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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 strikes me the most when I look back at all the shows I've examined is how much has changed in the last 30 years. On a basic level, the audiences they were produced for have shifted so much, it's had an undeniable effect on the content produced. The first shows I looked at, like Carol Burnett and early SNL, were mostly made with their live studio audiences in mind. They were more or less stage shows that were filmed. It wasn't until SCTV that the material was explicitly produced for the home television audience. 25 years later, things began to shift again as shows started to be produced with the internet in mind. I'm sure 25 years from now we'll all be watching in on our home hologram machine or something. READ MORE

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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 the most popular sketch program of the 00s. It gave birth to one of the biggest (and some would say most annoying) catch phrases in pop culture history and pushed the boundaries of what was permissible on TV. READ MORE

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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 is responsible for the overall tone of the show and which sketches make it to the air, they're still not writing the majority of the sketches. That being said, some of the show's most memorable sketches came from this era, like the famous "More Cowbell!" piece with Christopher Walken. READ MORE

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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 in three improvised scenes each, with the last set of scenes frequently being intertwined together. The show's first episode, with its Bucket of Truth, Bong Boy and Unabomber sketches that all come together at the end fits the structure almost exactly.

This is the first sketch show since SCTV to have an overarching narrative to it. As the opening narrative explains the Upright Citizens Brigade is a underground organization determined to cause chaos in the world. "From the dawn of civilization, they have existed in order to undermine it. Our only enemy is the status quo. Our only friend is chaos. They have no government ties and unlimited resources. If something goes wrong, we are the cause. Every corner of the earth is under their surveillance. If you do it, we see it. Always. We believe the powerful should be made less powerful. We have heard the voice of society, begging us to destabilize it."

In practical terms, this means the UCB is secretly responsible for instigating many of the ridiculous situations the show features, but it also hints at the show's prankster mentality. Before the group was on TV they were famous for staging pranks and stunts in public, similar to what Improv Everywhere does today, but with a decidedly darker tone (like staging a public suicide). These types of real life pranks were featured in the show, but typically only under the credits or in short clips. However, even though the TV show featured less pranks than the group's stage incarnation, the prank mentality is still readily apparent. Almost all sketch groups make use of the straight man for comedic effect, but UCB employs it more than most, helping to establish a scripted prank vibe to many of their segments, like this one about poo sticks. READ MORE

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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 Stamatopoulos.

Any show that brings together so many funny people is bound to have some pretty good sketches. There are many moments of comedic brilliance in the show's eight episodes, but what people often forget is that due to a number of factors, the show was never able to fire on all cylinders. As a result, there are a number of sketches that simply fall flat, which contributed to the show's early termination.

The show got off to a rocky start, beginning with the opening sketch featuring Carvey as Bill Clinton. To demonstrate how nurturing he is Clinton has had several extra nipples surgically added to himself. He then proceeds to feed a baby doll, several live puppies and a kitten with milk squirting from his teets. It was funny, but it also instantly scared off much the show's potential audience. The show debuted right after an episode of Home Improvement, a sitcom with a sensibility almost completely opposite to the Dana Carvey Show.

Before leaving in 1993, Carvey had become one of the biggest stars on SNL with beloved characters like the Church Lady and Garth. When millions of families tuned in to watch his new show the last thing they were expecting to see was milking pouring out of Bill Clinton's many nipples. READ MORE

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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 some of the folks who got their big break on SNL I can't think of many leading comedians today who weren't labeled "alternative comedy" at some point in their career. If Mr. Show is the standard bearer for the term (it's not) you could mistakenly think all it means is a cynical attitude and esoteric cultural references. That being said, it is the first sketch show I've looked at that was produced for a premium cable channel, HBO. Without advertisers to please or censors to bow to the show was allowed a tremendous amount of freedom to perform the humor they wanted to, and it's fair to say that their sense of humor was pretty far from the "mainstream."

Among the show's many rabid fans there are various opinions about what era of the show is the best. Some feel that the show achieved perfection right out of the gate and only deteriorated in quality as the time went on. Others feel the show didn't really find its groove until the third or fourth season. Personally I tend to enjoy the later episodes more than the early ones, but all of them are hilarious. Although produced over four seasons the entire show consists of just 30 episodes, so there's really not all that much material to argue about. READ MORE

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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 two main categories: topical pop culture parodies and wacky characters. READ MORE

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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 could blend in. Ferrell's versatility was what made him invaluable to the show; he was able to play spacey roles like Harry Caray and masculine roles like Robert Goulet with equal aplomb. It wasn't until he was on the show for several years that he began to specialize in his signature man-child characters and impressions. READ MORE

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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 to a New York University sketch troupe by the name of the New Group. After their shows at local theaters began attracting notoriety the group soon found itself on a short lived MTV show starring Jon Stewart known as You Wrote It, You Watch It. The show didn’t last long, but soon after the group, now known as the State, had their own very own show. READ MORE

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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 for example this sketch that parodies sitcoms, catch phrases and what passes for political debate in this country: READ MORE

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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? READ MORE

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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 related to the black experience in America. Take, for example, this sketch from the second season featuring Damon and Keenan Ivory Wayans as two ‘Toms’ (referring to the character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) who can’t understand why David Allan Grier has to act so black all the time: READ MORE

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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. READ MORE

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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 growing up, so it might be hard at times for me to view KITH completely objectively. But I still think the show stands on its own merits objectively, despite my undying love for it.

The Kids in The Hall consisted of five guys — Bruce McCulloch, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson. While performing around Toronto in the 1980's, the group caught the eye of fellow Canadian Lorne Michaels, who helped them put together their own show for Canadian TV, and later HBO. Although never hugely popular during its run, the show lasted five seasons and influenced an entire generation of comedians. READ MORE