Sid Caesar webAlthough the origins of the television set are kind of sketchy, there is one thing for sure: It helped bring back the visual element of Vaudeville-style entertainment that was lost to radio. Dancers, dog acts, and dangerous acrobatics, didn't fare well on radio, so many such acts faded away, along with "sketch comedy," a fast-moving style of madness that was lost to the half-hour situation comedy format.

Sketch comedy is the short-story form of the more structured situation format. Sketches can be long or short, and are generally unrelated to each other within a single program. The characters change from sketch to sketch, the plots are unrelated, and the point is humor, not life lessons.

From a family restaurant in Yonkers, New York, sprang an early superstar of sketch comedy: Sid Caesar. While hanging around and helping out at his father's restaurant, Caesar picked up not only dishes, but dialects as well.
During World War II, Caesar used his classically-trained saxophone talents in the Coast Guard band. Max Liebman heard Caesar joking with his bandmates and gave him a microphone. Sid moved through stage and screen, Broadway and the Borscht Belt, before landing his own show, The Admiral Broadway Review. The Admiral morphed into Your Show of Shows, featuring classic skits and top talent: Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner. It's satirical style and versatile cast set the standards for other sketch show revivals, like Saturday Night Live.
For sheer weirdness and innovation, Ernie Kovacs brought his "hallucinatory world" of Vaudeville and technical innovation to TV in the early '50s. This off-the-wall humorist stated, "This is not primarily a comedy show, this is more or less an experiment that I'm doing." Paintings came to life, black became white, up became down, things floated in mid-air, and Kovacs became one of People magazines "Top 25 Stars of All Time" in 1989.
Do you remember Clerow Wilson? Unless you grew up in Jersey City in the '30s, you knew him as Flip Wilson. His Air Force buddies named him "Flip" because they thought he was "flipped out." After performing in low-rent clubs as a comedian, he was caught up in the search for Black comics, and the rest is TV and societal history.
Flip was the first Black host of a TV variety show, and the first to set the stage in the middle of the audience for a sense of intimacy. Known for his outrageous portrayals of the unscrupulous Reverend Leroy ("The Church of What's Happening Now") and the sassy, wisecracking "sista" Geraldine Jones ("What you see is what you get!"), he eschewed politics and social satire, treating is characters with dignity and respect in a racially-sensitive era.
UCLA's class clown in the early '50s wended her way through television for a decade before landing a 10-year contract with CBS, culminating in The Carol Burnett Show, September 11, 1967.
The show had a Vaudeville feel but an updated appeal. The network feared that the variety show concept had faded, but Carol Burnett believed otherwise, and proved it with a vengeance. Supported by guest stars like Lucille Ball, Jim Nabors, Steve Lawrence, Madeline Kahn, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Charles, The Carpenters, and many, many others, a troupe of comedic geniuses (Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway), and brilliant set and costume designers and musicians, the show went on to win 25 Emmys out of 70 nominations. It produced a popular spinoff, Mama's Family, and still appears in syndicated versions and DVDs.
While many sketch comedy shows chose to present squeaky-clean, uncontroversial entertainment, others delighted in pushing the boundaries of propriety and commenting on current social issues — in a humorous way, of course.
Two amiable folk musicians — who happened to be brothers — "stupid and uninformed" according to Tommy — flopped on their first show, a CBS sitcom. They needed to be let loose and put in control, so CBS gave them The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Tom and Dick Smothers hired "hip" writers like Steve Martin and Rob Reiner, and Mason Williams, giving them a still-silly yet topical edge — one that got them booted from CBS for being too controversial.
However, the movement was on, and sketch comedy drew from its Ernie Kovacs roots and applied the suave and sophisticated demeanor of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin to Laugh-In. Fast-moving, silly, sexy, and political, it birthed celebrities like Lily Tomlin, Arte Johnson, Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, and others. It also showcased the talents of the old and odd, from burlesque's Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham ("Here Comes the Judge") to falsetto musician Herbert Butros / Buckingham Khaury (Tiny "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" Tim) to The Rosmenko Brothers (Arte Johnson and Sammy Davis, Jr.).
Laugh-In sent shockwaves across the Atlantic, that reached a Britisher named Eric Idle. He and the other members of British comedy troupe, Monty Python's Flying Circus, wanted to be original. No fear — Idle and John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam pioneered the sketch that had no end, often stopping in the middle to segue into other bits or animations. Python was not political; if nothing else, it was surrealistic and absurd — and hilarious.
Still crazy after all these years (since 1975), Saturday Night Live draws from the best elements of its predecessors, beginning with a troupe of "not ready for primetime players" culled from comedy clubs, bringing contemporary attitudes to the world of sketch comedy.
Intentionally or not, perhaps as a product of its times, SNL's cast scale tipped the balance toward Whiteness. Even when Blacks (only one of whom, Garrett Morris, was an original cast member) appeared as guests, they usually played stereotypical roles. This inequity paved the way for the
Wayans brothers, who masterminded In Living Color, a purposely edgy, contemporary sketch comedy show, with an ethnic makeup that allowed them to get away with portrayals that SNL could not. Creator Keenen Ivory Wayans wanted to "grab people from the start," and they did with parodies of stereotypes of Blacks, West Indians, homeboys, Whites, the homeless, and favorite TV icons ("This Old Box," Star Trek's "The Wrath of Farrakhan," "Lassie '90," and "The Home Boy Shopping Market"). And yes, there was a White cast member: Jim Carrey!
Other sketch comedy shows include Second City TV, Fridays, and Mad TV, which are not as well-known or influential, but they prove that sketch comedy endures.
In our next issue, television sitcoms hold up a mirror to the family and other real-life relationships.


A Brief Sketch of TV Trivia

  • Caesar's shows launched a slew of writers who went on to greater fame: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, Joe Stein, and Mike Stewart.
  • Flip Wilson was one of 18 children. Placed in foster care at age 7, he ran away and was sent to reform school.
  • Carol Burnett's TV debut was as second fiddle to a dummy on The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney kids' show.
  • Tiny Tim started performing under different names, such as Texarkana Tex, Judas K. Foxglove, Vernon Castle, Emmett Swink, and Larry Love, the Singing Canary.
  • Pyotr Rosmenko (Arte Johnson): "Here in America, is very good, everyone watch television. In old country, television watches you!"
  • On the Smothers' show, Keith Moon of the Who exploded illegal fireworks in his bass drum.

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