The comedy sketch show is dead, killed by the ubiquity of YouTube viral videos, its critics say. But the BBC plans to have the last laugh with the launch of a new series which promises to make rising star Javone Prince a household name.
It’s been more than a decade since Little Britain’s gallery of grotesque characters delivered a global hit for the BBC. Since then, the rise of YouTube and social media has stolen the thunder from sketch shows which are expensive to produce and often hit-and-miss in their nature.
The Keith Lemon Sketch Show gets one around million viewers on ITV2 - but a single sketch about the Kardashians from a recent episode racked up 7 million views on Facebook alone.
Channel 4, which enjoyed cult success with series like Cardinal Burns, is no longer commissioning sketch shows because younger viewers with limited attention spans will simply switch over if they come across a sequence that doesn’t appeal.
Phil Clarke, Channel 4 head of comedy, recently told Broadcast: “What I’m saying to our suppliers at the moment is we’re not looking for a sketch show, and we're pretty honest about that. ‘We're more interested in narrative comedies’: that’s our official stance.”
“It’s true that we live in an environment now where, when we want to be entertained, we don't often stick with something because we know there are other things we can try.”
The BBC poured scorn on Channel 4’s dismissal of the sketch show and has poached one of its rival’s talents to prove a point. The Javone Prince Show, written by and starring the comedy actor who plays Jerwayne in the E4 sitcom PhoneShop, will launch on BBC2 this month.
A LAMDA-trained actor, who has appeared at National Theatre, the Londoner’s fast-paced show combines stand-up, sketches and music to introduce a range of comic characters which embrace “all facets of contemporary multicultural Britain.”
Javone’s sketches expose societal prejudices, such as the unspoken assumption of criminality which black people face on a daily basis. The comedy is broad however with a “Made In Peckham” reality spoof sketch and characters including an elderly Rastafarian fast food proprietor whose patois is unintelligible.
Viral clips will never replace the comedy sketch show, said Shane Allen, the BBC’s Comedy Controller. “YouTube is ‘people sitting round in their pants’ sort of comedy. This is stuff you spend months writing and rehearsing to make it brilliant.”
“Things got a bit cool and ironic in sketch-land. Javone is a brilliant character actor. He’s bringing back the principles we loved with Morecambe & Wise and Dave Allen, which is lots of personality and a bit of variety, with stand-up sketches and music. ”
Lenny Henry was an early inspiration for Prince and the recently knighted comedy actor, who helped create the groundbreaking series The Real McCoy 20 years ago, has called on the BBC to support more new black comedy talent in front of and behind the camera.
Prince said: “This show was one of the first with two white people and four black people in the writing room. It was really refreshing because the BBC said they were backing our ideas because they were funny, not because we’re black.”
Prince is aiming for a mass audience. “Sometimes a black audience can be hard to please,” he said. “I know black people will watch but I want the whole of England to tune in. These characters are the people I see in London. This is my England and I want to represent it, it’s not black or white.”
He hopes to retain viewers tempted to flick over from sketch shows. “I hate getting bored watching comedy shows too. I’ve made this for my own attention span. I don’t think a show like this has been made.”
The sketch show doom-mongers are wrong, Allen insisted. “I’ve lived through ‘The Office has killed the studio sitcom’ and ‘stand-up doesn’t work’. So I think sketch shows will be here forever.”
Channel 4, which gave Prince his break in PhoneShop, may have missed a trick. The broadcaster wouldn’t give him a show because “they’re making Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages instead,” Allen suggested.
Viral comedy clips
ITV2 released a parody teaser for the new Keith Lemon Sketch Show in January mashing up My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The sketch has racked up 7.8 million views.
‘The Big Fat Gypsy Kardashians’
Youtuber SA Wardega posted a prank sketch showing a dog dressed in a big spider costume scaring unsuspecting members of the public in September 2014. It became the most watched YouTube clip of 2014 with 146 million views.
'Mutant Giant Spider Dog'
Comic Relief paired Catherine Tate and David Tennant for a 2007 sketch featuring her infamous character Lauren Cooper discovering that the Doctor Who actor is now her English teacher. 10 million people watched on YouTube.
‘Comic Relief – Catherine Tate and David Tennant’
Youtuber jenorf’s video of a baby laughing hysterically as his Dad plays Wii Golf, uploaded in 2007, has now hit over 20 million views.
‘Baby Laughing at the Wii’