The History of Sketch Comedy review – Keegan-Michael Key's love letter to laughter

Figcaption The History Of Sketch Comedy Review Keegan Michael Keys Love Letter To Laughter
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

“T he sexy dangerous first cousin of standup,” Keegan-Michael Key calls sketch comedy, which feels like a stretch. But then, no one can accuse Key of understatement. His new audio series The History of Sketch Comedy brims with enthusiasm for an art form that, far from sexiness, is often sidelined as the runt of the comedy litter. No longer, if Key has his way. This 10-part podcast demonstrates not only the riches that strew the history of short-form comedy, but the art form’s pedigree as direct descendant of Greek theatre, court jesters and commedia dell’arte.

I didn’t see that coming – but then, there’s plenty in Key’s series that few of us would associate with sketch comedy. The opening two episodes, on the ancient and medieval worlds, are highly digressive and largely untroubled by anything you or I would recognise as sketch. (They’d be equally relevant to a history of comedy or standup more widely.) Each episode also tracks Key’s own career through sketch, improv and theatre. As one half of hit sketch pairing Key and Peele (his sidekick Jordan Peele is now an Oscar-nominated film-maker), he uses a handful of his own sketches – the fantastic Substitute Teacher, for example – as case studies.

The fact that you don’t hear the actual clip, and that Key performs all the sketches in question (from Abbott and Costello, SNL, even the Two Ronnies) verbatim, only adds to the sense of the show as a personal crusade. He’s not just acting these scenes out, he’s pressing them on us, doubling up in laughter at every other line, pointing out the brilliance of this gesture or that turn-of-phrase.

There are times early on when Key’s tone of voice feels try-hard, as if he’s overcompensating for the absence of a live audience. In lieu of an audible reaction, he sometimes restates, overexplicates or guffaws at his own jokes. But the longer the podcast goes on, the more that exuberance feels like a virtue. It binds the show’s strands together by force of will. It recasts the series as equal parts tour d’histoire and love letter.

I haven’t yet listened to all 10 instalments, but I did jump forward to the one about British sketch, of which Key is – characteristically – a fan. We natives might cock an eyebrow at his claim that Brits are “decent and polite” (have you visited recently?). The sketches he chooses to dissect (Four Candles; Pete ’n’ Dud’s One Leg Too Few) are familiar, and his analogy between America’s Second City and our own Cambridge Footlights misses out on the class dimension. But the contrasts he draws between US and UK sketch practice, and his analyses of artists as varied as The Goon Show, Fry and Laurie and, er, Benny Hill are thoughtful and entertaining.

The series is at its best when Key unites classic sketches and his own experience to reveal the nuts-and-bolts of sketch building. How the best sketches have several “games” going on at once. How the character-premise-escalation formula works, and can be subverted. How audience like to detect patterns, guess outcomes – and be surprised. Key also introduced me to a host of sketches, and proto-sketches, I’d not seen before – I doubled the length of each episode excavating YouTube for Miller & Lyles, Bert Williams, Timmie Rogers routines of yore. (Key is particularly strong on African American comedy.) Finally, our host’s passion is infectious, and his History of Sketch Comedy, if never sexy, is a great listen.

• The History of Sketch Comedy by Keegan-Michael Key is available on Audible.

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