(image = Charlie Higson as Swiss Toni, originally introduced in The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer who then became a recurring character in The Fast Show and later had his own spin off sitcom.)
While the live scene is awash with a healthy dose of sketch comedy, there’s a distinct lack of any on British TV. But is it the death of the sketch show or the death of TV?
Sketch comedy has long been a staple part of the British comedy television diet. From Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Not the Nine O’Clock news and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Born out of variety shows and vaudeville, it has always been a craft for comedians to hone their skills and find their characters and to this day still many comedians flirt with the form.
However modern TV appears to be casting sketch comedy aside, in favour of more panel and reality-based shows.
Just today the Guardian published a piece entitled “Why is almost nobody making TV sketch comedy any more?” quoting The Fast Show’s Charlie Higson and his announcement of the death of the sketch show last year.
It goes on however to posit that perhaps the sketch show is not dead but rather it’s relationship with TV is over. And it makes a good point.
Sketch comedy is enjoying a resurgence at the moment. In a study we carried out recently, we encountered a surprising number of active sketch groups, proving there’s lots going on under the bonnet. Back in July, The Sunday Times featured a piece about how sketch comedy was undergoing a “mini revolution”.
So with sketch comedy making a come back and TV making cut backs, it appears to us that what’s happening is the two are just moving further apart from each other.
TV executives are increasingly under pressure to keep viewers on screen rather than online as they defend the bastion of terrestrial broadcast, from the scourge of digital innovation. And to do that they need big names and convoluted contracts and licensing to ‘give you something that nobody else will’. Being funny doesn’t just cut it anymore; you’ve got to have commercial value.
Another argument suggests that decreasing budgets mean sketch comedy proves too expensive for its worth, that the amount of writing and costume and set production means panel shows are cheaper. But I disagree - a sketch group who have earned their stripes with years of experience working together will write far more efficiently than a group of profile comedians working together for the first time. And rarely will costume or set production exceed the costs to build a panel show set in a hired studio. Even that is a moot point when you consider the set budgets allocated for drama.
Others suggest that you just can’t monetize a sketch show. That it won’t sell well overseas, that you can’t sell the format on, that there’s nothing to merchandise. But the contrary exists. Monty Python are known globally, shows like Not the Nine O Clock News and Impractical Jokers were formats sold and Little Britain had plenty of merchandise attached.
The truth is TV has ‘invested’ in certain comedians (sometimes by proxy via a production company) and intends to get paid back. So they will keep purporting the same but in various disguises. A sitcom here, a panel show there, a live special and a couple chat shows. And every now and again they’ll venture into something new that’s been doing well elsewhere.
But its not TV’s fault, it’s a very expensive operation, with a huge amount of staff and big overheads. They play a big game.
Sketch comedy will always be a place to find challenging comedy or exciting new stuff. It’s just so experimental and versatile. And for the way that TV is thinking currently, it’s too risky.
There’s another side to this story though. Traditional TV is in competition with the web and it’s yet to be decided who can produce more interesting content. It’s much cheaper to broadcast on the web and so a) there’s less risk resulting in more variety or b) more money to invest in more creative production. A great example is series 6 of Community, which recently moved to Yahoo! from NBC as a now web-only series. The battle has only just begun and eventually time will tell who produces the best content.
For now though it appears sketch is poised for online. While it’s perhaps not fit for the big traction requirements of traditional TV, it’s perfect for the entertainment remit of the net and it’s only a matter of time before it finds it’s home online.