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The sketch show is the comedy equivalent of going for tapas. You get one big meal of quick little bites, each providing its own instant gratification before making way for another. Actually, tapas might not be the best analogy, seeing as sketch comedy is also a predominantly British phenomenon. Maybe it’s more like those little parcels of fish & chips or mini Yorkshires with a sliver of beef and horseradish in the middle. Those are great.
Word is circulating that The Fast Show is speeding back to our screens and Reeves & Mortimer are enjoying a particularly purple patch, so this is a fine time to look back at ten of the finest sketch shows to ever grace our screens.
At its best, Flying Circus was possibly the funniest thing ever on TV. The classics are plentiful (The Spanish Inquisition, The Dead Parrot, The Lumberjack Song, Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink, The Ministry Of Silly Walks) but delving deeper uncovers so many lesser known wonders, not least the utterly wonderful Fish Dance.
Boiled down to its essence, The Fast Show pondered what would happen if you removed the joke and just left the punchline. What happens is you get one of the all-time funniest sketch shows, endlessly quotable and stuffed to the gills with so many indelible characters that it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. Oh fine then, it’s Rowley Birkin QC. The show’s popularity extended to the point that Johnny Depp asked to guest star.
Into the void left by the demise of The Fast Show stepped Big Train, a torrid cyclone of hilarity that abandoned sense and replaced it with jokes about unopenable doors, French tortoises, panicked jockeys and firefighting show-jumpers. The cast is like a who’s who of British ’00s comedy, including Simon Pegg, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Mark Heap, Amelia Bulmore and Catherine Tate. It also gave the world the Staring Contests, amazing miniature nuggets of animated absurdity.
Vic and Bob are national treasures who earned their status through decades of endearingly determined silliness. The further into the realms of extreme idiocy they ventured, the funnier it got, like Slade Go Camping, the utterly insane documentary The Club, or The Stott Brothers’ brilliantly bizarre interviews. Never before or since have so many people suffered from hilarity induced vomiting.
It may have become increasingly inconsistent over the years, but SNL is still one of the all-time greats. The list of comedy geniuses who have been ushered forth from the studios of 30 Rockefeller Plaza is staggering, from the early days of Belushi and Aykroyd to the mid-’00s era of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. Hader, in particular, was responsible for two of the show’s best segments: Vincent Price’s celebrity Halloween parties and Stefon’s going out guide. And once you’ve seen Will Ferrell trying to get Garth Brooks to sell his soul for terrible songs, you’ll never forget it.
These days, Joe Cornish is better known as a critically acclaimed director, while Adam Buxton hosts one of the best podcasts in podcastland. But once upon a time, they were the hosts of their own short-lived sketch show, a tiny slice of genius that came off like two 10-year-olds let loose with a camera after far too many sugary drinks. Highlights included Vinyl Justice (where they “arrested” music legends for their awful record collections), their ode to Robert De Niro and some truly inspired recreations of famous films and TV series using toys.
Portlandia’s brilliance lies in its peerless ability to affectionately skewer a certain segment of society with absolute precision. It’s also helped by the fact that Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater Kinney) and Fred Armisen aren’t a million miles away from the extreme caricatures of woke hipster cool that they’re playing. The painfully cool Deuce Hotel, the bird-obsessed crafty couple (who are afraid of actual birds), the muso-pre-school parents, the right-on cyclist – if you find your own likeness in Portlandia, maybe it’s time to scale back the cool.
The crux of Tim Robinson’s Netflix series is finding yourself in an embarrassing social situation and doubling down way past the point of sanity. Humiliated by a stage musician, struggling to hide your dislike of a gift, pulling a door that should be pushed, Robinson manages to take these awkward encounters and push them into a realm close to utter madness. Best of all is Will Forte’s appearance as a long-haul traveller out for revenge.
You probably know Robot Chicken for its stellar Star Wars spoofs. The toy-based sketch show has so much more to it than that, but the Star Wars stuff is pretty brilliant, not least Darth Vader being haunted by the ghost of Jar Jar Binks or having to explain to the Emperor that the Death Star has been blown up. If you’re desperate to see your childhood skewed into dark, hilarious parodies, Robot Chicken won’t ever disappoint.
There’s weird and then there’s Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a show that feels like you fell asleep in front of the TV, had a terrifyingly hilarious fever dream and then two complete oddballs recreated it on a minute budget. Worse still is that it’s not even the weirdest thing that Tim Heidecker has done (watch The Comedy, if you dare). As weird as it all gets, it never gets weirder (or funnier) than Paul Rudd dancing.
Discover even more by exploring our Comedy Guide.