Joe Guppy will be teaching Comedy Sketch Writing this upcoming spring quarter. Joe won 8 regional Emmys and a national Writers Guild award for comedy writing and performing, and was also a head writer/cast member for the Seattle comedy show Almost Live. We sat down with Joe to talk about his storied career, his comedic influences, and what students can look forward to in his sketch writing class.
Can you talk about your career as a writer and performer?
I started out as mainly a writer, because I was too shy. I never saw myself as being able to perform because it just sounded too humiliating. But in high school and college I found that I could write things that people thought were kind of clever or funny or different. Then, out of college, I discovered Improv, and that was the gateway in just discovering what I was able to do. I joined this group called Off The Wall Players, in the Seattle area. We did about 20 original local stage shows. By the time we broke up, we were pretty popular. We’d sell out our runs–we had a real following and such. And that led to Almost Live, the TV show on King 5 that was on the air for like 15 seasons. So those are kind of the facts of the case.
And then (my wife) Nancy and I went to Los Angeles in 1989 for about three or four years. What I like to tell people is: you can make a pretty good living being on a series of failing television shows in Los Angeles. So we were on kind of what we’d call B level, or something like that. My Hollywood stories are always sort of like a brush with greatness. I was in an elevator once with Ron Howard, or I had a conversation one time in the Xerox room with Henry Winkler–the Fonz. That’s one where I actually talked face to face with a guy that I really admire. But, most of them are like, you know, I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger one time outside his trailer–stuff like that. But we were kind of swimming in those waters. I wrote for network television, but not on any shows that were successful. But it was a tremendous experience, being down there, really learning how to write. That’s where I learned about the writers room, and the writers table, which I’ll bring to the Freehold class. In the second to the last class, I do a kind of writer’s room, bringing in that classic idea of the writers all sitting around a table, punching up each other’s scripts.
What will the class be like?
Well right off the bat, we’ll talk about different comedy terms, to get us all with the same vocabulary. And probably the number one of those is the premise. What’s the premise of the sketch that we’re doing? There’s a really great quote from Chris Rock where he basically says that a lot of people wonder why their material doesn’t work. They’ve got a good idea–it’s funny. The reason it doesn’t work is because the audience doesn’t understand the premise. And that’s just a key concept. And if you’re familiar with Chris Rock, you’ll notice him repeat his premise several times as he goes along–he’ll do three or four minutes of material, and then he’ll repeat the premise again.
It’s probably the number one error that comedy writers make. Oftentimes, they think, “Oh, this is so clever. I don’t want to give it away. I want to save my brilliant idea.” But if the audience is just kind of scratching their heads for the first minute of the sketch, and they don’t know what’s going on, they’re not going to be ready for your brilliant idea when you finally deign to give it to them.
Another important term is the comedy gap. And that’s based on this gap between the expectation and then the flip of the punch line. The thing I use to illustrate that is very old school, but very classic: Monty Python. The sketch has John Cleese as the head of the Ministry of Silly Walks–like a bureaucratic department. So he’s the head of the Ministry of Silly Walks. And it’s just a tremendous example of this comic gap, because he’s dressed very formally as a posh British bureaucrat, and the top half of his body is very straight and he keeps a very straight face. And then with the bottom half of his body he’s doing all this ridiculous walking with his legs. And he goes into the bureau and we hear him talking about developing the Silly Walks, and he’s using all this very articulate and highfalutin language to describe this really silly thing. And that’s the gap. It’s the gap between the somber quality of government bureaucracy and this Silly Walk thing.
Who would benefit most from this class?
The full-on target would be somebody who wants to write sketch comedy, or really any kind of comedy. We also will look at comedic scenes in films. If you look at any comedy film, you’re going to see scenes that could have been broken out as a sketch. So that’s germane to playwrights and people that are interested in filmmaking. And if people have any ambition to have comedy in their work–because of course we can have comedy even in more serious dramas–this class can benefit you.
I also think performers would benefit, as well, specifically improv. Part of the class will be developing some of the comedy premises through improv, so that’s another kind of student who might benefit.
Who are some of your comedy influences?
Early on, I watched JP Patches. I’m a Patches Pal. He had this children’s show that was on in the morning, and then he had an afternoon version as well. And I remember watching as a kid and as a teenager. It was obviously a kid show but he had a lot of jokes on there that were more adult kinds of jokes. Like his producer was named Sam Gefiltefish. Growing up in Seattle, in my all Catholic neighborhood, I didn’t have any idea that gefilte fish was even a thing. To me it was just a funny series of syllables. And then later when I watched as a teenager, I get what they’re talking about. So there’s a lot of stuff like.
Then the other one would have to be Monty Python–watching it with my dad. My dad and I didn’t connect around a lot of things, but we definitely connected around British humor and so that was a big thing.
Back in the day, everybody was into All In The Family, which I thought was fine, but the one that I really liked from the same guy (producer Norman Lear) was Sanford and Son. There was something about the the characters that I really liked. And then later on it was stand up comedy really–I really tuned into Steve Martin and Richard Pryor. Those were two of my favorites, back in the day. But then of course, there’s always Saturday Night Live and Second City. I mean, I watch them all.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your class?
I think of comedy as both a light hearted way to get some yuks–get the endorphins and the dopamine flowing–and then also as something that can sort of communicate messages and communicate human values. It can be very revolutionary, very consciousness raising. When I did Off The Wall Players, in particular, we did a lot of political satire. And so I think it’s a tremendous force for social good. But if you say that too much, then people think it’s a really heavy duty thing.
The whole point is that we go in and just laugh and have a good time as a community. It’s very much a communal thing. I can watch a comedy movie by myself and laugh my head off, but it’s really a shared art form. I just love the community of classes and people coming together and learning from each other–students learn from the teacher and the teacher learns from the students. I think it’s just one of those positive human activities. I love to go to classes, myself, and I love to teach.