What Makes for Great Detective Sketch Comedy?

Bill Hader as Keith Morrison on SNL. Photo: NBC

In November 1891, a mere four months after the publication of Sir Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie published “My Evening With Sherlock Holmes,” the first in a long line of pastiches of the character that continue to be written to this day. From the earliest introductions of detective fiction, comedy has been right there behind them.

That’s not especially surprising, of course; often comedy is about trying to gain power over that which frightens us. It’s the reason there are so many jokes about death and dying: If we can laugh at it, it’s a little less scary. Things such as crime, being investigated, murder, and stalkers are terrifying, so it’s no wonder that the world of mystery has long been the target of comedy. Sketch comics have found inspiration in the genre dating back at least 50 years, when Monty Python spoofed one of the masters. We’ve rounded up some of the most memorable detectives in sketch comedy, arranged in order of incident (a.k.a. airdate), to examine their caseloads and determine just how effectively they blended mystery with their humor.

Agatha Christie Sketch

Show: Monty Python’s Flying Circus
First Aired: 1969
The Detectives: Inspector Tiger, Chief Superintendent Lookout of the Yard, Assistant Chief Constable Theresamanbehindyer
The Case: The body in the room
How Central Is the Mystery?: Very.

The classic locked-room mystery. The lights go down, a shot rings out, a murderer is somewhere in the room. Only in this case, we never really get to know the suspects in the room, played by Graham Chapman and Carol Cleveland, because our various inspectors, constables, and superintendents, played by the rest of the Pythons, keep reenacting the murder, only to find themselves as the next murder victim. The bodies (literally) pile up, and the officials with increasingly stupid names continue to arrive with no sign of resolution in sight.

Scams and Flams

Show: Mr. Show
First Aired: 1998
The Detective: Investigative Reporter Yale Hadarity
The Case: Wishing Well ‘N Such: scam or legitimate business?
How Central Is the Mystery?: It drives Yale, but it also leads him much deeper than anticipated.

Sometimes a case goes deeper than you ever could have expected. This is where investigative reporter Yale Hadarity (David Cross) finds himself as he digs into a new local business that seems to be taking money from the naive in exchange for wishes. Yale walks through the business model with the shop’s proprietor, Barn (Bob Odenkirk), and determines that everything is on the up and up, but it turns out he was only scratching the surface of the true nature of Wishing Well ‘N Such. Or did he actually have the full story the whole time?

Fetal Scooby-Doo

Show: TV Funhouse
First Aired: 2000
The Detectives: Fetal Scooby-Doo and the Fetal Scooby Gang
The Case: Mystery at the old amusement park
How Central Is the Mystery?: Very. Those meddling kids are tenacious!

In a world where the cartoons age Scooby down from adult to pup, there’s only one stage in the life-cycle left to exploit. Leave it to TV Funhouse to heighten to the extreme with Fetal Scooby-Doo. Fetal Scoob and the gang explore the amusement park to discover the ghost that’s haunting the place, because no umbilical cords are going to stop them from uncovering the truth! In the end, Shaggy and the rest rip the mask off the ghost (through the amniotic sac) and find it was Fetal Old Man Jenkins trying to obtain the uranium field the park was built over. Fetal Scooby Snacks for all!

The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar

Show: That Mitchell and Webb Look
First Aired: 2006
The Detective: Sir Digby Chicken Caesar
The Case: “What the hell is going on?” (and saving humanity from his nemesis, “some bastard who’s presumably responsible”)
How Central Is the Mystery?: Depending on your perspective, it is either the only thing that matters or it is completely non-existent.

Sir Digby Chicken Caesar (Robert Webb) and his assistant Ginger (David Mitchell)  are somewhat-modern Holmes and Watson figures who are attempting to rid the streets of London of crime, from their perspective. Over the course of Mitchell and Webb’s show, Sir Digby and Ginger had several adventures together, and though they usually prevail (or at least Digby does), their fight against “evil” seems to stir up more harm than good, unless Digby is telling the truth and that old woman really did steal that VCR from the government.

Poirot and Miss Marple

Show: The Peter Serafinowicz Show
First Aired: 2007
The Detectives: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple
The Case: The mistaken heart attack and the case of the fleeing father
How Central Is the Mystery?: Very quickly ignored by the detectives.

In a meeting that was destined to happen, both of Agatha Christie’s classic detectives are brought together for a truly memorable team-up. The instant they meet, Poirot (Peter Serafinowicz) and Marple (Bronagh Gallagher) immediately recognize the intellectual prowess of one another and get down to the business of investigating the bedroom for clues, alone. But when the two detectives’ moans and cries sound throughout the estate, Hastings and the inspector barge in and discover that the murderer had attacked the two … and stolen Poirot’s trousers! Together, these two legendary detectives don’t get any closer to the murderer, but they do get much, much closer.

Dateline: Keith Morrison

Show: Saturday Night Live
First Aired: 2011
The Detective: Keith Morrison
The Case: The mystery of the chopped up guy
How Central Is the Mystery?: Very. Keith Morrison is very focused on every detail.

Bill Hader’s version of Dateline’s Keith Morrison hasn’t met a murder he didn’t like. Hang on — “like” isn’t strong enough. He hasn’t met a murder he wasn’t super stoked about. Keith tells us the sad tale of Elroy Valentine (Bobby Moynihan), who was bludgeoned and hacked to pieces, by talking to the man who discovered his body (Taran Killam), Elroy’s wife (Kristen Wiig), the coroner (Jason Sudekis), and the murderer himself (Steve Buscemi), all while having a hard time containing his excitement for each new, grisly detail he manages to collect.

Private Detective

Photo: NBC

Show: Saturday Night Live
First Aired: 2012
The Detective: Sam Flint
The Case: The unfaithful wife
How Central Is the Mystery?: The solution to the mystery is thrust; it’s the delivery that is unusual.

Mr. Morelli (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) suspects his wife of cheating on him, so he turns to Sam Flint (Bill Hader), the best private detective/amateur cartoonist he could get. Flint breaks the news to him with a series of increasingly incriminating caricatures depicting Morelli’s wife, her tennis-playing lover, and eventually Flint himself. Flint gets results at any cost — just don’t call ’em “cartoons.” (Watch it here.)

Honorable mention: Unfortunately, video of it doesn’t exist online, but another wonderfully inept private-detective sketch from Saturday Night Live involves a dame, a man, and a whole lot of burritos. Check out the transcript here.

Cat Poster

Show: Key and Peele
First Aired: 2013
The Detective: Unnamed
The Case: Who runs Carter Finley’s crew?
How Central Is the Mystery?: Our detective is very focused, but has a long way to go.

It’s a familiar story: An angry detective (Keegan-Michael Key) is looking for answers and brings in the one guy they’ve managed to nab: Carter Finley (Jordan Peele). Carter weaves a tale of the big man in charge, Cat Branchman, who hangs out at the Clutching Kitten on the corner of Hang and Fur Street. Before long the twist reveals itself to the detective: Carter is just looking at his “Hang in There” poster and making all of this up. Our detective tries his best to get answers out of his perp, but as even more twists are introduced, he ends up raising more questions than he answers …

8 Unforgettable Detective-Themed Comedy Sketches