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.
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