Amy Sedaris, Fred Armisen on the Art of Creating Short-Term Characters

Few disciplines are as tough to shine in as sketch comedy. Often, being funny isn’t often enough. What makes a sketch resonate comes down to the characters. But while sitcoms build arcs over seasons, short skits require viewers to buy into new characters constantly. It’s a tricky art.

For decades, “Saturday Night Live” has blended one-offs with recurring characters that grow over time with takes on real-life pop culture and political figures — and has dominated the variety sketch series Emmy wins for the past two years. The ones that draw the biggest response, from Kate McKinnon’s Ms. Rafferty to Kenan Thompson’s version of Steve Harvey, elicit laughter but also a sense of history (even if short-term), as viewers relate their actions and dialogue in the most recent sketches to earlier ones.

Although the goal of truTV’s “At Home With Amy Sedaris,” a satire of a hospitality/homemaker show, is to be funny, of course, creator and star Sedaris says she doesn’t think in terms of jokes. Instead, she begins with a person, such as terminally disapproving Southern socialite Patty Hogg, who, in all her bouffant glory, has become a favorite of Sedaris’ to play.

“She just came out of me one day,” Sedaris says. “We were playing around, and we all got excited. It was fun for me to have a new character. I usually have the same characters, and they reinvent themselves. Of all of the characters I have had in my repertoire, Patty Hogg surprised me. She was living in me for a long time, and I want to play her a lot this third season. She takes a lot of energy, but she is important to me.”

Fred Armisen, who has played a landlord on “At Home With Amy Sedaris” and also co-created and stars on IFC’s “Documentary Now” takes the same character-first approach, but prefers playing people he likes “as opposed to making fun of the character. When it becomes negative, with too much cynicism or pessimism to it, it kills the momentum.”

“Documentary Now” parodies the self-important vibe of some documentaries. In the third season, Armisen was particularly proud of “Waiting for the Artist” with Cate Blanchett, as he and the actress did their version of “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present,” playing painters in love. The episode plays with the pretension of some artists, but balances it with a goofier vibe as the duo painted their bodies and then hurled themselves onto a giant canvas.

Providing another twisted take on real-life folks is Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” For six seasons, guest stars have gotten loaded as they impersonate historical figures. The most recent season’s opener, “Are You Afraid of the Drunk?” starred Evan Rachel Wood as Mary Shelley and Will Ferrell as Frankenstein’s monster. It was creator and host Derek Waters’ favorite but an unusual episode, featuring just this one skit rather than a few.

And yes, he swigs bourbon with his guest stars. “I’m a team player,” Waters says. “And it helps them not feel like they are being exploited.”

These sketches require a specific skill set: Actors must be great lip-syncers, so their dialogue matches narrator Rich Fulcher’s words. “Having someone that can tell the story in such a fascinating way, having someone like Evan Rachel Wood and making them as sincere as if it was Shakespeare,” Waters says, is when this quirky series soars.

As actors get drunker, they laugh more, but cracking up during a sketch is fine, especially when they can reshoot. Performers agree it’s promising when they can’t keep a straight face.

“Chances are, if you are laughing, audiences are, too,” Sedaris says.

More TV


    'The Orville' to Move From Fox to Hulu for Season 3

    Seth MacFarlane’s “The Orville” is on the move. MacFarlane announced Saturday at the show’s San Diego Comic-Con panel that Season 3 of the sci-fi series will air exclusively on Hulu rather than on Fox as it has for its first two seasons. According to an individual with knowledge of the situation, MacFarlane’s current workload and [...]

  • Westworld Season 3 Trailer

    Aaron Paul, Showrunners Unveil 'Westworld' Season 3 Trailer (Watch)

    Season 3 of “Westworld” is going to new worlds altogether. Unveiled during the show’s Comic-Con panel, the trailer teases Thandie Newton’s character Maeve entering a new world of hosts set during World War II. Meanwhile, in the human world, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her fellow hosts who escaped “Westworld” in season 2 are being [...]

  • Variety Cord Cutting Placeholder Cable

    Dish Faces Multiple Outages as Carriage Contracts Come Due

    Satellite-broadcaster Dish is known in the media industry as a hard bargainer when carriage contracts come up for renewal. HBO hasn’t been available on the service since November. Now, other TV networks face a similar prospect. Unless Dish and certain content suppliers reach new terms by Monday evening, subscribers who use several cable networks currently [...]

  • Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard of

    'Star Trek: Picard' to Feature Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Jeri Ryan

    “Star Trek: Picard” is bringing back some familiar faces. During the show’s San Diego Comic-Con panel on Saturday, it was revealed that Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and Jeri Ryan would reprising their roles from “Next Generation” and “Voyager” in Ryan’s case. Jonathan Del Arco will also appear, likely reprising his role as the [...]

  • The Simpsons Homer Live

    'The Simpsons' Will Finally Release Season 19 on DVD, Helping Out Purist Collectors

    “The Simpsons” DVD collectors who also happen to be obsessive-compulsive can rest a little easier: You’ll finally be able to fill in that missing Season 19. Executive producer Al Jean revealed on Saturday that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment will finally release the 19th season of “The Simpsons” on DVD this December 3, two years [...]

  • Pictured: No'l Wells as Ensign Tendi;

    'Star Trek: Lower Decks' Sets Main Cast

    The upcoming animated series “Star Trek: Lower Decks” has announced its main voice cast. Tawny Newsome, Noël Wells, and Eugene Cordero will all star in the series. As Variety exclusively reported, Jack Quaid has also been cast as Ensign Brad Boimler. The Starfleet characters that comprise the ship’s bridge crew include Captain Carol Freeman, voiced by [...]

  • Jack Quaid

    'Star Trek: Lower Decks' Casts Jack Quaid (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jack Quaid has joined the voice cast of the upcoming animated series “Star Trek: Lower Decks” at CBS All Access, Variety has learned exclusively. As previously announced, the series will focus on the support crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships. Quaid will voice the character of Ensign Brad Boimler. Described as a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content