×
Home TV TV Lists

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. 

placeholder
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."

placeholder
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."

placeholder
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).

placeholder
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!

placeholder
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.

placeholder
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. 

placeholder
34

‘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]."

placeholder
33

‘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."

placeholder
32

‘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.

placeholder
31

‘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.

placeholder
30

‘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."

placeholder
29

‘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.

placeholder
28

‘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!"

placeholder
27

‘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.

placeholder
26

‘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."

placeholder
25

‘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.

placeholder
24

‘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.

placeholder
23

‘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."

placeholder
22

‘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."

placeholder
21

‘Upright Citizens Brigade’ (1998-2000)

Soon after migrating to New York City from Chicago in 1996, the live-improv crew of Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts found space for their hallucinatory sketch and prank show on Comedy Central. Never has a scripted show so flaunted its improvisational origins: Many sketches were developed through the form, and most episodes were structured like Del Close's signature improv form, "the Harold." In addition, concepts like "ass pennies" and "supercool" felt like vivid details plucked straight from the subconscious, retaining the insider, you-had-to-be-there quality of the troupe's live performances. "I know we've never stopped anything for going too far," Poehler told the Onion A/V Club in 2008, of the UCB's sense of play. "I guess if it continues to be funny, there's no such thing." 

placeholder
20

‘You Can’t Do That on Television’ (1982-1990)

"We took it to an absurd level to make kids feel that their lives weren't really that bad," You Can't Do That on Television co-creator Geoffrey Darby told Splitsider. Artistically, it was trying to show the kids at home watching, 'You think your life's bad? Well, you didn’t have to write six or seven hundred pages out of a dictionary for detention.'" Adolescence is a living nightmare, and no show understood that better. Every recurring sketch on the Canadian-created, kid-acted sketch show was a trip through Dante's Teenage Inferno. Some of the recurring stops: a detention dungeon where kids traded jokes while hanging from chains and Barth's, the local burger joint that served horsemeat and maggots. The best idea YCDToTV — really, all of Nickelodeon — ever had was dumping slime on their heads whenever one of the actors said, "I don't know." They once slimed 10 kids in one episode. "You're pulling these people who are on pedestals down," said Darby. "Green slime was about trying to give a comeuppance to kids on TV so audiences at home wouldn't feel so 'jealous' of them, for lack of a better term. They would see that lives of a kid on this show were not all wonderful."

placeholder
19

‘The Ben Stiller Show’ (1992-1993)

There were only 13 episodes of the Ben Stiller Show (12 if you count what Fox actually aired), but they pretty much set a stage for the next 15 years of American comedy. Co-created by Ben Stiller, then an SNL expat who did an embryonic version of the show for MTV, and Judd Apatow in his first executive producer credit, it was a training ground for future comedy luminaries. The cast, led the future movie titan Stiller, included Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick and Bob Odenkirk, who was also a writer with future collaborator David Cross. But more than its right-place-right-time situation at the center of the early-Nineties comedy universe, what makes Stiller's show stand out in retrospect is the depth of its aesthetics. With no laugh track or studio audience, the show's Die Hard parody doesn't just hinge on Stiller's Bruce Willis impression, but on a (low-budget) emulation of the action landmark's look: the sketch-show equivalent of the leap from multi-cam to single-camera sitcoms. Fox didn't get it but slowly, its influence spread. "Honestly, going to the set and laughing backstage when we're off camera, goofing around with that group of people was so much fun," Odenkirk told Scott Aukerman. "And my dream was to just, one day, get to do that again. So in that way, The Ben Stiller Show was an inspiration for Mr. Show."

placeholder
18

‘The Ernie Kovacs Show’ (1952-1955)

Benny, Berle and Caesar were the giants of 1950s TV, but nobody was more visually innovative or subversively influential than Ernie Kovacs. "He quickly dismantled TV just as it was being invented," Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson told the New York Times. His oddball characters, surrealist visual style and music gags rubbed off on Chevy Chase, David Letterman's Late Night and every non-sequitur-driven skit show from Laugh-In to Robot Chicken. Kovacs had the daring and the range to go from dark and demented in one bit, to silly and sophomoric (in drag or gorilla costume) in the next. Merrill Markoe, Letterman's first head writer, told an audience at an event honoring Kovacs: "On top of it being brainy and genius and so forth, it was a really great kids show…if you were kind of a smart-ass kid who didn't like 'adorable' kid's stuff."

placeholder
17

‘The Dana Carvey Show’ (1996)

"Dana is playing Bill Clinton literally breastfeeding puppies," writer Robert Carlock told GQ, regarding the very first sketch aired on Carvey's comedy show. "That was our introduction to America….. ABC paid…to get a rating graph broken down minute by minute. When the breast came out, six million people changed the channel." Given a primetime slot to capitalize on his post-SNL fame, the comedian immediately alienated a lot of Home Improvement viewers who forgot to change the channel. But for eight episodes (seven of which actually aired), Carvey and a dream team of writers and performers — Steven Colbert, Steve Carell, Robert Smigel, Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman, Bob Odenkirk, 30 Rock's Carlock, Delocated's Jon Glaser — displayed a subversive brilliance that's absolutely mind-boggling. For every trotted-out Carvey impersonation, there were also sublime creations (like the Stupid Pranksters and Germans Who Say Nice Things) or seemingly dangerous attempts to bite corporate hands (sponsors Mountain Dew were subjected to a two-minute skit centered around the soda's resemblance to urine). 

placeholder
16

‘The State’ (1993-1995)

"It was about energy and aggression," State founding member Michael Ian Black told Filter, "We were like a hurricane." The humor of this early Nineties MTV show was just like the ensemble of 11 recent NYU grads: precocious, clever and a touch bratty. They leaned on the sketch staple of recurring characters (Doug, the teenage rebel frustrated by cool parents; Barry and LeVon, freaky lotharios rubbing their asses into "$240 worth of puddin'"), but even turned that into a punky meta exercise: When asked by execs to produce more characters with catchphrases, they invented Louie, the Guy Who Comes In and Says His Catchphrase Over and Over Again. The show's biggest production — "The Sgt. Pepper's of The State's sketch canon," as Michael Showalter told The New York Times — was a baffling three-minute mini-musical titled "Porcupine Racetrack." The jovial, all-for-one feeling of The State carried into later projects, including Reno 911!, Stella and Wet Hot American Summer.

placeholder
15

‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’ (1967-1969)

Rob Reiner, who, along with Steve Martin was on the writing staff, told the Archive for American Television that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was "the most brilliantly well-oiled comedy machine," and "the most cutting-edge show on television at the time." Goofball Tommy and straight man Dick looked and sang like choirboys, but their fraternal shtick was deceptively counterculture. Political satire on TV is abundant now, but in 1967, their veiled drug references and jokes about bloated defense spending gave CBS ulcers. In 1968, they battled CBS to allow Pete Seeger to sing critically about the Vietnam War, then later lost over a pointed Harry Belafonte appearance, which was nixed and replaced with a commercial for Nixon's presidential campaign. Tommy openly mocked how the censors limited what he could say when chatting with guest George Harrison. The quiet Beatle lent support: "Whether you can say it or not," he urged them on the air, "keep trying to say it." Their trying eventually got the show cancelled.

placeholder
14

‘The Richard Pryor Show’ (1977)

"He was a comic mind that, he would hit oil," Richard Pryor Show writer Jeremy Stevens told EmmyLegends.org about the show's star. "You didn't even see the drill go in, but out would spurt [these] comic creations…full-blown, hot-blooded characters. You didn't even know what they were or who they were, but they were funny." Few sketch shows shone brighter or burned out quicker than Richard Pryor's, which aired for all of four episodes in 1977. Pryor was feuding with network executives even before it premiered, but the battles he won yielded astonishing results. A press conference with the first African-American president plays out deadpan for several minutes until black journalists start asking questions, at which point Pryor's commander-in-chief muses that Huey Newton might make a good FBI director. There are low-stakes bits involving Pryor as a cowboy and a samurai, but also high-wire acts, like the nearly 20-minute "Club Harlem" sequence, a poignant evocation of the Harlem Renaissance that rarely stoops to anything so uncouth as a punchline. Despite its brief length, The Richard Pryor Show doesn't feel like it was gone too soon; it's a miracle it ever existed at all. "Fearless," said Stevens about Pryor. "The show aborted after very few episodes because he called us one day and said, 'I wanna throw it in, I bet none of you disagree.' He told the writers, 'What we wanna do…There's just too much censorship. We can't work with a muzzle. I don't wanna do it to you guys.'"

placeholder
13

‘SCTV’ (1976-1984)

"Del Close first came up with the idea that SCTV should be a programming day for a small television station," cast member Dave Thomas claims, remembering the day that the cream of Second City's Canadian crop were brainstorming about a small-screen endeavor. "Everyone missed Del's comment except [producer] Sheldon [Patinkin], who picked up on it immediately." The improv guru's high-concept was nothing short of genius: You had a structure to follow and the license to riff on anything from cooking shows to commercials. Plus it gave a crack comic ensemble the chance to do dead-on impressions (Thomas' Bob Hope, Catherine O'Hara's Liz Taylor, Eugene Levy's Henry Kissinger, John Candy's Divine) and develop a stable of recurring characters — where would Canadian pop culture be without supreme hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie? No less than Harold Ramis helped launch the first few seasons; later, after NBC picked up the show, Martin Short joined the cast. A final season on Cinemax with barely half the original cast sounded the death knell, but during its glory years, no television show offered a funnier metacommentary about the medium. "We were the children of TV," Thomas says. "We were champing at the bit to satirize these programs and celebrities."

placeholder
12

‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’ (1989-1995)

With the help of classmate Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie met in college and sparked a friendship that would develop into one of the early-Nineties' best sketch shows. "It was like falling in love, but falling in love at a comic level," Fry recently told interviewer Gay Byrne of their first meeting. "We started writing a sketch the moment I walked in." Their partnership, which lasted four seasons on the BBC and carried on into an adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories, was a study in dynamism: Playing fathers and sons, psychiatrists and patients, friends and rivals, each player could crackle with manic energy and explode or remain the buttoned up, flummoxed straight man. Their often broad performances, flecked with bold bits of physicality, were offset by sharp writing and a delight for words and wordplay. To wit, one of their "vox pop" interstitials: "And then my bereavement counselor died. I didn't know who to turn to."

placeholder
11

‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’ (1968-1973)

Laugh-In managed to be silly (with slapstick and drag) and subversive (jokes about nerve gas and birth control) while running parallel to Vietnam, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, race riots and the Nixon era. Mixing a flower-power vibe with a jump-cut vaudeville framework, it made hippies hip and squares the perfect straight men. On the show's rapid-fire joke delivery, the L.A. Times observed producer George Schlatter instructing the writers: "Don't be usual. Don't be ordinary. Take a 20-second joke and cut it down to five seconds." Seen now, the show looks both dated and definitive of its time — a comedic and cultural time capsule featuring everyone from legends like Jack Benny and Milton Berle to next-gen stars like Lily Tomlin and Tiny Tim. Even Nixon himself came on in 1968 to appear and say, "Sock it to me?"

placeholder
10

‘The Muppet Show’ (1976-1981)

Bad puns, silly songs, a Catskills sensibility, guest stars making fools of themselves: How did Jim Henson's sweet variety show ever manage to be hip? "One of Jim's real talents was that he had the ability not to take most things more seriously than they deserved," Muppet Show head writer Jerry Juhl once said. "And that means that most things are pretty funny." Indeed, it was Henson's skill at tightrope-walking the line between sincerity and absurdity that energized the program's five-season run. You laughed along with Kermit, Fozzie and Miss Piggy's groan-worthy quips because you knew that they knew how dopey variety shows were — and the let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm was infectious regardless. In subsequent years, everything from Kids in the Hall to 30 Rock would satirize the anything-for-a-laugh desperation of show business. The Muppet Show did it with wocka-wocka sunniness.

placeholder
9

‘In Living Color’ (1990-1994)

Though it probably launched more famous people than any sketch show outside of Saturday Night Live (don’t forget: that includes Fly Girls Jennifer Lopez and Dancing With the Stars judge Carrie Ann Inaba), In Living Color didn’t seem too exceptionally concerned with crossing over to White America: The word “whitey” was bandied about, musical guests included Eazy-E and KRS-One, blaxploitation films were parodied and interlopers like Vanilla Ice were ridiculed mercilessly. Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshall Bill may have been the show’s most popular character but Damon Wayans’ Homey the Clown, a convict on work release who refuses to debase himself before the children he was supposed to entertain, was its most representative. Of course, it became widely popular anyway, shifting pop culture by refusing to bend to it. Chris Rock left Saturday Night Live to perform on its final season. “The culture’s changing and I’m not a part of it,” he told Marc Maron. “This shit is getting hip. This shit is getting blacker. This shit is getting fucking rappier. When I got hired [at SNL] I was the first black guy in like eight years — and In Living Color was just hip. The shit was hot. I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do.”

placeholder
8

‘The Kids in the Hall’ (1989-1995)

Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels produced Kids in the Hall, but the Canadian series couldn't be any more different from its more famous American sibling. The self-contained fivesome never relied on pop culture references or celebrity impressions to get a laugh. Instead they created surreal characters that seemed to inhabit some mysterious other universe or just some dark and oversexed corner of the Prairie Provinces — see the Chicken Lady, a human/chicken hybrid who has spontaneous, feathery orgasms; or Cabbage Head, a misogynist who uses his cranial condition to get pity sex. Often their funniest characters were also their saddest and sorriest, which made for complicated comedy. "We were constantly being monitored, censored, constantly being advised not to do things. We just did it anyway," KITH member Scott Thompson told Now Toronto. "The truth is, a lot of those fights were fun."

placeholder
7

‘The Carol Burnett Show’ (1967-1978)

On the air for more than ten years and earning 25 Emmys in the process, this variety show traded in pop-culture spoofs and sketches of both domestic and showbiz life. The towering silliness of the cast — which included Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and remarkable straight man Harvey Korman — and their love for one another sold the enterprise. Though known for its slapstick and recurring characters (e.g., Mr. Tudball and his hare-brained secretary, Mrs. Wiggins), Burnett and company endeared themselves to viewers by breaking one another up on camera. "Growing up she was the Number One performer for me, in my life," Amy Poehler told Hitfix. "I loved her show so dearly and, like everyone did, I felt like I was part of that family….'The Carol Burnett Show' was by far the first thing I ever saw that not only [had] a woman running her own show and being in charge, but also being like such a magnanimous, benevolent captain, and there being real, genuine love and sense of play among the cast, and i think that most people who watched that show felt that they were part of it."

placeholder
6

‘Your Show of Shows’ (1950-1954)

This is TV sketch comedy's big bang. Catskills-to-Copacabana veteran Sid Caesar had already seen the early potential for television comedy after guest-starring on Milton Berle's variety show. Though his first foray into live TV, The Admiral Theater Revue, was cancelled after 19 weeks, he saw that you could translate vaudeville-style routines for the small screen. So Caesar gathered together a who's-who writers room of future legends (Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon), and started to build on what he'd done: "The sketches got a little longer," he'd tell EmmyTVLegends.org. "We found out where we could go. 'Hey, that professor character worked? Let's do it again two weeks from now. Let's do a silent movie sketch.' It grew organically." The rest was history. If Your Show of Shows didn't invent the form, it certainly sold it wholesale to the masses: For many viewers, this was their first exposure to the idea of taking a single comic concept and executing it, commando-style, in five minutes. Caesar and his rubber-faced partner Imogene Coca could nail a relatable skit involving marital strife and then reset by going hilariously broad — a classical music recital interrupted by loud noises, a This Is Your Life episode that devolves into communal hysterics — without losing momentum. 

placeholder
5

‘Key & Peele’ (2012- )

With years of well-honed chops behind them, Mad TV alums Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele's Comedy Central show masterfully takes on a mixed-race society where keeping it real is impossible. Ordering soul food turns into a pissing contest ("What's a cellar door without gravy?"); swapping stories about their wives is potentially lethal ("I said 'Bitch'!"); and an inner-city substitute teacher had no chance against white middle-class students. (The latter skit is about to become a major motion picture.) "Being of mixed background, we liken it to walking on a tightrope at different points in our lives," Peele says. "At certain points, it seems like we're between two worlds, or we're a part of two worlds — or we question where our world is. So I think that in itself had something to do with the fact that Keegan and I sought out sketch comedy. In our form, we could be chameleons — literally and figuratively." 

placeholder
4

‘Chappelle’s Show’ (2003-2006)

"What is life is nobody's crossing the line?" Dave Chappelle asked on Inside the Actor's Studio. "You just want to try to be on the right side of history…the truth is permanent, and everything else will fall by the wayside." Both populist and pointed, Chappelle's Show tackled race relations with a colloquial sort of lucidity that refused to leave anyone out of the conversation. Celebrity caricatures ("I'm Rick James, bitch") became immediately quotable, but Chappelle's Show really shone in scathing scenes like that of Clayton Bigsby — the blind white supremacist who doubles down on his bigotry after learning he, in fact, is black. Though the show's third season was cut short when Chappelle abruptly fled to Africa, leaving the network and co-creator Neal Brennan in the lurch, it cemented a legacy not likely to fade anytime soon. In the land of awkward white guys doing silly walks, it's hard to imagine a cooler sketch show.

placeholder
3

‘Mr. Show’ (1995-1998)

"I'd done sketch shows," Bob Odenkirk would say later about the origins of Mr. Show. "But I'd never done them right, the way I'd wanted to." An outgrowth of L.A.'s D.I.Y. alt-comedy scene percolating at places like UnCabaret, David Cross and Odenkirk's HBO series was to Nineties humor what the original SNL was to Seventies counterculture: a blast of cutting-edge irreverence that captured a moment. Which isn't to say the skits feel dated (though a familiarity with the era's shock rockers, Gen-X nostalgia and reality TV doesn't hurt). It's more about the way the duo took the same rip-it-up sensibility of the movement's stand-up and ad hoc stage performances to TV. "The network wanted to know what would be the same each week," Odenkirk recalls. "'Well, [we'll] come out and say 'Hi.' And that's it."

Once the guy in the suit and the dude in the slacker uniform came out for their introduction, all bets were off: An extended skit about cults might flow into a commercial for a cock-ring warehouse or a documentary on old-timey megaphone singers. It was comedy as college rock that got signed to a major label; and, for four seasons, a generation felt like it had a Monty Python to call its own. "A lot of people who listen to this show," Marc Maron told Odenkirk on his WTF podcast, "and a lot of what has become this 'comedy nerd' audience really sees Mr. Show as the starting place of modern comedy. I talk about it on this show, that I know there's a lot of people listening whose sense of comedy history starts at Mr. Show and beyond that, there's nothing. I mean, the impact that thing had was incredible."

placeholder
2

‘Saturday Night Live’ (1975- )

How can you really measure the full impact of the longest running, most iconic sketch show in American history? Sure, it launched Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, and Kristen Wiig — but, by sensing their early comedic talents, SNL also provided formative learning experiences for Gilbert Gottfried, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Damon Wayans, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman and Jim Henson's Muppets. Three American presidents felt the need to appear on the show and one American senator used to be a featured player. We would not exactly be shocked if SNL was the first place "douchebag" was said on network TV.

James Signorelli, the show's longtime commercial parody director, said that in the Seventies, ad agencies were even impacted by the "the archness or the surrealist approach" of SNL's spoofs. "During the first five years, the show changed a lot of stuff you don't think about," Signorelli said in the Live From New York oral history. "It changed this business of dinner at eight into dinner at ten or dinner at midnight. The way Franne Lee, our costume designer, dressed Lorne for the show suddenly became the way everybody in New York was dressing….Before you knew it, everybody was sitting around in Levi's and a jacket."

placeholder
1

‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ (1969-1974)

"I was frustrated by the tyranny of the punchline," John Cleese recalled in the book Monty Python Speaks. "Surreal things would be suggested, writers would laugh, and then [a producer] would say, 'Yes, but they won't understand that in Bradford.'" It's impossible to underestimate the impact that Monty Python's Flying Circus would have on a generation of comedians: Sketches might stream into each other or suddenly give way to a cartoon. Huge arguments over dead parrots, a cheese shop's inventory or whether two people were having an argument could escalate into dizzying wordplay. Silliness reigned supreme. As veterans of earlier sketch shows, each of the Pythons knew the form well enough to shatter and reconfigure the format. As phrases such as "nudge, nudge" became a nerd lingua franca, Flying Circus proved that something completely different could, in fact, translate worldwide. "There's not one minute of it that seems dated," novelist Dave Eggers said about the show in 2004. "Their stuff is a lot more sweeping and lasting than almost anything else, because they weren't taking on current events — they were addressing history itself. History and sheep."

Show Comments