40 Greatest Sketch-Comedy TV Shows of All Time - Rolling Stone
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40 Greatest Sketch-Comedy TV Shows of All Time

From Caesar to Schumer, 70 years of the Land Shark, the Chicken Lady, and a bunch of Muppets

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Television sketch comedy never goes out of style and plenty of alums of shows — from Key & Peele to Mr. Show to generations of  Saturday Night Live favorites — have graduated to celebrated careers. Here’s our list of the 40 greatest sketch comedy productions of all time, dating back to the 1950 premiere of Your Show of Shows to 21st century hits.

This list was originally published in March 2015.

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (525489lc)'The Muppet Show' - Kermit - 1976ITV ARCHIVE

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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.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Nicola Goode/Fox-Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock (5863181b)Damon Wayans, David Alan GrierIn Living ColorFox-TVIn Living Colour

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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.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by George Kraychyk/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock (5872274c)Dave Foley, Mark Mckinney, Bruce McCullough, Kevin Mcdonald, Scott ThompsonKids In The Hall Brain Candy - 1995Director: Kelly MakinParamountUSAFilm PortraitComedy

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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.”

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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.”

Coca Caesar Liebman Sid Caesar, left, and Imogene Coca, right, the television comedy team of "Your Show of Shows," join hands across the lap of their producer Max Liebman in New York City on . The trio will part at the end of the season when the show will continue with new performersCAESER LIEBMAN COCA, NEW YORK, USA

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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.

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5

‘Key & Peele’ (2012-2015)

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.”

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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.

David Cross & Bob Odenkirk at the 1998 Mr Show party in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

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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.”

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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.”

monty python flying circus, dead parrot, lumberjack sketch

Monty Python

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.”

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