Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sketched Out: The Recent Rise of Sketch Comedy

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Take a look at this year's Emmy nominees for Best Variety Series, and you'll see that the talk-show format is still most preferred by voters. Five of the six nominees are ostensibly late-night talk shows: Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report, with only Saturday Night Live as the odd-one out.

However, Saturday Night Live isn't really all that odd once you dig deeper into the Variety Series field. Look in the directing and writing categories, and you'll see a different set of shows: Portlandia, Inside Amy Schumer, and Key & Peele all score nods. It's a reflection of a greater trend that's been growing in television over the past couple of years: the sketch comedy is making a comeback.

 Peele (left) and Key

Not that it ever disappeared completely, of course. Saturday Night Live has long been a stalwart of the genre, entering its 40th season this fall (sadly, though, without longtime announcer Don Pardo). The aforementioned late-night talk shows, too, have always incorporated elements of sketch comedy, but hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have increasingly turned to sketches and viral videos to lure in viewers (Fallon is a former SNL cast member, as is his NBC late-night companion, Seth Meyers). And cable networks such as Comedy Central have more or less kept sketch comedy shows around as their bread-and-butter, with that network in particular having a major critical and popular hit with Chappelle's Show in the mid-2000s.

In fact, Comedy Central is largely the benefactor of the new sketch show boom, as the network is home to three of the most critically-acclaimed sketch comedies on television right now. Key & Peele, starring comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, has a strong irreverent streak, earning big laughs from sketches ranging from "Obama's Anger Interpreter" to two valet drivers raving about how awesome Liam Neeson is. Inside Amy Schumer, starring Amy Schumer, has earned sterling reviews for its cutting feminist humor. And Drunk History has a very simple concept: a comedian gets drunk, then tells a historical story, which is then recreated by actors. The result is a hilarious history lesson that isn't always accurate, but never fails to entertain.

Armisen (left) and Brownstein

But Comedy Central isn't the only one with a successful sketch show. IFC has Portlandia, from stars Fred Armisen (a SNL alum) and Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney fame). What makes Portlandia so hilarious and successful is that it manages to meld humor that is both extremely specific - jokes about Portland, Oregon, and the hipsters that live there - and very broadly silly. You don't have to know the specifics to find it funny, but the more you know about Portland, the more levels of humor the show has. NBC also recently teased the idea of granting a sketch/variety show to Maya Rudolph (also an SNL veteran), though so far it's only gone so far as producing a one-off special.

So why is sketch comedy back on the rise? There are likely a few reasons for this. For one thing, as evidenced by the preceding paragraphs, a number of these shows involve former SNL cast members. With more television networks and programming options than ever before in the medium's history, there's more opportunities for these actors and writers to find a space to do their own sketches. Secondly, sketch comedies and variety shows are relatively cheap to produce, so they theoretically save the networks money to funnel into more ambitious, more expensive projects.

But the most likely reason is because of the success of Internet video servers such as YouTube or Vine. More than ever, comedy can be uploaded by anyone in bite-sized pieces. As a result, sketch comedy shows have become a way of creating viral videos that will then hopefully be spread across social media. SNL took advantage of this when Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone came up with "Digital Shorts," a tradition that continues today even though both have left the show. And bits from the aforementioned shows have been shared regularly across Facebook and Tumblr, with varying degrees of staying power. There's no doubt that the networks hope that seeing a popular clip online will bring viewers to the show when it airs, though that's a hard metric to measure.

The sketch comedy series is definitely in the midst of a comeback right now. Whether it proves to be a passing fad or a glimpse into the future, for the moment it seems anything is possible.

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