhealthy obsession with the 90’s, I’m constantly digging through obscure commercials and nearly forgotten televisions shows. Every so often, these two interests of mine intersect, and I end up watching, and learning from, a show like Roundhouse.
Roundhouse for those of you that don’t know, or have forgotten, was a sketch show on Nickelodeon. It was an original member of the network’s amazing Saturday night lineup, SNICK, alongside Clarissa Explains It All, Ren & Stimpy and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Roundhouse struggled in the ratings, lasting only a few seasons before being replaced by the much more successful All That. While All That serves as a fine example of the basics of sketch comedy, its Roundhouse that may have more to teach, especially to those coming to sketch from the world of improv.
Upon re-discovering Roundhouse, the first thing I noticed was the show’s pacing. It doesn’t flow like a typical sketch comedy show, it instead moves at the frantic pace one might find in an improv montage. It’s scene upon scene upon scene, with the cast changing characters faster than people would change the channel when they came across Roundhouse. At this pace, they’re able to cram 5 or 6 scenes into an 8 minute span, before using a music number as cool down, and then starting the process all over again. As my Level 2 Sketch Writing class begins bringing our work to the stage to ready it for our showcase, we’re constantly being reminded about pacing. Sketch scenes can have a tendency to get drawn out, as one attempts to give every beat of the scene equal timing. Watching Roundhouse reminds me that this doesn’t have to be the case, and that you can keep the spirit, and pace of improv, while still achieving the level of polish associated with sketch.
One of the reasons Roundhouse was easily able to move at that pace was their sparse set design. When one thinks of sketch comedy, Saturday Night Live is usually the first example that pops up. With its large budget and full crew, SNL is able to create a unique set for every scene. Most sketch shows don’t have that luxury and are left to make due with whatever they can put together for their show. Roundhouse appears to be in this camp, though that may be because they blew their entire budget on that sweet motorized Lay-Z-Boy. With only a few standard background pieces, the cast ends up playing mostly with a few chairs, and a lot of empty space. Sound familiar? It’s the same simple set up you find at almost any improv show, and skilled improvisers will use those bare surroundings to paint any picture they can imagine. As I write sketches, I often find myself reworking, or throwing away ideas because I convince myself they’d require grand set pieces in order to succeed. Years of watching SNL has engrained that in me, but Roundhouse serves as a refreshing reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.
The final lesson I find myself taking away from Roundhouse is one I’ll definitely carry with me to the next level of Sketch Writing. The writers of Roundhouse, for all their lame jokes, are able to mine loads of content out of a single theme. Each episode has a central theme, which we see applied to the everyday lives of a few select characters. These main scenes are then book ended with smaller cut away scenes, which either harken back to the episode theme, or connect to the main scene. The show might run at a manic pace, but it knows where it’s going and how it’s going to get there. The central theme is used as a road map, allowing for an episode to branch off in all sorts of directions, while it remaining connected, although sometimes only tangentially. It’s something I hope to remember moving forward, as we move towards writing shows that share a more unified theme; don’t abandon an idea because it doesn’t fit, instead find a way to make it connect.
While I can’t recommend watching Roundhouse for its humor, although the bad jokes and dated 90’s references may have moved into so-bad-its-good territory, it’s definitely worth watching to see how else a sketch show can be run. You won’t always have the crew and the budget needed to create concrete representations of your ideas, but that’s nothing to fret over. A well written and well show can be just as successful with a few props, some chairs and a lot of empty space. Terrible 90’s haircuts and attire are optional.
Mike Corbett is a Level 2 Sketch Writing Student at the DCH Training Center. He is also an intern for the DCH Blog. You can read more of Mike's Comedy Stylings HERE.