The Future of Sketch Comedy on TV

Comedy Features sketch comedy
The Future of Sketch Comedy on TV

Earlier we looked at the rise and importance of sketch comedy. Today we talk to Paul Scheer, Jonathan Stern and more about sketch comedy’s future.

Last month two new sketch comedy series debuted on two very different platforms with roughly identical goals. Fox’s Party Over Here, from the Lonely Island and Paul Scheer, aims to televise a flavor of sketch that is by now old hat at theaters like the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Groundlings—shrewd, daft, hyper-aware, proudly ignorant of convention. Meanwhile the producers of Netflix’s The Characters, which include Kristen Zollner and Lisa Nishimura, seek to build a home for the character-oriented comedy that has carved out a niche in live performance and on podcasts—especially podcasts—but has not quite transitioned to longer forms. Its central concern—the transformative wonder of a single comedian embodying multiple characters in quick succession—is certainly a tenet of sketch, but The Characters inverts the repertory format common to many peer series, in which a troupe of players more or less settles into type. Both shows are an act of translation, an attempt to recreate onscreen the magic of a particular live experience. It’s probably a quixotic mission, but not necessarily a doomed one, and both have their share of pleasures and frustrations. Both, too, are tinged with a sort of anxiety, weighted under and ignited by the looming existential question: does sketch still belong on TV?

No. Yes. Maybe? Putting aside the obvious practical incentives—for networks, in making short form content with relatively under-the-radar performers; for comedians, in making that sweet TV cheddar—the artistic concerns are thorny and subjective. A sketch, by nature, is short. Every beat is constructed with the singular goal of sustaining a viewer’s attention through the next beat. On the web, sketch serves at the pleasure of the viewer. If she doesn’t like it, she may click to another sketch or walk away entirely. The contract is reversed on TV, where the viewer serves at the pleasure of the show: if she’s not into the first sketch, she hopes the next will make up for it, or the one after that. (Yes, in an ideal world, all content is amazing all the time always, but even in that sketchtopia there will be issues of taste, some sketches will hit harder than others, whether out of topicality or sheer ingenuity, and eventually creators will get bored of what they know and try new things which you hate, etc. etc. etc., and the essential sketch:viewer relationship exists irrespective of quality anyway.) In narrative television and film there is the implicit understanding that a lackluster first act might pay off in the second or third; a sketch show has no such fallback, as each sketch stands independent of the rest. If there is grander cohesion—an overarching reason to keep watching—it’s in the cast and voice of the show. Still the threat persists: lose the viewer in your first sketch, and you may not have a chance to win her back with the fifth.

This threat looms particularly large over The Characters, whose anthology format—eight comedians writing and starring in their own standalone installments—is a double-edged sword. If you hate one episode, the next promises to be entirely different; on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that what you love about one will be replicated in any of the other seven. Netflix is uniquely positioned to take this risk, though. The service isn’t beholden to ratings or advertisers, doesn’t release viewership numbers, and has immense resources simply to give artists a chance to do what hasn’t been done, haters be damned. And, love it or hate it, there is an entrancing newness to The Characters, a rare bottled-magic feeling even in the most challenging episodes. Producer Lisa Nishimura, who heads original comedy and documentary for Netflix, traces the series’ roots to a stroke of serendipity. At Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival several years ago, she walked into what she thought was a traditional stand-up show; it was in fact a character showcase. “I watched somebody literally transform into four different characters in this tiny amount of time with minimal props,” she told me over the phone. “I remember feeling insanely, utterly transfixed. It was something we started to talk about—we realized there are very few places you can go, if you’re not a comedy nerd hitting the clubs, where you can showcase this very specific craft.”

The magic is more magical in some episodes than in others, of course. I think “Paul W. Downs” is most effective at preserving the shimmering transience of live performance, not only because certain segments are recorded before a live audience, but also because Downs brings the most irreverence to the enterprise—tearing off a fake mustache as though it were some shocking reveal, snorting a ludicrously long line of cocaine, killing off each of his characters in post-sketch title cards, kissing a baby in what might be the funniest moment of the series. “Always expect the unexpected,” he tells us, neatly encapsulating the fundamental paradox of comedy, the perpetual quest to surprise an audience that knows it’s about to be surprised. What’s so wondrous about his episode, and the class of live shows that inspired Nishimura, is that they are a collective game of pretend. Whereas stand-up tends to appeal to some greater, recognizable sense of truth—“what’s the deal with airline food?!”—character work skips right to the absurdly specific: “this is obviously fake, but it would be crazy if it were real!” Paul Downs and Tim Robinson preserve this sense of play by adhering closest to sketch as we are accustomed to it, a series of scenes with little to no connective tissue. Many of the other episodes feel rather like short films, embedding their characters in the trappings of psychological realism, which demands that weird people be weird for a reason. Sketch has no time to explain why Downs is kissing that baby; narrative requires, well, narrative. This is not a mark against episodes like “Kate Berlant” or “John Early”—though maybe against their marketing—and it speaks to a greater truth about The State Of Comedy And Television Today: with proliferating platforms and segmenting audiences, creators no longer need to conform their work to traditional models. Now more than ever, you can tailor the form to the peculiarities of the content, the content to the idiosyncrasies of form.

Take, for instance, Paul Scheer. The comic-of-all-trades’ Joycean mouthful of a Twitter bio is compelling evidence that even the daffiest ideas can find a home and an audience. I’m thinking namely of The ArScheerio Paul Show, his web series reenactment of Arsenio Hall interviews, and Crash Test, the comedy special he and Rob Huebel filmed on a moving bus, though his oeuvre largely consists of square pegs that make no effort to fit in round holes. Party Over Here tends toward the traditional side of things—loonier than Saturday Night Live, though still missing the clarity of voice offered by any episode of The Characters. (I’m reluctant to apply comparable scrutiny, as Party Over Here currently has four episodes to The Characters’ eight.) I find it appealing, like “Paul W. Downs,” for its incorporation of the live experience into the televisual. The cast—Nicole Byer, Jessica McKenna, Alison Rich—regularly engages with their sort-of-studio audience, setting an organic, improvisational tone that pairs well with the prerecorded material. Such was Scheer’s intention for the show: to combine the raucous tenor of live sketch with the sophistication of the contemporary digital short. “I really wanted to make something reflective of the comedy that’s happening right now,” he told me in the weeks before Party Over Here’s premiere. “We want to do these really expansive, movie-like sketches that people like right now, but we also want to do stuff onstage… to see if we can merge the two into something fresh.”

This is good, exciting and deeply confusing. In trying to capture the magic of live comedy, both Party Over Here and The Characters tacitly acknowledge the limitations of sketch on TV. What feels so fresh about Party Over Here is also, somehow, regressive, a rejection of its own form. Meanwhile The Characters’ best episodes either abandon sketch altogether (“Kate Berlant”), plop sketches inexplicably alongside a larger narrative (“John Early”), or hew to a tradition (“Paul W. Downs,” “Tim Robinson”) that is rapidly becoming irrelevant outside of comedy clubs and the web. None of this quite answers the question of whether there is still a home for sketch on television. If anything, I’ve muddled the issue beyond reckoning. But this confusion is useful. Sketch comedy is more sophisticated and in demand than it has ever been, thanks both to the web and to pioneering series like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer and Portlandia—visually distinctive shows with bold, relevant points of view, whose YouTube clips have often outperformed their ratings. This fits into a larger trend of consumers preferring to watch TV online, but with sketch the issue is bound up in form as well as convenience. Virality favors individual sketches, not episode-length bundles of them. As Scheer explained, “You don’t have to watch a show anymore; you can have no connection to it. A [viral] sketch is an entry point, but you’re removed from the full entity.” In a way, though, we were always removed. A viewer’s relationship to a TV show is usually to some configuration of its characters and its narratives; sketch requires us to let go of these relationships (in some capacity) at the end of each sketch. This is its chief pleasure and often its greatest challenge. As much as we might love Fred and Carrie—Key and Peele, Bob and David, Tim and Eric, Amy Schumer—we will always prefer certain versions of them to others, will always be distracted, however minutely, by one sketch’s inferiority to the last. Hence the feeling that sketch shows must still fight to be vital, to find new ways of configuring these relationships, to change a game the web has already won.

I’ve left out a huge part of this conversation. In recent years we’ve seen a slew of new comedy series that exist halfway between sketch and narrative. Shows like Louie, Man Seeking Woman, Review, Nathan For You and Drunk History typically present two or three discrete segments rather than a conventional 22-minute narrative. (True, some have also played with episode-long stories, especially in recent seasons; I’m also leaving out genre-bending examples like Comedy Bang! Bang! and The Eric Andre Show, as talk shows have always allowed some level of formal plasticity.) Like web series and most of Adult Swim’s offerings, these shows recognize that many stories can be told very quickly, though this makes them no less worthy of telling. They allow the viewer to build more sustained relationships with characters and narratives, without demanding more energy than they put out. Whereas sketch shows require you to refill the tank every few miles, hybrids get much more impressive mileage. This isn’t a new model—it’s pretty how much children’s cartoons work—but I suspect its infiltration into comedy owes a heavy debt to sketch. While it’s trendy to say consumers have increasingly short attention spans, that notion is directly contradicted by the popularity of podcasts and binge-watching. What I think we are seeing instead is a broader cultural respect—and, thus, demand—for short form comedy. But even this is a simplistic explanation.

Dave Kneebone is a producer at Abso Lutely Productions, the company behind Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Nathan For You, Review , W/ Bob and David , The Birthday Boys and many other series at the front lines of comedy, which are often also the fringes. He’s produced sketch and short form, films and episodic television, and he believes that the changing shape of comedy is a direct response to changing methods of consumption. “Someone’s not gonna sit through a 22-minute thing that you text them,” he said. “It makes sense to be consumable, in smaller chunks. The way people are viewing things naturally benefits comedy…It used to be much harder to find people with your sensibilities, but that difficulty has largely gone away. If I see something online and I’m like ‘Holy shit, that’s amazing,’ it’s easy for me to instantly connect with the people making it. I’m automatically plugged into that community.”

His comments echo Sam Reich, head of Big Breakfast, who predicts that comedy is undergoing a genre-wide movement towards brevity. “People are open to the idea that a half hour can be two or three stories,” Kneebone observed, “that the runtime should be dictated by the idea.” But he believes this wave of segment-based storytelling is just the beginning of a grander evaporation of old forms. “We’re entering a place where, in the next several years, we’re going to be freer from the restrictions of format,” he said. “That time clock on a show is a relic from an era when Philip Morris cigarettes were paying for ad breaks during radio plays. You can kind of make anything now, be it a 90-second bit or a half-hour serialized dramedy. There’s a market for it; you just have to find the right hole.”

This notion, that for comedy creators anything is possible, came up in many of the conversations I had while researching this essay. (Granted, these conversations were with people who make similar sorts of work, often with each other; then again, it’s a pretty small circle of artists making sketch on television). Increasingly segmented audiences, built over shareable content and online communities, offer untold opportunities to ideas that lack mass appeal. “You’re no longer trying to serve a broad audience,” said Abominable Pictures’ Jonathan Stern. “You can now be very happy and successful with a small and dedicated audience… I think it was an artificial thing, that we had to take our entertainment in thirty, sixty, or ninety minutes. It’s natural to have a variety of ways of watching something, and certain stories or characters fit different lengths.”

“You don’t have to make something that appeals to everyone,” agreed Scheer, who has collaborated with Stern on NTSF:SD:SUV:: and The Amazing Gay! Pile, among other things. “Right now we live in a time where I can say to JASH, ‘Hey, I want to remake Arsenio Hall interviews word for word, give me money to go do that.’ I don’t think there was a market for that even three years ago. I’m even doing a Vine cartoon series right now—six-second cartoons! However you want to get your voice out there, you can get it out there now.”

Obviously sketch is one of many factors that gave rise to this climate of infinite possibility. But I think, and this is conveniently impossible to prove or disprove, that it has been a guiding force. In the last twenty years—from the end of one comedy boom to the dawn of another—sketch has crept from the fringe to the mainstream. It has matured both formally and culturally, finding unprecedented mass audiences and social legitimacy. (Reich, agog: “We got Michelle Obama to do a video last year. Why is Michelle Obama doing a rap video?”) This trajectory tracks closely to comedy’s broader ascendance into a serious art form, and it overshadows both stand-up, whose basic delivery methods have scarcely changed, and improv, which is still mostly consumed live. And yet just as we’ve finally figured out what to do with sketch, there’s a sense that this is not enough, we must do something else, something better. It took the form coming into its own for us to truly recognize the form itself. Sketch series used to be the only way most people could access sketch; compromise was required of both artist (in the writing and ordering of material) and audience (in consenting to watch an entire episode of SNL for a few memorable sketches). Today we live in a different world; a good sketch is more accessible than most TV episodes or movies. This isn’t necessarily bad news for sketch series—sure, more people may watch lone clips online than episodes on air, but as Stern said, a small and dedicated audience is often enough to survive on. What it means is a tremendous responsibility for creators, especially those who tend toward shorter content. If you can make anything, what you do make had better be in its best and most right form. Otherwise we’ll watch something else that is.

One of my favorite jokes in The Characters is also one of the stupidest. A stage manager approaches Paul Downs in his dressing room. “It’s showtime,” she says. He smiles a too-polite smile. Behind him, out of focus, stands a mannequin in bondage gear. “Oh, no.” he says. “This is for Netflix.” He ushers her out—“I appreciate you very much, thank you, see you soon”—before insufflating a line of cocaine that circles the room. Director Andrew Gaynord keeps tight on Downs’ face, opera blasting from a stereo, until Downs ends up facing his wide-eyed reflection in the mirror: “It’s Netfliiix!” That’s it, that’s all: a joke aware of its time and place, simple enough that I needn’t think, detailed enough that even if my attentions strays from the action, I’m still in a singular world. Sketch is short, yes, but good sketch makes you wish it were longer—though you know it mustn’t be.

Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.

Share Tweet Submit Pin