While the United States can hold its own in the SitCom battle–though, of course, it ultimately loses–it puts up only meager resistance in the area of discussion today (and after): The Sketch Show.
A Sketch is a very brief scene that sets up the situation (premise) with the object of a single joke or a set of jokes. A Sketch Show will present a series of different sketches, generally unrelated to one another.
In the US, only one, Saturday Night Live (1975-), has survived for very long and it’s not entirely clear why. Since the mid-1990’s, SNL hasn’t been as good as it used to be. It had something of a swan song in the 2008 election, but hasn’t been able to build on that level of insight. Other programs, In Living Color (1990-94), Madtv (1995-2009), The Kids in the Hall (1988-94 which is Canadian) are all pretenders to the throne. You might even be able to say Sesame Street (1969-) is probably the best Sketch Show the US has produced.
In reality, the best Sketch Comedy show the US has ever produced is Chappelle’s Show (2003-06). Its combination of complete irreverence, not-coincidental social commentary, and consistently huge laughs puts it so far ahead of the pack it’s embarrassing. That’s despite the great weakness (as far as being a Sketch Show is concerned) of the stand-up interludes. Apparently, things got too crazy for Chappell and the show got put on hold indefinitely. Buy it.
In comparison to this US history, looking at the UK can cause some powerful shame for Americans who love comedy.
What sets the Sketch Show apart from the SitCom is its infinite variety. No topic is out of bounds, no joke goes too far, and nothing is out of place. There is no central theme to worry about. No plot line. The writers put together brief scenes that they think are funny. All that is required is a prolific mind with a sense of humor.
Where I think the US probably has gone wrong is that the variety has misled executives into believing that the show has to be broad and big. That is to say, low and diffuse. Where the UK surges boldly forward is in creating programs based upon personalities with comedic minds.
Don’t be misled by your SNL experience into thinking that Sketch Shows are always (or even usually) broadcast live. I know of only one in the UK that was broadcast live, Friday Night Live (1988), and it didn’t lasted long. What is gained in producing a live show is minute in comparison to the quality gained by producing segments on respectable sets. It also enlarges the scope of available topics.
As with the SitCom, not all UK Sketch Shows are brilliant. Most of the ones that I’ve seen are brilliant, but I’ve seen others that are middling or even bad (*gasp*). So, you might benefit from a roadmap.
When approaching a Sketch, some of the same skills you needed for SitCom viewing will be of assistance here. You will need to be familiar with the pun and the allusion. These will be relied upon even more since the time is so brief to make the joke that one word performing evocative duties comes at a premium. On the other hand, the sight gag and physical comedy will come up more frequently than usual, also because of its time-saving properties.
The best shows repeat a premise very rarely. You’re not going to see The Coneheads or The Wild, Crazy Guys, or Miss Swan over and over again. There are some shows that repeat almost exclusively (and I wonder if that qualifies as a Sketch Show), but that’s pretty rare. That supports my earlier claim that what British Sketch Comedy programs are really about personalities. You like the people, the characters they play, or the comedy they come up with.
This lack of repetition also has the positive effect of diversifying risk. You didn’t like that sketch? Just wait a minute or two and you’ll get a new one.
Sketch Comedy works with the same tools as all other comedy and is especially close to stand-up in its reliance on observation and social oddity. If stand up asks, “Did you see this? Did you hear about this?” Sketch Comedy is show, don’t tell. The good ones, anyway.
In addition to observation, it also has the set-it-up, knock-it-down qualities of what we might call “jokes” as opposed to comedy. This uses misdirection or the double-bluff to give us a punch-line or payoff.
Finally, what you really need to keep your eye out for is satire. Satire has a rich history in Britain and those instincts are on broad display in a Sketch. The Sketch allows for satire by not requiring the conceit (if that’s its method) too long. Satire can easily become unrealistic, which undermines its power. A really strong satire needs to be well thought out and tweaked to stay within certain bounds so that the comment is accurate. If the satire isn’t accurate, it’s not satire, it’s just a gag.
Tomorrow, I’ll put together a list of the sort I created for SitComs. Because there are significantly fewer shows, it need not hobble along over the whole week. I think I will maintain the tier framework to keep some semblance of order and readability.