I’ll be upfront with y’all: It can be hard to fill out an annual list of the best sketch comedy shows on TV. There’s not enough of ‘em on the air at any given point, especially good ones, and a year-end list with only two or three entries just looks weird. This year was no exception. There are four sketch (or sketch-adjacent shows) we can heartily recommend from 2021, and since five sort of seems like the bare minimum for a list like this, we went ahead and included a fifth show that has some problems but at its best is very funny. So yeah, here are five shows heavily dependent upon comedy sketches that we dug this year. (And no, we didn’t consider shows like Desus & Mero or The Amber Ruffin Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that might have sketches but are mostly about a host reading jokes or discussing current events or having amazing conversations with their fellow host. Sorry!)
Created by: Michael Che
Network: HBO Max
Michael Che is a controversial guy, a social media bully with a penchant for bothsidesism who disavows the responsibility he wields as one of America’s most prominent political comedians. He can also be legitimately funny, thoughtful, and insightful, and you see that side of him just enough on his HBO sketch show to make it worth checking out. That Damn Michael Che is a hit-or-miss satire that can be frustrating in its inconsistency, but when it works it’s some of the best comedy you’ll see this year. It’s no surprise that Che’s sketch show has the same general strengths and weaknesses as his stand-up and his public persona, but when given his own half-hour on HBO, and not limited to a few minutes a week on a show overseen by a 70-something man with questionable taste and standards, Che is able to present a more fully rounded look into his own mindset—for better or worse.—Garrett Martin
Created by: Kyle Mooney, Dave McCary, and Ben Jones
If you grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons on the three major networks, you’ll immediately recognize what Saturday Morning All Star Hits is going for. Kyle Mooney plays generic SoCal surfer dude twins named Skip and Treybor, the hosts of a fictional Saturday morning block, as they introduce a variety of recurring cartoons. Those short cartoon parodies reference shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Thundercats, Care Bears, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, among others, without ever too closely recreating any of them. They all seem a little obvious and predictable in the first episode, but as the storylines carry over and develop throughout the season they become weirdly specific and absurd. They’re not just vaguely recognizable cartoon stereotypes doing and saying things they’d never do in real cartoons, but defined characters dealing with dilemmas both realistic and ridiculous.
What makes SMASH transcend initial expectations is how absurd those stories become over time. This isn’t just a case of making old cartoons vulgar and violent. Yes, the show tries to get laughs from those played-out, toothless shock tactics, but aims for so much more. Mooney and his cocreators have made an entire little pop culture world that closely resembles our own without ever ripping anything off too directly or blatantly. They piece together shards of the junk foisted upon kids 30 years ago to make a surreal kaleidoscope that seems like something we know while also feeling unsettlingly off. It’s not a comedy with jokes, per se, but one that gets by on the contrast between familiarity and absurdity, on taking something we think we should know and then upending those expectations. It nimbly walks the line between nostalgia and parody, less interested in mocking the specific shows it evokes than that whole era of corporate entertainment and the youth culture it was both reacting to and helping to create.—Garrett Martin
Created by: Robin Thede
A Black Lady Sketch Show again and again manages to find ways to comment on the nadirs, nuances and particularities of Black life in ways that do not make a mockery of Blackness itself. Season 2’s revolving door of guest stars—including Gabrielle Union, Omarion, Amber Riley, Yvette Nicole Brown, Wunmi Mosaki, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Miguel, Skai Brown, the show’s executive producer Issa Rae and more—play characters who may be rendered ridiculous but are never themselves the joke. It’s refreshing, it’s sharp and above all it’s actually funny. The show is undeniably rewarded cool points for offering new life to the legacy of actually funny sketch comedy shows helmed by Black creative teams (In Living Color, Key & Peele, etc.) but its relevance isn’t grounded in its release during a moment in popular culture where calls for increased representation are made. A Black Lady Sketch Show stands on its own two feet as a meritorious, well-crafted variety program.
Clever one-liners and quintessentially Black references are peppered gracefully throughout Season 2’s six episodes. In a sketch starring creator Robin Thede and newcomer Laci Mosley, Thede is an unhappy woman who learns from a psychic that everything went wrong during a childhood game of M.A.S.H. This is the reason she doesn’t have a Lambo with the suicide doors and did not in fact marry B2K singer Omarion. In another sketch Mosley tries desperately to hide her half-unbraided hair from a booty call. In yet another a group of women reunite on vacation and excitedly greet one another in ridiculous ways—chloroforming one another upon arrival and unveiling masks to reveal that they have arrived. The joke is that Black women are often so excited to reunite with one another that they squeal, sometimes shimmy and laugh when seeing one another. This sketch takes that interpersonal social culture and makes light of what others might recognize as disruptive but what the sketch depicts as hyperbolically joyful.
Season 2 of A Black Lady Sketch Show is a success. Thede, her fellow leads and the writing team effectively craft a second season which further asserts the show’s ethos. Overall it’s a proud and well-earned victory lap.—Adesola Thomas
Created by: Ziwe
One of Ziwe’s greatest comedic strengths is understanding how to employ humor through various means—music, sketch comedy, interviews, etc.—to highlight the absurdity of our American reality and the fundamental discomfort people have with discussing this nation’s legacy of racism, sexism and injustice on the whole. On her Instagram Live series Baited with Ziwe, Ziwe interviewed iconic guests like internet celebrity Caroline Calloway, Alyssa Milano, and Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris, among others. Through the series and its increased popularity during the summer of 2020, Ziwe became renowned for unabashedly asking her predominantly white guests confrontational questions about race.
The legacy of her live series carries over into her Showtime show. In the official promotional video for Ziwe, the comedian asks notorious New Yorker Fran Lebowitz “what bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?” Because of this brand of humor and her refusal to hand anyone an “ally cookie” for basic interpersonal decency, some might misinterpret Ziwe’s satire as elevated trolling—bullying masquerading as niche comedy. But if one only looks closely enough it becomes abundantly clear that Ziwe is deeply uninterested in tearing any individual guest down but rather drawing attention to the discomfort people have with the possibility of discomfort itself. Her comedy is crafted to showcase how fearful people are of saying the “wrong thing” or revealing gaps in their knowledge. Ziwe’s comedy implicitly asks “why are people more afraid of appearing racist, sexist, etc. than actually being any of those things?” When Ziwe asks “what the fuck is a deductible?” over a trap beat it’s because that a funny thing to do. But it also gives listeners time to reckon with the fact that healthcare in America is so unnecessarily complicated and inaccessible that it took a talented comedian and a trap beat for them to sit and intentionally ask themselves why and question if it has to be.—Adesola Thomas
Created by: Zach Kanin and Tim Robinson
The second season of Tim Robinson’s beloved sketch show has the same fascination with embarrassment and the failure to read social cues that drove the first season. Once again a typical sketch revolves around a character—often played by Robinson, occasionally by a guest star like Tim Heidecker or Patti Harrison or Bob Odenkirk—who does something inappropriate, embarrassing, or simply weird in public, and then doubles down on it, refusing to acknowledge any weirdness or wrong-doing no matter how much pressure or criticism they get from others. It’s a pattern that still works, and the show veers away from it just enough to keep it fresh throughout the second season.
Despite how that might sound, I Think You Should Leave isn’t really “cringe comedy.” It’s too absurd for that, the situations too pointedly cartoonish. Also, instead of The Office’s Michael Scott realizing he overstepped, broadcasting his discomfort, and ultimately being portrayed as a well-meaning and fundamentally likable person, Robinson’s characters are usually unhinged and with almost no degree of self-awareness. It elevates the comic stakes past mere discomfort and into something far more inspired.
Robinson and his co-writers (which include the show’s co-creator Zach Kanin and MacGruber co-writer John Solomon) make comedy that’s very specific and focused, and yet whose basic ideas can be applied to an almost endless spectrum of concepts and situations. I don’t see any reason I Think You Should Leave couldn’t continue on for several seasons to come, as long as the show is able to avoid the backlash and online criticism that seems to be the fate of anything that gains any modicum of success these days. If you’re worried I Think You Should Leave’s second season will disappoint you, don’t: it’s still tremendous.—Garrett Martin