This month Vulture will be publishing our critics’ year-end lists. Last week’s lists included movies, albums, art, and video games. Today’s all about comedy: the best sketches, specials, and podcasts.
1. “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” Inside Amy Schumer
The best sketch of the year opens with a judge telling a jury that they have an important task at hand, a shot of a solemn Amy Schumer (the defendant), and then a title card, set in front of 12 (angry) men slowly walking into a room, in lowercase (just like the film it’s parodying):
12 angry men
inside amy schumer
It’s a clever bit of phrasing that underlies what is so special about the episode: It’s not just about the hypocrisy and bullshit of the patriarchy, but also how Schumer internalizes it. Insults and criticisms thrown at Schumer double as self-doubt, giving the episode a human, emotional undercurrent that pushes it beyond parody and satire.
Many of the themes and targets throughout the episode — how society values physical attractiveness in women above everything else, the double standard between male and female attractiveness, even the idea that men call her unattractive despite the fact that she can catch dick whenever she wants — are ones Schumer has explored in other places throughout the year. There are even jokes that show up here — like how Kevin James is allowed to exist — that also show up in her stand-up special. But nowhere has her comedic perspective been better articulated and, subsequently, funnier. By doing a 12 Angry Men parody, Schumer, who co-directed the episode, was able to approach the topic from a variety of points of view and use the characters’ debate to show how absurd these societal norms are. She used every tool at her disposal — pitch-perfect visual parody, a brilliant cast — and the result is transcendent and laugh-out-loud funny. Amy Schumer had one of the greatest years a comedian has ever had, and this sketch should be remembered as the artistic pinnacle.
2. “A Town, a Gangster, a Festival,” Documentary Now!
Over the last few years, with seemingly more sketch on the TV than ever, shows are pushing the definition of what a sketch, and a sketch show, can be. The first season of Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader’s Documentary Now! might’ve pushed the form farther than it’s ever been. Beyond being longer than traditional sketches, some episodes of Documentary Now! featured richer characters and worlds than you expect from a sketch (it helps that both Armisen and Hader have never been better). Still, at their core, these episodes (except the expansive two-part “Gentle and Soft” finale) are sketches in that there is a single premise that is being explored. “A Town, a Gangster, a Festival” was the most extraordinary of those explorations.
As Meyers explained to me at New York Comic-Con earlier this year, the episode started with Armisen having the “Fred-est idea”: What if there was a town in Iceland that had an annual Al Capone festival? In theory, it is supposed to be a send-up of how foreign countries have a love but not a full understanding of American culture, but the result is one of the most tonally unique pieces of comedy I have ever seen. Played 100 percent real, with an almost all-Icelandic cast, it just feels so much like a real documentary. The closest comparison I could think of is “This American Life,” in the sort of quirky yet openhearted way it explores a minor story — except, again, it is completely fictionalized. It doesn’t get the biggest laughs, but you consistently find yourself smiling at the grounded absurdity and periodically chuckling out of nowhere at how strange of a thing it is that you’re watching.
3. “Temptations Reboot,” Comedy Bang! Bang!
Comedy Bang! Bang!, a sketch-show/fake-talk-show hybrid, was responsible for the best-written sketch-sketch of the year. The sketch, which parodies jukebox musicals (kind of), plays with repetition and payoff masterfully, escalating and deescalating with every delayed payoff. “Temptations Reboot” is funnier than your standard anti-comedy-leaning sketch, which repeats the same dumb joke over and over until it’s funny, largely because of the critics’ quotes that run throughout. Where many shows would use this spot to undercut the premise of the sketch with quotes like, “Douglas Fartface of The New Yorker says, ‘What the huh?’” CBB has the critics love the musical. It’s small, but it makes all the difference, effectively continuing to heighten the premise until a truly perfect ending.
4. “Football Town Nights,” Inside Amy Schumer
“Football Town Nights” finds Inside Amy Schumer again using a parody as a way into attacking a topic. As opposed to parodying Fright Night Lights for the sake of parodying Friday Night Lights, the show uses the vocabulary of the acclaimed high-school-football show to send up rape culture in high school and football. As the ridiculousness of Schumer’s white wineglasses grows, so does the ridiculousness of the defenses for the prospective rapists. It is hilariously funny, brutally honest, and instantly quotable. As soon as it dropped, everyone and their mother was tweeting: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Don’t Rape.”
5. “Wishin’ Boot,” Saturday Night Live
The writers of “Wishin’ Boot,” Chris Kelly and Sara Schneider, who are best known for writing the best and most popular digital sketches of the last few years, have a way with a third beat. They really push a premise in a different direction instead of just intensifying the original game. In this case, Blake Shelton gets attacked by a fake wishin’ boot, only to have his dog turn into the real wishin’ boot. Swiftly, the song is no longer a parody of country music wish-fulfillment; it’s something more, something weirder, something funnier.
6. “Heaven Is Totez for Realz*,” W/ Bob & David [*To my knowledge, the sketch doesn’t have an official name]
When I interviewed Bob Odenkirk and David Cross for their Netflix sketch series W/ Bob & David, Odenkirk talked about how great it was to work with Cross again. He named “Heaven” as a sketch he “immediately loved,” saying the premise — a sweet little boy who survived going to Heaven tells a TV host that he saw Hitler there — “was a shocking notion that also had some texture, not just shock value.” It takes one of the hypocrisies of religion and pushes it to, well, Hitler. Maybe the most brilliant part was that the sketch then moves to all the adults calling the sweet little boy a liar and demanding he be sent back to Heaven. It’s so subversive, so irreverent, so much of what we’ve missed since Mr. Show ended 17 years ago.
7. “A Capella,” Key & Peele
In the first episode of Key & Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are talking about how they “adjust [their] blackness” on a daily basis because, as Key jokes, without it, “we sound whiter than the black dude in the college a cappella group.” Five seasons later, Key & Peele finally told that guy’s story. Specifically, the sketch looks at what it means to be the one “black dude” in the whitest of groups, and the concessions you make for the distinction. Later, Key and Peele’s characters find themselves again competing to be the one “black dude” in an improv troupe, a bit that felt like it hit particularly close to home for Key and Peele, both of whom came up in the predominantly white Chicago improv system. It’s another brilliant, incisive observation about racial norms in this country in a long line of brilliant, incisive observations about racial norms in this country.
8. “Mr. Westerberg,” Saturday Night Live
SNL is literally your father’s sketch show, but, thankfully, it doesn’t stop them from doing sketches this dark. A bunch of employees doing impressions of their annoying voices is innocuous enough of a concept, until Beck Bennett’s character impression involves commands to do very inappropriate, very specific things, like smooshing his butt cheeks together so you can’t see crack. SNL has been doing more and more pretaped sketches these last couple years, and this sketch shows the benefit of quick editing. Every relayed disgusting command from Mr. Westerberg is quickly followed by a disgusted reaction shot. And because it’s pretaped, the actors can be more subtle than they would be in a live sketch, where their disgust would have to be apparent to an audience in front of them. The result is a quick-hitting, super-dark sketch that keeps on building to Bennett’s aforementioned butt-cheeck-smooshing monologue.
9. ” PubLIZity: Bangs,” Kroll Show
Wrapping up its series after three seasons, Kroll Show blew up the sketch-show quandary of whether or not to repeat characters by creating a unique serialized sketch hybrid. As he mostly played monsters, the characters didn’t necessarily deepen over time, they just grew more specific. “PubLIZity” is a parody of a reality show about two L.A. publicists named Liz, and this season, Liz G. got bangs. Though there are some references to earlier arcs, this felt like the definitive “PubLIZity” story. Of course Liz G. would see getting bangs as a life-altering event in line with having a kid, and of course Liz B. would see it as an affront to her. Everything that is funny about these two characters gets boiled down to a few inches of hair.
10. “Prepared for Terries,” Key & Peele
In Bossypants, Tina Fey writes that “Producing is about discouraging creativity.” Her point is, though the many departments — props, talent, graphics, set dressing — all want to shine, a producer makes sure everything is in service of the sketch; otherwise, instead of a bran muffin on a white plate, you’ll get “a bran cake in the shape of Santa Claus sitting on a silver platter that says ‘Welcome to Denmark.” Similarly, when Seth Meyers ran the SNL writers room, he would use the expression “a hat on a hat,” meaning a sketch should just be about the thing it’s about and not be muddled with other ideas. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are exceptions.
In “Prepared for Terries,” Peele wears a wig that’s shaped like a hat, not because the sketch is about two guys with weird hair, but because it’s funny and he can pull it off. Key and Peele also talk in gibberish, but that’s also not what the sketch is about. It’s essentially just about two weirdos who think they could stop terrorists if need be, trying to convince a normal guy to join their squad. But that doesn’t matter, as the sketch is ultimately just a showcase of how obscenely good both Key and Peele are at the job of being a sketch performer, as they are magically able to ground these characters while also pushing them to insanity. Now that Key & Peele has wrapped, both stars will surely go on to to wonderful comedy careers elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever get a showcase like this again. They were all-time-great sketch performers. They are exceptions.