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Episode 6.1 — Sketches: Day 1

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Given the success of podcasts like Superego, The Pod F. Tompkast, and The Thrilling Adventure Hour, we asked our contestants to try writing and performing sketches. In today's coaching session you'll hear what Matt, a venerable sketch comedy innovator, thinks of the popularity of "meta sketches" and what advice he has for all the non-sketch competitors. See who comes out on top tomorrow when Matt is joined by Tig Notaro and Seth Morris.

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This was a great coaching episode about a complexing and potentially polarizing challenge. I am totally onboard with Matt being wary of meta-sketches, but at the same time you can't just dismiss a sketch because it is meta. Just like any sketch, there is a right and a wrong way to do a meta sketch. Funny is funny.

That being said, I feel any meta-sketches may have a failure rate much higher than other sketches (absurd, topical, etc).

And a general question:
Mr. Show's opening sketches had Bob and David playing themselves every time, whether David wound up in a dress then ultimately portrayed by Sarah Silverman, or Bob becoming a cult leader and exclaiming 'TARA-DE-LOO!' Are those considered meta because Bob and David are playing themselves? Is the Colbert Report considered meta because he is playing himself?

I am anxiously awaiting to see what the contestants come up with for this challenge.

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The danger with going meta or even ironic is the all too common delusion that placing something in a post modern framework is clever or funny in and of itself.
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As a writer and/or performer it's a tempting path because an unsophisticated audience, especially one which is convinced it actually is sophisticated, may be easily delighted simply by the fact that they recognise something as meta or deconstructionist or ironic and so those things are too often leant on by the developing artist as crutches - as substitutes for genuine wit and creativity rather than as sparks for them.
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I love Matt Besser more and more with each passing episode.

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A few weeks ago Jesse Thorn gave the following advice when it comes to making-fun-of-hacks:
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"Ask yourself "Am I Andy Kindler?" and if the answer is "No," don't do it"
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I think in terms of meta-sketches, a similar question to ask would be "Am I David Wain?" and if the answer is no, don't do it.

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I really like that this week's challenge is going to test the writing skills of the contestants.

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I respect Matt Besser's expert opinion, but I think there's a lot of ways to do meta comedy without making fun of other people's comedy or patting yourself on the back for your own cleverness. Scharpling & Wurster's sketches on The Best Show is the example that immediately springs to mind, or Bob & Ray (if you wanted to be all radio historical), or CBB here on Earwolf-- they all do meta sketch without coming off like smug creeps. It's possible!
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I'd be curious to hear Matt's definition of meta sketch, and what specifically turns him off about it. I'm not fond of sketches that overtly wink to the audience, or sketches that are just a series of abrupt left turns for their own sake, but I do like sketches that fold back into themselves and deepen the narrative by changing the context. I like comedy that's about the structure of comedy, but I don't like comedy that feels like homework. Maybe it's all about the execution. Maybe sketch comedians should be executed. Thoughts?

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Since I was in the room with Matt during the recording of this episode, I think I have a good idea of where his beef towards meta-sketches come from. From what I gathered, it seems that "going meta" has sort of become a staple of a lot of modern comedy-- within sketch, improv and stand-up; and more so, has become a staple of younger comedians. I think Matt was saying he's seen A LOT of meta-sketches within the last few years; and more importantly, a lot of unfunny meta-sketches. Matt was just wary of one of the podcasts making that choice because it's the easier choice than writing a regular old sketch. Seeing as how in most meta-sketches the people acting in the sketch more often than not choose to play themselves rather than create characters, which can be construed as an easier choice. I guess in Matt's eyes he needs to know that you can execute a traditional sketch well before you can go meta on us. Just my two cents.

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@JW: Word.
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@Frank: Word.

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I like how the producer read the description of the challenge that was sent to the contestants. I wish you guys would do that at the top of every show along with the criteria for how each clip will be judged for that specific challenge. I know that Matt and the producers touch on the criteria for how each clip will be judged through out the show, but it's never really stated clearly.

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I don't really hate meta sketches. But over the years I've seen so many groups writing meta sketches before they write just regular sketches. In the 90's alt scene I think meta/post-modern became almost hack. As I spoke to the contestants it seemed that meta was becoming the knee jerk choice to make. For some reason I got riled up.
Mark, going ballistic isn't really a symptom of being high. I don't perform high and outside of the Phish concert and the Del Close Marathon I haven't been high in four months so please don't get me in trouble with my wife.
Tomorrow I throw a chair at one of the contestants through the phone.

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Thanks for the kind words, today, Matt. Can't wait to hear the submissions tomorrow. Writing a sketch sounds like so much fun.

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Yeah, I thought that was odd too...you started the show super mellow, and then seemed to lose it in the middle. I assumed you got some bad shit. However, I will take you at your word that you don't perform or do the podcast high (but I promise not to bring it up in front of your wife, just in case.).

Really looking forward to the chair throwing incident!

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I bet one of the submissions is a sketch about Matt getting angry about meta sketches, then throwing a chair, with F+ then reading and making fun of one of our forum posts.

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Mike Q: You just won the Earwolf Challenge. Congratulations. You can start submitting your podcast immediately.

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I'm on board with 99 percent of that Matt had to say about the use of post-modernism and meta sketches. The one thing that kinda bugs me is the idea that you can't make fun of something unless it's something you're good at. If you make that a criteria for comedy, you're pretty much eliminating every subject that exists.

To say that you can't make fun of bad improv or bad sketch comedy unless you have done good improv or written a good sketch seems to me to be the same as saying you can't make fun of bad musicians or stupid marketing campaigns unless you're a good musician or the creator of a smart marketing campaign.

Like producer Frank, I think it comes down to making it funny. Lord knows we've all seen and heard a lot of lazy, crappy riffs on bad music and stupid commercials. But I don't think these are ever bad because the comic/writer in question isn't good at music or marketing. And crappy riffs on bad improv and sketch aren't bad because the comic/writer doesn't do good improv or sketch work.

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Ronald: I'm trying to understand your point from the perspective of music, which is where most of my education comes from. You said that you can make jokes about musicians without being a musician, so why can't you make jokes about comedy, or making jokes.
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So, that lead me to think about musicians writing songs about being musicians, the equivalent in the scenario you laid out. I hate those. I hate those so much. I think they're dumb and pretentious and awful. I especially hate songs about rock and roll lifestyle, or how it's the singer's moment to shine. I hate songs that are only funny to musicians because they're so full of "musician jokes."
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So, you said that if you can joke about musicians without being a musician, why can't you joke about comedy without being an established comedian. Because: You are using the craft of comedy to discuss the art of comedy. That is not the same as using the craft of comedy to discuss the art of music. It would be the same as using the craft of music to discuss the art of music, which I think I dislike as much as Matt dislikes the former.
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Make sense? I'm probably not doing a great job of making my point.

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@Caroline - Huzzah! I knew years of painstakingly-crafted internet commentary would some day be acknowledged for the genius that it is. I'm calling Mother to tell her to unbox all the answering machine tapes full of my early recorded work. Volume 1: 1994-1999 is on its way to Earwolf Manor as we speak.

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But... what if I wrote a parodical song making fun of crappy comedy, while at the same time being crappy music?
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Boom; nailed it, methinks.

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Caroline, you make an interesting point that I hadn't thought of. It takes the discussion in a sort of more philosophical direction than I'd been considering, but that may be just the thing I'm missing. I don't think I've completely changed my mind on the matter, but I'm certainly more ambivalent about it than I was before.

On a contrary note, let me ask this: You mention how you hate "musicians writing songs about being musicians," and I get that. But ... is it possible for such a thing to work, if only it's done right? I'm thinking, right off the top of my head, about "Lose Yourself," by Eminem, which I think most people would agree is a pretty fantastic song. (I say "most" knowing that there is a 99.95 percent chance that someone will post within about 10 minutes that they hate that song.)

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Oh, absolutely Ronald. It CAN be done. I mean, I LOVE Andy Daly's Jerry O'Hearn character, and as I mentioned in the Earmail this week, I've been enjoying the hell out of Matt Besser's own web series Masterclass, an undeniably meta series of videos taking place in an improv masterclass. In both scenarios you have INCREDIBLY skilled comedians making the comedy.
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I'm not super well versed on Eminem, but he's clearly doing something right. I'd use as a personal example Meat Loaf who has several songs about rock and roll that I really dig. And in my opera training I sang many a beautiful baroque aria about the glorious gift of music by composers like Purcell and Handel. But, compare that to Rebecca Black's My Moment or Starship's We Built This City or Prefab Sprout's King of Rock and Roll:

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Whatever else I've learned from this discussion, I now have a new "greatest music video" contender to think about. I especially like the cameo from Andy Dick in the blue robe. And the hot dogs.

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