Archive for sketch

Stand-Up and Sketch in America

Posted in Comedy with tags , on May 12, 2009 by fieldingmellish

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.