As the vitality of sketch comedy moves increasingly online thanks to sites like Funny or Die and series like Between Two Ferns, it’s encouraging that television can still surprise us with a show like Portlandia. In honor of its return for a second season on IFC, here are our picks for the 11 best sketch comedy shows of all time.
11. The State (1993-1995)
Introduced the world to: Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, David Wain, Ken Marino, Kerri Kenney-Silver
Somewhere between its existence as a music channel and its current reality TV slate, MTV had a wonderful, short-lived half-hour sketch comedy show which never quite found its audience among the network’s teen viewers.
10. A Bit of Fry & Laurie (1989-1995)
Introduced the world to: Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie
The British—they have the charm and the accent and the overwhelming ability to take an average phrase, like oh lets say, “Please Mr. Music, will you play?” and turn it into a ridiculous cocktail name catchphrase that prompts an even more absurd dance. BBC’s sketch comedy A Bit of Fry & Laurie starred former Cambridge Footlights members Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, who followed a strict agenda of wordplay, fourth wall breaking, political bashing, instrument playing, elaborate innuendos and singing numbers. With Noel Edmonds as a frequent target and The Beatles and Elvis tributes in between, it’s no wonder DVD releases have found new fans since their 2006 release.—Kristen Blanton
9. Mr. Show with Bob and David (1995-1998)
Introduced the world to: Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Jack Black, Paul F. Thompkins, Sarah Silverman, Brian Posehn
Mr. Show with Bob and David was the brainchild of former SNL writer Bob Odenkirk and stand-up extraordinaire David Cross. Its ability to push the boundaries and absurd sketches helped separate the show from other more traditional shows. The series mocked series topics like Satanism, after-school specials and the Ku Klux Klan, which helped make it a cult hit in the late ’90s.—Adam Vitcavage
8. In Living Color (1990-1994)
Introduced the world to: Damon Wayans, Keenen Ivory Wayans, David Alan Grier, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez
In Living Color was the first sketch show with a predominantly African-American cast to burst out onto the scene. The Wayans family created an edgy program where comics were able to speak freely, helping launch the careers of Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey, one of the few white members of the show. Notable sketches like Fire Marshall Bill and an Arsenio Hall parody have been revered over time and helped revive the show. Two half-hour specials will air later this year with the option for bringing it back for a full season.—Adam Vitcavage
7. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1973)
Introduced the world to: Dick Martin, Dan Rowan, Goldie Hawn, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Lorne Michaels
The precursor to Saturday Night Live was rooted in vaudeville humor, more politically charged and risqué than sketch comedies like The Red Skelton Show, which had come before. It also featured some of the first music videos on television and a guest appearance from political candidate Richard Nixon.
6. SCTV (1976-1984)
Introduced the world to: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin
Before Wayne’s World, local TV was spoofed by Andrew Alexander’s Second City troupe via SCTV, the fake channel from Melonville, Ontario which included clips from “The Great White North” with Bob & Doug McKenzie.
5. The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)
Introduced the world to: Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence
Parodying Hollywood with “As the Stomach Turns” and “Went with the Wind,” it was a ratings and critical success for most of its 11-year run. The skit “The Family” even spun-off into its own show, Mama’s Family. Burnett addressed gender issues in this Star Trek spoof:
4. The Kids In the Hall (1988-1995)
Introduced the world to: Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Neve Campbell
The Kids in the Hall first unleashed their quirky take on sketch comedy in 1988 in Canada on the CBC network. The group—which included Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson—was best known for memorable characters like Headcrusher, the It’s a Fact! girl, and Gavin. And although the show only lasted for five seasons, it left behind unforgettably hilarious sketches like Bobby vs. the Devil and Things to Do;Tyler Kane
3. Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006)
Network: Comedy Central
Introduced the world to: Dave Chappelle, Samuel L. Jackson Beer
In the last decade, no comedian made racially tense, cringe-worthy moments funnier than Dave Chappelle. His show, dubbed simply Chappelle’s Show, originally aired on Comedy Central in 2003, and its three seasons spawned instantly quotable characters. With characters ranging from the blind white supremacist Clayton Bigsby, who didn’t know he was actually black, to Tyrone Biggums, the high-voiced crack addict that always reminds the audience “I smoke rocks,” Chappelle and long-time collaborator Charlie Murphy cemented their spots among the greats of sketch comedy.—Tyler Kane
2. Saturday Night Live (1975-present)
Introduced the world to: Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Harry Shearer, Al Franken, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Martin Short, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Kevin Nealon, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig
While SNL has had its share of comic peaks and valleys, no other show has launched more comic stars, earning 142 Emmy nominations and spawning 11 (mostly terrible) movies along the way. Every time its stars have moved on, they’ve only made way for a new crop of talent to eventually fill the void.
1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
Introduced the world to: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones
The six Brits in Monty Python created, wrote and acted in the groundbreaking series, giving them the freedom to experiment with form and content and redefine what sketch comedy could be. Unlike SNL, the troupe were masters at keeping skits from dragging by interrupting weaker segments by dropping animated weights on characters or having an unrelated character barge in declaring things have become “far too silly” before moving on to something completely different. Often absurd (“The Ministry of Silly Walks,” “Self-Defense Agaist Fresh Fruit,” “The Fish-Slapping Dance”), almost always cutting edge, this is comedy that’s only gotten better with age.