Coping with the world today in all its apocalyptic madness requires more than one strategy. My go-to methods involve music, the occasional glass of bourbon and sketch comedy. Music is a soothing force (as well as a communal one), bourbon is self-explanatory, and sketch comedy is the skewed lens through which the world starts to make sense again.
I’m not even talking about politically or socially informed sketches that shine a light on the ongoing issues affecting the world, and in doing so create a bit of laughter to relieve the mounting tension. When well done, such moments are insightful, critical and necessary. But, for me, sketch comedy’s bigger contribution to the world at large and comedy in particular has to do with the strong absurdist tone that tends to run through it. Like the river in that one film.
America is arguably experiencing a sketch show heyday. Even without Key & Peele, which ended its run last year, viewers still have the ever churning Saturday Night Live as well as Inside Amy Schumer, Portlandia and even newer versions that play with the form like Documentary Now.
But where have all the British sketch shows gone?
As much as I appreciate American sketch comedy, I’m an equal—if not greater—fan of the British exports. Most fans are aware of the Monty Python years and the long-lasting ripples their comedy sent throughout future instances of the art form, but I’m talking more about the sketch shows that arose in the 1990s and continued on up until 2010: A Bit of Fry and Laurie, League of Gentleman, Big Train, Little Britain, Smack the Pony. I could go on. What took place during the twenty years or so beginning with French and Saunders and up until That Mitchell and Webb Look went off the air seemed like a golden era for British sketch comedy. It’s not that each show offered particularly new and groundbreaking approaches, but rather that they did sketch comedy so well.
Each show created an abundantly absurd world, mixing realism and surrealism to turn what we know about life, humanity and even the everyday on its head. If sketches happened to be one-off (instead of a reoccurring character), what resulted tended to peel back the layer of normalcy and expose the illogical—and comical—underbelly.
In A Bit of Fry and Laurie, a woman returns to a department store where she purchased two suits for her husband in 1947. When Hugh Laurie’s salesman asks if she’d like to exchange the suits for something else, she laughs off the suggestion. “Oh, no, I don’t want different suits. That wouldn’t be any good, not now he’s dead,” she tells him. From the outset, the sketch seems to be a standard “elderly woman doesn’t understand the way life now works” premise, and yet things take a very different turn. When she confesses that she doesn’t have her receipt, she isn’t worried because the saleswoman who originally sold her the items will remember her. The saleswoman from 1947. But suddenly here comes that very saleswoman—now a frail octogenarian—and lo and behold she does remember the lady and issues a refund for the initial purchase price of just over three pounds. It’s a cutesy bit, but it continues on its absurdist bent when the saleswoman even manages to get a new sale by checking in the back to see if she has any new husbands for her customer, who wants “5’6” bent.” What could have been a standard set-up—an exasperating moment for the salesman viewers are meant to empathize with—does away with the very notion of identification and instead replaces it with a touch of the bizarre.
Big Train takes things to an entirely different level when Simon Pegg’s character accidentally hits a turtle crossing the road in the opening moments of an episode. Like any caring person, he rushes to check on the animal. After asking several times in English if the animal is all right, he confesses, “I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.” But it’s not that the animal is being stubborn, it’s that it only speaks French. The two exchange a quick back-and-forth in that language and both go on their way.
But besides such ridiculous moments, these shows most succeeded at character work: either hyperbolic versions of real-life people, or colorful creations born from twisted and hilarious imaginings. Although almost all British sketch shows had reoccurring characters, many in the 1990s and early aughts involved a two-person team who created some of the more memorable versions. Little Britain was nothing but characters. Matt Lucas and David Walliams began with a handful of outrageous figures from all over the United Kingdom and grew that number with each passing season. Every sketch returned to see how certain characters had (or more likely hadn’t) evolved, including teen delinquent Vicky Pollard, local transvestite Emily Howard, co-dependents Lou and Andy, and even bit character Carol, who apathetically told customers, “Computer says no,” about their potential bank loans, travel plans and more.
To this day—and I know fans of all the aforementioned shows will likely have their own strong opinions—my absolute favorite British export is still That Mitchell and Webb Look. I grew to love Peep Show and from there followed David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s equally droll and warped minds to their clever sketch show. They were equally adept at creating reoccurring characters—like the Snooker Commentators (“Oh, and that was a bad miss”), Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar, or the zany TV historian who has difficulty in bed without literal bells and whistles—to developing one-off sketches, like the Inebriati, which explores a secret society of people who have discovered life is far more tolerable “if you’re ever so slightly drunk.” The two comedians behind the show created a cult product akin to Canadian counterpoint Kids in the Hall.
British sketch comedy didn’t end with That Mitchell and Webb Look. Shows like Psychobitches, The Keith Lemon Sketch Show and Cardinal Burns have followed, but the golden era seems to have quieted. If anything, the spirit that started across the pond has arguably made its way Stateside, as American sketch shows thrive. But American sketch shows, despite offering viewers smart, social commentary, reoccurring characters and more, rarely has the same absurdist flavor as their British counterparts. It’s there, to be sure, but the laughs are largely grounded in reality, whereas British sketch shows have been more willing to throw reality out the window because it’s funnier that way. I await new shows inspired my old favorites with baited breath, but in the meantime content myself with nostalgically reliving the golden days thanks to Hulu, Netflix and other platforms that make these delightful exports available once more, long after their runs ended.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.