Wrapping Up a History of Sketch Comedy

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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.

Regardless of what format it’s intended for, the biggest way that sketch comedy has changed over the years is how sophisticated and dense it increasingly becomes, and how much more it expects of the audience. When I wrote about Laugh-In, I mentioned how labored and obvious all the jokes seemed. What I forgot was that when that show aired, the concept of sketch comedy as we know it really didn’t exist. It wasn’t that people had never seen short comedic scenes on TV before, it’s just that the the genre we now know and love hadn’t been codified to such a degree that everyone watching was already familiar with the conventions and tropes of the style. Maybe this why Carol Burnett seems so slow and forced to my modern eyes.

Now that the genre has been established, and most audiences are familiar with the rules of the style comedians are able to break the rules and stretch the format to new styles. Take the short-lived Stella, for example. It’s by no means a sketch comedy show, but its loose, improvised feel and the episodic nature of its scenes clearly draw from the world of sketch. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering its stars’ background, but a comedy show that expects so much of its audience would be inconceivable 20 years ago. Thanks to a lot of brilliant, hard working folks out there sketch comedy is has constantly evolved and will no doubt continue to do so.

Although I have a much better appreciation of these shows with the proper context and history, much of it has just not aged that well. No matter how you slice it, the issue of topicality is a tricky one. An easy way for a show to seem fresh, hip and modern is with lots of references to current events. The downside to this is of course that once flash-in-the-pan topics are over with, those references can quickly date you. Although I think I understand most of the references that 20 and 30 year old shows make, their impact and power doesn’t always hold up. I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to topical humor than you’ve got to do it right. When you’re using it as a springboard to get to larger issues and bigger jokes, the way SCTV and the Ben Stiller Show managed to, you’re doing it right, but when the reference itself is the extent of your joke, you’re in for some trouble in the long haul. (Looking at you MADtv and Family Guy.)

All that being said, regardless of the context and audience, there’s plenty of sketch stuff I looked at that simply wasn’t that great to begin with. It really blows my mind that Saturday Night Live managed to stay on the air through the 1980’s. This is a show that really spent the majority of its first 15 years with mediocre ratings and terrible reviews. It started very strong with five great years that really helped establish sketch comedy as a genre, but the next seven were simply terrible. I have no idea how it managed to stay on the air, but thank God it did. Despite its ups and downs the show really has produced a lot of good sketches and introduced some brilliant minds to the national stage.

SNL also gave birth to a lot of great characters over the years. I’ve come down hard against many reoccurring characters, but I really have nothing against them if they’re done right. I love Wayne Campbell and Buddy Cole with every ounce of my being. What frustrates me is when writers use characters as easy crutches to comedy. Once a character is established with a few catch phrases it’s oh so easy to stick them in a new environment or add in a celebrity guest and call it a new sketch. Of course, as I mentioned last week, recurring characters worked very differently in pre-YouTube era when the only time you could see your favorite character when it being aired for the first time.

“Lazy Sunday” is of course the video that marked the changing of the guard. As one of the first viral comedy video hits of the YouTube era, it served as a turning point for Saturday Night Live and sketch comedy as a whole. Funny videos on the web were around long before YouTube, but the site created a way to make sharing and preserving those clips a million times easier than what was possible before. “Lazy Sunday,” was probably the first reason countless people first visited YouTube.com; when the video premiered the site was less than a year old.

What a lot of people forget is that while “Lazy Sunday” was a hit because of YouTube, that’s only because it debuted on network TV. YouTube has created a world where all you potentially need to be a sketch comedy star is a camera and a funny idea, but in the glut of funny and not-so-funny videos that have been uploaded in the last 6 years it becomes harder and harder to rise above the noise of the crowd. Perhaps that’s why so far most of the notable sketch comedy in the online video era has come out of SNL and not the countless sketch groups with a channel on YouTube or Vimeo. Obviously we’re still in a time of transition, but I’m still confident that sketch comedy, regardless of how it’s made or how you watch it, is here to stay.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at

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