The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Sketch Comedy: From Pythons to The Whitest Kids you Know

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer


Are they Comedy Pioneers, or do they like Wagon Wheel coffee tables?

Comedy is both the easiest and hardest thing in the world to pull off successfully. To paraphrase When Harry Met Sally, everyone in the world thinks they have a sense of humor and good taste, but if that were true, then bad jokes and paintings of dogs playing poker would not exist. And yet, even the most boring people in the world can make others laugh sometimes. What gives?

Before I get into what’s hard, let me talk about the times when comedy is very easy. The following demographics are extraordinarily simple to make laugh:

  • Family – There’s no one on Earth who we know (or who know us) as well as our family, however you define that word. With that intimacy comes a depth of knowledge that leads to a constant supply of comic material. Nothing can make you feel more like Jerry Seinfeld than sitting around a Thanksgiving dinner and riffing about Grandpa’s lazy eye, or Uncle Gary’s obsessive love of yams.
  • Drunken Frat Guys – The successful fraternity comedian knows that, as long as the jokes involve sexual acts, and the physical humor involves objects hurled into someone else’s testicles, the audience will be in stitches.
  • Ten-Year-Old Boys – One word: Toilets.

Basically, the more you are able to isolate and understand the specific group you are trying to entertain, the higher the likelihood of success. However, if the goal is to make EVERYONE laugh, then the challenges of doing so rise exponentially. For the purposes of this article, we will focus from this point forward on the challenges of sketch comedy.

Sketch comedy is a hybrid somewhere between improv (like Who’s Line is it Anyway? or ComedySportz) and televised sitcoms, and might be the hardest of them all to pull off well. Improv (the way I define it here) is fast-paced and fun. The humor comes as much from the audience knowing that the performers are making it up as they go as it does from the punch lines themselves. Sitcoms evolve over twenty-two minute increments, and can have multiple plots involving several different people. Over time, the viewers will come to relate with the characters, and the comedy then becomes akin to laughing with/about their family.

Sketch comedy, on the other hand, involves the challenges of both the previous two, with the advantages of neither. Sketch comedy has been written and rehearsed, which means that the audience will not forgive mistakes or discrepancies as easily as they would with improv. Conversely, sketches are typically short, involve one basic premise, and even recurring characters are two-dimensional at best. Thus, you can’t rely on audience familiarity for your humor (Chandler’s “Could this BE any more…” vocal style and George Costanza’s track record as a loser come to mind here.)

What sketch comedy gives you is the chance to take a funny idea or concept, and work to flesh it out to its maximum comic potential. When done correctly, it is maybe the most satisfying comedy out there…but there is a secret.

Starting a sketch is the easiest part; most originate with a single funny thought or idea. The body of the sketch is also relatively easy; a good comedy writer will find dozens of ways to amplify and expound on that first idea. Ending a sketch…that’s the problem. The more a sketch builds, the more the audience is going to expect a satisfying, climactic finishing moment or “button.” Without it, the entire thing ends on a low note, which is the death knell of comedy.

Over the past decade or so, the best example of the worst kind of sketch comedy has consistently been Saturday Night Live. Where SNL used to feature dynamic performers doing dangerous “I can’t believe they just said that!” comedy, it devolved to a point where it became nothing more than a hodgepodge of:

  • One-note recurring characters – an interesting, compelling character can come back again and again to great effect. A character created on a single joke or a funny voice, by contrast, gets less and less funny with each subsequent appearance. Was anyone laughing the tenth time Will Ferrell’s cheerleader chanted about his back hair? Did anyone care what gender Pat was, by the end?
  • Bad endings – a viewer can feel where a good scene should end. It hits a crescendo, with a big laugh, and you can just tell that the premise has fulfilled all of its potential. However, when the Pavlovian cheers and applause from a studio audience are required to indicate that something is over, this is a very bad sign. Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch’s “My luvva” sketches always ended with Ferrell shouting “Ow my back!” Ha.

With our benchmark for bad in place, let’s examine some other sketch comedy shows, to judge how they handle the intricacies of their craft:

  • Monty Python’s Flying Circus – The Pythons remain our paragon of sketch comedy nirvana. While viewing the original show uncut will reveal that much of their material simply didn’t work, they still were able to find innovative ways to get around the problems that sink other such attempts. Rather than attempting to relate to everyone in their audience, they strove to relate to NO ONE, and focused instead on cross-dressing lumberjacks, people who walked like jackasses, and the like. And, rather than agonizing over the endings to their sketches, they merely leaped from one to the other with a bizarre cartoon, a hilariously awkward segue, or the immortal catchphrase “And now for something completely different.” That it still holds up today, after countless imitators and derivations, is a testament to its greatness.
  • Mr. Show with Bob and David – HBO had the amazing foresight to take two relatively unknown comedians, and allow them to run wild with their own show. Then, they had the audacity to dump new episodes on Monday nights at midnight. Luckily, DVD sales as well as David Cross’ ever-increasing exposure have given this show some much-needed and well-deserved limelight. Mr. Show consisted of videotaped segments and live (or, taped in front of a live audience) sketches, all interwoven together into an evolving whole. The best episodes ended with a  post-credits bit that called back to the opening moments, truly bringing everything full circle. At times like that, you saw what well-crafted sketch comedy looked like.
  • The Kids in the Hall – Another show that made its way to the US through HBO, and almost certainly the first exposure most people had to Canadian comedy, at least after You Can’t Do That on Television. Like Python, KitH had some true brilliance mixed in with some extremely bizarre material, but to my memory, they were also the first comedy group on television to feature openly gay actors portraying openly gay characters in openly gay situations, all without having homosexuality as the sole punch line of the piece. (They were also the first group to do sketches about a person who was half-human, half-chicken, but they deserve less credit for this.)
  • Upright Citizen’s BrigadeUpright Citizen’s Brigade started as a comedy troupe in NYC, and their Comedy Central show allowed them to explore their best material with larger budgets and a TV audience. This show featured a loose concept – they were a secret organization tasked with observing and identifying all of mankind (or something like that) – that linked their material together. Some episodes featured several sketches that tied together at the end, while others gave a full show to one particularly rich concept. For UCB, it was their combination of the bizarre and the banal that proved to be the most successful: a Jewish man reading that orthodox people only had sex through a hole in a sheet, and extrapolating that everything is okay if done in that manner, for example.
  • The Whitest Kids U Know – (Or, the fucking author finally gets around to talking about the group mentioned in his title!) – This is a new show on the Fuse network, which means that no one has seen it. It is clear from the first few minutes of this show that they too struggle with how to end their sketches. However, where Mr. Show and UCB blended everything together, and Monty Python typically refused to bother with endings, TWKUK embraces the bizarre and seems to go for a befuddled “What the?” look on the faces of their audience. Thus, a sketch about a man peeing on another man’s leg ends with a text roll revealing them to be William Shakespeare and Francis Bacon. Also, even more than the other shows, TWKUK is a show written by and for the 18-39 male demographic.  Anyone who does comedy will tell you that it’s easier to play dirty than it is to go clean, but the dirty stuff typically kills. TWKUK goes for the easy, and pushes as far as it can given its cable status. A Dating Game sketch devolves into the three guys crassly and vulgarly describing their needs to the befuddled bachelorette. A psychic sketch revolves around the conceit that the psychic can see a spirit teabagging the man whose fortune she’s reading. And so on. This is not a criticism per se, but I do think it would be interesting to see what these guys could do, if forced to remove toilet humor and the word “fuck” from their material.

In conclusion, the hardest part of any piece of writing is the conclusion. The end.