Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.
When I was a kid, Saturday nights were a sketch comedy goldmine. At least one robust vein is obvious: the programming night is right there in the title. Saturday Night Live endured some complicated seasons during the nineteen-eighties, but it was also the decade that saw the likes of Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest pass through Studio 8H, and all of them were before the handful-of-aces casts that included all-time greats Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Dana Carvey. It was the program the aired earlier in the evening, however, that proved to be the real boon.
Where I grew up — and many other places, I assume — the local PBS station turned over their Saturday nights to some of the less stuffy programming they imported from across the Atlantic. That included Dr. Who, which I found all but impenetrable despite my aspirational geekiness. More importantly, it meant a portion of the evening was filled with old episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Initially, I responded to the inspired silliness more than anything else, delighting whenever the famed Spam sketch cycled up just as I was ready to celebrate when, say, Carvey’s Church Lady made one of her increasingly redundant appearances on SNL.
The turning point arrived with “The Argument Clinic,” the first comedy sketch that made me realize the form could be more than goofball diversion. It could be art. To this day, I marvel at the construction and verbal dexterity of this piece, which rivals the work of Tom Stoppard in its relentless ingenuity. In the category of comedy sketches, it still hasn’t been topped.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.