There was a lot of sketch comedy on TV in the ‘90s. Emerging cable networks, particularly Comedy Central, had lots of airtime to fill, as did other networks, particularly if they were youth-oriented, like MTV, Fox, or The WB. And what did the kids in the ‘90s like? Inventive comedy. Scenes were thriving in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and Austin, among other places, where TV talent was rapidly being developed. In the late ‘80s, non-Saturday Night Live shows, such as the Canadian import The Kids in the Hall, which aired late nights on CBS, showed that there was a big market and interest in the U.S. for non-SNL sketch comedy.
But other than The State, Mr. Show, and The Ben Stiller Show, what shows from this era are left out of the conversation about TV sketch comedy of years hence? Rightfully or wrongfully, what have we forgotten?
House of Buggin’ (Fox, 1995)
John Leguizamo is an electrifying live performer and apart from the movies he’d starred in, he’s really made a name for himself with his autobiographical one-man Broadway shows, such as Mambo Mouth and Freak. In 1995, Fox tried to bring that energy and Leguizamo’s ability to play a broad range of characters to TV with House of Buggin’, a sketch comedy show trading largely in Latino-centric racial humor. Invariably, House of Buggin’ was referred to in the media as “the Latino In Living Color.”
Roundhouse (Nickelodeon, 1992-96)
From 1992 to 1994, all the coolest pre-teens and all the uncoolest actual-teens had their Saturday night booked with SNICK, the hippest two hours of the week on Nickelodeon. Sandwiched in between the reliable Clarissa Explains It All and transcendent Ren and Stimpy was the theater kid wet dream of Roundhouse. A cast of super-enthusiastic triple-threats on a mostly bare, faux-underground theater-in-the-round stage would deliver a rapid-fire, 22-minute barrage of sketches set around a similar theme, featuring recurring characters, commercial parodies, songs, and, of course, cabbage patch breaks. No major comedy stars emerged from Roundhouse, although Christian pop star Crystal Lewis was part of the cast. You know, Crystal Lewis. Whatever, I fucking loved Roundhouse.
The Newz (Syndicated, 1994-95)
When NBC replaced the unbeatable and peerless Johnny Carson him with Jay Leno, other networks and programmers realized, “hey, literally anybody can make a late night show and get it on the air.” In addition to David Letterman on CBS, Chevy Chase on Fox, and Jon Stewart taking over for Arsenio Hall, viewers could choose the five-nights-a-week sketch show The Newz(ending with a z, because the ‘90s, and possibly because Zima was really popular back then). You know how a staff of 10 to 20 writers spend 12-plus hour days crafting ultra-topical jokes to be read on-air each night during late night talk show monologues? The Newz did that with 30 nightly minutes of fully-produced sketch comedy. Considering Saturday Night Live gets a week to put on a show, and the results are often spotty, The Newz was pretty foolhardy.
Exit 57 (Comedy Central, 1995-96)
This show should be as legendary as Mr. Show, if only for its pedigree. The cast was comprised of Second City standouts Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello (who later did Strangers With Candy together, and amazing things separately), Jodi Lennon, and Mitch Rouse. The cast wrote the wildly inventive sketches, along with Sedaris’s brother David Sedaris. The sketches are great and can stand alone, but Exit 57 had another layer, in that action took place within a fictionalized version of Quad Cities. (That concept would be later revisited in Sedaris, Colbert, and Dinello’s book Wigfield.)
The Vacant Lot (Comedy Central, 1994)
I could have sworn Comedy Central aired endless episodes of this show for years and years, but the Internet tells me there were only six. Canadian-made, it tried to mimic the geeky-awkward-quirk of The Kids in the Hall (it even had Mark McKinney’s brother, Nick!), and often pulled it off.
The Jenny McCarthy Show (MTV, 1997)
Seth Keim covered this in full-length detail a while back, but in short, this show launched as a vehicle for MTV’s then-inexplicably popular comedian/Singled Out cohost and current pitchwoman of questionable medical information, had, and probably had to have, an amazing support staff of players and writers, such as Jon Glaser, Jon Benjamin, Will Forte, Brian Posehn, and Jay Johnston. The show’s usual tropes were gross-out humor and Jenny McCarthy portraying other blond idiots, but its best and most memorable sketch “Dead Invisible People,” is McCarthy-free and one of the best television sketches of all time.
She TV (ABC, 1994)
A short-run summer replacement show on ABC in 1994, this show posited the crazy idea of a sketch comedy show produced largely by and targeted at women. Can you imagine? Comedy for ladies! I don’t know why that was the angle because the cast was bi-gendered and turned out some mildly amusing and innocuous sketches not based on gender politics at all. The cast included Jennifer Coolidge, Nick Bakay, and Becky Thyre.
Saturday Night Special (Fox, 1996)
Mad TV was the first and only really successful competitor against Saturday Night Live in network late nights, so it’s weird that in the middle of that show’s first season, in spring 1996, it put Mad TV on hiatus for six weeks in favor of another, hourlong sketch comedy show, raunchy and youth-oriented, just like Mad TV. The main difference was that Saturday Night Special was executive produced by Roseanne. That, and the on-air talent was slightly more well-known than that of the unknowns in the Mad TV cast, such as Jennifer Coolidge (again), Laura Kightlinger, and Kathy Griffin. Here’s Coolidge imitating Lauren Hutton (who’d had a talk show for a while) interviewing musical guests 2Pac and Ice-T, who break more than Jimmy Fallon.
The Edge (Fox, 1992-93)
In 1992, Fox boldly debuted two new sketch comedy programs in primetime. Last time a sketch comedy show had been on the primetime schedule: a failed Carol Burnett Show revival in 1991. The Ben Stiller Show got Sunday nights at 7:30, opposite the ratings juggernaut of 60 Minutes. The Edge got the even worse timeslot of Saturday night at 9:30. But as Stiller gave exposure to Ben Stiller, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, David Cross, and Andy Dick, The Edge gave work to Tom Kenny and Jill Talley of Mr. Show (and Spongebob SquarePants, the both of them), Wayne Knight (Seinfeld, 3rd Rock From the Sun), and Jennifer Aniston, who once starred in a show with Matt LeBlanc of Joey. The star of the show was ostensibly former MTV personality Julie Brown; it was created and overseen by Simpsons-golden age writer David Mirkin.