For almost as long as television has been around, people have been performing sketch comedy on it. Today, thanks to the internet, the format has gotten a new lease on life in the form of thousands of thousands of web comedy videos. To examine the path sketch comedy has taken to get to its current place in the comedy landscape, I’ll be looking at various sketch comedy shows which paved the way for the format, from its earliest roots in the variety show to today’s era of YouTube superstars.
It’s tough to find a precise starting point for televised sketch comedy, as almost all of the earliest comedy shows featured short comedic scenes in one form or another. Since its debut in 1954, The Tonight Show has always featured sketches, but I don’t think anyone would consider it a sketch comedy show. For our purposes I’m going to begin by looking at the variety shows of the 1970’s, specifically The Carol Burnett Show, which represent immediate predecessors to the sketch show as we know it today.
The Carol Burnett Show was a variety show that ran for 11 seasons, from 1967-1978. Although not a sketch show in the sense the we think of them today, it served as an important stepping stone between the traditional variety hours of the 60’s and 70’s and later shows such as Saturday Night Live. While innovative at the time, it comes across as a bit dated to somebody raised on more modern sketch comedy. The type of humor employed frequently often seems unsophisticated and obvious. Most sketches have extremely simple premises: a husband must deal with a nagging wife, someone misplaces their wallet, etc. That’s not to say that the sketches are bad because they are simple; it’s just that rarely are they developed beyond their original premise. The end results frequently come across as a bit cliché. While I’m sure much of the topicality and timeliness is lost on me today, I doubt all of its humor comes from references to then-current events.
There is also a marked lack of subtlety to the show’s jokes and their placement. At times it feels that every gag is accompanied by a knowing wink or smile from the actors. In general the stakes for laughter just seem extremely low. And while I’m sure they were coached along by an applause sign like many shows, the live studio audience seems to roar with laughter at the slightest joke or deviation from normal human behavior. What’s more, every time a guest star enters a scene there is a 30 second round of applause, which does no favors for the show’s already slow pacing. While many of its sketches are in the 5 minute range, there are plenty more that stretch to 10, 15 and sometimes even 20 minutes – an eternity by modern standards. Hell, think of how antsy you get when an SNL cold open hits 8 minutes. Now imagine that going on for 20 minutes. As a result, many of the bits feel more like bland sitcom episodes than sketches.
All that being said, the show can still be funny; it’s just so far removed from the cool, ironic humor we’re used to seeing today that it can be a bit jarring. Much of this foreignness I think probably comes from the show’s format. Once popular and numerous, the variety show format has not been common in decades. Variety has its roots in vaudeville and music hall entertainment, meaning the writers from that tradition were drawing from an entirely different place then modern writers, who generally draw from the improv comedy tradition in addition to the sketch shows that have built upon what The Carol Burnett Show started.
Although sketches are the main focus of the show, in keeping with the variety format it also regularly features musical numbers and full cast dance routines. Although the 20 minute tribute to Gershwin is cute, it comes across as quaint and old fashioned today. Another aspect that’s indicative of the show’s vaudeville roots is how much it keeps the presentation purely on the sound stage. There are no screen graphics or filmed segments of any kind, making it feel much more like a filmed stage show than something produced exclusively for TV. Take for example this bit starring George Carlin. Although a commercial parody, it only consists of Carlin seated at a desk, rattling off jokes. It’s also a commercial parody that goes on for nearly six minutes. It’s hard to buy it as commercial, and the sketch suffers overall as a result.
The most influential aspect of the show may be its strong feminist undertones. Burnett has a stable of idiotic female characters she regular utilized. Much like Stephen Colbert it could be easy at first glance to mistake Burnett as endorsing the ideas she’s actually satirizing. Take a look at this typical sketch featuring Mrs. Wiggins, the airheaded secretary.
The acting by both Burnett and Tim Conway here is fine and the jokes aren’t terrible. What strikes me most is the delivery, which is so heavy handed and deliberate you’d have to be asleep to not know whether something is intended to be funny or not. It’s very indicative of the whole show. Although entertaining and featuring fine acting, singing and dancing, The Carol Burnett Show remains very much a product of its time. Today we tend to think of sketch comedy as kind of a timeless format, but this show really demonstrates how much it’s changed as a genre over the years. After watching the Carol Burnett Show I have a much greater respect for the later sketch shows like SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at href=”http://blog.beeriety.com/”>Beeriety.com.