When it comes to TV comedy, sitcoms are king. Turn on the tube any day of the week between 8 and 9pm and odds are the big networks are airing a sitcom. With their familiar sets, likeable actors, and generic plots, sitcoms (even really good ones) have an easy charm. They’re safe. Sitcoms are the meat and potatoes of the comedy world.
Sketch comedy, however, (if it’s good) appeals to the comedy connoisseur. They’re for audiences who like their comedy served up a little rawer and with a little more mustard. Sitcoms are fine for a Tuesday when you feel like eating some meatloaf and going to bed early. Sketch comedy is comedy for Friday night, when you feel like going out and trying something different and elaborate. Something that someone created with sweat and tears. Something great. A sketch comedy show is where comedy reaches its peak. And these are the Ten Best Sketch Comedy shows that ever appeared on TV.
10. Human Giant
The difference between good sketch comedy and great sketch comedy often lies in a troupe’s ability to connect to whatever particular zeitgeist they find themselves in: Monty Python could only have ever happened in the late 60s in England and The Kids in The Hall were a product of Toronto in the late 80s. Of course, they have to transcend those limits to be great, but they also have to be a reflection of their times. Human Giant achieved this in the 2000s. Appearing on MTV (really the perfect place for them), Aziz Ansari, Rob Hubel, and Paul Scheer were the kings of the burgeoning Internet comedy trend. Basically a couple of guys get a camera and some editing software and shoot a funny video. Like other Internet groups, they were fresh, charmingly low-fi, and full of energy. Unlike most other Interent groups, they were really good. With their seemingly endless collection of self-important goofballs and witlessly confident jackasses, they gently skewered pop culture like exceptionally talented class clowns who managed to bluff their way on to a major network. They only made two seasons of Human Giant (Aziz Ansari is too busy conquering the world to make any more), but those two seasons were amazing. And very, very funny.
9. A Bit Of Fry And Laurie
Though it aired only briefly in the U.S. and its two stars are better known today as a prolific Twitterer (Stephen Fry) and a cantankerously brilliant TV doctor (Hugh Laurie), A Bit of Fry and Laurie deserves a place on any list of the greatest sketch comedy shows of all time. A brainy mix of sophisticated verbal jokes and sublime silliness, the show took a cerebral yet hilarious tour of the England of the middle 90s. With ridiculous character after ridiculous character, Fry and Laurie poked and mocked the country and its people with grace, élan, and the kind of charm that can only come with years and years of elite education. Both graduates of Cambridge, their humor was razor sharp and full of references to everything from classic works of literature to two-bit TV show hosts. The resulting comedy stew was a totally original blend of high and low culture, none of it safe from the piercing, but never bitter satire of the pair. The entire series was released on DVD’ also, several of the better sketches can be found on YouTube and definitely deserve to be checked out.
8. The Kids In The Hall
Despite initial comparisons to Monty Python (mostly because both groups spent just as much time in women’s clothes as they did in men’s), The Kids in the Hall quickly established themselves as one of the most original sketch comedy groups in history. While the more popular Saturday Night Live was leaning more and more heavily on running recurring characters as far into the ground as they could, The Kids in the Hall were creating masterful character based comedy firmly grounded in the everyday lives of normal people. Sure, they had their share of outlandish characters and catchphrases, but they were always planted in the most mundane and common situations. The Kids in the Hall was always best when it mined the endless struggles, inane and serious, of relationships, work, and life at the end of the 20th Century. A massive success in their native Canada, The Kids in the Hall remained a mostly cult phenomenon in the U.S. The show gave fans of smart original comedy some of the greatest and funniest characters ever created. A few examples: the Chicken Lady, Francesca Fiore, Bruno Puntz-Jones, Gavin, Simon and Hecubus. If you haven’t seen it, you have to. Right now.
7. Mr. Show with Bob And David
Started by two veteran comedians who happened to be the brightest lights of the fledging alternative comedy scene of the early 90s, Mr. Show With Bob and David started strong and got stronger. Anchored by Bob Odenkirk (a long-time SNL writer who came up with Conan O’Brian and Robert Smigel) and David Cross (a hilarious funny and original stand-up from Boston), Mr. Show quickly built a cult following with its top notch material and incredible performances. Since there were two guys running the show instead of a troupe, Mr. Show had a confident, consistent voice. From the first episode to the final season, Bob and David knew exactly the kind of show they wanted to make, and maybe more importantly, exactly the kind of show they didn’t want. Sickened by the calcified, institutionally lazy atmosphere they found at SNL, Bob and David wanted to make a comedy show that served the comedy, not the raging egos of its stars. They gave audiences original, daring material that was unlike anything else on TV. They brought the funny sure, but with their dedication to originality and staunch refusal to go for the easy joke, it was comedy you could believe in, too.
6. The Carol Burnett Show
Many of the troupes on their list gained their notoriety by being expert satirists as well as amazing comedians. But great sketch comedy doesn’t have to come from a group of talented kids looking to change the world and reinvent the comedy wheel. Sometimes all it takes is a group of very funny professionals to put together a funny show. Take for example The Carol Burnett Show. Running for 11 seasons (288 episodes!) on CBS, it had no other agenda than to make people laugh. Anchored by incredibly charming and down-to-earth Carol Burnett, and featuring one of the greatest (if not the simply the best ever) comedy duos in history in Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, it produced year after year of funny material. But what really drew audiences back week after week was how much fun the cast seemed to be having. Ask anyone who has watched the show what their favourite sketch was, and they’d probably say any one where Conway and Korman cracked each other up. Sure, it could be corny and sentimental at times, but The Carol Burnett Show proved that “family entertainment” doesn’t have to be dumb entertainment. And for that it more than deserves its place on this list as one of the best loved TV shows of all time.
5. Chappelle’s Show
It isn’t by accident that most of the great sketch comedy shows are the products of a comedy troupe. Writing and performing even a bad show takes hours and hours of work. Trying to put together a great show takes that much more. Even if it were an average show, you’d still have to admire the work Dave Chappelle put into his brief but memorable Chappelle’s Show– but it was anything but average. Built upon the well-honed stand up of Dave Chappelle’s earlier career, Chappelle’s Show was a controversial mix of race, drugs, sex, and everything else on the star’s mind. A singular vision, it presented Chappelle’s unique take on the powder kegs of modern life. Watching Chappelle’s Show is like taking a tour of modern America through the eyes of one guy. A ridiculously talented, balls-out hilarious guy. That persistent voice and sense of humor makes it unique on this list and in the sketch comedy world. Here was one guy pouring out his mind and thoughts in the funniest way he could. Is it any wonder he burned out after two seasons? He worked way too hard to give us one of the best sketch shows there ever was.
4. Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
Definitely the strangest show on this list and possibly the strangest show to ever air on television, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is supremely weird. The sketches are surreal and at times disturbing, the supporting cast is a mix of famous comedians and bizarrely untalented non-actors, and the whole thing is presented with production values that would embarrass the cheapest public access show. This deliberate strangeness might make for a uniquely terrible viewing experience except for one thing. It’s absolutely original and absolutely hilarious. With Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have managed the rare feat of creating something simultaneously odd, unsettling, and incredibly funny. Anybody can do weird for weird’s sake, but Tim and Eric do it in such a unique, funny way that you can’t help but watch. Sitting down to the average episode is like watching a traffic accident. Except there are clowns there. And John C. Reilly in a wig. You can’t look away and you can’t stop laughing.
3. Saturday Night Live
It may be everyone’s favourite thing to hate these days, but no matter how many more substandard seasons they let it run, nothing can diminish the electricity and pure comedic energy of the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live. Coming out of the improvisation tradition created by The Second City (a movement that continues to be a major source of American comedy talent), SNL combined a murderer’s row of talent and a youthful fearlessness that pushed at the confines and strictures of what TV comedy could be. The Not Ready For Primetime Players (the nickname John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain, Garret Morris, and Lorraine Newman gave themselves) may have started as a bit of self-deprecation, but it became just the opposite. They were too good for primetime. Too smart, too hip, and way too cool for TV. They made staying home on Saturday night what the cool people did- to not watch SNL was to be out of touch and left out of the cultural discussion. Like Monty Python, they were comedy rock stars who instantly became household names. At least for anyone in the house under 25. Even after 35 years and through the light of the some great and many terrible seasons since, those first four years stand as one of the best moments in American comedy history.
The second of the two great sketch comedy shows to come out of the Second City improv tradition, SCTV was Saturday Night Live’s quieter, slightly more clever brother. Filmed in the relative obscurity of Toronto (compared to SNL’s New York City home, the media capital of the world) SCTV never became a cultural institution like its more famous cousin, it just became an incredible groundbreaking show. Founded on the genius premise that every sketch and parody was actually airing on a terrible local TV station, SCTV skewered every trend, genre, and celebrity that called TV home in the 70s and 80s. Even better, the conceit that they were a TV station allowed them to go behind the scenes and create a cast of rich, totally unique characters. From sleazy station owner Guy Caballero, hacky comedian Bobby Bittman, kiddie horror host Count Floyd, scuzzball host Johnny Larue to dozens of others, SCTV created an entirely realized world around the usual fare of parodies and impressions. This devotion to building characters, along with a cast that included comedy giants like John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, and Joe Flaherty among others made SCTV a show that rewarded loyal viewers. Their recurring characters were actual characters, not just catchphrases or silly costumes.
1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Sketch comedy existed before Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam started Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but they made it an art form. With their brilliant satire, absurd yet instantly recognizable characters, and almost preternatural understanding of the tropes and tricks of television they created an entirely new form of comedy. Drawing on the social and cultural change around them yet maintaining enough distance to properly mock it, they made traditional comedy that was thoroughly modern. They were Oxford and Cambridge educated men who could riff on classical philosophy and Spam in the same episode. They were smart, stupid, clever and ridiculous all at the same time. It’s not without accident that they became comedy megastars and the acknowledged masters of the genre. Other groups have come and gone, some of them incredibly funny. But there will always only ever be one Monty Python. And they will always be the best sketch comedy group of all time.
For more funny footage, check out our YouTube playlist ‘Top 10 Sketch Comedy:’
By Geoff Shakespeare