Non-professional Sketch Comedy

Introduction:

Sketch comedy is a genre of video short in which a scene (“sketch”) that is usually ten minutes or less in length is presented for comedic purposes. It arose out of the vaudeville shows of the early 20th century. Vaudeville was a type of entertainment that strung together many unrelated acts of a wide variety. After starting on the stage and transitioning through radio, sketch comedy appeared on the television in Great Britain in the form of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which began its run in 1969, and was made made famous in America by Saturday Night Live beginning in 1975. These two shows pioneered the greatest artistic change that sketch comedy has seen: the introduction of recurring characters. That is to say that a sketch comedy group would include the same character or group of characters through multiple sketches. At the turn of the century and in recent years, the rising popularity of the internet and the increased ease of video sharing through websites such as youtube allowed for a huge proliferation non-professional videos of all kinds, one of the most popular genres being sketch comedy.

Principles:

1. The most basic goal of sketch comedy is to make people laugh. It can and at many times does take on additional purposes as well, depending on the style and beliefs of the creators. These “additional purposes” are usually the promotion of a political idea or some sort of social commentary, which is common in all genres of comedy, and has been since the time of Aristophanes.  This differentiation allows for the sub-division of the genre.

2. Non-professional sketch comedy is created by normal people for normal people. Humor usually stems from common experiences or views.

3. The sketch must be real for the characters in it. That is to say that it is ostensibly a depiction of reality which is ridiculous or absurd. This absurdity is for the audience’s benefit and must not be acknowledged by the actors. If they do, it ceases to be a sketch and starts turning into something else.

4. Several types of sketches have become common. For example, the News Show Parody. Made most famous by SNL‘s “Weekend Update,” this type of sketch shows a new program reporting on some story that is ridiculous. Another is the fake documentary, perhaps best epitomized by Dave Chappelle.

5. The short length. Sketches are short and not intended to force the viewer to invest heavily in a complicated or intellectual plot. Nor does a single sketch explore the depths of humanity or even of the characters in it. They are intended to give the audience a quick laugh and perhaps to propose an idea or comment on a phenomenon but they do not have the time to fully explore or explain it. For this reason they are ideally suited for the internet and can easily be used for distracting or procrastinating purposes, and are easily produced en masse.

The Future:

Non-professional sketch comedy is becoming increasingly common and this trend will continue in the years to come. Likewise, the production values of amateur video will continue to increase as better equipment becomes available at amateur prices. Eventually, upcoming cultural trends and technological changes will affect the genre in ways that are currently completely unpredictable. Sketch comedy’s basic form lends itself to surviving these changes by adapting due to its independence from preexisting material.

There you have it. Sketch comedy is an immensely popular video genre steeped in a deep history and with a bright future that has the potential to add ideas to the intellectual community.

To end, I would like to share with you my personal favorite sketch of all time, from the legendary producers of SNL and the great Christopher Walken:

http://www.desura.com/members/moxbestro/videos/christopher-walken

The Future of Amateur Sketch Comedy

Sketch comedy has changed over the years as the culture changes around it. This adaptation is on the one hand necessary so that audiences continue to find the jokes and situations funny and relevant and on the other hand reflects a change in the culture of the people making it — even if the audiences were identical or for some reason not considered during production, someone who grew up in the 70s would make a very different sort of sketch than someone who grew up in the 00s. In the same way, changing times and cultures will continue to affect the genre going forward.

Artistically, the biggest change that has happened for sketch comedy was the introduction of recurring characters. As far as the audience is concerned, this allows for the “inside joke” kind of reference that makes viewers that have seen the previous adventures with the repeated characters feel included in a different way from traditional sketches and creates a dedicated following that seeks out related sketches for the same reasons that people read all of the books in a series. For the creators, it allows for characters to be more fleshed out, more three-dimensional, and lets the writers build upon their previous work in an otherwise impossible way. I think that producers will continue to build sketch upon sketch in the future; it has recently become more popular, and I think that it will become even more common in the future than it already is. I do not think that it will be more common than stand-alone sketches, however, or even that it will become as common.

In the amateur realm, the advent of the internet was huge in allowing for the distribution of non-professional work. I don’t know how video would be more easily accessed than by web videos (though you can never really imagine changes like that — I’m sure that before CDs nobody imagined how to distribute music better than cassettes), but if there is a way, the forward trend will be for increased accessibility. From a production standpoint, as better cameras become more affordable, the video quality of amateur sketch comedy will increase. For example, you can already see the difference in production value in Julian Smith’s (we’ll use his work since we’ve already referred to it several times over the course of the manifestos) first video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IeO2icVo5g) compared to his latest (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WP1lhWlsh4I). In the far future, if 3D becomes better and more accessible, it will likely make its way into sketch comedy (I’m thinking holodecks from Star Trek).

Sketch comedy isn’t going anywhere. Its resilience to change with cultures allows it to remain relevant and accessible to new generations, and its disconnect to other material means that it is not tied down to any preexisting material means that its future doesn’t depend on the continued popularity or knowledge of that earlier work. If becomes unpopular, it can very easily reinvent itself so that it is again. The amateur production and proliferation of sketch comedy will only increase in the future as well, as access to the necessary technologies (computers, cameras, editing programs) increases. I would like for sketch comedy to focus more on the sociopolitical commentary side of the spectrum than on the escapist humor side simply because I think that art (which is what sketch comedy is) should exist for a reason other than its simple existence. But there is certainly value in comedy for comedy’s sake, and I think that it should, and will, continue to be produced for both reasons.

The History of Sketch Comedy

The idea of sketch comedy is derived from North American vaudeville theater and British music hall shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those two types of entertainment were closely related, both featuring several separate acts of a variety of types: classical music, magicians, singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats or one-act plays, for example (they could really be any kind of performance). They were extremely popular because they appealed to more than just a specific demographic. There was vaudeville for both the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated; there was both low-brow, crass vaudeville and there was intellectual, “cultural” vaudeville. This variety of subject material has stayed with sketch comedy, seen in the difference between “escapist” and “social commentary” sketches. A single comedy group usually produces both kinds.

Sketch comedy differentiated itself by cutting out all types of entertainment in vaudeville and music hall shows except for scripted scene comedy. Like most entertainment, it went from the stage (shows like Beyond the Fringe, or A Clump of Plinths) to radio (It’s That Man Again, I’m sorry, I’ll Read That Again) to television and now exists in large quantities on the internet, where low production and distribution costs have allowed for the the proliferation of cheap, amateur (non-professional) in addition to professionally-produced sketch comedy.

Televised sketch comedy was pioneered by the two shows that to this day remain the best examples of the genre: first by Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974) in Great Britain and shortly thereafter by Saturday Night Live in the United States (1975-present). The most notable addition television brought to the genre was the introduction of recurring characters. Before Monty Python brought on Mr. Gumby and SNL had Ed Grimley, sketches were almost entirely unrelated. Today, we have Key & Peele‘s “Substitute Teacher” 1, 2 and 3. These sketch “series” don’t take place chronologically one right after the other, and aren’t intended to be viewed back-to-back, but show the same characters in different scenes. The Red Green Show took it a step further, and consisted only of sketches that followed the characters of Possum Lake. Red Green is still definitely sketch comedy, however, because the scenes were non-linear — it isn’t the same sort of story telling that a traditional comedy (or drama, for that matter) follows.

Like in so many other things, the internet has allowed a huge amount of amateur comedians to have legitimate access to a worthwhile audience. Without getting into the merit of the comedy that has been put up on youtube, the internet is a perfect medium for sketch comedy due to the short and light nature of web video viewing. People don’t use the internet to watch hard-hitting dramas or cinematic spectacles, but they do use their computers to watch a lot of less-than-ten-minute videos and often turn to the internet for a quick laugh. This is the definition of sketch comedy. It’s funny, and you don’t have to invest a lot of time or follow a plot for very long.

Related Videos:

An Example of Vaudeville, the granddaddy of sketch comedy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZo4imTt4Og

Monty Python, the father of sketch comedy:

the famous “ministry of silly walks” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-8FrqZ3EVE

“self defense against fruit” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piWCBOsJr-w

“dirty hungarian phrasebook:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6D1YI-41ao

SNL, sketch comedy’s playboy uncle. A quick breakdown of some of the best sketches: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uShCUp2QYGs

Key & Peele: Modern sketch comedy

Substitute Teacher 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dd7FixvoKBw

Substitute Teacher 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18t5V3gvfa4

Substitute Teacher 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMlD9VoeAeE

Non-Professional Sketch Comedy

A “sketch” is a short (generally less than ten minutes in length), usually stand-alone scene or skit often done for comedic purposes. In this case, it is referred to as “sketch comedy.” Notable examples include Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Saturday Night Live, and, more recently, Key & Peele. “Non-professional sketch comedy” is, by definition, sketch comedy created by amateurs. It is a prevalent form of web comedy shorts which are commonly found on youtube, such as the work of Julian Smith and College Humor’s amateur videos.

To understand sketch comedy, consider Julian Smith’s “Malk:”

Here we see the characteristic “scene” aspect of sketches. The video is presented as a depiction of an event in whose reality the characters are fully invested, rather than acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. Smith’s character doesn’t even realize that he’s pronouncing “Milk” differently from the others. This absurdity is common in sketch comedy; what would otherwise be a normal event is made completely unrealistic. There is no reason for all of these people to have handguns. We can also see how Smith plays with expectations to create humor, which is also common in sketch comedy. When Donovan’s father appears, because of his race we don’t expect Donovan to be his son. Furthermore, Donovan’s apology of “Sorry, Dad. My white friends” bucks the racial stereotype of the unruly black teenager. At the end of the video, we see another characteristic of the genre: a comic hypocrisy. Smith tells Josh “we are not filming something like that…it’s so dark” as he traps a cat in an oven (while being filmed). This could be seen as a break of the previously mentioned investment of the characters, but it is not, since Smith’s character is fully invested in his situation, and it is Smith the filmmaker who is acknowledging the moment’s absurdity.

A common form of sketch comedy is the TV show parody, famously produced by SNL under the recurring sketches “Weekend Update” and “Celebrity Jeopardy,” or Dave Chappelle’s Rick James “Documentary,” among others. Like other kinds of sketch comedy, they display the characteristic depiction of a realistic type of event, investment in that event, added absurdity, ruptured expectations based on the real form of that event, and the hypocritical dichotomy between what is being said and what is being done. Julian Smith has an example of one of these, which masquerades as a news program:

Sketch comedy can serve as a cultural or social comedy, such as Key & Peele‘s “East/West College Bowl” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gODZzSOelss) or College Humor’s “Really Hot Girl” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJNXCpfDrNo), though those are both examples of professional work, or it can merely be escapist humor, as “Malk” would likely be classified. Generally, it is produced for middle to upper middle class teenagers and young adults, the peers of the producers, as a way of sharing humor that stems from similar cultural experiences, such as job interviews (example: Paul Del Vecchio’s “Interview With an Applicant,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W_qrc-TkR8).

Two other examples of non-professional sketch comedy are:

DerrickComedy’s “Opposite Day,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiFKS62wQAA

BriTANick’s “Boys Night In,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0Wc8RQNtWU