Laughter is an eternal antidote for sadness, and television is able to indulge in comedy through many different subgenres, including the attractive format of sketch comedy series. Sketch comedy typically foregoes a narrative plot in favor of disconnected gags that can tackle infinitely random ideas or decide to narrow in on a specific focus.
Sketch comedy can be treated like a mainstream equalizer for laughter, but there’s frequently a punk rock sensibility around sketch series that encourage jokes to explore dark and controversial material. Saturday Night Live occasionally attacks edgy material, but there are many sketch comedy series that routinely visit dark places.
10 I Think You Should Leave
3 Seasons, 18 Episodes (Ongoing)
Tim Robinson spent a brief tenure on Saturday Night Live, but it was clear his comedic sensibilities were a little too unconventional for the mainstream series. Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave allows Robinson’s anarchic ideas to fully thrive without compromise, along with the help of other acclaimed avant-garde comedians like Patti Harrison, Conner O’Malley, and Tim Heidecker.
I Think You Should Leave trims any fat and is left with incredibly lean episodes of absurdist comedy. Trauma is often the punchline in the sketch series, and more often than not, there are fragile characters under the microscope who can barely cope. Elaborate setups frequently conclude with individuals overwhelmed and misunderstood.
9 The State
4 Seasons, 25 Episodes
The State ran for four seasons during the ’90s on MTV, which proved to not be the most accommodating home for a sketch series. The State‘s scrappiness and struggles to survive helped give it its reckless energy, and the new young talent to come out of the series–many of which are now major stars–truly felt like fresh voices in comedy.
The State took pride in attacking many mainstream comedy conventions with an almost postmodern approach to the medium. The State also seemed to be rebelling against its network in a way that pushed its radical comedy to more inventive places.
1 Season, 6 Episodes
Chris Morris is a rebellious British comedian who’s responsible for pitch-black satires like Brass Eye, The Day Today, and Nathan Barley. Jam is as much a waking nightmare as it is a sketch comedy series. Jam fearlessly frames sketches around death, poverty, famous dictators, and even Jesus Christ.
In addition to dark sketches that shine a light on surreal rabbit holes, Jam messes around with its presentation by altering the speed, volume, and aspect ratio in minimal manners so that there’s a general feeling of unease and that things are not how they should be. It’s a sketch series that uses the medium itself to unnerve its audience.
7 Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
5 Seasons, 50 Episodes, 1 Movie
Adult Swim has helped foster some of the best animation of the past two decades, but they’ve also become a supportive home for unconventional live-action content. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is one of Adult Swim’s greatest success stories, and the series’ aggressive anti-comedy is great at what it does, even if it’s not for everyone.
Tim and Eric are content to disturb or gross out their audience, and laughter is far from their priority. Tim and Eric sketches usually go out on a big life, but there’s a palpable darkness that’s present in their world that’s almost Lynchian in nature.
6 The Birthday Boys
2 Seasons, 20 Episodes
A popular approach that’s taken with sketch series is that an existing sketch troupe that’s already established a unique voice will be given a series to better showcase their talents. The Birthday Boys ran for two seasons on IFC, and it offers a strong mix of niche gags and playful absurdism.
There’s a natural chemistry to the cast that helps sell some of the edgier sketch premises. The sketch show loves to push ideas to their breaking point and explore the fine line between comedy and tragedy.
5 Whitest Kids U’ Know
5 Seasons, 60 Episodes
Whitest Kids U’ Know was such an exciting alternative to mainstream comedy for those who stumbled upon it during the late ’00s. The sketch troupe’s five members are determined to tear down established sketch comedy paradigms and there’s absolutely nothing that’s off limits.
The first episode alone features sketches that include Adolf Hitler, chemical dependencies, violent deaths, and sexual deviance. This establishes a reckless abandon where Whitest Kids U’ Know only tackles more taboo subject matter by the end of its run. Whitest Kids U’ Know is incredibly sharp and is hardly just edgy for the sake of it.
4 Big Train
2 Seasons, 12 Episodes
Big Train is a wild British sketch comedy series that features Simon Pegg, Mark Heap, and Kevin Eldon in its core cast, all of whom are willing to take comedy to frightening, scary places. Big Train‘s tone is all over the map.
Some sketches lean into friendly and broad absurdism or cute visual gags, while others focus on troubled individuals and tense scenarios that get out of control. Surprise punchlines and fake-out twists keep the audience on their toes and give Big Train‘s comedy an unpredictable energy.
3 The Dana Carvey Show
1 Season, 8 Episodes
Dana Carvey was one of Saturday Night Live‘s strongest cast members, and there was understandable anticipation over his own sketch series. The Dana Carvey Show quickly proved how different it was from Carvey’s sketch roots with controversial premises and characters that stood out even more during the show’s early airtime.
Jokes about the President and the OJ Simpson trial even caused sponsors to abandon the sketch show and the series to embrace this instability. In addition to Carvey, the show’s cast and writing team were truly prolific and featured the likes of Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Louis C.K., and Charlie Kaufman.
2 The League Of Gentlemen
4 Seasons, 22 Episodes, 1 Movie
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are brilliant storytellers and comedians who have a flair for the horror genre that’s resulted in groundbreaking British series Psychoville and Inside No. 9. Their initial series, The League of Gentlemen, is a creative take on sketch comedy that’s set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey, a hotbed for oddballs and morally decrepit individuals, all of which are played by Shearsmith, Pemberton, and Mark Gatiss.
Death runs rampant in the series, and Papa Lazarou might be the scariest character to ever appear in a sketch comedy series. The show’s third season also experiments with narrative in exciting ways that push the sketch format to experimental places.
1 Mr. Show With Bob & David
4 Seasons, 30 Episodes, 1 Movie
One of the most common preconceptions about sketch comedy series is that the material is unconnected and explores original ideas. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ Mr. Show with Bob and David works painstakingly hard to do the contrary, where each sketch actively leads into the next.
This in itself sets up Mr. Show for a more sophisticated caliber of comedy, but the ideas are also wildly weird on a sketch-by-sketch basis. Mr. Show loves to get lost in the minutiae of joke telling, and subversive sketches present people at their worst in order to sell a gag.
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