TV’s Golden Age of Sketch Draws Comic Minds Out of Woodwork

TV Sketch Comedy Golden Age
Brian Taylor for Variety

Television is turning into a pretty sketchy neighborhood, much to the delight of producers who have been trying to stake out some real estate there for years.

Scott Aukerman (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”) tried for two decades to get someone interested in doing sketch comedy on television. Suddenly, he and other sketch artists find themselves in the middle of a renaissance.

He started his career in the late ’90s on “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” hoping to eventually get his own off the ground.
“Every time I tried to sell one I was told no one buys sketch shows,” Aukerman says. “I grew up with ‘SNL’ and ‘Monty Python’ and I couldn’t believe no one wanted to see sketch. Now, that’s all changed.”

For years NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” was almost the only game in town when it came to sketch comedy. But in today’s multiplatform universe, sketch comedy thrives, from Comedy Central (“Inside Amy Schumer,” “Key & Peele,” “Drunk History”) to IFC (“Portlandia,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!”).

“Television is doing more interesting work, certainly because of the proliferation of all platforms,” says Dan Powell, co-creator and exec producer of the Peabody Award-winning “Inside Amy Schumer.” “Now there is more risk-taking and specific voices.”

In the past few years, sketch comedy has been tweaked and twisted into a form not traditionally associated with the genre.
“We are in a Golden Age of television and sketch is following suit in terms of people exploring new formats for something that has been done in the same way for a very long time,” says Jessi Klein, head writer/exec producer of “Inside Amy Schumer.”

Traditional sketch comedy was about a group getting together to present some funny stuff. Now, it has entered a phase of sketch through a singular voice. Dave Chappelle was at the forefront of making it more acceptable than, as Klein points out, “a boy band of sketch comedy.”

Jay Martel, exec producer of “Key & Peele,” says sketch comedy offers a unique perspective that appeals to a new generation that integrates television and social media into its viewing experience.
“There are different voices and different means of delivery,” Martel says. “Viewers have become more savvy consumers of comedy.”

Eric Andre (who hosts talkshow spoof “The Eric Andre Show” on Adult Swim) grew up on sketch comedy, watching “SNL,” “In Living Color,” and “Chappelle’s Show.”

“My show is very primal, so it resonates at that level,” Andre says. “If a lead on a show has a connection with you, viewers are willing to go a lot of places. Viewers are interested in something that relates to them in a genuine way and is brutally honest.”

Jonathan Krisel of the Peabody Award-winning “Portlandia” has worked on a variety of sketch comedy shows in his career, each with its own niche audience.

“Instead of current events, shows are now about current social behavior, so you can get a little more nuanced when making fun of tiny details,” Krisel says. “These shows are like one person’s take on the world. With all the outlets, if you have a strong comedic voice there’s a venue to do your thing. It’s a bit of a meritocracy, where the best stuff rises to the top.”

The threshold of how many viewers a show needs to draw is much lower now and cable networks in particular are able to take more of a chance. In the case of IFC, it can also help brand a network.

“ ‘Portlandia’ is a brand-defining show, a smart observant comedy that identifies us like ‘Breaking Bad’ did for AMC,” says Blake Callaway, IFC exec VP of marketing and digital media. “It has given us credibility.”

Social media, too, has helped blast sketch into the public consciousness.

“In today’s world, great content can be carried by word-of-mouth in a way that was not possible years ago,” says Eric Berger, exec VP of digital networks at Sony Pictures and g.m. of Crackle. “When something goes viral, there’s real fan engagement.”
Sketch comedy has proven to be Internet-friendly, with the bite size element easily accessible.

“Without the Internet, I’m not sure we would be as big,” says “Key & Peele” exec producer Ian Roberts. “Whenever I meet someone in their 20s, nine out of 10 have only seen our sketches online.”

From “Kroll Show” to “Nathan for You” to “Tosh.0” today’s sketch comes in many varieties. Krisel says the genre has become what music once was — a place where viewers find their own identity.

“It’s how you define yourself,” he says. “It’s not Nirvana or Pearl Jam, it’s do you watch ‘Portlandia’ or ‘Amy Schumer’? It relates to a specific sense of humor.

“And do you know the hidden gems? Like if you knew the Pixies in the ’80s.”

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