Writer, comic, improviser, and unabashed comedy fan are only a few of the labels that sketch-writer and Boston native, Marty Johnson wears proudly. Marty began her comedy career as an improviser in college before continuing on to train at Boston’s Improv Asylum as well as other notable training centers around the country. With an educational and professional background in television production, Johnson’s film and web projects have been official selections of the New York Television Festival, LA Independent Television Festival, LA Comedy Shorts Festival, and Austin Film Festival. In 2010 she was chosen as a finalist at the 2010 Friars Club Improv and Sketch Competition and previously received “Best Film” in the NBC Short Cuts Film Festival. Johnson has played an integral role in changing the way audiences and fellow artists think about the role of the female comedy writer. I took a few minutes to chat with the accomplished comic/writer, fresh off her successful run at the Charleston Comedy Festival as one half of the sketch-team, Somebody’s In the Doghouse.
Your training is in improvisational comedy. What drew you to sketch writing?
MJ: Actually, I started performing both sketch and improv at the same time with my college comedy group, Charred Goosebeak at Colgate. I wrote some bizarro sketches and videos for our live shows back then!
How you would describe your approach to sketch writing?
MJ: Depends on the idea. If I come up with an idea that’s pretty fully formed and that I’m confident will work, I’ll just start writing and revising it. Sometimes I’ll just outline the beats of an idea to see if there’s enough to it, before scripting it out. If I have the beginning of an idea that I think might work, improvising through it can help to flesh it out or find the right approach. Reading things out loud is always key.
You mention tapping into your improv skills as a way to help your writing process. Why do you think this is a use method?
MJ: It can be very helpful in generating ideas and in keeping you flexible and open to changing things up or trying an idea in a new way. That sensibility is also useful in figuring out how to build an idea. The process of looking at something from different angles to find new jokes is something improv trains your brain to do.
In the last few years, much has been made of the fact that writers’ rooms are becoming less dominated with that boys’ club mentality. How have you found your experience being a female writer collaborating on film and sketch projects?
MJ: I collaborate with both women and men on different projects, and I feel like I know equal amounts of hilarious people. I just work with people whose sensibility I admire, no matter what kind of private parts they have. I perform in a sketch show that is a female duo but we started writing/performing together because we liked each other’s sense of humor. When I do notice and think about the gender imbalance is when I look to the places in this industry I’d like to go. I would love to see more and more women continue to break through and work on that level. It seems like there’s a bit of a disconnection between what’s going on in the comedy communities in cities (in terms of the work being produced) and the next steps that lead to big advancement in the industry.
As much as you enjoy producing your own work, everyone has people they look up to as fans and inspirations. Who are some current sketch or comedy writers that you admire?
MJ: Oh, man, there are a lot. Tina Fey and Mitch Hurtwitz for sitcom writing; not a second is wasted in those scripts, there are jokes absolutely everywhere. “It’s Always Sunny” has always been a favorite, and “Community” now, too for the same reason – the characters on both those shows are so well defined that you can just set them loose in any storyline. Sketch-wise I tend to be more a fan of individual sketches from all different places. From stuff I see independent groups performing live, to resident theater casts, to my very talented friends who are constantly producing stuff, to “The State,” “Human Giant,” “SNL,” and all types of Internet sketches.
Your sketch baby, Somebody’s in The Doghouse, which pairs you with comic Leah Gotcsik, just came off a successful appearance at the Charleston Comedy Festival, kudos! What’s next for this duo? What’s next for you?
MJ: We are writing new material at the moment, it’s great to be in that mode, messing around with new ideas. Since we’ve been working together for a while it’s fun to see what’s changing, what we find interesting now that we didn’t before, etc. Personally, I’ve been concentrating on writing longer scripts for a while, so churning out sketches and brainstorming ideas for short, live theatrical work is a different animal and lots of fun to get back to.
You are currently the Director of the sketch-writing program at Improv Asylum, what artistic/creative trends have you noticed in your students?
MJ: I’m not sure if I’ve noticed trends as much as I think writing style or interest breaks down along personality lines. Some people are really interested in writing topical or satirical sketches, and others have very absurd senses of humor and don’t care about politics or pop culture.
What kind of gender breakdown have you noticed in your class?
MJ: The gender breakdown tends to be fairly balanced in most first level classes, but I’ve found that fewer women stick with it and continue on. I’m not sure why the dudes tend to keep writing when women don’t always. I will ask them!
What’s one of your greatest sketch-writing pet peeves?
This is the part where you impart your amazing advice/wisdom for sketch-writers just starting out. Go!
MJ: Get your idea straight before trying to write all the dialogue. Try to have distance enough from your own ideas to judge them fairly, and then push for the ones you know are good!
This is the other part where you shamelessly plug your work. Go!
MJ: Come check out Somebody’s in the Doghouse at the 2011 Boston Women in Comedy Festival this March! If you’re interested in giving sketch-writing a try, visit our sketch-writing class offerings at Improv Asylum, www.improvasylum.com.