Is the sketch show dead – or resting?
Where is today's 'Monty Python', 'Fast Show', or 'Little Britain'? Gerard Gilbert goes in search of future comedy classics
With the Monty Python reunion concerts in July and BBC2 celebrating 50 years of comedy next month with new sketches from The Fast Show, Dead Ringers and Goodness Gracious Me, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's business as usual in the world of sketch-show comedy. Or perhaps the valedictory nature of these events simply underscores what The Fast Show's Charlie Higson observed last year when he bemoaned the absence of any big mainstream sketch shows since Little Britain ended in 2006. Is Higson right?
Or to paraphrase arguably the most famous sketch of all time, Michael Palin and John Cleese's Dead Parrot routine, is "short-form comedy" (as it's known in the trade) merely resting – or is it deceased, demised, ceased-to-be, expired and gone to meet its maker?
"Possibly because there hasn't been a really huge sketch show recently, journalists have decided to announce the demise of the sketch show", says the BBC's Gareth Edwards, producer of That Mitchell and Webb Look as well as the new Good Gracious Me sketches. "Exactly the same thing happened to the audience sitcom about six years ago and shortly after that came Mrs Brown's Boys and Miranda…"
Not that sketch shows have gone away – they've migrated towards the margins: to BBC3, E4 and online; places where they can quietly fail if necessary. One show that has graduated beyond the digital nursery slopes is Cardinal Burns, which moves from E4 to Channel 4 for its second series. Despite sounding like a character from the Spanish Inquisition ("nobody expects…"), Cardinal Burns actually consists of Seb Cardinal and Dustin Demri-Burns, a classic sketch-show double-act in the tradition of Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie, Armstrong and Miller and French and Saunders.
Their characters include the Office Flirts – a pair of unreconstructed male lotharios – and Banksy imagined as a dull middle-class bloke from Hemel Hempstead. And although they also parody scripted reality shows like Made in Chelsea, the duo don't restrict themselves to satirising other television shows – an incestuous process that dogged recent sketch-shows by otherwise talented comedians, BBC2's Watson and Oliver (Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver) and Anna and Katy, Channel 4's swiftly axed showcase for Anna Crilly and Katy Wix.
Demri-Burns echoes Edwards' point about the cyclical nature of TV genres. "In America at the moment, sketch is quite a thing", he says, citing shows like Key & Peele – Barack Obama's favourite sketch show (the President appears as a character) – Kroll Show and that perennial star-maker, Saturday Night Live. "Whereas here (in the UK) they always go on about 'sketch is dead, sketch is dead'."
Cardinal and Demri-Burns met at film school before heading to Edinburgh – that well-worn north road for aspiring comedians. Now a new, shorter route has been forged online, with YouTube providing an almost tailor-made platform for comedy sketches. "YouTube has created a really powerful new environment for new comedians to emerge", says Claire Tavernier, managing director of ChannelFlip, a YouTube network that has broadcast online sketches from Harry Hill, Ricky Gervais and Mitchell & Webb, as well as those unknown outside of cyberspace. Tavernier says the established TV stars enjoy the freedom of producing online material: "Although they haven't always loved the cheques that come with it."
Dan and Phil (Dan Howell and Phil Lester) is a ChannelFlip double act that Tavernier rates highly, while other online sketch stars include the excellent This Glorious Monster, who recently signed a deal with Hat Trick Productions. And both Channel 4 and BBC3 provide online short-form platforms, with their "comedy blaps" and "comedy feeds" respectively.
"We totally agree with Charlie (Higson), we do need a hit sketch show", says Channel 4's comedy commissioner Rachel Springett. "Sketch shows are an amazing place for writers and performers to learn their craft. If you think that (Father Ted creators) Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews started writing sketches for Smith and Jones, Simon Pegg went from Big Train to sitcom and films – they are hugely important for the industry."
However Springett adds that traditional sketch shows now face stiff competition not just from online but from the growth of television stand-up shows such as Live at the Apollo, as well as comedy panel shows. "Panel shows have stolen airtime", she says. "It is a tough environment at the moment for sketch shows."
"The problem is that comedy panel shows tend to get better ratings than sketch shows", says Edwards. "With a sketch show you'll get a hard core of people who absolutely love it, but it's hard for it to get consistently reassuring ratings. And a panel show is unlikely to run out of ideas because you can always bring new people in.
"Sketch shows absolutely burn through ideas and you have to get in the habit of throwing ideas away. For the last radio series of Mitchell & Webb we read something like 500 sketches and used 70, so it's a very profligate medium, but it does mean that writers get into the mental discipline of generating a lot of funniness and not minding throwing quite a lot of it in the bin. It makes for a very robust culture."
But when will we see the next Fast Show, Catherine Tate Show or even (heaven help us) Dick Emery Show – with their attendant catchphrases? "No one can predict when the next big sketch show will come along", says Springett. "I'm sure David Walliams and Matt Lucas wouldn't have predicted how Little Britain would take off."
'Cardinal Burns' returns to Channel 4 tomorrow at 10.30pm; BBC2's 'Big Bumper Comedy Weekend' is at the end of May
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