Why Do Good Standups Make Mediocre Sketch Shows?

By Tim Surette

Oct 13, 2010

It's the career break that all comedians wait for: their own TV show! And as fans, we love seeing our favorite yukster upgrade from a smoky comedy club in Columbus, Ohio to Comedy Central or some other edgy network.

So why are we almost always disappointed? Nick Swardson, a standup vet who made enough of a name for himself to get bit parts in various Adam Sandler-produced movies is the latest victim. The premiere of his brand new name-branded sketch show Nick Swardson's Pretend Time aired on Comedy Central in America last night. And the result? Pretty much the same as all the underwhelming precursors.

Don't get me wrong, Pretend Time had its moments (especially with "Wheelchair Cat: Trust Fund Kitty"). But the guffaws were inconsistent and much of the humor resorted to potty jokes and the same gag repeated over and over. So why do good comedians make mediocre sketch shows?

1) Making a sketch show is hard
Sketch comedy writing is, as they say, like throwing poop on the wall. Only a certain amount will actually stick like you want it to, and the rest is still... crap. (I think that's how the saying goes.) Point is, for every 10 sketches that get written, two or three are good and the rest are iffy. But since time is a problem for a television schedule, a lot of mediocre sketches are going to find their way into the mix.

2) We're using to being engaged with the comedians during their standup routine
Like magic, fortune-telling, and psychic premonitions featuring dead relatives, standup is an art that involves working the crowd. The best standup comedians use instant feedback to their advantage; if a joke is working, they'll milk it until it stops working. With a sketch show, we're pretty much on our own to watch what's already pre-packaged. The result? The comedian doesn't seem as funny as he was on stage.

3) No one else is laughing with us
Laugh tracks can be like yawns and Herpes—infectious. So when Swardson or Norm MacDonald is on stage and we're sitting next to hundreds of other people who are laughing, we tend to laugh too. Remember when you saw Paul Blart: Mall Cop in the theater and the audience was busting a gut and you were too, so you rented it when it came out on DVD and watched it by yourself with a TV dinner and things weren't really that funny anymore? They weren't really funny in the first place; you were just duped by the guy sitting next to you. Try watching TV with more friends, and things will be funnier, but we don't all have the luxury of having a dozen roommates.

4) Commercial breaks
Comedy is as much about flow as it is punchlines, and a guy can get on fire on stage. But when we watch a hilarious sketch followed by a Tampax commercial, we tend to lose our comedy stiffy, as it were.

Of course, these rules aren't absolute. And sketch shows that feature comedians we love can be funny. Ensemble sketch shows tend to be better than those branded with one name. Human Giant, The State, Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall, and Monty Python's Flying Circus all featured at least two creative minds working in unison. But Dmitri Martin, Michael Showalter, and other successful comedians have found tougher times. Or perhaps they just aren't as funny.

There's only one solid exception. Dave Chappelle arguably improved when he moved from stage to screen with Chappelle's Show. That seemed an impossible task, given the high quality of his standup, but somehow, magically, Chappelle pulled it off.

Which comedians do you think made the most successful transitions from comedy clubs to their own sketch show?


Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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  • dumbsaint Oct 16, 2010

    YEAAAAAAAAH.

  • dumbsaint Oct 16, 2010

    You just made me sad. I was just beginning to forget Chappelle Show wasn't on the air anymore. Back to therapy.

  • Whedonrules Oct 15, 2010

    "Michael and Michael Have Issues" with Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black was funny. Hope it comes back.

  • killerpuppies Oct 14, 2010

    I'll give ya Wayne Brady, but Charlie... waste of space.

  • voxware Oct 14, 2010

    The show itself .. seems to be inspired by Human Giant. A lot of gross and violent humor, somewhat like MadTV. The ads for this show sort of break down the whole formula too.. something about sex or drugs, someone curses, something about farts or poop. I definitely love edgy comedy don't get me wrong but it shouldn't be a crutch or a substitute for actual wit or commentary.

  • joostin_cdn Oct 14, 2010

    Charlie Murphy made the Chappelle Show lol. Him and Wayne Brady. Don't make Wayne Brady cut a *****!

  • brain05 Oct 14, 2010

    I miss Dave Chappelle

  • killerpuppies Oct 14, 2010

    Chappelle's Show was good for a few episodes only really. Most of it was just a racist mess.
    And sorry, the whole Charlie Murphy crap was never even remotely funny.

  • BarryDalton Oct 14, 2010

    Uh, some types of humor depend upon surprise/shock; so naturally they aren't as funny the second time around. It has nothing to do with laugh tracks or the audience around you. I don't care how many people are laughing around me; if it's not funny, I'm not laughing. But maybe that's just me.

  • PiperPrueLover4 Oct 14, 2010

    I think the main difference is that standup comedians are the funniest when they're being themselves, not when they're doing characters. The best example of this can be seen on Chelsea Lately. The show itself is hilarious, Chelsea is almost-always on fire in both the round table and interview segments, but whenever she does sketches such as "Judge Lately" or "Dr Lately", they just aren't funny.

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