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Wrapping Up a History of Sketch Comedy

With this last article on the history of sketch comedy, I wanted to take the opportunity to reevaluate the past, present, and future of the genre as I've laid it out over the last six months. First of all I should say that this has hardly been the definitive guide to sketch; there are countless important sketch programs that I've neglected covering, chief among them every single British sketch show. What I was hoping to do was provide a bit of context to all these shows that we've all come to known and love, and give a better sense of the genre's past present and future.

The thing that [...]

Looking Back at The Upright Citizens Brigade

The Upright Citizens Brigade began around 1990 as a live sketch group at the ImprovOlympic (now iO) Theater in Chicago. The iO was founded by improv legend Del Close, who mentored the group and provided the voiceover narration on their Comedy Central show's title sequence. Although almost all modern sketch comedy is indebted to Close and the Chicago improv scene, UCB bares the closest connection to the long form improv tradition. Many of their episodes (especially the early ones) are more or less modified Harolds, the canonical long form improv structure developed by Close. On a very basic level the Harold consists of three different scenarios that play out [...]

Looking Back at MADtv

MADtv was created by Fax Bahr and Adam Small, two writers from In Living Color, Fox's first sketch show. It's very easy to see MADtv as Fox's follow up to In Living Color. Both shows were directed (at least initially) towards black and Latino audiences, both made extensive use of crude and crass humor, both relied heavily on reoccurring characters and both were critically-derided.

A key difference was that In Living Color had the Wayans family behind it. While the show was frequently inconsistent, it was capable of some great sketches on race in America. That aspect was largely absent from MADtv. Instead the show mostly stuck to [...]

Looking Back at The Ben Stiller Show

The Ben Stiller Show was a brief but important show in the history of sketch comedy. The show ran on FOX from September 1992 through January 93, lasting just 13 episodes. It’s probably best remembered today for the people involved with the show who would go on to later fame, such as Judd Apatow and Andy Dick. It’s also where Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and Dino Stamatopoulos met. A few years later the three of them would help develop another important sketch show, Mr. Show.

The show features some sketches that anticipate the complex satire of both politics and pop culture that Mr. Show would specialize in. Take [...]

Looking Back at Saturday Night Live, 1985-1990

When we last left Saturday Night Live, the show was in dire straights. Having repeatedly tried and failed to find a formula that worked following the departure of the original cast and crew of the show in 1980, by 1985 SNL was on the verge of cancellation. In response, NBC re-hired Lorne Michaels, hoping that he would be able to fix the clearly broken show. Unfortunately, Michaels’ return was not all the show needed to get its groove back. The 11th season, his first one back, has become one of the most poorly regarded and least popular seasons in the show’s entire history.

Looking Back at Chappelle's Show

Chappelle's Show is unlike almost any sketch comedy show before it. It doesn't come from the same sketch comedy tradition that SNL and Monty Python created; it's first and foremost a vehicle for Dave Chappelle. He and his co-writer Neal Brennan wrote every single sketch and Chappelle stars in almost every one. Although there are regularly featured actors like Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings, there really is no permanent cast to speak of. The show really has more in common with vanity driven sitcoms starring stand-up comedians than any other sketch show in terms of it's approach to humor. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the show became [...]

Looking Back at The Dana Carvey Show

Since its short run 15 years ago, quite a bit of myth and mystique has developed around the Dana Carvey Show. For years the show has been lamented as a work of comedic genius shot down before it could find an audience or establish itself. Because only seven episodes of the show ever aired, I speculate that much of this mythmaking has been based upon the show's impressive cast and writing staff, rather than the show itself. Some of the most respected comedy minds in the world can be found in the show's credits, including Robert Smigel, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Charlie Kaufman, and Dino [...]

Looking Back at Saturday Night Live, 1995-2000

When the 21st season of Saturday Night Live debuted in the fall of 1995 it had almost an entirely new cast. Seven new cast members joined the cast that year, signaling a major shift in the show’s history. There were numerous great new actors the joined the show but the most notable new member of the show was undoubtedly Will Ferrell. Although he’s since become one of the biggest leading men in comedy at the time he was just another improv actor who was recruited for the show from the Groundlings. Much like Phil Hartman, Ferrell wasn’t great on the show because he could stand out, but because he [...]

Looking Back at Saturday Night Live, 1990-1995

1990-95 were some Saturday Night Live's brightest years. Countless classic bits and characters where created during this time period and a whole new generation of comedians were introduced to a national audience. I think I speak for a lot of folks when said that this period of SNL is the first sketch comedy I ever encountered, late on Saturday Nights when my parents thought I was sleeping. Thinking back on this time I want to believe that it was priceless gag after priceless gag, but was that really the case?

Looking Back at Kids in the Hall

The Kids in the Hall is one of the most influential sketch shows of all time. In terms of importance, I'd argue it's right up there with Monty Python's Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live. The show pushed the envelope in a number of ways, with its bizarre, surreal sense of humor that hadn't been seen on sketch shows since Python. Additionally, it touched on sensitive topics like homosexuality that were at the time largely absent from TV shows. I should admit that I am a bit biased when it comes to this show; KITH was one of the first comedy shows I really got into when I was [...]

Looking Back at Saturday Night Live, 2000-2005

One of the most notable aspects of the early 2000's in Saturday Night Live's history is Tina Fey's position has head writer. Fey has become one of the most popular and lauded comedians of our time, but she started out as a regular SNL scribe like many others. In my mind, the most notable aspect of her tenure as head writer is how little of her later brilliance is on display in these sketches. That's not to say that these years are unfunny — far from it — it's just they hardly hint at how consistently hilarious her work has been since leaving the show. While a head writer [...]

Looking Back at Mr. Show

Mr. Show is by far the most influential and important sketch show of the 90's. It's often described as one of the first "alternative comedy" shows to get on TV. That's a term I've never really liked. Yes, it describes the surreal humor of Tim and Eric, but it's just as often been applied to more straight-laced, but still hilarious, comedians like Patton Oswalt. More often than not it just seems to mean comedians who aren't trying to land a sitcom on CBS. Perhaps in the era of YouTube, when there are now more than one path to comedic success, the term has become a bit antiquated. Other than [...]

Looking Back at The State

The State was on MTV from 1993 to 1995, when the network was at the height of its power. Although there were a number of great sketch shows on during this period, none of them had the backing of MTV, which at the time pretty much defined what cool was for an entire generation of disaffected suburban youths. Because MTV was forbidden in my house growing up I didn’t get to experience the show first hand, but coming to it for the first time now I recognize the deep influence the show has had on much of the comedy that followed it.

The show traces its roots back [...]

Looking Back at In Living Color

In Living Color was Fox’s first sketch show. During the network’s early years it predominantly featured programming geared towards black and Hispanic audiences, so the show fit right in with the network’s profile. As a result, the show was able to be innovative in a number of ways. It was of course the first sketch program to feature a predominately black cast; when the show began, Jim Carrey was the only white male on the show.

Race wasn’t the only way the show pushed the envelopes. In Living Color’s subject matter was always controversial. In the early years almost all of the sketches addressed a sensitive political issue, frequently [...]