Mohammed Adnan

Opinion: What Goes Up Must Come Down – Is Proper ‘Sketch Comedy’ Dead?

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A Bit Of Fry and Laurie

Before I launch into this attack, one should understand that I am not simply stating facts, hence the word ‘opinion’ at the beginning of the title. As a man who enjoys the pleasures of television comedy, I have recently found myself looking through the YouTube archives for ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’ and the other sketch shows submitted by the determined nerds of video posting, leading me to pose the above question: is proper ‘sketch comedy’ dead?

Back in the day (clichéd, I know), we had the likes of ‘Monty Python’, ‘The Two Ronnies’, ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’, ‘The Fast Show’, etc. I still laugh watching my favourite sketch, ‘Tricky Linguistics’, in which Stephen Fry plays an overexcited, articulate master of English, where his exuberant and complex style confounds Hugh Laurie (who plays the ‘host’ in this sketch). The use of well-spoken English without the need to discuss the ‘taboo’ allows this type of comedy to confront and break a different boundary; we, the audience, are not idiots. And if we don’t understand, that’s fine. We are aware of the intentions of Fry’s character in this skit and it becomes even funnier if we know what he’s saying. And the relentlessly funny machine of ‘the sketch’ continued to operate.

Onwards and upwards; sketch comedy continued to rise, its predecessors also including the likes of ‘Monty Python’ (I shan’t write about this; it could be a very long article otherwise. Besides, there’s already A Peek at Python ) and ‘The Two Ronnies’ were juggernauts of the art. ‘The Fast Show’ came along, producing more great comedy moments such as the painter who screams ‘black’, or even ‘Unlucky Alf’, the man who personifies Sod’s Law. It was shortly after that sketch comedy began to run on empty. Although ‘Bo Selecta!’ was funny to a certain degree, it recycled the same jokes too many times and by the end of it, I would have punched Francis’ Michael Jackson impression so hard, it would never tell me to ‘sha’mon’ again. Soon, reusable jokes would be the craze and dark times certainly loomed ahead.

‘Yeah I know’. Even writing it sends an unfunny chill down my spine. And to make matters worse, most tracksuit-wearing, yob-enforcing, Burberry laden, Reebok sporting chavs do bad impressions of Matt Lucas’ pining voice, which just makes this sort of spewing of cheap jokes more annoying. The discharge of humourless repetition is not only in this particular sketch of ‘Little Britain’, but it’s in much of the show. Emily Howard’s ‘I’m a lady’ nonsense was a frequent feature of the show, met by ‘oh crap, not this again’ groans by my peers and I. So how did they decide to top this? What sugarless icing did they apply to this very tasteless cake? They got Matt Lucas to dress as a lady too and put a moustache on ‘him/her’ (groan). Oh, could the transvestite nature of this character be more ludicrous? Yes. They made him/her slip into a deep voice by mistake. The jokes were not particularly funny to start with so maybe if they had just been characters in one or two sketches, the jokes wouldn’t have worn any thinner than Richard Keys’ lips. But it’s inclusion in every episode made it so cheap. So gut-wrenchingly cheap.

The mountainous terrain of rip-roaring comedy has since waned into little hills of slight chuckles; the odd appearance of something good to laugh at has become a rare sight. ‘Armstrong & Miller’ boasts of a few good sketches amongst a litter of adequate/slightly below-par funniness. Of late, the only real diamond in the rough is ‘That Mitchell & Webb Look’, which has taken the winning formula of mainly producing different sketches every time (apart from a select few such as ‘Sir Digby Chicken Caesar’ which is used a number of times) and actually being creative. It’s perhaps the only saving grace of sketch shows since the golden oldies. So it seems that although sketch comedy isn’t quite dead, it’s just so rare to find. And to think that a few decades ago, people were engulfed in ‘Fry and Laurie’ snappiness, ‘Monty Python’ groundbreaking humour and the comedy of ‘The Two Ronnies’. I have unfortunately not had that particular privilege due to the blatant issue of ‘not being born yet/being too young’. But I wait tentatively, baited breath and all, in the hope we’ll enter another phase of sketch show brilliance soon.

Mohammed Adnan also has a blog. You can find it here.

  • Steve Langstaff

    This is just my opinion but I find this writer’s opinion a bit flawed. He says that “Back in the day” sketch comedy was strong, then lists four shows from different decades. I’m sure there were a lot of below average sketch shows around during the vast period that these successes were brought to our screens.

    Then he goes on to belittle the catchphrase style of Little Britain, whilst previously praising the style of The Fast Show (which pretty much cut all the content out and just left in the catchphrases as was the point, hence the show’s title). I don’t expect Little Britain to be to everyone’s taste, but anyone can surely see that The Fast Show played a part in opening the door to Little Britain and other catchphrase style sketch shows like Catherine Tate and The League of Gentlemen (series 1 and 2).

    I think if the writer was to go and see some of the better sketch acts on the circuit (eg. Penny Dreadfuls, Pappy’s and Lady Garden) he’d see that sketch is in great health when it’s done well.

    I don’t think it’s ever a case of sketch being a dead format, I’m sure the majority of us (me included) would have said the old-style studio sitcom was on the wane after the success of The Royle Family and then The Office, but have been proved wrong by the likes of The IT Crowd and most surprisingly Miranda.

    I think with anything, styles and trends come back around, but it’s always the really good stuff that makes an impact, whether that be sitcom, stand up or sketch. Funny is funny irrespective of format.

    • Mohammed Adnan

      I’m glad you used the word opinion to refer to my article, that’s what it is (see paragraph 1 in my article for further confirmation).

      The reason I say ‘back in the day’ is purely because I don’t refer to a specific time period, hence the early sketches mentioned being from different time periods. I thought that was quite obvious. Plus, the fact that they are from different decades only reinforces my argument. I’ve said it’s in decline. We’ve had great comedy from ‘four different decades’ (to use your words) and now I’m referring to the scarcity of good comedy. That clearly makes sense, doesn’t it?

      And yes, I understand that this was The Fast Show’s intent. I never stated that The Fast Show had fresh sketches, but it was groundbreaking in it’s time. The fact is, The Fast Show’s sketches were funny. Little Britain’s weren’t. Again, opinion.

      The sketches on the circuit might be good, but I’m talking about the mainstream television sketch shows. In case that was ever in question, please read the article.

      And yes, styles and trends come back around, that’s probably the only thing we agree on. Although, I’m not having a pop at the format. Quite the contrary, in fact. I love the format. Which is why the article was written. To see a format as great as the sketch show performed on television in a below-par manner; that is why I wrote this opinion article.

      And I think our differences have been made apparent by one of your statements. ‘Sitcom was on the wane after the success of The Office’? There’s our key difference in our opinion on comedy. I thought The Office was incredible and groundbreaking. And to add to this, you said the waning of sitcom has been proved wrong by Miranda?! Probably one of the most successful awful sitcoms alongside My Family.

      So…. glad you read the article anyway. :)

  • Bernard

    “Back in the day (clichéd, I know), we had the likes of ‘Monty Python’, ‘The Two Ronnies’, ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’, ‘The Fast Show'”

    That’s a long day, seeing as it actually covers around 25 years. By that logic, “now” is a period of time beginning around 1986. Seeing as Fry & Laurie and The Fast Show are both currently on telly “now”, I guess sketch comedy is doing fine.

    • Mohammed Adnan

      Oh Bernard, as you probably know, ‘back in the day’ is a clichéd way of referring to a period of time, as opposed to a ‘day’. I think you’ve taken the phrase a little too literally and extrapolated a meaning that just doesn’t work in the context that the article uses it in. How about ‘the good old days’? No, that doesn’t work ‘cos it’s measured in days again. ‘The olden days’ bears the same problem. Ah, I’ve got it. ‘The past’. ‘In the past, (a little clichéd, I know), we had the likes of…’. There you go. All better :)

  • George Scofield

    I agree that sketch comedy in the past was wittier perhaps and definitely more original. Using the same set up for a joke over and over very rarely works. Not that python etc. didn’t employ such things but it seems to be much more cleverly done and sparse. But we do have great sketch comedy about. i agree with the live comedy acts such as pappys etc are brilliant.We also have radio comedy which still respects the sketch. And in the last ten years we have had Big Train, Cowards and others creep on to tv. So i don’t think its all doom and gloom..

    • Mohammed Adnan

      I’m glad you agree that sketch comedy was a lot more original ‘in the past’. I think if we stick to television, there have only been a few decent ones. I agree with your choices but they don’t seem to get the exposure which I suppose was amongst the subtext of my argument. BBC Writersroom aren’t accepting sketch show material and it’s that sort of thing that further prompted me to write this article. I think a sketch show that also didn’t seem to be noticed much was Monkey Dust. Fantastically original. This is what I refer when I write about the ‘little hills of slight chuckles’.

  • Steve Langstaff

    I think you’ve read my comment about The Office wrong. I was referring to studio-sitcoms becoming outdated after the success of The Office, being a single camera, on location sitcom and that a glut of similar shows followed, then “surprisingly” Miranda broke through and showed that that studio style can still be successful. I wasn’t saying that The Office was poor, quite the opposite, that it was so good the studio-sitcom looked all but dead as a format.

    I think the fact that others have said your use of “back in the day” was a bit confusing shows a fundamental flaw in the journalism, you can’t defend it really as because it is a piece of journalism it must make sense to everybody.

    • Mohammed Adnan

      How about ‘Not Going Out’? That’s a studio show and successful. It’s on BBC One, for crying out loud. Maybe I should take your ‘studio-sitcoms becoming outdated’ quote and blow it out of proportion, much like my ‘back in the day’ comment. Oh wait, actually, no. I understand what you mean. It’s a shame those feeling aren’t reciprocated. Oh well, mustn’t grumble.

      Oh, is it a flaw in my journalism? Oh, and I’m a fully-fledged journalist too, with 20 years of experience (!) Oh, the shame (!) Oh sorry, no I’m not. I guess the editor understood what I meant, otherwise it’d have been edited out, no?

      • Giggle Beats

        For the Opinion pieces we don’t edit syntax, only grammar and spelling. It’s not our job or place to change the phrasing of your/anyone else’s argument.

  • Julia Maclean-Smith

    I think everyone focussing on the phrase ‘back in the day’ is taking away from he fact that the writer is speaking his ‘opinion’ and it is an opinion that myself and a lot of peers share. In my ‘opinion’ sketch shows seem to be in a bit of a blip and I too hope we enter another phase of well written, original, clever sketch shows soon :)

    • Mohammed Adnan

      Thank you!

  • Steve Langstaff

    I think it’s fair enough that the writer is sharing his opinion, but that’s what these articles are for surely? To spark debate. And I agree with some of his opinions, but not others and think the opinion is flawed, that’s my opinion. And part of my opinion is that the use of “back in the day” makes the argument a poor one.

    In the past there were good sketch shows, including the four used as an example, but how many other sketch shows were there that are now no longer remembered, or even remembered for all the wrong reasons?

    Sketch shows by their nature can be hit and miss as short sketches are conceptual and driven by premise, these concepts can be hated by some sections, but loved by others, the one good thing is you know another sketch will along soon.

    I also think that maybe in the multi-channel world we live in, that you may need to look around harder to find some quality comedy.

    A good example would be “Burnistoun” on BBC Scotland, which I’m not saying is perfect, but has some great moments.

    • Mohammed Adnan

      ‘you may need to look around harder to find some quality comedy’. Well, you certainly hit the nail on the proverbial head there. That’s my point. Shows like Little Britain and Bo’ Selecta were in the mainstream which in my OPINION were not funny. My point is that funny, innovative sketch shows on a mainstream channel are quite rare, hence talking about Mitchell & Webb as a saving grace.

      Otherwise, it’d have been an ridiculously long article. I could have talked about Monkey Dust in some fine detail and gone on to radio sketch comedy. Heck, I could have talked about some of my own sketches. And ‘Burnistoun’? Yeah, I have no idea what that is. I’m not going to do an analysis on every sketch which is why I went through mainstream. I was having a pop at mainstream sketch. The subtext referred to the fact that if you didn’t like this comedy, you had to look for all these other sketches on smaller channels. I suppose, in essence, I have great pride in British comedy. Which is why I’m slightly annoyed that these ill-thought mainstream comedies are a hit with big British audiences. That’s all Steve.

  • Steve Langstaff

    Of course you went through the mainstream, that’s why you never once mentioned the word “mainstream” in the article, and the subtitle mentions “proper” sketch comedy, but how can this be defined when comedy in it’s very nature is so subjective?

    Then again, even if these things were to be corrected it wouldn’t change the fact the whole article is flawed.

  • Agatha Whitt-Wellington (Miss)

    While I don’t necessarily agree with all of the examples listed, I do agree that the key to crap sketch comedy is obnoxious repetition. If the premise is so magical it makes viewers weep tears which turn into diamonds as they hit their cheeks, then a few variations on the formula can be enjoyable over the course of a series. But using the same 10 sketches every single episode does my head in–even the good ones become tedious. If they can’t come up with 75% brand new material each episode, they should be banned from a second series and forced to pay me damages.