Sketch Anatomy: Michael Koman on Armando Iannucci’s ‘Sheffield Knife Attack 20th Anniversary Reunion’

Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with Michael Koman, who has written for shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien, SNL’s TV Funhouse, and The Colbert Report and co-created some of the weirdest comedies in recent years with Eagleheart, Nathan for You, and most recently The Jack and Triumph Show. Koman chose a sketch from the 2001 Channel 4 series The Armando Iannucci Shows by the Veep and The Thick of It writer/creator of the same name. “Sheffield Knife Attack 20th Anniversary Reunion” is a pretty self-explanatory sketch, but as Koman explains, Iannucci’s knack for detail and unnervingly natural awkwardness makes for a rare kind of comedy that’s as impossible to forget as it is to fully understand.

What shows first got you into comedy as a kid, and do you think any of them affected or influenced your comedy later on?

SCTV was a big deal to me. They reran it on Nick at Nite. I just remember Martin Short and Joe Flaherty and John Candy being my favorite people on TV. And I used to watch The Little Rascals at my grandparents’ house on the weekends. I have no idea if that affected me, but that was the first thing that I maybe sensed was funny in a special way. And this is really old, but when I was probably a little younger than high school, that’s when Comedy Central — I think they called it The Comedy Channel or Ha! — reran a bunch of old shows. My favorite time to watch TV was always on a weekend morning, and on Sundays they would run The Jack Benny Show. I loved that so much and I still watch it. He was so great.

But I don’t know…I’m not sure how influence works. Things seep in when you’re little that you probably forget about. If you find there are people you really look up to, it just gives you a level where you can tell that whatever you’re doing — it might not be similar to what they did — but you can tell like “Oh, this is worse than what they would’ve done. I should keep working on that.” [laughs] I think that’s maybe how influence works, more than anything else.

I like that. Keeps you motivated in a weird way.

Yeah. I also like Garry Shandling. I love The Larry Sanders Show. I was in high school by then. And that was another thing that I loved but I have no clue if it has anything to do with anything I’ve ever done. Although Garry Shandling always talked about reality and how much he likes reality to dictate what happens in his shows and his stories, which I guess in some way…it’s not like a lot of what I do is reality-based — Nathan for You maybe — but I think he’s just one of those people where you think “Would he like that? Oh, probably not.” [laughs]

You chose to talk about a sketch from The Armando Iannucci Shows. How’d you first discover the show? I have to admit, I’d never watched it before you sent me the clip.

That was part of the reason why I picked it — I think it’s a show a lot of people don’t know about. I found out about it because I love the show I’m Alan Partridge, and Armando Iannucci was one of the guys who created that. Most people know about him from Veep and The Thick of It, but I found out about those later. I came across the sketch show and I found a Region 2 PAL DVD that I ordered off Amazon and could play on my computer, and apparently it was very obscure even in Britain because it aired I think the week after September 11th, so nobody saw it and hardly anyone knew it came out. I’d never seen a sketch show where everything was one person’s point of view. The show has writers, but it feels like it’s all coming from one place. In a good way. So it has a more personal feeling than most sketch shows. Right after I’d seen it, my friend Demetri Martin started doing a sketch show on Comedy Central and he brought me in, and it took me weeks to get over not wanting everything to be like The Armando Iannucci Shows. I just kept bringing it up and I kept showing people sketches and I was being very annoying about it.

So the first thing I liked about this show is that it’s Armando Iannucci’s show, but he’s not in all of it. He does what he’s comfortable doing, but if he wouldn’t be good in a sketch, he doesn’t put himself in it. He’ll talk as himself about that episode’s theme, and then the sketches would mostly feature a combination of recurring and non-recurring actors. Stephen Mangan from Episodes comes up a lot, and he’s great. The show is full of these very realistic feeling scenes that have hilarious premises and very natural acting. My favorite people are the ones who are cast in sketches like “Knife Attack Reunion,” and they feel like actors you could easily cast in a drama.

Why’d you choose the “Sheffield Knife Attack 20th Anniversary Reunion” sketch?

Well, first of all, it is timely in one way because I saw that Obama just said that prison rape is not something to be joked about. So I guess I should point out that I picked this sketch a while ago when you suggested we do this, but what I like about it is that the jokes aren’t about making fun of prison rape or violence. It’s about something, and I don’t really know exactly what it’s about… [laughs] …but it’s just the awkwardness of social events and people seeing each other and you have this shared experience, but you really don’t know how to talk to each other about it. So to me, the really funny moments are just people seeing each other and they’re remembering this horrific thing, but it only gives them 15 seconds worth of conversation, and then everyone starts to get quiet and uncomfortable. It’s a great idea. And the casting is so good. Obviously if this was Monty Python or most sketch shows, it’d be a cast of players and everyone would be assigned a part and it would be funny in a totally different way, so I just like that since it’s sort of unusual to see sketches where you don’t really know anybody, but you totally get the premise of the sketch.

My favorite parts of the sketch are like what you mentioned — the quiet, small details, like how the one woman has that big scar on her face but it’s never addressed directly. And that whole theme of the “awkwardness of social events” is also a big reason I love Nathan for You, because instead of saying “Oh, this is awkward and we should fix that,” the show says “Oh, this is awkward…and it’s hilarious. Let’s stay here.”

Yeah, and in a weird way I think there are things in this show that are closer to a written version of things that would happen in Nathan. Nathan had made a lot of pieces at This Hour Has 22 Minutes in Canada, and I think one of the things he found out, and it made such a big difference in Nathan for You, is just to really not ever force anything and not try to create a reaction. Like if a person is in a real situation, their reactions might be very small, but that’s still the real reaction of that person in that situation. As much as I like, you know, The Three Stooges or Bugs Bunny or something, it’s really funny just to see how a person actually behaves in a really awkward situation, and sometimes people being small and polite is just as funny. If it was written, a lot of times there’d be a really big reaction because you want the audience to feel something, so it’s really cool when people — especially when it’s actors and you’re banking on your actors being funny — that you just let them be natural and accept that people watching this will get that it’s a truthful reaction.

I’m guessing that’s come up a lot in Nathan for You.

Yeah. There was an episode where we did a weight loss program where people took embarrassing photographs and basically blackmailed themselves into losing weight, otherwise Nathan would mail the photographs to their family or their boss. And that was one where I just didn’t know if people would be uncomfortable watching that, because people really were putting themselves in awkward situations. And at the end of it, a woman is standing with her boss and she didn’t meet her goal, and so her boss was looking at the photograph. So it was interesting to me…I thought it was fascinating, but I wasn’t sure if other people would feel the same way. That goes for the whole show, honestly. I just didn’t know if people would find it as funny as we did.

The episode with the realtor and the exorcist is one of my favorites.

That was a great one where we never in a million years could’ve imagined that Sue the realtor had a personal story like that. The things I like most about the show are the things that happened in the middle of shooting that completely changed the direction of the piece we were working on. It always made it better, and we were so lucky. The two things that seemed the most beyond unlikely to me when they happened were that Sue had a personal experience with a ghost and was into having an exorcism, and then in the first season we were doing a piece at this clothing store and we hired this security guard named Simon who we discovered on camera happened to be obsessed with women’s breasts, which affected how he did his job. And it seems like the kind of thing where if you planned it it’d be so crude, and if I was watching the show I’d think “That can’t be what happened. That couldn’t have just been an accident.” It’s like an actual miracle to me.

You mentioned earlier that you don’t really know what the “Knife Attack” sketch is really about, or what it means. Does it matter?

No. I feel terrible analyzing what something is supposed to mean. I don’t even think it’s about what you like — if something makes you laugh, that’s all that matters.

Some sketches — for example, certain sketches from Key and Peele or Inside Amy Schumer — clearly tackle a certain issue or current event, while other sketches are there just to make you laugh, not to express some kind of deeper meaning. The “Knife Attack” sketch seems like it could easily be either, depending on who you ask.

And you can tell the guy who made it has a really good eye for detail, and that’s just something that I think you personally connect with or not; you just like the way a person sees the world and the details they choose to use. It’s so funny to me that he describes the attackers as the people who “set upon them.” That’s the funniest line to me, and it’s better than any kind of punchline you could use. I mean, maybe it’s a punchline…it’s just so funny. Part of it is that it’s not a sketch I would guarantee that if you played it in an auditorium you’d get giant laughs, but most sketches don’t have the little nuanced details that make it look like real life that I feel like this show goes for a lot.

Do you ever think about the potential relevance or “deeper meaning” that something you write might have, even if you just wrote it as a purely funny thing?

Well, I’ve worked on some of the most irrelevant things. There’s nothing fewer people relate to than a show like Eagleheart. I mean, I wish that everyone did, but I get that it’s not about everyday life. Nathan’s basically about human nature, so, you know, I’d like to think it’s relatable. But nothing deep on purpose. I worked at Conan for a long time and The Colbert Report for a few months in 2008 too, and, because those shows are topical, the job was to write things that were meaningful to the audience. And it’s satisfying when it’s an opinion you share. But I’ve always been fine with things that have no point.

But still, someone could make a case that even the most absurd sketch or character carries some deeper meaning. You could apply that to the “Knife Attack” sketch or something totally silly like The Interrupter.

If a good actor is in the sketch and you write it with enough nuance and you put in your personality, beyond it being funny, you feel like this person has a natural point of view about something. I think sketches are way better when they don’t have heavy-handed points — I like sketches where it’s just about the way a certain person feels about something that’s very everyday. Comedy is a really great way to articulate a point of view, so when a sketch articulates what I feel and haven’t been able to say for myself, it might not be the funniest thing, it might not have the most original premise, but I feel so good seeing my point of view reflected back to me that I will love it for that, and it does make me happy. It can be a very good way of encapsulating an argument. The only thing that bugs me sometimes is when comedy is held up as being important just because it’s delivering a message. It just seems strange to me.

Yeah — you can’t really put comedy on a pedestal, because the pedestal is what comedy is usually mocking.

Well usually what happens is when it’s put on a pedestal, it’s because people who don’t naturally like comedy see something that they agree with. I think that more people don’t really love comedy than do love comedy — I don’t think it’s like music. Or if it is like music, super silly comedy is not in the Top 40. It’s like a weird indie label that people are really into it and love, then they play it for their friends who don’t get it. [laughs] I think a lot of comedy that people who, say, read Splitsider get excited about is just not universal. But then, when a comedy sketch has something in it — especially when it’s something that people are arguing about now in the culture — if you can pick a side and put something in a comedy sketch that makes that point of view look right, then people are gonna latch onto that and use it and love it and say it’s great comedy because it supports their argument. It doesn’t mean it’s not great comedy, it just attracts people who might not even be interested in that comedy to begin with.

It is a good question: “Does comedy that has something to say have more value?” Honestly, I have no idea. The other thing is, I was at Conan when I feel like it got to its most popular. We had a real bubble around us and we pretty much did whatever we felt like doing. But I don’t know what it’s like to be Amy Schumer and have every little thing you do be written about. I don’t know how that affects you when you sit down to write when you know that people are going to have really strong opinions about what you’re saying. I’ve never experienced that — it seems very hard to me.

While I love shows like Inside Amy Schumer and sketches that are very topical, to me they’re no more valuable than what Conan did for me when I was a kid, which was get me into comedy by making me laugh every night — no matter what was happening in the news or how I was feeling that day — with really weird, absurd, hilarious nonsense.

I know, but that’s because we’re freaks. When I was in high school and I watched Conan, it’s hard to describe…I just couldn’t believe it was there. It just made me so happy, and I wanted to do that so badly. Some of that stuff made me cry-laughing. So to me, that stuff is very deep and very relevant. And I guess by relevance I mean: the writers who I love the most write about things that are more like timeless problems or pure insanity, but they’re always things where I can connect with the way their minds feel; I understand what that feeling is and where the thoughts are coming from. So that, to me, is the primary thing — I really love people who make what is part of their experience of being alive, and it’s not going to be something that’s on everybody’s mind all the time. And so it’s not intellectual. It’s purely a matter of what brings you pleasure.

There’s this great sketch that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore used to do called “The Frog and Peach.” I’ve only read it — it’s so funny. It makes me laugh every time I read it. It’s totally absurd. Peter Cook’s character is being interviewed about a failed restaurant he started called The Frog and Peach, where all they served were peaches and frogs. And it’s just silliness, and it’s all in the details, but that’s one where if you actually try to think about where it came from or why it’s funny you’d pass out. There’s truly no reason for it to exist. And when it really comes down to the stuff that blows my mind and gives me that great crazy feeling that comedy can make you feel sometimes, I think it’s always that: “Oh, this shouldn’t have any reason to exist.”

And once you see it, you never forget it. I mean, you can’t unsee The Masturbating Bear.

Conan used to do this thing where — I’m not 100% sure if I’m supposed to say this, but it’s not bad — but Conan would do this thing where he would come into the writers’ room with this little cloth baseball cap on, and he’d say: “My name kind sirs is Cappy Cap / I am a kind and gentle chap / I hope you have enjoyed my rap / That name again is Cappy Cap.”

[laughs] He did that just for fun?

Yeah, he did it for fun. So this guy had a rhyme to introduce himself, and half of it is just him summing it up. [laughs] It was just the most perfectly stupid thing, and I would literally scream laughing.

That’s a great way to get your writers into the right mindset too, especially for Conan.

Oh yeah. He was the king of that.

From your time working with people like Conan, Robert Smigel, Demetri Martin, Chris Elliott, and Nathan Fielder, what have you learned about writing for someone else’s voice without sacrificing your own voice and sensibilities?

I think you do kind of have to share it to begin with. When I got to Conan, I remember thinking they must’ve made a mistake and there was no way I could possibly work on the show because I loved the show so much. So I thought, “Oh, it’s only a matter of time before they get rid of me” because everyone else there was so hilarious. I was there for probably a year before I calmed down and realized we were all sort of the same and had the same sense of humor, and that’s why I was there. If you love something and you love what a person does, that’s a good sign that you would probably be able to work with them. If their sense of humor is your sense of humor, then that’s a good sign.

Sketch Anatomy: Michael Koman on Armando Iannucci’s […]