Write Stuff: Character in Sketch & Improv

In which I continue writing about the importance of strong characters

Chet Haase
3 min readJun 16, 2024

My previous article talked about the importance of having strong characters when writing for a spec script. That is, I realized how critical strong characters are for all fiction writing; it’s just that I was hit with that particular epiphany stick while writing a spec script (for Only Murders in the Building).

By way of a further example in other contexts, I offer sketch comedy.

Since moving to Chicago for my screenwriting MFA program, I’ve been soaking in Chicago’s rich comedy scene. I‘ve taken several classes in improv and sketch writing and I’ve watched tons of sketch shows (a specialty of the house at Second City). One of the things that stood out to me in these shows is how the very strong (sometimes extreme) characters always stand out in sketches.

I’ll be watching a sketch where everyone is doing a great job, when one of the actors enters with an over-the-top character played at 200%; that actor is fully on board. So not only is the character itself extreme, but the actor plays that extreme to the extreme, resulting in a performance that stands out in the scene in a similar way that the in-focus subject stands out in a photograph.

Two sketch actors whom I noticed in particular were Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson. Every character they played was pushed very far in a particular direction, and those actors followed those characters all the way, resulting in captivating performances every single time. Everyone else on stage was great, but those characters captured all of the attention because they were Just. So. Engaging. They reminded me of Will Ferrell, in the way that he is always totally into whatever ridiculous characters he embodies.

Those two actors went on to successful television roles (Tim Robinson in the I Think You Should Leave Now sketch comedy series, and Sam Richardson in various roles including the unforgettable and over-the-top Edwin Akufo in Ted Lasso), and it’s easy to see why. The way they manifest characters is complete, and brings the audience with them all the way.

The comedies I saw these characters in were sketches, which are written and rehearsed scenes. But many Second City sketches evolve from improv scenes. The players develop story ideas and characters in improvised scenes and imprint them in a script once they have the core ideas down. So the character choices they make in the sketches translate directly from character choices made in improv; the stronger the character (and the stronger the actor plays that character), the more believable, engaging, and funny that character is.

Even though improv/sketch is very different from prose or script writing, there are clear overlaps. In sketch and improv, character is helpful in engaging the live audience in whatever reality is being built upon the stage. But similarly, in writing, strong characters are critical in helping the reader understand, and hopefully be swept away by, the reality being built upon the page. And hey, those words rhyme, so here’s a poem:

Characters are critical
When played upon the stage.
But also they’re a crucial part
Of words upon the page.

So make strong character choices, in both performance and writing. For performance, strong character choices heighten the comedy and drama of scenes. But also, in scripts and prose, strong characters make dialog so much easier to write, and believe, and enjoy.



Chet Haase

Past: Android development Present: Student, comedy writer Future: ???