This week, Vulture is reviewing the best of entertainment so far in 2016. To date we've touched on albums, video games, comics, books, TV shows, songs, and TV networks. We wrap things up today with comedy sketches, movies, and music videos.
It feels weird to make a list of best sketches and not have a season of Key and Peele to choose from, but we must persevere. Good thing there have been a lot of great options in their absence so far this year. Worth noting: This list is specifically for sketches that aired on TV and are self-contained, and not part of a larger narrative (for example, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's songs) or a late-night show. They are grouped by show, as a way of illustrating the range of tones and perspectives currently happening in TV sketch comedy. It's a great time for the form.
Saturday Night Live
"Farewell, Mr. Bunting"
While I'm not as much of a Mr. Bunting devotee as some, I acknowledge it's extraordinarily well-executed. I won't even say what happens at the end, but, suffice is to say, there is an ending and, man, is it perfectly set up by the beginning. Cleverly, the writers used the expectation of a movie parody to lull people into a false sense of security. People are never safe when there are ceiling fans nearby.
"Voters for Trump"
Sure, Donald Trump has been great fodder for topical comedians, but he's also a difficult mark because the audience isn't surprised. It's a challenge to get people to laugh at a "Trump is a racist" joke. "Voters for Trump" is sly as hell, gliding to its point like the jokes were wearing new socks and the sketch was a freshly cleaned wood floor.
What a delightful, weird little sketch. Hard to explain its magic, but it's unquestionably magic. It's so funny that, as this rehearsal clip showed, Larry David could barely get through it without laughing. So, yes, Kevin Roberts, a bitch can get a donut.
"Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)"
We're not here to talk about Popstar's disappointing box-office performance despite being so very funny. I'm here to point out that when you take a brief portion of that movie and put it on SNL, it became one of the funniest sketches of the year. Like the Lonely Island's best Digital Shorts, it has a ton of moves, jumping from bit to bit, exploring the insane premise from a zillion angles. The MVP has to be Vanessa Bayer's performance of the titular finest girl, capturing the exact sort of crazy person that would want to be fucked like the U.S. government fucked Bin Laden, whatever that means.
“Sam Paradise,”* Tim Robinson
(Go to the 1:10 mark of Robinson's special.)
The comedy special has been around for decades, operating as the go-to showcase for stand-up comedians. For sketch comedians, there never was a real equivalent. Then, this spring, Netflix launched The Characters, a series in which eight comic actors were given 30 minutes to do whatever they wanted. Many were good and they all had their moments, but through and through, for my money, Tim Robinson’s was the funniest. Where others had bigger characters, Robinson, who has written on SNL since 2013 (including his year as a cast member), is just a stronger writer.
My favorite sketch of the series and maybe of the year is his Rat Pack guy parody. It starts with Robinson playing with classic tropes — singing a song about lady luck while glad-handing folks as he walks into a casino. However, when he gets an unlucky roll at the craps table, things get really bad, really fast, and it's so very funny. Structurally impeccable, the tremendous descent into desperation is set up by how well he nails the character in the straight part. Somewhat in the Lonely Island vein, Robinson finds comedy in male insecurity and performance throughout his Characters, and there is no better example than this sketch.
"Toast,"* John Early
(Go to the 22:10 mark of Early's special.)
There are funny big characters in John Early's Characters special, but I most enjoyed the more grounded one in the rehearsal-dinner scene that runs throughout. The pinnacle — and the most self-contained bit — is the toast, in which Early give a speech as an awful, self-centered groomzilla. Playing a character who is seemingly getting married just to be part of the marriage-equality movement, Early displays his exceptional ability to satirize a sort of performative progressivism.
"Chiggers,"* Natasha Rothwell
(Go to the 11:30 mark of Rothwell's special.)
Like Robinson, Natasha Rothwell spent time writing on SNL, and like Robinson, Rothwell's Characters special benefits from especially strong writing. "Chiggers" is a sketch where a white patient is talking to a black doctor and nurse about the chigger bites she got while camping. You might see where this is going: words rhyme. What I loved about the sketch was its tone that was neither heavy-handed nor superficial. There was almost whimsy to its incredulousness and frustration.
Inside Amy Schumer
"I Can Get a Picture?"
(You can watch the sketch here. It's the first of the episode.)
A lot of this season of Inside Amy Schumer directly deals with fame, because — in case you haven't heard — Amy Schumer is super-famous now. Some of it worked; others parts didn't feel as sharp as sketches from last season. This sketch was the best. There is a sort of the "customer is always right" attitude about fans and what they demand of celebrities, but this bit sharply attacks that idea, portraying how quickly things can feel claustrophobic at a coffee shop when everyone wants something. The way the sketch ping-pongs between the different things people want because they are "fans" is really funny and well-written.
This sketch has three great performances: Amy Schumer as the actress playing the sort of cute-in-an-awkward-way character seen in a lot of commercials, Kyle Dunnigan as the actor trying to act across from her, and Neil Casey as the fast-talking director trying to articulate to Dunnigan the bizarre way he should behave. Mix in great writing, with strong jokes coming from all three in rapid-fire, and it serves as a testament to the show's ability to explore very specific, very true observations.
"Welcome to the Raddiston Inn"
(Watch the sketch here, around the 15:30 mark)
This sketch is seemingly about the onscreen greeter who describes a hotel's amenities when you turn on an in-room TV, but it ends up being one the most existential sketches IAS has produced. Artfully directed, the sketch has a lot of moves, featuring multiple small, unexpected turns. Sketches like these are never going to be the Inside Amy Schumer sketches that go viral, but they're important to show the range of the show.
The UCB Show
Did you know the UCB Theatre had a show? It's on NBC Universal's comedy streaming site, Seeso, and it's a greatest hits of people currently doing stuff at L.A.'s UCB, mixed in with some of the first wave UCBers. A Kiss From Daddy is one of UCB L.A.'s longest-running sketch groups, which features some talent often associated with Comedy Bang! Bang! They are real sillyheads and that's on full display here. The sketch barely has a premise (a group of friends waiting while one friend tries to guess the combination of a briefcase's lock), but their performances are so goofy.
Have you ever wanted to hear Jack Nicholson say, "My mommy was my granny and my sissy was my mommy?" Well, do I have a sketch for you! Some say that repetition is essential to comedy; I say Jack Nicholson saying, "My mommy was my granny and my sissy was my mommy" is. And that's why the sketch is so funny: It gets to have the repetition beats while also having a joke that is endlessly funny. Also, it is true: If you didn't know this fact about Jack Nicholson, now you do.
"The Book Club"
A great example of a sketch featuring two weirdo creeps who talk like they're alien robots. This is what happens when these sort of people have a book club and try to figure out where there third friend is. Because they are weirdos, the sketch escalates in an interesting way: It sort of stops and then starts going back to the beginning. The result feels both grounded and strange.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
"Ain't too Proud to Neg"*
When this sketch started, I first scoffed at it being another She's All That parody. To CBB's credit, they were actually subverting precisely that expectation and parodying pick-up artist culture and male manipulation in general by having the cool jock try to get a hot girl by treating her like shit. CBB's writers are always great at aping tropes; here they successfully used the vocabulary of the film to make a point.
Over the last couple seasons, Portlandia has shifted away from being a sketch show, instead focusing on episode-length stories from specific characters. It's still good, but not sketch. However, episode four actually had a good amount of self-contained sketches, none better than this one. Entirely done in sign language, it's unlike anything I've seen. It essential finds comedy in the unlikely place of normalizing behavior.
Adult Swim's Infomercials
"Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep"
Before Joe Pera was the guy who killed it on Late Night, he had a very gentle, very funny Adult Swim infomercial. Pera's infomercial is particularly special, when you consider it in the context of the often manic, occasionally violent format. Pera doesn't jam his weirdness down your throat, instead gradually revealing it. In this case, it works because it stays true to its humble premise: If you watch it late night — say at 4 a.m., like when it aired — you might fall asleep.
"Live at the Necropolis: Lords of Synth"
Lords of Synth is so, so weird and so, so specific, but it somehow makes sense. The sketch is filled with many silly details — like every character's name (Zedd Centuari is the most normal one) or Gerald Ford (looking nothing like Gerald Ford) flying away in a presidential pod or Zoroger bleeding pink ear-blood after taking an experimental drug — that all fit in this bizarre world. I don't know what an '80s synth competition would be, but I can imagine it resulting in Halley's Comet being frozen in space as Earth's second sun. It's a testament to world-building.
* This indicates that the sketch doesn't have an official name because it wasn't separated out. I made a title up to the best of my ability.