Stand-Up and Sketch in America

I was going to put this in the Sketch Primer series, but it’s more of a musing than an analytical argument. So instead, it’s a regular post. I was thinking about sketch comedy, and why it’s not as popular in the US as it is in England. Funny thing is, it was. In the 70s, sketch was hugely popular in the US. With the rise of SNL and the Not Ready for Primetime Players, plus the importing of Monty Python, people in the 70s watched a lot of very good sketch comedy. And they watched it in great numbers. The sketch comedians were like rock stars. And now, 25+ years later, the US is an abyss of sketch comedy, where great performers and writers are given nothing but scraps, which are quickly taken away. So how did we get here? My theory, and I stress this is a very rough theory, is that we got here because of stand-up.

The transition point looks to me right around 1980. But for the sake of the theory, we’ll say that sketch died in the early to mid-80s. A few things happened:

1) The breakup of the original Saturday Night Live team. This was inevitable, with the success they had, but it was still a blow. what made it worse is how bad SNL became in the immediate aftermath. Everyone saw SNL in the Doumanian years and thought, “hey, I guess the cast was what made the show funny.” And this is partially true of course. But here’s a great what-if for you: What if NBC had worked to keep Lorne Michaels at the helm rather than drive him away in 1979?

2) The end of the Python phenomenon. In 1982, Monty Python performed in front of a packed house at the Hollywood Bowl. They had officially conquered America. Throughout the 70s, Monty Python had rocked the comedy world, especially in the US. Holy Grail in 1975, Life of Brian in 1978, and the Flying Circus running for the first time throughout the decade. People forget this now, but Monty Python was cool in the 70s. They hung around with models and movie stars and Beatles, they were doing tours and publicity, they were on TV and in the movies and in the record store. They were rock stars. They made Meaning of Life in 1983 and that was it. The Flying Circus, only 45 episodes deep, fell out of favor as it aged, and as the zaniness of the 70s gave way to the sardonic sharpness of the Reagan years. And there was nothing left to fill the gap. Again, people were left feeling like it was once-in-a-lifetime thing, when really it shouldn’t have been. As great as Monty Python was, it’s not like Rock and Roll ended after the Beatles broke up.

3) The rebirth and rise of Stand-Up. This is the most controversial idea, I think. Over the course of the 80s, the underground comedy scene was dominated by a new class of up and coming stand-up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Richard Lewis, Paul Reiser, the list goes on. They came of age in the mid 80s, and took the comedy world by storm. All of a sudden, stand-up was the hot thing. People didn’t watch SNL, they went to the Comic Strip. HBO started doing more stand-up specials, giving new life and new audiences to people like George Carlin, a veteran who nevertheless increased his following in the 80s. The talented young comedians went into stand-up. They didn’t write sketches at Camp Tamiment or do improv with the Groundlings. They wrote stand-up bits. It was observational, mostly. Gone were the Bob Hope one-liners and the Woody Allen storytelling. It was “Did you ever notice…” and “What’s the deal with…” And people loved it.

Eddie Murphy is the perfect example. He was terrific on SNL. He may have saved the entire series. He could play characters, do voices, and just plain act. He had great timing and a great comedic style. But he didn’t get his own variety show when he was too big for SNL. He made movies, sure, like Jerry Lewis did. But he also did stand-up specials. It as natural. That’s how he got his start, after all, when he was a teenager. But what if SNL was more than a stepping stone? What if there was more of venue for him to showcase his sketch talents? What if stand-up hadn’t replaced sketch as the preferred medium?

David Cross is a funny stand-up. But he’s too good of an actor to be stuck on a small stage with a microphone and a stool. He deserved to be seen in Mr. Show. He deserved to play characters and play out premises. And it’s a shame it didn’t work out. It’s not like stand-up is inherently funnier than sketch. And who knows? Maybe this is cyclical. Maybe the new generation of great sketch comedians is alive and working right now. Maybe in England they’ll just keep churning out great sketch while the US goes in fits and starts. But maybe we’ll see a resurgence in great sketch. But I doubt it. Not as long as SNL is the only game in town, and not as long as stand-up is the platform to fame and fortune.

3 Responses to “Stand-Up and Sketch in America”

  1. Cool article and interesting analysis, as always. I didn’t realize Lorne Michaels had left SNL for a while.

  2. marianne Says:

    when are you addressing the manny ramirez/PED controversy? besides quitting on the sox, he is now an official cheater. are you ready to come off the Manny island yet?

  3. In writing about sketch comedy, you seem to concentrate on television. However, when writing about the decline of sketch comedy, it would be appropriate to mention radio/vinyls.
    In America, you had the Firesign Theatre, beginning in the 60s. Sure, there were crazy fucking comedians like Soupy Sales with some sketch comedy on their vinyl albums–but some of the work of Firesign Theatre holds up to time, while Soupy Sales…. Anyhow, Firesign’s first album was a series of hilarious sketches tracing the path of the USA from 1500 on–with Spaniards and Englishmen first meeting the Native Americans, a dystopian vision of the world’s future under a Hippy dictatorship, etc. If you haven’t heard “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” get the disc and listen to the first and third tracks. You’ll be happy. They got a shot at the small screen doing surreal, zany and generally funny commercials for Jack Poet Voltswagon (“I get my Voltswagon fixed everyday at Jack Poet Voltswagon”). You can find these on the internet, I’m sure. Firesign’s before Python and was an American phenomenon—I think it deserves some mention.
    Throughout the 70s, you had Cheech and Chong releasing album after album as well. I was born in 84 and don’t know if there were other groups releasing this sort of thing. In thrift stores, there are stacks of these albums, so I gathered that these sketches had to be fairly popular when they were released. And, some have passed into the vernacular (“Dave’s not here.”).
    These days, there is an almost total absence of good, comedic radio in the US. You have a couple comedy quiz shows on NPR or PRI (Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Says You); once in awhile, you’ll get something truly hilarious on This American Life (Robert Schmigel of Conan and SNL describing the making and evolution of his Bob Dole impersonation back in 1996–perhaps the most intentionally funny moment in over 300 shows in over 10 years). But Jesus Christ, look at the writing/sketches/characters on Prairie Home Companion–I hear people in the audience laugh, but I just don’t know what they are laughing at.
    I’m not even going to mention shock jocks and morning radio zoos. I don’t know when that became the norm–it has been that way my whole life. The weakly put-together characters, the over-the-top voices, the crude bits–there is no place for GOOD radio sketch comedy from Dr Demento to Howard Stern.

    Then you take British radio. There was the precursor to both Python and an inspiration for Firesign Theatre–The Goon Show with Peter Sellers. I believe some of the Pythons did radio work before getting together, and then–once a unit–produced several albums. Around the time the Pythons broke up, The Burkiss Way came out and lasted until the early 80s, I think. It was radio sketch comedy, influenced by Python (particularly in later episodes). It has been rebroadcast in recent years and remains popular. There is now a 20 year gap in my knowledge of British radio, but I would assume that sketch comedy continued on the radio until the production of the modern programs I am more familiar with–Mitchell and Webb (as you’ve covered), The Museum of Everything, A Series of Psychotic Episodes, the list goes on.

    Televised sketch comedy in America did not die, it just generally sucks. But there are some jewels. The Chapelle Show sketch with the black white supremacist should stand in the annals of American sketch comedy–although not every skit in Chapelle’s is comparable to Mr Show, the black white supremacist skit may be the funniest American sketch I’ve seen. And there is other decent material that can go overlooked–In Living Color, of course. Although some of the material was weak, and some characters were played out until I literally could not watch certain sketches, the show had more going for it than SNL. There are some beacons of televised sketch comedy–with very small (and VERY unfunny) exceptions, radio broadcast sketch comedy did die in America.
    It seems like a silly what-if to ask about Lorne Michaels never breaking off from SNL…In Great Britain, there have always been several people/groups ready to fill the shoes of the greats when one of them leaves the stage (or the office, in Michaels’ case).
    If you’re familiar with Bob and David of Mr Show–Bob worked for SNL, Cross worked for Mad TV. I think the lack of good sketch comedy must have to do with marketing or something. Many people have visceral reactions AGAINST sketch comedy (particularly Python, and particularly Flying Circus). People don’t get it and when they hear others saying it is the funniest material ever written, they get upset. “Arthur Two-Sheds Jackson,” they say. Let’s not even start with the animation…
    I can see many sketch comedians pitching their show, only to say it is “inspired by Python” or “like Python.” I don’t think American television would be willing to risk it. Let alone, it is hard to think of industry people really understanding good comedy. Until something decent gets on the air, there is little the American public can do. When something decent comes along, lets just hope that the people who don’t get it are not very vocal….

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