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Sketch Comedy in 2019 Enters a Golden Era With Netflix, HBO Shows Like I Think You Should Leave
When Saturday Night Live turned 40 in 2015, the long-running variety program held an anniversary show that was a staggering entertainment phenomenon to behold. SNL40 drew together not some, but nearly all the most significant figures in pop culture of the time. NBC crammed everyone from Eddie Murphy to Taylor Swift onto the familiar stages of 30 Rock for a delirious, decade-hopping sketch show, the scale of which had never before been seen. While SNL40 celebrated the enduring relevance of the long-running NBC sketch series, it also proved something far broader than the influence of Lorne Michaels’ scrappy late night show: SNL40 showed that sketch comedy is not only just a viable form of entertainment, but that the medium itself is still hugely important to our cultural discourse. And four years later, the art form seems to be nearing upon something of a new golden era.
Sketch comedy is older than television itself. The traditional set up of three to six-minute sketches that are loosely tied together with either a host, a theme, or some overarching tonal quality, is an entertainment tradition that’s been relished all over the world since before the cabaret era. But in years past, narrative series and movies have established precedence over sketch in the comedy landscape. The art form has been relegated to something of a farm league for artists anticipating their breakout. But today, series are emerging from established voices that put traditional sketch comedy front and center. And while these new shows pay tribute to the old-fashioned format, they are also advancing the art form with welcome new perspectives and diverse commentary far beyond its archaic roots.
As much as SNL has been a touchstone for pop culture, it’s also been a consistent punching bag for critics. The show’s lack of diversity and tone-deaf political perspective has flummoxed its fanbase for decades, and beyond that, there is always the looming criticism that the current cast just can’t contend with the ensembles of the past. But, despite its flaws, SNL is more forward-thinking today than it’s ever been. The show sometimes feels like it is moving ahead at a snail’s pace, but today’s episodes tend to highlight the extraordinary women of the cast, draw attention to mental health issues, and amplify the voices of their non-white players more than ever before. SNL, though, is no longer the only leading institution in the sketch comedy world. In fact, the NBC series is facing some big, new competition, with even more to come.
In early July, HBO dropped the trailer for their new sketch series from writer Robin Thede and executive producer Issa Rae. A Black Lady Sketch Show, which will showcase a stacked bullpen of many of today’s leading voices in comedy, joins the surreal and experimental Random Acts of Flyness as the second new sketch comedy production from the network since 2016’s Tracey Ullman’s Show. Both Flyness and Tracey Ullman were renewed for further seasons. And with the recent premiere of SNL writer Julio Torres’ Spanish-language Los Espookys–which is not outright sketch comedy but draws together some of the medium’s most exciting young Latinx players (and fellow SNL alum Fred Armisen)–HBO is looking to be extremely sketch-friendly in 2019.
It’s not out of the ordinary for HBO to cater toward new sketch comedy voices. After all, Mr. Show, the granddaddy of all modern sketch, was hosted by the network. But unlike Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s brilliant, but white-male-oriented series from the ’90s, sketch comedy in 2019 on HBO is full of new perspectives and diverse landscapes, bringing the medium to exciting new frontiers.
All That, the beloved ’90s series that kicked-off the careers of everyone from Kenan Thompson to Nick Cannon, just returned to Nickelodeon this year. The show got a slick facelift and a brand new cast that’s full of young and exciting new voices. Like an SNL-junior, All That shaped the sense of humor for a generation of ’90s kids. Even more than two decades ago, the late-night Nick show proudly accentuated youngsters of different cultural backgrounds and body types, straying away from the predictable tropes that so many grown-up series of its time focused on. Unlike SNL, which reveled in reductive fat jokes like the infamous Chippendales Audition, or delighted in mocking the gay community, All That instead relied on old-fashioned slapstick and explosive, Orange Soda-soaked hijinks for laughs. The new series is still finding its footing in the landscape of comedy today–but seeing Laurie Beth Denberg pass the torch to a younger generation in her final Vital Information sign-off shows that the producers are keen on using All That’s storied past to propel the show into fun new territory.
This Spring, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson rampaged onto Netflix like a bull in a China shop. In a sea of aimless, self-aggrandizing streaming series such as Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, or the overwrought “prestige” shows like Stranger Things or House of Cards, Robinson’s series feels like the first risky piece of programming Netflix has released in years. The show is raucous, messy, and fully deranged. While the bulk of today’s comedy shows are still trying to recapture the milquetoast reliability of The Office or Parks and Rec, Robinson’s sketch show feels completely off-the-wall. Even for the critics who called I Think You Should Leave “hit or miss,” it’s impossible to deny that Robinson’s sense of humor is anything but derivative. His kaleidoscopic series revolves around such bizarre settings as funeral services, a “Baby of the Year” award show, and in one particularly memorable sequence, an ornery old man in an automotive focus group.
All comedians today have to contend with our rapidly-shifting cultural landscape. Whereas some leading voices such as Michelle Wolf, Hasan Minhaj, and John Oliver have gone full-on into political reporting, I Think You Should Leave shows that sketch comedy need not directly unpack the news of the day to still supplement the cultural discourse. Tim Robinson’s sketches skewer today’s hive-mind attitude, capturing the frantic nature of our internet brains through consistently funny group scenes. Most traditional group “games” in sketch comedy focus on the humorous divide between a crop of ordinary people and the one weirdo in the room who they’re trying to negotiate with, or silence. In Robinson’s show, however, the loudest person in the room almost always prevails in the court of public opinion. In his now-famous focus group sketch, it’s the selfish, mischievous idiot who the rest of the group sides with–not the polite dude who’s just trying to maintain decency. This nuanced spin on sketch tradition makes the show feel acutely relevant today, when some of society’s dumbest and most awful members are also somehow our most powerful.
Arturo Castro, who is best known for his work on Broad City, premiered his new show, Alternatino on Comedy Central in June this year. His series, which showcases the multi-faceted performer playing zillions of different characters, hones in on the experience of a Latino man in today’s America. It’s a surface of the comedy landscape that has barely ever been scraped. Whereas I Think You Should Leave takes the ensemble approach that was hailed by cast-centric series like The State or Kids in the Hall, Castro’s show feels closer in line with Inside Amy Schumer or Key & Peele, acting as a vehicle for the unbridled talent of the show’s main creative force. Sketch comedy, unlike narrative-based film and television, is instrumental for demonstrating the range of its performers. The medium allows actors to drop in and out of dozens of scattered scenarios, and for Castro, this is especially useful, allowing him to elucidate on the many varied experiences that come along with the Latinx-American walk of life.
Since the medium’s earliest days, sketch comedy has always been something of a career springboard, rather than an end-goal for comedians. Series like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows from the early 1950s hosted a confluence of talent, such as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner, each of whom would subsequently launch their own projects off the sketch show’s success to find notoriety in their own right. Later shows such as Monty Python, which gave us John Cleese and Terry Gilliam, and SCTV, which catapulted the careers of John Candy, Catharine O’Hara, and Rick Moranis, all followed this precedent.
But in the past decade, that precedent has shifted. Many of our leading comedians and performers are turning to sketch comedy at the height of their notoriety. Whereas most performers transition into Hollywood after their years on SNL, Fred Armisen instead found his voice on the IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia, which ran to rave critical acclaim for eight seasons. After years of standup, live character performances, and bit parts in sitcoms and series, Nick Kroll earned huge attention for his MTV sketch show, Kroll Show. Tim Robinson, after a stint on SNL, and a series run from Comedy Central with Detroiters, has come back to sketch. Arturo Castro graduated from Broad City to his new sketch comedy show–not the other way around.From cultural touchstones like Key & Peele to controversial and boundary-challenging series like Chapelle’s Show, sketch comedy has been steadily reshaping its reputation for years. Today, it’s no longer just a place along the ladder of success, but a formidable arena of comedic expression all its own.
Internet-darling series like I Think You Should Leave have shown that audiences are responding to the art form in an impassioned way that hasn’t been the case since the heyday of Key & Peele, which ended almost half a decade ago. But what’s most significant about 2019’s emerging sketch comedy isn’t the number of people watching, or the amount of memes passed around Twitter. What’s most compelling about what’s happening right now is the breadth of voice and perspective that’s finally being offered in these new sketch shows.
When Chapelle’s Show was on TV back in the early 2000s, it was notable not only for being singularly funny and outrageous, but for being a mainstream place where non-white voices could be heard loud and clear. Today, as we approach 2020, sketch comedy with a non-white emphasis is no longer as unique a phenomenon–between the non-white focus on SNL, Alternatino, A Black Lady Sketch Show, All That, and Random Acts of Flyness, sketch comedy is finally hurtling toward a space where more people from varying walks of life are allowed to speak.
With a more inclusive landscape in sketch comedy comes a new era that’s both funnier and more relatable for people of all walks of life to enjoy. The emerging shows of 2019 will set a new precedent for the medium in years to come. And hopefully, as sketch comedy becomes more popular again, that means we will get more sketch shows on TV. With everything going on in the world right now, for fuck’s sake, we could really use it.
Dom Nero is a staff video editor at Esquire.com, where he also writes about film, comedy, and video games.