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.
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.
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: