Sketch Etymology: How Your Favorite Sketch Groups Got Their Names

Like McSweeney’s articles and Non-Governmental Organizations, the names of sketch groups often run the gamut from hyper-literal to the impossibly esoteric. If a group is successful, it can define its name so that people just think of them when they hear it. After all, what’s a Monty Python if not Britain’s greatest sketch group? But all these names, no matter how strange, came from somewhere. Below, you’ll find the etymologies of seven prominent sketch groups, giving you the perfect bit of trivia to impress/annoy your comedy nerd friends with.

The Kids in the Hall

It’s fitting that the comedic equivalent to late 80s/early 90s alt rock would have the indisputably coolest, most band-like name.  Before joining forces with Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald traversed the Toronto comedy circuit as The Kids in The Hall, a reference to Sid Caesar, who had a penchant for blaming poorly received jokes on “the kids in the hall,” his pet name for the young writers who’d roam congregate outside Caesar’s writing rooms at the NBC studio where the show was produced. Playwright Neil Simon would later use his experience as young comedy writer in the play Laughter On the 23rd Floor.

Monty Python

The Python members’ individual accounts of the path to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” are as varied as their name suggestions (and can be found in The Pythons: An Autobiography, a book I couldn’t recommend more if I had written it myself), but the general consensus seems to be as follows:

A different title accompanied the first 5 scripts sent to the BBC, including “Sex and Violence,” “Whither Canada,” and “Bunn, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble, and Boot.” The BBC brass, which had rejected every prior suggestion, finally relented and accepted “Flying Circus.” After further deliberation, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was determined the winner, defeating such names as Baron Von Took, Arthur Megapode, and Cynthia Fellatio.

Said Michael Palin: “…the BBC’s reaction was ‘Well, we don’t know what it means, but I think you’ll find that in years to come it’ll be remembered as “The Flying Circus.”’”

Derrick Comedy

After meeting through NYU’s pre-eminent sketch troupe Hammerkatz, Dominick Dierkes, Donald Glover, and DC Pierson found themselves applying to the UCB’s 3 on 3 Improv tournament sans name. As Pierson explains in this 2007 CollegeHumor interview, “Dom and I decided to try and think of the lamest D name possible” and Derrick stuck.

Because of their less-than-savory reasoning for choosing the name Derrick, Glover is quick to remedy the situation: “Apologies to any dudes named “Derrick” out there. I’m sure you’re awesome.”

According to Dierkes, the name was cause for some confusion early in their career, as people asking for their services on projects would incorrectly refer to them as ‘The Derricks.’ “I’m sure The Derricks are a great band somewhere,” Glover posited, “check out their Myspace.”

The State/Stella

The 11 members of the then-called The New Group decided to change their name following their graduating from NYU and accepting a development deal with MTV. Ken Marino told the AV Club’s Random Roles that The State stuck because it “…it had a lot more flair.”

As explained by David Wain, following The State’s disintegration, Michael Ian Black, David Wain, and Michael Showalter began collaborating on a new project, a three man stand-up troupe entitled Midnight Expressions, which, amazingly, is not the name of a smooth jazz compilation album. Upon their first gig at New York’s Fez Under Time Café, the group decided a name change was in order, and settled on Stella, after the unborn daughter of the Fez manager who booked them.

The Groundlings

According to the Groundlings own historical account, the handle for the LA sketch and improv institution is rooted in theater: “Taking its name from the group of lower class audience members who stood on the ground in front of the stage to watch plays in Shakespeare’s day…” The Groundlings were name-dropped by The Bard himself, specifically in the second scene of Hamlet’s third act:

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing butinexplicable dumbshows and noise.

Whereas England’s wealthy theater patrons would pay handsomely to watch performances while seated in the comfort of the theater’s gallies, the groundlings would often give a day’s wage of one penny to stand on the ground at the stage’s front.

The Whitest Kids U Know

Virginia transplants Trevor Moore and Zach Cregger met Massachusettsean Sam Brown while residing in the same dorms at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Budgetary limitations meant sketches were often filmed guerrilla-style in public areas, and, as Moore recounts in this interview with IFC: “We were doing some sort of freestyle rapping thing on the subway, and this one guy who was friends with us was like, ‘you guys are the whitest kids I know.’” Having already gone through several rounds of unsuccessful moniker-conjuring, the group decided to take the insult and run with it.

Lonely Island

Like The Whitest Kids U Know and The Groundlings, The Lonely Island’s name was inspired by a playful insult and theater. The story goes that while living together in their LA apartment, Jorma Taccone rented the film adaption of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. This drew the ire of roommate Akiva Schaffer, who felt Taccone was being, “a little theatery.” So Schaffer wrote a one act play satirizing Taccone, from which came The Lonely Island.

“Basically like anytime you have a group of dudes living in an apartment, they name the apartment, and ours was called The Lonely Island”, Schaffer explained in a interview. Because the apartment was the main setting of most of the group’s pre-SNL work, the name stuck.

Of course, upon hearing of the apartment designation, Andy Samberg retorted, “Do you know that’s just you that names apartments? I don’t know anyone else that does that.”

Conor McKeon is a writer living in Brooklyn… New York.

Sketch Etymology: How Your Favorite Sketch Groups Got […]