Forget ‘Saturday Night Live.’ In TV’s latest sketch comedies, an old form learns new tricks

Share via

Sketch shows are the stealth bombers of television. Compared to the dramas and sitcoms that dominate the conversation in this Triple-Platinum Age of television, they can seem ephemeral, the well-fortified institution of “Saturday Night Live” notwithstanding — a fancy version of something amateurs put on in coffeehouses and YouTubers post with a smartphone and half an idea.

Yet this perceived lack of importance makes them an excellent vehicle for distinctive, even oddball points of view. Nothing on television in recent years has been more ambitious or radical than HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness,” a sort of Afrocentric art-variety show by way of Jean-Luc Godard from the Brooklyn-based filmmaker Terence Nance; or Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Adult Swim series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” before it; or Ernie Kovacs’ surrealist blackouts way before that.

Often beginning with the question “What if?” sketch comedy is all about possibility. It can be abstract, absurd, or shot through with topical urgency, expressing from series to series or sketch to sketch an individual vision or group dynamic. Freed from the demands of narrative and character development, sketch comedy tends to be more intellectual than emotional; perhaps it’s more accurate to say that even its emotions are rooted in ideas. It’s perfect for parody, satire, social commentary or examining the small quirks of human nature. Sketch shows play with style; they are fast and fleet, highly maneuverable and modular. Maintaining their integrity out of context, individual sketches are easily plugged into online video platforms and social media regurgitation machines. (Online humor is very much a thing of shreds and sketches.) The best have a puckish joyousness, even when the material is dark.


With all that in its favor, sketch comedy can still seem a secondary form, but its lineage is venerable, and the line is far from played out. Comedy Central has lately premiered “Alternatino with Arturo Castro,” which brings a Latinx sensibility to the form; two series with African American creators and casts, HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and IFC’s “Sherman’s Showcase,” debut this week. (IFC is also home to “Baroness von Sketch Show,” a white Canadian lady sketch show, which returns in October.) There is a small but mighty tradition of black sketch comedy on television — “Key & Peele,” “Chapelle’s Show,” “In Living Color” and, going back, “The Flip Wilson Show” — among which these new series sit well.

“Black Lady” was created by and stars Robin Thede, who was the head writer on Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” — Wilmore is among the famous faces, including Angela Bassett, David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine, Laverne Cox and Khandi Alexander, to guest on Thede’s show — and had her own current-events comedy, “The Rundown With Robin Thede,” on BET. She’s joined here, in an exceedingly nimble main cast, by Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis (“The Game”) and Ashley Nicole Black (“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”). For an actor, sketch comedy is a chance to demonstrate both personality and range: an opportunity to play many parts in a short time, where a sitcom star may spend years playing just one.

All sorts of ideas, big and little, spin about in “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” but there is a tendency for ordinary things to quickly become extraordinary. A groom (Thede) can say anything but “I do”; language itself breaks down. The camera will pull back at the end of a sketch, turning a “Bad Bitch Support Group” into a drug trial, or an orgy of drug-addled violence into a politician’s campaign ad. A bit in which friends drink wine, gossip and play party games is revealed (small spoiler, sorry) to be taking place after the end of the world.

Other sketches include “Invisible Spy,” with Black as a woman so ordinary looking no one can remember her; the “Pose” parody “Basic Ball,” with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Caldwell Tidicue in the Billy Porter role (“The category is: clinical depression … make your way to the floor, if you can” ); and “Church Open Mic,” in which a call for testimony brings up congregants with their own agendas (stand-up comedy, market research, Instagram page promotion). All are exceptionally well realized — Dime Davis directs throughout — and winningly played.

More modest, but with plenty of sideways charm, is “Sherman’s Showcase,” from “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” writers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin. (With Salahuddin’s brother Sultan Salahuddin, they also created and appear in the fine new Comedy Central sitcom “South Side.”) The series presents itself as a series of infomercials — hosted variously by executive producer John Legend, Mary J. Blige and Morris Day — flogging a “partially complete 23-DVD boxed set” culled from a long-running Saturday morning dance show in the mold of “Soul Train.” A collection of essentially discrete yet mutually enhancing bits gathered under a fictional umbrella, it also has a wisp of non-chronological narrative surrounding its recurring characters, host Sherman McDaniels (Salahuddin, in a procession of astonishing jackets) and his not wholly simpatico producer, Dutch Shepherd (Riddle, who acquires an eye patch and military regalia).


There are movie parodies (Damon Wayans Jr. in a Montell Jordan biopic), game shows (“The Sentimental Price Is Right”) and genuinely catchy musical pastiches, from the Prince-ish “Vicki, Is the Water Warm Enough?” to the smooth Afro-futurism of Galaxia’s “Time Loop,” which has been stuck in my head for days: “Friends, let me tell ya about a gadget of mine/It allows you to go back in time… The space-time continuum like pearls on a string/You can move ‘em like it ain’t no thing.” Fake ads include one for a subscription television service offering “mostly uninterrupted access” to a catalog including “half of Denzel Washington’s movies — that’s right, the first half… ‘Bones’ with no dialogue, just director commentary... and the never-before-seen series finale of ‘Moesha,’ with just a few minutes missing at the very end.”

When it comes to “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” certainly, I am not, demographically speaking, going to be able to to nod at every joke and say, “That’s so true” — just as I am not the person in the comedy club to whom the line “You ladies know what I’m talking about” is addressed. Who you are and what you know and where you’ve been of course affect how you hear a joke, and no good joke ever owes you an explanation. But I am a human being, watching human beings, and I’m interested in what the ladies know, and what they’re talking about. (Given how it prizes point of view, no medium is more educational than comedy.) And while it’s true that some comedy is meant for specific eyes and ears, there is nothing particularly exclusive about “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” “Sherman’s Showcase” or “Alternatino.”

It would be a sad, static world, in any case, if we only listened to voices that sounded just like ours. That’s what Twitter is for.

‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’

Where: HBO

When: 11 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

‘Sherman’s Showcase’

Where: IFC

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)