Who likes modern sketch shows? With the drab and downright bigoted offerings of things like Frankie Boyle’s Tremadol Nights, or the funny-at-first antics of Little Britain, it’s easy to think that sketch shows are just at the bottom of the comedy pile. Satirical film, then stand up, then light hearted comedy flicks, then sitcoms, then sketch shows. Bringing up the rear. How sad.
Alas, it wasn’t always this way, allow me to demonstrate.
In the 1990s, the sketch show saw a re-vamp. Earlier decades certainly had some absolute classic sketches, for example lots of Peter Cook’s work, Monty Python or the Two Ronnies was amazingly funny. Four Candles, One Leg Too Few and any of the Spanish Inquisition sketches were an absolute marvel to watch, but the 90s made a break away from the longer, slower paced sketches of the past. With the rise of the ‘MTV Generation’ a need for faster paced sketch shows with quick catch-phrases, snappy editing and contemporary music arose. So what answered this comedic call to arms? Well, various shows did, and they did it well. A prime example, with a distinctly apt title, is Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson’s The Fast Show. The two men had worked with and written for Harry Enfield and proven themselves more than adept in the comedy circuit, and The Fast Show was the glorious crown to their work.
First airing in 1994, the show had a fairly short run of only three seasons until 1997, which is surprising due to the quality and quantity of material that Higson and Whitehouse managed to conjure up. There was a special show called The Last Fast Show Ever in 2000 though, a testament to the love and nostalgia that the show’s audience had for the programme only three years after its final airing. Regular characters such as Ken and Kenneth (the “Suits You Sir” tailors), Unlucky Alf, Ted and Ralph, The 13th Duke of Wymbourne et al were all an utter joy to watch. It’s rare to see a repeated character appear on screen in a sketch show and feel anticipation for a new or different presentation of what is effectively the same catch phrase or running joke, but the pacing and variation utilised by The Fast Show never failed to crack up viewers. Indeed, the show even gained the following of a celebrity or two; A-list actor Johnny Depp asked to be included in the 2000 Last Show and was part of Ken and Kenneth’s last Suits You sketch.
In 1999 comedy saw the birth of one of the finest female-focussed sketch-shows that I’ve ever seen; Smack the Pony. The title, a somewhat obscure euphemism for female masturbation, does little to let on the masterful creativity of the main trio of comediennes, Doon Mackichan, Sally Phillips and Fiona Allen. There were other recurring characters and recurring actors used for many of the roles but the main three gave television a plethora of pleasure filled content, utterly enjoyable to say the least. The show was special because it wasn’t particularly reliant on repetition of characters, indeed there were relatively few recurring characters, but there were some setups that pervaded the show’s 3 seasons. One brilliant example is the dating agency tapes, including hilarious jokes about Quakers, Tourrette syndrome and hippies amongst many other riotously funny characters. The show also featured a lot of surrealist comedy, something not often done by female comedians, one example being a sketch involving Curling-style brushing by women trying to park their cars – somewhat unsuccessfully. The self-reflexive nature of the programme and the quality of the material really served to ensure that Smack The Pony was a pleasure to watch and I still find myself digging out my copy of the ‘Best of’ DVD.
Finally, a dark horse; one that I’ve found lots of people simply don’t know about, Big Train. The well-loved Simon Pegg was amongst the cast for the show, which was more of a harking back to previous generations of comedy rather than the leap forward that The Fast Show and Smack the Pony saw. Focusing more on Monty Python elements of surrealist comedy and longer-duration sketches, Big Train wasn’t exactly the most popular sketch show around – perhaps partly because it was less 90s. The show saw only 2 seasons being aired, first in 1998 then a second in 2002. However whilst it was not massively successful, the show produced some amazing sketches, my two favourite being the Billy Piper Fan Club and Cake Factory. Look them up, they’re great. It certainly was a shame that more wasn’t made of this show, but then again it’s always better that a comedic programme goes out on a high rather than flogging a dead horse.
And yet, now sketch shows just don’t seem to have the same effect. Call it biased nostalgia if you will, but personally I would rather spend hours of my time giggling away at The Fast Show or Smack the Pony than cringing in front of most of today’s distinctly sketchy efforts. Now readers, hop onto Youtube and discover the olden-delights for yourself.