No real rhyme or reason to this: these are just my personal 20 favourite comedy sketches that have appeared on tv down through the years, the ones which never fail to make me smile. Enjoy!
#20: Rowan Atkinson, ‘The School Master’
Rowan Atkinson is one of very few people who, like Peter Cook or Eric Morecambe, is just funny in the way that other people such as myself are just tall: it is an indivisible part of their nature. Atkinson is, however, almost unique in the way that he sees the comic potential not in the use of words but in the words themselves. This sketch is hysterically funny, not despite but because half of it consists of Atkinson simply reading out a list of names. There is literally no other comic who could achieve this. It’s brilliant.
#19: Peter Cook, ‘Biased Judge’
Peter Cook was, according to Stephen Fry, almost supernaturally funny. Quite apart from his near-perfect partnership with Dudley Moore (an example of which we shall see later) he was quite capable of producing startlingly memorable monologues, as this example demonstrates. Cook was the original owner of the magazine ‘Private Eye’, and he had very little time for Establishment figures – especially those who abused their positions, as this diatribe demonstrates. It was written with reference to the Thorpe Trial, and was written and first performed the evening of the day on which the real Judge made his not-entirely-fair-minded recommendations to the jury…
No embedding available, sorry, but here is the link: http://youtu.be/Kyos-M48B8U
#18: Monty Python, ‘The Fish Slapping Dance’
Monty Python was and remains the prime example of very very smart people being very very funny by being very very silly.The Fish Slapping Dance demonstrates precisely this. The sublime moment, for me, is John Cleese’s momentary examination of the alignment of his fish: it is this apparent checking to make sure everything is ‘just so’ that elevates the sketch from mildly amusing to side-splittingly funny.
#17: Armstrong & Miller, ‘Blue Peter – An Apology’
Cheekily, this video is a compilation of three sketches, but since they feature the same characters in the same situation, I think it’s permissable. I love these three sketches. They are perfectly constructed. Everything about them – the set, the clothing, the accents, the hairstyles, the poses adopted by the three characters (there’s something about the determined innocence of ‘Tina’s’ expression that absolutely cracks me up), and finally the syntax and lexicon, are so painfully accurate that it is entirely possible to believe that these are real apologies from a parallel universe…
#16: Mitchell & Webb, ‘I’m a Brain Surgeon’
We’ve all been there. We’ve all met someone ghastly at a party and wished that someone would, in some way, deal with them. This sketch is all those who have made that wish.
#15: Rowan Atkinson, ‘Welcome to Hell’
I may be over-analysing this, but there is something almost classical in the way this sketch is constructed. It clearly owes a debt to Dante Alighieri, with Atkinson’s devil, ‘Toby’, putting the French in with the Germans and the looters, pillagers and thieves being joined by the lawyers. That kind of contemporary analysis defines El Infierno, and by drawing its strength from the same kind of observations Atkinson’s sketch is damnably funny as a result.
#14: Not the Nine O’Clock News, ‘Constable Savage’
There are times (and we shall see this again with my selections for #13, #10 and #8) where sketches perform a function of social commentary and, indeed, indictment. The racism displayed by police forces in Britain at the time, and the attempts to weed it out, form the basis of this routine. A lot of it depends on Atkinson’s pitch-perfect delivery, but Griff Rhys Jones’s too-thick-to-even-know-he’s-thick ‘Constable Savage’ is a fantastic creation, and serves as the perfect foil to Atkinson’s verbal pyrotechnics.
#13: Mitchell & Webb, ‘Homeopathic A&E’
For anyone wondering why homeopathic remedies are regarded with skepticism bordering on contempt by those who, you know, think, this sketch provides all the answers. It also seems to be a favourite amongst the doctors I know.
#12: Rowan Atkinson, ‘Fatal Beatings’
There ought to be no way this sketch should work. Write it down in black and white and it seems just too dark and too sad ever to be funny: “This is a comedy sketch about informing a parent that their child is dead”. And yet…the sketch works because we all have a preprogrammed set of responses to make to a statement like that, and these are the responses that Rowan Atkinson’s character completely ignores. The sketch is funny (and it really is funny) because Atkinson is such a monster, and the parent’s (Angus Deayton) reaction is not so much grief as total bewilderment at Atkinson’s headmaster’s prioritising…
#11: Carol Burnett, ‘Went With The Wind!’
The first of the two big ‘set-piece’ sketches to appear on here, this is an epic parody of an epic film. Carol Burnett is just hilarious, and she would need to be to pull this off: hers is the central performance, and everyone else supports it. A little trivia: the ‘dress in the window’ appearance earned the most sustained laugh in the show’s – and indeed the station’s – history.
#10: Mitchell & Webb, ‘Are We The Baddies?’
Like ‘Fatal Beatings’, this is a sketch which takes a deeply unfunny subject – namely, the question of complicity in the Holocaust – and somehow manages to make the existential musings of two SS officers deeply funny. It’s a very difficult sketch to analyse, but it’s wellworth watching – especially for the ending, which suggests a moral awakening of sorts.
#9: Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, ‘One Leg Too Few’
The late great Peter Cook was fortunate enough to find a partner equal to his comic genius in Dudley Moore. While Cook specialised in lugubrious establishment figures (it’s not hard to see why John Cleese so idolised him), Moore could provide the kind of ebulliant cheekiness that could be guaranteed to create sparks between the two. In this sketch, Moore’s manic energy is exactly the right counterpart to Cook’s elegantly awkward and delicate circumlocutions.
#8: Saturday Night Live, ‘Word Association’
Richard Pryor delivers an almost Zen performance (look out for his transition from finger-tapping amiability to lip-trembling apocalyptic rage) in this 1975 sketch, which dealt with racism through the policy of head-on confrontation. It is – and I choose my words advisedly – shockingly funny, and deserves to be better known this side of the Atlantic.
#7: The Two Ronnies, ‘Crossed Lines’
The Two Ronnies were the absolute masters of verbal tricks and tics, but their best sketches depended on near-perfect miscommunication. Their dazzling verbal gymnastics depended on the flexibility of language itself, and for that reason I – an English student – adore them.
#6: Morecambe & Wise, ‘Andrew Preview’
Andre Previn had no time to rehearse with Morecambe and Wise, and he learned the script on the way to the studio. Eric Morecambe’s “Pow! He’s in, I like him, I like him!” was the only ad-libbed line in the whole thing, and was an expression of relief as he realised Previn’s comedic timing was every bit as excellent as his musical timing. Do please enjoy the infamous Morecambe rendition of ‘Grieg’s Piano Concerto By Grieg’.
#5: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Tailor, Marty Feldman; ‘Four Yorkshiremen’
The original and best version of one-upmanship, as seen on “At Last the 1948 Show”. Eventually not only do modesty and common sense go out the window, but so too do the very laws of time and space themselves.
#4: The Two Ronnies, ‘Mastermind’
This is one of the most fiendishly complicated sketches ever written. But it doesn’t look like it is. I discovered this the hard way, since I tried to write a new version of it for a newspaper article. The gags, oddly, aren’t the hard part. The hard part is the structure, and in particular the progression. In other words, it’s very difficult to move from a ‘what’ question to a ‘who’ question to a ‘why’ question and still have everything make sense, never mind be funny. For me, this was the Two Ronnies’ crowning moment in sketch comedy – more so than ‘Fork Handles’, which, while it may be funnier the first time you see it, doesn’t stand up to repeated viewings. This does.
#3: Monty Python, ‘Dead Parrot’
Do I really need to say anything about this epitome of absurdist humour?
#2: Morecambe & Wise, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’
A play what Ernie wrote. Not only was this probably the best of Morecambe and Wise’s longer dramatic sketches, it was also a revelation for Glenda Jackson, who prior to this had not been considered a comic actress. After appearing in this she was asked to playVicky Allesio in the romantic comedy ‘A Touch of Class’…for which she won an oscar (her second). After receiving the award she received a telegram from Morecambe and Wise, saying “Stick with us, kid, and you’ll win a third!”
#1: Abbott & Costello, ‘Who’s on First’
Widely – and deservedly – considered the best sketch of all time, this masterclass in timing, delivery, writing and physicality is my favourite sketch. It is, again, perhaps not so widely known on this side of the Atlantic, but it remains unsurpassed. Have fun!