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40 Greatest Sketch-Comedy TV Shows of All Time

From Caesar to Schumer, 65 years of the Land Shark, the Chicken Lady and a bunch of Muppets

Waynes World; Key and Peele

Everett; Ian White

Television sketch comedy is having a bit of a moment. Key & Peele just scored their first movie deal, the Mr. Show team is collaborating for a much-ballyhooed non-reunion, the unlikely hit Portlandia just wrapped a fifth season, Kids in the Hall will be touring America this May and more than 23 million people watched the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special. 

Here’s our list of the 40 greatest sketch comedy shows of all time, dating back to the 1950 premiere of Your Show of Shows to four shows that still have new episodes ahead. 

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40

‘The League of Gentlemen’ (1999-2002)

Created and performed by quartet of Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson, The League of Gentlemen takes place in the cloistered, fictional Northern English village, Royston Vasey. The limited geography of the setting provides good excuses for the odd characteristics and creepy habits of the inhabitants to emerge. Though narrative filaments connect regular characters with the village's strange happenings, the LoG's three seasons are written as a series of linked sketches; often dark and disturbing, the best sequences combine elements of childrens' nightmares, pathos and laughs. "We always knew we needed a balance," Pemberton told a crowd at Phoenix Cinema in London in 2007. "It's meant to be primarily a comedy show, and if you go too far down the line of making it a genuinely creepy horror film, you've got to always remember to have the gags….You need a little bit of light and dark."

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39

‘Fridays’ (1980-1982)

In 1980, while SNL's pioneering first cast and Lorne Michaels were exiting their station, "ABC wanted to literally clone SNL and we all resisted like crazy," Fridays cast member Melanie Chartoff told TV Party. Regardless, it was actually a pretty good knockoff, with a versatile ensemble cast, great guests (Devo, the Clash, Andy Kaufman, Billy Crystal), and tight satire that earned solid early ratings until Nightline bumped it later and later during the Iran hostage crisis. Pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards and Larry David stood out, especially Richards with his awkward physicality, which produced some of the shows biggest laughs. In a 1981 skit that boosted Kaufman's legacy more than the show's, he and Richards broke the fourth wall with a live on-air staged fight over Kaufman's refusal to play stoned. Show creator John Moffitt noted, "I think that night alone got us a pickup for the next year."

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38

‘Human Giant’ (2007-2008)

Somewhere between their training ground at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York and three thriving TV careers (Parks and Recreation, The League, Children's Hospital and more), the charismatic trio of Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer and Aziz Ansari made 14 episodes of MTV sketch show Human Giant. The show grew out of live performances at a time the internet was not yet overcrowded with sketch comedy, and felt like an extension of the same scrappy, lo-fi UCB sensibility that is at once immediate and accessible. "[Human Giant] will always be our special thing that we made just the way we wanted to make it," Huebel told Serial Optimist in 2013. Fluent in pop culture and showbiz tropes, Human Giant hit hardest with smart, simple premises (e.g., Scheer creating a time machine but only uses it to bring back Crystal Pepsi) and hilarious takedowns (like the Criss Angel/David Blaine-style magician parody the Illusionators).

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37

‘The Amanda Show’ (1999-2002)

By the age of 13, Amanda Bynes was already the breakout star of one trailblazing kid-sketch show, All That, and a perfect balance between Kristen Wiig's malleability with Chris Farley's surrealist physicality. "That's what's so great about her," said Bynes' What I Like About You co-star Leslie Grossman to ELLEgirl. "She's this beautiful girl, but she will spaz out and look weird for a laugh. She's not afraid of that." Leading The Amanda Show, the All That spin-off that dominated the Nickelodeon crowd from 1999 to 2002, Bynes crafted not only an entire universe of goofy, quotable characters (the show's superfan Penelope Taynt, the stars of teen soap parody Moody's Point), but she led an ensemble that turned out to be a launching pad for several other stars — including Drake Bell and Josh Peck of Drake & Josh and Saturday Night Live's Taran Killam. Not just funny, but unflinchingly bizarre: Now bring in the dancing lobsters!

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36

‘Little Britain’ (2003-2006)

It was called both the heir apparent to The Goon Show and Monty Python's Flying Circus and, per a Guardian columnist, "one of the most sneering, cold-hearted, nasty little shows ever to air on British TV." But as divisive as Matt Lucas and David Walliams' send-up of the country's working-class citizens and regional grotesqueries were, there was a method to their messy looks at U.K. life on the fringes. "We wanted to make it kind of like a cartoon strip come to life," Walliams told The Guardian. "Comedy should exist in an area of being slightly on the edge." That would certainly explain Vicky Pollard, Lucas' dim-witted teenage mother who bordered on offensive and became a political talking point. But while the show had its share of oafs and idiots, many — the "rubbish transvestite" Emily Howard; pouting, provincial Daffyd Thomas, who yearned to be "the only gay in the village" — were simply misunderstood, and Little Britain's explorations of class, gender and sexuality always allowed for a sliver of empathy. And while a single season of an American spin-off on HBO had its fans, the original show was a massive hit in England, where it scored three entries in a poll of the Top 10 most popular television catchphrases.

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35

‘The Idiot Box’ (1990-1991)

Hosted by, and frequently starring, Alex Winter (Bill from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure), this MTV sketch show offered brief, absurd, violent, and often meta vignettes similar to Tim and Eric's comic experiments, feeling like the precursor to both YouTube and Adult Swim. The Fifties sitcom spoof Eddie the Flying Gimp from Outer Space and a Battle of the Bands skit pitting Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. against Wilson Phillips were indicative of its immense, balls-out range. "Tom [Stern, the show's co-writer and director] and I had done an enormous amount of psychedelic drugs in our time," Winter recalled to SuicideGirls.com. "A lot of that informs our comedy… We were really influenced by things like Monty Python and Mad magazine — but also R. Crumb, Zap Comics, Robert Williams and all of this extremely psychedelic stuff." There's definitely a warped, dissociative sensibility going on, which makes you wonder where these guys would have gone had the music channel given them another year. Still, we'll always have the Sinéad O'Connor comedy special. 

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‘The Andy Dick Show’ (2001-2002)

One of the most reckless comics alive, NewsRadio star Andy Dick briefly hit the sweet spot between Andy Kaufman and Borat Sagdiyev with this two-season sketch show on MTV in the early aughts. It's definitely a product of the times, down to its parodies of Christina Aguilera, a reimagined Marilyn Manson (as Marilyn Poppins, singing "The Beautiful Pigeons," naturally), and a Christian-rocker version of Kid Rock. Dick's fans tuned in, however, for the narcissistic reality show-style confessionals and endless meltdowns blurring the lines between documentary and celebrity trainwreck. Still, the host found tons of guest stars game for meta-commentary on the era of pop culture fetishization, including his former castmates on The Ben Stiller Show. "I took everything I learned on that show and, 10 years later, I did my version," he says. "Ben Stiller was on, and Bob Odenkirk was on at least five times. I think my show was just as funny [as Stiller's]."

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‘Funny or Die Presents’ (2010-2011)

The bizarre, hit-and-miss sketch comedy shorts usually relinquished to websites like Funny or Die briefly lived on HBO under the banner of Funny or Die Presents. Imagine a whole show of uncensored SNL Digital Shorts. With the star power of FOD cofounder Will Ferrell and pretty much everyone from Anchorman and The Daily Show filling uncensored skits like procedural crime drama spoof 'Holdup,' the reality TV off the deep end of 'You Want to See a Dead Body?,' and Tim and Eric's Two-and-a-Half-Men-on-Percocet sitcom called 'Just 3 Boyz,' the show peeked into an alternate (and lovingly low-budget) entertainment universe. 'Drunk History' brought out issue-oriented agendas between laughs in this world and eventually spawned a show of its own. But to quote "host" Ed Haligan in the first episode, the show was at its core, "Basically, the same kind of horseshit we throw up on the website."

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‘Exit 57’ (1995-1996)

The opening sequence from the short-lived Exit 57 said quite a bit about the show's acute juxtapositions and unsettling tone: its five-member cast carried off in a serial killer's car while the radio played "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd've Baked a Cake." The ensemble of Second City pals — Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Jodi Lennon, Mitch Rouse and Paul Dinello — indulged a love of Americana and small, oddball communities by setting its two seasons of sketches in fictional town Quad City. "We try to amuse ourselves," said Colbert to the Chicago Sun-Times, and they did so with absurd, idiosyncratic visions. Salmon farms sparked melodrama, rogue dentists gave unwanted cleanings to passersby in the park, and it all seemed perfectly normal.

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‘Mad TV’ (1995-2009)

A more cultish weekend cousin to Saturday Night Live aimed squarely at teens, Mad TV's skewering of pop culture was a "steady diet of schadenfreude," according to former cast member Keegan-Michael Key. On Fox for nearly 15 years, the show created by two In Living Color writers was beholden to no one and often about as subtle as Artie Lange laughing at a fart. Michael McDonald played the bratty kid Stuart 38 times, and Nicole Sullivan's racist trainwreck Vancome Lady returned nearly as frequently. From one of several skits lampooning Abercrombie & Fitch's hyper-sexualized shopping experience, a shirtless male bimbo remarks, "Abercrombie's about doing laps at the old pool house with your bros from the swim team, and shaving each others' legs for speed, and each others' nads for fun." By the time the ceaseless roast ended its run with a telethon mocking American Idol's charity efforts, many cast members had graduated to movies and other TV projects: Key and Jordan Peele emerged to spin off more-nuanced comedy, Taran Killam's an SNL regular and Alex Borstein is still the voice of Lois Griffin on Family Guy.

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‘The Jonathan Winters Show’ (1956-1957, 1967-1969, various TV specials)

When the Doors performed on Jonathan Winters' show in 1967, they may have appeared more psychedelic — but no one was more "far out" than the host himself, whose cherubic appearance masked a dark, deranged and delightful point of view. Winters' run-amok running characters gave birth to Robin Williams' frenzy, Pee-Wee Herman's playfulness and much of what is great about the last 50 years of improv. He didn't need an ensemble, sets or even a script; he could marshal the myriad voices in his head for a cast of (male, female and sometimes animal) characters to recreate the battle of Little Bighorn or describe a fishing trip — from both the fisherman's and his prey's point of view. "If Jonathan Winters is ever accused of anything, he's got the perfect alibi," said Sixties talk show host Jack Paar. "He was someone else at the time."

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‘The Day Today’ (1994)

Long before Armando Iannucci gave the world the merciless political satire Veep, he helped co-create (with Chris Morris) this incredible news-program parody that's become a cult hit among comedy nerds in the know. An offshoot of the radio program On the Hour, The Day Today combined fake-film clips, field reports, ridiculous "coverage" of events via contradictory voiceovers and surreal excursions into CNN graphics-uber-alles territory, all tied together by Morris' ridiculously over-the-top host. It wasn't a send-up of current affairs so much as a takedown of the media itself, done one sure-shot skit at a time. "It's just reveling in the sheer pomposity [of] a certain style of BBC news presentation they used to call 'The Voice of God,'" Morris told the Onion A/V Club, referring to the show's bombastic tone. "[And] that sense of authoritarian voice isn't as strong as it was." TDS only ran for a single season, but its legacy looms large: Iannucci went on to do peerless piss-takes on pomposity such as The Thick of It and Veep; Morris' next project, Brass Eye, took the faux-reporting format even further; and the series would introduce Steve Coogan's iconic character Alan Partridge to a generation of TV viewers.

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‘French and Saunders’ (1987-2007)

At the center of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders' British comedy empire is this camp-crammed skit show. Through seven seasons and multiple specials since 1987, the pair commanded a massive BBC budget to elaborately dress up as Madonna, Tyra Banks (French sported 20-foot legs for the part), Kate and Leo in Titanic, and a variety of ostentatious characters of their own design. All was in the name of extravagantly spoofing humanity, but especially societal norms projected on women. Along the way, they perfected the art of breaking character mid-skit, and found laughs in the blackest corners. "We're pretty much like 13-year-old girls," Saunders told the Daily Mail. "We've been banned from going to serious meetings together. You know all those ones we have to do — with TV executives, about scheduling and ideas. Well, we both hate them, and if we catch each other's eye during them, it's just bllleuuughhh!"

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‘Inside Amy Schumer’ (2013- )

If things had worked out differently, Amy Schumer's breakout Comedy Central hit — a lively combination of standup, sketches and interview segments — might have ended up a traditional talk show. Figuring that's what the network wanted, the New York comedienne resigned herself to her fate until an executive producer advised, "I think you should make the show you want to make, the show of your dreams." Good thing she listened: Since its debut in the spring of 2013, Inside Amy Schumer hasn't just been hilarious but also zeitgeist-y wise about dating and friendship in the social-media age. Mocking men's fascination with girls who are just one of the guys, Schumer's a secret subversive wielding a deceptively innocuous gal-next-door smile.

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‘Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’ (2007-2010)

"A lot of ideas need to look bad to work," Tim Heidecker told The Believer in 2008. "If certain ideas look too sleek and precious, they're not as successful." Saying Adult Swim's five seasons of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! merely look bad undersells the nightmarish success of Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's 11-minute spurts. Taking cues from low-budget public access television, David Lynch and probably psychedelic mushrooms, the show's green-screen visuals, anti-narratives, and Cinco-brand junk advertisements prove that cringing and laughing are millimeters apart. A mix of unpolished amateurs and perverse-minded pros give up all creative control to repetition gags, awkward puppet shows and a grotesque rap about "bloody nips." "Tim and I still have this theory that the realistic will always outdo the inauthentic," said Wareheim. "Always. That’s the main reason we haven’t hired a professional sketch troupe for the Awesome Show. Real people, for better or worse — mostly worse — will always be preferable."

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‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ (1987-1990)

Though history will remember it best as the launchpad for The Simpsons, The Tracey Ullman Show was a multiple-Emmy-winning character showcase. "Tracey is damn near unique," producer James L. Brooks told the L.A. Times. "On the show, we kept comparing her to Peter Sellers until we just got sick of it." The show's patient, plot-driven portraits of American home and work life underscored its creator's talent for accents and eye for subtle character quirks. Often 10 minutes in duration, the theatrical scenes rushed nothing. Though there were a handful of recurring characters (Francesca McDowell, a bright, struggling adolescent raised by "my dad…and my William), the Ullman Show never resorted in to the sorts of punchy, repetitive hallmarks of most sketch programs. For these reasons, the sketches required careful listening but rewarded repeat viewings.

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‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ (1979-1982)

Not the Nine O'Clock News was an alternative to the BBC1's evening news, but it was no less topical than the night's headlines. The show's young cast, including 24-year-old Rowan Atkinson, used their half-hour show to parody politicians (both Brit and American), talk shows and pop culture. It was a welcome and relevant alternative to the popular and provincial British comedy of the time, one that made fun of conventions as soon as they came into existence. "Television was lagging behind what was going on in society," producer John Lloyd told The Guardian, "and we brought it a little bit closer." Making fun of the U.K.'s newsmakers made them news as well: Their music video parodies of ABBA and the New Romantics turned the cast into rock stars (they even knocked Queen off the charts) and bestselling authors. The American version, Not Necessarily the News, was itself a success for Eighties HBO and a launching pad for Rich Hall's Sniglets books, a young writer named Conan O'Brien and future Saturday Night Live star Jan Hooks.

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‘The Fast Show’ (1994-1997)

Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson were comedians toiling away in writers' rooms when they hit upon an idea: What if someone put together a sketch show that simply knocked out as many skits and gags as quickly as humanly possible? "We thought, could you make a show that was essentially all highlights?" Higson told The Daily Mail. "The comedy equivalent of a greatest hits album." The result, aptly named The Fast Show, unleashed a rapid-fire succession of recurring characters and catchphrases ("Anyone fancy a pint?", "Does my bum look big in this?") with the Mail claiming that a typical episode averaged roughly a sketch a minute. More importantly, TFS became a bona fide pop phenomenon, unleashing as many zeitgeist-surfing lines as Saturday Night Live in its heyday — just say "Suit you, sir!" to anyone who lived in the U.K. in the mid-Nineties. Radio icon John Peel name-dropped the series on his show ad infinitum and called  it "the funniest thing on TV by a mile." Johnny Depp was such a huge fan that he allegedly begged to do a guest appearance, latter saying that scoring a cameo "was absolutely one of my proudest achievements."

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‘Portlandia’ (2011-)

Five seasons into its run, the loving spoof Portlandia continues to take risks, tinkering with its format and letting its ambitions grow, even dedicating whole episodes to just one storyline. But that creative restlessness is appropriate for a show that, from the start, didn't seem like a sure thing — the talented, mercurial Fred Armisen had never been a breakout star on Saturday Night Live, and as for Carrie Brownstein, was Sleater-Kinney ever remembered for being funny? But the longtime friends, alongside co-creator and series director Jonathan Krisel, have fashioned something as handmade and peculiar as the artisanal crafts the show enjoys lampooning. The secret weapon, of course, is how much it skewers its own audience of self-aware hipsters (which includes Armisen and Brownstein). "There is no 'they.' It's all us," Armisen said. "I would never play a character that wasn't true. It's not a moral thing, it's just that it's more convincing if it's a little bit like me."