The sitcom is killing sketch comedy.
Maria was emailing around this one Muppets bit from Seth Rogen’s stint on SNL and she apologized if anyone had already seen it, but, as she pointed out, “nobody watches SNL anymore.” This is hardly news. SNL’s function now is not so much to be watched as to give Andy Samberg Emmys for songs that have a penis joke. The only reason I’d even set it playing on the Tivo was because they had Spoon on, marking the first and only time I’ve deliberately watched the show for the music.
The rest of the show was factory standard, a very careful reenactment of the weekly SNL ritual (is it really a coincidence that part of the show actually airs on Sunday?). The freshest joke was a Macgyver reference. Macgyver ceased production before some of you were born.
I’ve mentioned here before that sketch comedy is unprofitably hard; not coincidentally, I was talking about Studio 60 at the time, like I’m about to do now.
Studio 60 had a running thing where one of the writer-performers wrote and led a commedia dell’arte sketch in several episodes, evidently so Aaron Sorkin could demonstrate that he took Intro to Theater History. The focus groups hated it but the head writer heroically kept it in until it could build an audience (“Matt, Matt! This week two guys in Dallas liked it!”). There are a few problems here.
- Commedia dell’arte isn’t funny.
- At least, not in and of itself, and not anymore; humor needs context, and a modern audience–even an audience that took Intro to Theater History–doesn’t have the same context as one composed of 16th-century Venetians.
- Dated and ritualized forms of comedy getting inexplicably more popular every week is the kind of thing that can only happen in fiction.
- Unfortunately for Studio 60, it can’t happen believably even there.
Now, could you write a funny sketch that incorporated the stock types and exaggerated physicality of commedia dell’arte? I doubt it. What you could do is write a ten-minute play or one-act, which gives you the time to introduce the conventions to the audience, set things up going in a direction that the tropes predict, upend the whole thing and finish with a telling and funny point about the form’s influence on modern writing.
Studio 60 tried to go a lot of places, but that wasn’t one of them. Sorkin, bless him, doesn’t do reexamination; he does reverence.
This is where I get back to SNL, as revered an institution as exists in modern television, nowhere moreso than within itself. Like Studio 60, it can’t bear self-examination; the brand of comedy in which it traffics is built high and shakily on mannerisms that date back to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or even Abbott and Costello. It persists entirely due to inertia and the occasional breakout YouTube bit (ever noticed, by the way, that those look and sound like nothing else on the show?).
Now, when every network ran three or four sitcoms and they all made use of the same stylized rhythm as sketch, that was enough: they supplied each other with context. But sitcoms don’t work that way anymore. Poetically, it’s due in part to Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night that shows like Arrested Development, The Office and My Name is Earl were able to take hold and eventually shatter the studio-audience / three-camera format.
I misstated my thesis at the beginning; it’s not so much that sitcoms are killing sketch as that sitcoms have been its life support, and now they’re pulling plugs out, one by one. If the dependency holds, SNL has about as much time left as Two and a Half Men. Both of them are rigid guardians of their genre and flagship shows. Personally, as Matt Boyd once said about syndicated comics, I want to punch a hole in that boat.