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

Jacqueline Cutler

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.

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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.

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