Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer's perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For this week's installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with writer and comedian Alex Blagg, who currently serves as co-creator and executive producer of @midnight, which recently earned a whopping 40-week renewal from Comedy Central. Blagg chose the season 3 Key and Peele sketch "Insult Comic" that aired in October 2013 — six months before the comic duo made Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people — and works as a classic example of Key and Peele's humor and convincing argument that to not make fun of something is just another form of bullying.
First off, congratulations on the @midnight renewal! That must feel pretty good.
Yeah, we're very happy that the show has been so accepted and Comedy Central is so behind it, and it's been really exciting to see it grow and thrive. Getting the pickup was definitely a giant sigh of relief that we finally got over yet another hurdle.
Before it felt more like a really long trial run, so a 40-week renewal has got to be validating.
That's the funniest thing about it — this is my first time making it all the way through the process of getting a television show made, and the weird thing about it is there's just so many hurdles from the point where you have the idea, then we had to pitch it to Funny or Die, then we had to pitch it to Tom Lennon and Ben Garant, then we had to pitch it to Comedy Central, then we had to pitch it to Chris [Hardwick], then we had to shoot a pilot presentation, then Comedy Central had to decide on that, and then they put us on a trial run… [laughs] It just feels like the goal line is always moving, so any time we reach a milestone like this it's really exciting — and then it's also a giant sigh of relief.
Do you have any ideas for how @midnight might evolve now that it'll be on all next year?
What's cool about our show in particular is that because so much of it is this social media interactivity and integration, it kind of has an experimental feel where we can try new things or we can put this idea out there and ask the audience to do something with it and then we can pull it back into the show, and more than a lot of shows it can be kind of a fluid conversation going back and forth between us and our fans, and it feels like we're just starting to scratch the surface with that stuff. The #HashtagWars thing has obviously been the most visible expression of that idea, but we don't want that to be the one thing we do night after night. We tried this thing on Vine recently that was super fun where we had people apply to be what we're calling a Vinetern for us — all these people sent in videos and then we're gonna pick one person to be like a correspondent for the next few months on the show, where every so often we'll have them make a custom Vine for us. So it's just finding different ways to include the audience in the show in an organic and additive way.
Let's talk about the Key and Peele sketch you picked. Why "Insult Comic?"
Well Key and Peele have a million incredible instant classic sketches, but this is one of the ones that I actually find myself often showing to my friends. It's tough to pick one with them, but for me this sketch distills what makes them so great. On the surface it's just a funny idea, right — an insult comic finds basically the worst crowd member to ply his trade on — but then it's so grounded, and they play it so real, and what could've been a one-note joke actually has multiple layers of depth and you feel empathy for both the comedian and the guy who wants to be made fun of. It's just so simple and great, and it makes me laugh the way that Jordan plays that character, because watching him react to getting what he's asking for just kills me.
The funniest comedy is always the stuff that feels real and grounded and human, and you understand the point of all the different characters — it's not like there's just one person carrying the burden of being funny as the "wacky guy" and then there's the one "straight man." In this sketch, it's kind of hard to even determine which one is the straight man, because they're both playing their respective characters so straight and real. Even Keegan's jokes as a standup all feel like real jokes you'd hear in a comedy club — it gets across that he's maybe a little hacky, but they still feel like real jokes. You see his own discomfort and panic in such a visceral way. It just turns the stakes up and creates so much tension that makes the whole thing feel funnier once you finally get the release when he finally does start taking shots at Jordan's character, and then of course it turns into a nightmare.
What's your take on insult comics? Are you a particular fan of them?
That's another thing I love about this sketch — in a weird way, it also functions as this parable about comedy itself. Some people really like the history and tradition of the insult comic where you go to your comedy club and pay for your two-drink minimum and some guy's gonna make fun of and harass you and your date and you get a little release out of that — I get why people like it, because it feels a little dangerous and it's like why people want to sit in the front rows at SeaWorld — because they're monsters and they didn't see Blackfish. [laughs] What I'm saying is, those people who go to SeaWorld are probably the same people who want to sit in the front row at an insult comic show and be humiliated while paying too much for nachos.
This sketch shows both sides of that — you see the people who enjoy it and the comic who is obviously good at what he does, and even Jordan's character has this misguided desire to be made fun of — I mean that's such a funny idea of "Do me next! Do me next!"
What do you think about lines being drawn in comedy — or whether lines should be drawn at all?
I think if you're honest and you're real and what you're doing is truthful, you can make fun of almost anybody or anything. That's why I think Key and Peele are able to get away with it — they never reduce the disabled character Jordan's playing into a caricature, really. Everything that he's doing and saying feels motivated by a real place, from his misguided desire to be made fun of to how he thought he could take it but couldn't and has a meltdown about it. So it never feels like the purpose of the joke is to punch down; they're not making fun of disabled people, they're making fun of all of our own human frailty and how we're emotionally more fragile then we sometimes think we are.
And it's not just this sketch. There's also the gay coworker sketch. There's such a brilliant turn in that because it feels like in the sketch they're playing the gay coworker character as this sort of swishy gay stereotype who is increasingly annoying to his straight-seeming coworker, but then there's the twist at the end when you realize that he's gay too and he's not annoyed about his coworker's sexuality but the way that he's behaving. That to me is such a brilliant turn where they're subverting stereotypes and making a joke that's coming from a more honest place. And if you do that, you can get away with just about anything.
But coming from a truthful place won't stop people from getting offended.
Almost no comedy will be inoffensive to everybody, and if it is it's probably pretty boring. With comedy you're relieving tension by saying and doing the unexpected, and a lot of times that by its nature will lead to people not liking the results or saying it's offensive to them — that your representation of their particular experience is unfair or inaccurate. That will always happen, but I think the likelihood of that happening is so greatly diminished when you're setting out as a performer or creator to try to be honest. Instead of just saying Okay, what's the first thought that comes to my head — what's the easiest stereotype I can make fun of? and then just going with that, thinking a little bit deeper and trying to understand the real motivations and attitudes and behaviors that make us human, and then looking at those things as the material you can focus the joke on — I think that's where the best comedy comes from and that's why people like Key and Peele are almost infallible. It'd be really tough to put together a legitimate case about them being lazy or insensitive comedians. They feel like humanists to me.
What other sketch shows do you think do this well?
This is one of those questions where I wish I had a cooler, more interesting answer to, but I think it's a lot of the same stuff that inspired everybody, going back to SNL. SNL has obviously been hit-and-miss at times, but overall I'm of the opinion that it's been more good than bad. The best performers from SNL I think were always the most able to embody what seems real. SNL is much more big arch characters and jokes, but I always responded to the Phil Hartmans of the world who could play the reality of a scene and a character. Mr. Show was way more absurdist, but I feel like they were always driven by a sense of truth and an aggressive stance against hypocrisy or for exposing the fraudulent bullshit from our culture. I like Portlandia too — I feel like they're the closest thing we have to Mr. Show but obviously much more set against today's culture. I like Birthday Boys a lot too — I almost picked their sketch "Pool Jumpers" which is one of my favorite recent ones. I also love Review with Andy Daly and Nathan for You, which are playing with this new hybrid between a sketch and serialized narrative and reality parody thing where they blend all this stuff together into this new format. It sounds like I'm being a company man here, but I really do feel like Comedy Central is on a roll right now and having a bit of a renaissance, because so much of the funniest stuff is on Comedy Central — Nathan for You, Review, Inside Amy Schumer, Kroll Show, obviously The Daily Show and Colbert — they just have so much great talent. I'm excited there's a place with so much stuff that I'm into.