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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried