In artistic terms, the Mona Lisa, as it hangs in the Louvre, is a portrait. A character rich with detail, visible emotion behind her eyes and a mystery in her smile. A presentation of someone we could know and want to know. A real character. A caricature version of her* would have the Mona Lisa in profile with an enlarged head and tiny body fishing off the end of a pier. The cartoonishness of it might elicit in us a smile, but we’re quick to move on.
I taught a Second City class last night and had something unusual happen. We were doing Fish Out of Water scenes and most everyone brought in a scene that had a celebrity appearing as themselves in it. A big pet peeve of mine. Some had entire scenes made up of celebrities and politicians. This surprised me because this is Second City, not SNL or MADtv. You will rarely see a Second City actor portraying a celebrity on stage. It happens, but not often, and usually in a blackout or a minor character. In The Second City Writing Program, we strive to create scenes populated with characters that could conceivably have full emotional lives before the scene that we see them in and after the lights go down. You might be thinking, if the character is a well-known celebrity or politician, isn’t that a real character with an emotional life that exists outside the scene? Aren’t real people real characters? No. They are not. They are caricatures. They are often written and performed as imitations of how we’ve seen other people present them. Impressions of impressions.
A caricature is an imitation. A two-dimensional presentation with some kind of exaggeration. And they are lazy for a sketch comedy writer to use. It takes some effort to create characters that are recognizable (That guy’s just like my dad!) and original creations. We deal in the recognizable and the unexpected, which is not easy.
It’s fine to base characters on real people. As a writer, that gives you freedom to expand on the character and it keeps your scene from having a shelf-life dependent on the real life person’s popularity or term in office or relevance of the topic.
Another practical reason not to write scenes filled with celebrities is that it saddles your actors with having to do convincing impressions. If they’re off, it blows and ruins the scenes. And if you do happen to find someone who does a brilliant Obama, you better hope they have enough range to do the other characters a sketch revue demands. A one trick pony will also sink your show.
Is there a place for caricatures in sketch comedy? Sure, they can be useful. Especially in short scenes where the comic premise is more important than exploring characters and relationships. At SNL, they are their bread and butter. Political figures and Hollywood star impressions are invaluable to a show that goes live every week and can and should capitalize on current events. And original caricatures can be fun, too. But also notice how often SNL caricatures overstay their welcome or implode when they try to move them to a feature length movie (Night at the Roxbury, MacGruber, It’s Pat, Lady’s Man, etc). Hard to develop a “character” without heart or depth. There have been successes, like Wayne’s World or The Blues Brothers. The Blue Brothers were fleshed out characters that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had created a history for, even before there was a film deal. We even know their full names, which is rare for an SNL “character.”
Caricatures are a cheap and easy way to try to get a laugh. Often, the caricature itself overrides whatever the scene is attempting to be about. So, if you are serious about writing sketch comedy, craft original characters with strong emotional investments in what they want. Characters and relationships. That’s where the gold is.
* The caricature of Mona Lisa used here is from a site called Team of Monkeys and it's a maze. Feel free to print it up and use it as a placemat.