“What are we going to do now?” chanted the cast of Spike Milligan’s Q series. They were prophets. People finally stopped banging on about the death of the sitcom a few years ago when it became apparent that sitcoms were less dead than had been previously supposed. Sketch shows, however, have not been in a good way for a while. And it’s not hard to see why; because while sitcoms offer an almost infinite variety of styles within a simple dramatic format – farce, shows about nothing, documentary parody, satire, family sentiment, space, surrealism, etc – the sketch show is always going to be about sketches. One to six minutes of people acting out short scenarios with a beginning and a middle and, fairly often, an end.
Spike Milligan worked out how to dispense with an ending (often by having everyone chant, “What are we going to do now?”), Monty Python discovered how to segue and link sketches, The Fast Show managed to shave off the endless, “You wanted to see me, sir?” introductions, and both Big Train and French and Saunders stretched the length of the sketch to new limits, but nobody has ever found a way to remove the sheer sketch-ism of a sketch. There are great two handers (Armstrong and Miller’s brilliant airmen, Mitchell and Webb’s Nazis, The Fast Show’s Ted and Ralph), bizarre moments of brilliance (Vic and Bob’s Slade In Residence, Harry Hill’s Badger Parade), parodies (from Ernie Wise’s plays to French and Saunders’ festive epics), but in the end, they’re sketches. You can link them with stand-up (Victoria Wood, Stuart Lee) or monologues (Dave Allen) or animation (Terry Gilliam) but the fact remains, sketches are sketches.
It’s been a bad century for the sketch show. There was a fad in the mid-noughties for middling naughty sketch shows. For a while every channel seemed to have a sexy sketch show about people doing it, sometimes in the nude, generally with swearing, and often with very similar material. Now there’s a fad for duos from Oxbridge, understandably hoping to replicate the success of Mitchell and Webb, but to be honest it’s not much of a fad, as there’s only about two of them which isn’t even enough to repopulate a pond, let alone all of telly.
Maybe it’s just us holding on to a stale old formula. America, which is very good at comedy, only has two sketch shows at a time, Saturday Night Live and another one. Many countries don’t have them at all, preferring instead to make game show formats for their neighbours to purchase. Perhaps in a world of stand-up concerts, internet clip programmes and, yup, sitcoms, there isn’t room any more for the sketch show, which will end up going the way of the talent contest, the ballroom dancing show and all the other dead formats…
Because nothing ever dies nowadays (even dead perverts enjoy new careers as posthumous ogres). In a world where Tupac does gigs as a hologram and Bruce Forsyth comes a close second, the sketch show may survive. Online, it does OK, from The Onion’s pitchperfect news parodies to Funny Or Die’s instant mash hits. Maybe when someone finds a great way to transfer the low attention span, high turnover nature of net sketch comedy to the slow whale-faced world of commissioned telly, we’ll get a great new sketch show. Until then, Spike Milligan’s question will remain unanswered.