Wednesday, January 28, 2015
TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #8: ORIGINS OF SKETCH COMEDY
Morning Class, how was Winter Break? Good? Alright, I know we've been talking movies lately, here, but we're going back to our television notes; I hope you've been keeping them up. Alright, I'm sorry that not a lot of you will have this textbook available, but in my hand, is one of my most treasured pieces in my personal collection, it's very personal to me that I'll probably only ever give it to my Cousin Erica, 'cause she's the one who I believe will appreciate it as much as I do, is "The Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater" by Sheldon Patinkin, complete, with a Robert Klein narrative 2 CD set, over some of the greatest sketches ever produced on the Second City stages in both Chicago and Toronto. This was made, for the 40th Anniversary of "The Second City". This is basically, a history of comedy in America, dating from, before Joan Rivers was a stand-up, to Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch perfect their craft before moving onto one of the most legendary of all "SNL" eras. If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.
That said, it's not the only history though. And we talked a little bit about the origin of which, which really derived from, that old vaudevillian, music hall, variety tradition, these sort of comedic act breaks, but that idea, especially would eventually evolve into, taking these, and putting enough of these 5 or 6 minute, or even like, one minute sketches, and putting them together to create a television program. Actually, even that, actually kinda started in theater, but we're getting ahead of ourselves, let's look at it, more narrowly, what is a sketch?
A sketch is a short piece of comedy, performed by actors, that is a comedic exploration of a concept, character, or situation. That's what wikipedia says, and that's actually a good description, 'cause while, there is that same mantra that we've discussed about 3-act structure, beginning, middle, ends, in sketches, and you need conflict and drama, and even though it's the structure of everything else, and it is, um, but it's not developed that strictly. You kinda do, start, with a situation or a character, and then evolve from there and that's why calling it an "Exploration", especially since television, which really originated the idea that "sketches" can evolve into characters. That idea-, I mean, there was a bit of that before, like the Marx Brothers, each portrayed a character and they evolved and changed for the situation, and Jack Benny, took decades to develop his character and further back, Commedia Dell'Arte, played with the ideas of emotions as characters, but really, sorta the big breakthrough on television, that this idea was really plausible was "The Honeymooners". Most everyone knows, that started originally on what was called "Cavalcade of Stars" on the Dumont Network, which was, what we would think of now as "The Jackie Gleason Show", and it was a sketch on the shows, and he liked it so much he kept making more and more of them, even made a TV show for 39 episodes, but even after, it remained a sketch on the show, for decades, believe it or not. He did "The Honeymooners" sketches, up until the '70s, crossing over many different TV shows. This is practically, a different origin of what became the sitcom actually. These are where and how these complex worlds kinda meet. Now, where sketch, really veers off, in television history, especially lately, is that, as comedy, it's aim has become more much satirical.
That's not to say that sitcoms aren't, and something like "All in the Family", or "30 Rock" recently, or "Veep" are very satirical (The latter two are all very improv/sketch based too), and we'll get to "South Park" at some point, but because ironically, isn't bogged down by characters and situations, they can kinda go off, on their own, and exist in their own little, 1-10 minute world. While most modern sitcoms, are episodic and each episodic partially goes into another and another, and then there's long-running plots and storylines going on, while sketches, they don't really have that anymore. The last time I can think of one that did was the Mama sketch from "The Carol Burnett Show", and turned into it's own sitcom, "Mama's Family", 'cause that show wasn't going for satire, as much, certainly not in that sketch anyway.
And by the way, while we're talking about satire, a think a lot of people are going think about, just satirizing, the more prominent institutions, especially in the era of "The Daily Show...", the governments, the news, but, Americana, the culture, that's satirized, all the time too. The family dynamic, those are satirized just as much, Satire, is pointed comedy, usually towards an institution, but what that institution is, is much more up in the air. Sometimes characters that are created, that kind come off as stereotypes are essentially are also institution, someone like Chris Rock's "Cheap Pete" character on "In Living Color", or Mate Lucas's "Vicky Pollard" character on "Little Britain", those are sketches, absolutely about, the character, and they need this character to work, but they're really characters that are basically aimed at satirizing very specific kinds of people within society. People, behaviors, stereotypes, demographics, etc. That is strong satire as well. Anyway, satire is more much encompassing than making fun of the news, by imitating a news broadcast.
Anyway, back to sketch comedy, when we talk sketch comedy as the base of variety, especially modern variety shows, there's two trends and movements, that really are the cause of that. One, is simple,the death of the classic variety show. format-wise. This also has two bases of how that happened, comedy is more appealing on television. It's a better medium, even than film really for comedy. Film, is a big theater, it's grandiose, huge, epic, but, comedy, is bad lighting, a fake brick and don't trip over the cocktail waitress on the way to the stage (Or do trip over her, that would be funny); you can't be at the top and then make fun of yourself really. The little box with lights and a screen is perfect for comedy, and therefore, as variety shows went on, more and more of them, became more centered around comedy sketches. "The Sonny and Cher Show", was usually mostly sketches, they had music too, but if you watch it, sketch comedy became more and more prevalent throughout these shows. The other reason that kinda happened, naturally is that, since there was, a growing amount of channels and stations, inevitably, as television would grows, shows just naturally became more specialized in what they focused on. Like, when you watch something like 'The Ed Sullivan Show", was that they're be something for everybody, supposedly. You'd have the comic, the rock'n'roll star, the dancers, the animal act, the magician, whatever you really wanted to see, they'd try to find something you'd like, and those acts, kinda fell into what we think of as reality shows today. It took a long, path to get there, but if you're a teenager and you wanted to hear or see, the best new music act, why watch "The Ed Sullivan Show", and sit through a bunch of stuff you don't want, when you can watch, "American Bandstand' or "Soul Train" Or-eh, later on "The Midnight Special", and then MTV,- the instant gratification of television, became more advanced and shows became more specialized, and then there were a lot more of them. So, sketch comedy, won the variety sweepstakes, and that's part one, and part two, and everything sorta feel into their own specialized variety formats. You didn't have to do a Broadway musical number anymore if you didn't want to, or anything else, unless you really wanted to. And this is really how, late night, eventually grew into the format format this sketch comedy based comedy.
Sketch comedy, and it's other partner, talk shows, the late night talk shows. And those two are combined as much as anything else now, as well, but we'll talk a little about more about that next time, the rise of the late night talk show format, which also has a solid base of sketch comedy as a background as well actually. And we'll get to the homework in a second, but a lot of that, had to do with, how the hosts and stars of variety shows or producers of those shows, since it did become so specialized anyway, how they would they would start, really specializing these variety sketch-based shows towards their visions. The "Laugh-In"'s, the "The Flip Wilson Show"'s, the "The Carol Burnett Show"'s, etc., but that would really start with talk shows, however, so we'll get to that next week.
Okay, homework, and I want you guys to do some homework. I want to go and find, three, different sketches, from the different sketch comedy shows, from three different decades. Three, minimum, actually. I'll give you extra credit if you can do one from each decade until now, starting with the '50s. Anyway, see if you can, three sketches, that are fairly similar in terms of the subject matter they're covering, and I'll let you be vague on this a bit; it could just be three restaurant scenes, you know, but scenes that have, enough similarities that they're comparable, and then compare them. Look, at the structure, of the sketches, analyze them, eh, the kinds of humor, they're using. What are they making fun of and how are they satirizing it, and how could they be improved if possible, eh, think about what they're making fun and think about what that says about the time period. Humor, especially satire, especially sketch, especially, improv-based sketch, is a part of the society of the time, so what do it say about the time period and what they were making fun of and how, and compare that with the other sketches, how that's changed or evolved, ask why, or if matters? Maybe it matters more who's doing the sketches as well. Think of the kind of variety show they were on too. A sketch from, "Laugh-In" is very different than a sketch from, "SNL". Is it a show with a acting troupe, or cast, like "The Gary Moore Show" or show or something, or was it-eh, something like "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" or "Key & Peele" today, where's it's couple people doing whatever they want. One person's vision, a crew's vision, a writer's room, etc. Think of the audience sometimes, we didn't even talk about Great Britain's tradition of sketch comedy much, Monty Python sketches are different than anybody else's. Or if you want to even go before Monty Python, look up "Beyond the Fringe" one day, if you think about it. There's not a look of documentation on that group, they didn't make their mark as much on television, they were theater and records, but boy, you can really see the roots of what sketch comedy would become in their work.
Alright, everyone, drive home safe. Can somebody break a $20? for me.
(Samurai slashes table in half)
Thanks. See you next class.