Sketch Comedy Greats
The SF Sketchfest just brought dozens of top-notch comedians into the area, who induced laughter any way they could: through stand-up, film screenings with commentary, improvisation, podcast chats, and of course, sketch comedy. In honor of that last one, here are some great sketch shows you can find at the library:
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
One of the earliest and most influential sketch troupes, the Monty Python crew skewered uptight British society by embracing nonsense and general silliness. In between visiting the Ministry of Silly Walks and following the progress of the 127th Annual Upper-Class Twit of the Year obstacle-course race, viewers got to enjoy Terry Gilliam’s maniacal photo-collage animations. And let’s not forget how hilarious it is to see Terry Jones and Graham Chapman in drag, inanely chattering in a shrieking falsetto.
Saturday Night Live (1975-Present)
Do I need to say much about the longest-running sketch comedy show ever? This weekly showcase has featured an incredible array of comedic talents, such as Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and sooooo many others. I can close my eyes and half a dozen classic sketches spring into view: “Toonces the Driving Cat,” “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer,” “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey,” “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” “Weekend Update,” and “Wayne’s World.”
This Canadian show featured performers and writers from the same Second City Comedy Troupe that supplied Saturday Night Live with many of its original cast members. Living in SNL’s shadow, SCTV embraced its alternative status and produced edgier, weirder stuff than you would find on a major network. In fact, the format was that of a low-budget TV station, which allowed for various commercials, talk-show parodies, and celebrity impersonations. If you’re familiar with John Candy, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, or Martin Short, you must seek SCTV out to see their fantastic early work.
The Kids in the Hall (1988-1994)
Another great from our neighbors to the north, The Kids in the Hall gave me a reason to make it through high school. Much like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the often quirky and bizarre sketches poked fun at social norms and authority figures (be they bosses, parents, or the Queen of England), and featured a hilarious cast of social miscreants (The Chicken Lady, the polite axe murderer, Cabbage Head, Mr. Headcrusher). In one of my favorite sketches, “Girl Drink Drunk,” Foley’s character declines a drink with his boss because he “just doesn’t like the taste of alcohol.” But when he’s forced to have at least a Chocolate Choo Choo (“It’s a girl drink, tastes like candy… DON’T disappoint me!”), his life spirals out of control in a haze of pineapple wedges and little paper umbrellas. In 2010, the Kids got back together for a comedy murder mystery miniseries, Death Comes to Town.
Mr. Show (1995-1998)
David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s too-brief HBO show may be my absolute favorite of the bunch, due to the freedom the writers had to tackle any subject they liked, and the creativity with which they did so. Most episodes stitched scenes together with clever transitions, and mercilessly satirized everything from soulless corporations (“Globo-Chem: We own everything, so you don’t have to!”) to people who try to be cool by adopting exotic pets. Brilliant stuff. Many comedians got early exposure writing for and acting on Mr. Show, such as Brian Posehn, Sarah Silverman, and Paul F. Tompkins.
Snuff Box (2006)
A short-lived BBC production, Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher’s dark comedy is quite a bit different from all the other shows I’ve listed. The lead characters (who are employed as hangmen) are seen executing criminals or bickering over whiskey in an upper-class gentlemen’s club. Interspersed with musical numbers, its sketches involve time travel, rhythmic cursing, rappers with babies, half-wit siblings, creepy nerds, and a healthy dose of cruelty. Definitely not for everyone, but very original and rewarding for its niche audience.
With a remarkably specific focus, Portlandia takes aim at the various character types that inhabit the affluent-hippie-yuppie-hipster paradise that is Portland, Oregon. SNL alum Fred Armisen and riot grrrl Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney) play a host of characters that give a satirical yet accurate picture of life among the socially, politically, aesthetically, and environmentally conscious. Passive-aggressive feminist bookstore owners, wishy-washy punk couples, status quo-hating hipsters, Netflix addicts, “put a bird on it!” craftsters, obsessively eco-conscious foodies, and many more inhabit this world, and chances are good that you know many of these folks right here in the Bay Area.
According to his wife, Chris Gray kind of looks like Dave Foley from the Kids in the Hall.