Thinking Too Much About TV Comedy with J. Michael Osborne

It more or less goes without saying that, if you’re into seeing sketch comedy on television, it’s a pretty good time to be alive. There’s Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele and Kroll Show on Comedy Central. IFC is cornering the young, hip, conceptual market with The Birthday Boys, Comedy Bang! Bang! (a sketch show dressed in the clothes of a talk show) and Portlandia. [adult swim] is skewing even younger with Loiter Squad and Robot Chicken. And then, of course, there’s Saturday Night Live usually bowling its demographics straight down the middle.

Despite the limited number of networks involved here, cable-owning Americans (or people with reliable Internet connections and questionable senses of ethics, like me) now have an unprecedented spectrum of options to choose from when it comes to short-form comedy. It’s a more diverse game now than it’s ever been, both in terms of its writers/performers and in terms of comedic sensibilities. Viewing all these shows together, there’s a couple major observations we can take away from this TV-sketch-show zeitgeist: sketches performed in front of a live audience are all but on their way out, and it’s becoming increasingly important that the rest of them have some high-ass production values.

As far as the former is concerned, the violent coup that filmed sketches have performed in the last decade or so is pretty common knowledge. On the Oct. 11, Bill Hader-hosted SNL, only about half of its sketches justified the “live” part of that acronym. Not counting the monologue or “Weekend Update,” four of the segments were performed live, four were filmed, and one -- “Puppet Class” -- had some of each.

Even Key & Peele ditched its typically hit-or-miss live interstitials for its fourth season in favor of a bunch of scenes where Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele bullshit in a car (still to pretty much hit-and-miss effect). Besides SNL, that leaves only Inside Amy Schumer and its interspersed stand-up segments to include a live element.  

In one sense, this shift is part of a broader trend in TV comedy: sitcoms have been moving away from the four-camera, live-studio-audience formula for a long time now. Yeah, the most popular shows on television still feature laugh tracks. But just about every comedian now who isn’t John Mulaney is writing their spec scripts for, and pilots as, single-camera television shows, and their numbers will then continue to grow. Maybe viewers don’t want live studio audiences to decide what’s funny for them anymore; we have enough shows on enough networks now that we can make our own decisions on that front.

But mostly this seems like yet another example of TV networks trying to trace the footprints of the Internet. Television has been playing catch-up to Internet media for a good while now, sketch comedy included. Roughly starting with a super-viral “SNL Digital Short” or two, it’s not hard to see the path TV took toward favoring filmed sketches.

At this point, the most popular YouTube sketch groups are making their material at TV-levels of quality or better. So, possibly to combat how damned good some of these Web sketches look, TV sketch shows have gone full blockbuster movie.

In most cases, that’s a good thing. Key & Peele can film a sci-fi action movie parody that actually looks like a sci-fi action movie. (Come to think of it, there’s isn’t a single sketch from that show that doesn’t look beautiful.) Part of Kroll Show’s appeal is that all of its fake reality shows are just about unmistakable from the real thing. And while SNL hasn’t had a shitty-looking set since the early ’80s, sweet Jesus, it’s insane how well-made some of their current filmed shorts are for the kind of deadline they’re working with.

Which, cool. Good. It’s important that comedy keeps up with cultural tastes.

But the ubiquitousness of these perfectly produced sketches is also what makes Good Neighbor’s addition to SNL so refreshing. When the usually Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett-starring videos aren’t purposely lo-fi, they’re low-concept and filmed with little more than a hand-cam or two.

On Mr. Show (full disclosure: I’m always going to rule in favor of almost everything Mr. Show did), even considering its low budget, co-creator Bob Odenkirk has said he made it a point for the show to feature sets, props, costumes, et al., you could see the seams in. You would never see a ramshackle set like the one in the awesome “Lifeboat” sketch from “Life is Precious and God and the Bible” in any of today’s sketch shows -- and note how one of the biggest laughs it gets is from the incredibly shitty seagull swooping by. (It should come as no surprise that Odenkirk is the executive producer for the most straightforward, Mr. Show-style sketch show running, The Birthday Boys.)

True, television sketch comedy’s move into a higher standard of cinematic quality is an inevitability -- an occasionally bittersweet inevitability. There’s something to be said about seeing the walls of a sketch’s shake every time someone does a pratfall. Or costumes with safety pins still hanging off them. It’s the only chance for television to communicate the experience of seeing live comedy in person, or the thrilling way it can feel like it’s constantly teetering on the edge of a complete fucking disaster.

The high price for entry onto the world stage is more troubling over on the Internet. Have you seen the kind of production values that go into shit as stupid as a Legend of Zelda-themed rap video? If it looks like a lot of the most-viewed content on YouTube is bankrolled by production studios or corporate sponsorship, that’s because it often is. This, again, may be an inevitability not worth griping about. But if having a lot of money backing your sketch group is what it takes to succeed on YouTube, it seems to go against the entire foundational principle behind the site: you, duh. I don’t like thinking that the next great minds of sketch comedy could never get the kind of shot The Birthday Boys got just because they only have a handheld camera and a green screen made of a blanket.

Given the caliber and sheer amount of TV sketch comedy out there, it would be pretty tempting to say it’s a golden era for the medium. And it really kind of is. Although it’s also worth talking about how many people are actually watching each of these shows individually. None of the shows we’ve been talking about are exactly thriving ratings-wise, except maybe Key & Peele. Sure, IFC and [adult swim] are geared to fairly niche markets, but the aforementioned Oct. 11 episode of SNL redefined awful for the show’s ever-declining ratings. (Even though, you know, it was by miles the best hour of its 40th season so far.)

All this lends support, hyperbolic headlines aside, to the points laid out by Odenkirk -- the closest thing to a TV sketch comedy Obi-Wan Kenobi we’ve got -- when he recently told Salon that sketch comedy’s current heydey is also the omen of its decline, not unlike the stand-up boom of the 1980s. It does seem logical that this sort of over-saturation of the TV market likely means that sketch comedy will eventually buckle under its own weight.

On the live, local side of things, the big guys like The Second City will sell out their mainstage shows for as long as they please, but the little guys? I’m not so sure. On TV, don’t expect to see nine-plus top-quality sketch comedy shows gracing your cable package for too long. Sketch is such a timeless, efficient form of comedy that it’s not very likely it’ll ever die. But we’ll have to wait to see what fills the gigantic shoes sketch comedy is currently wearing, and a whole lot of us, audiences and comedians included, will be following the laughs there.

J. Michael Osborne can be seen talking into microphones in Chicago and typing on his computer writing this bio. He produces an open mic every Thursday at the Wheel House, and the storytelling show We Still Like You on the first Saturday of every month.