UK television may currently be experiencing a lack of great sketch comedy, with panel shows the preferred comedy medium for producers at the moment.
But look beyond the TV screen and there is a wealth of amazing sketch comedy acts performing live and posting videos online who continue to breathe life into a medium that remains as vibrant, funny and dark as ever. Just take a look at the Best Newcomer nominees at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, with Lazy Susan and Gein’s Family Giftshop both standing out as compelling acts with big futures.
If you’re around London on the bank holiday weekend you can catch some of the best new and established groups out there as part of London Sketchfest, the third annual event to celebrate the cream of sketch comedy.
We spoke to Adam Dahrouge, co-founder of the event, to find out more.
This is the third year for the London Sketch Comedy Festival. How has the event grown in that time?
For two producers with big aspirations and ideas above our stations it’s just begun to take shape. But as a new independent comedy festival, it’s grown immensely quickly.
When we started sketch comedy had quite a lot of stigma attached to it and to start a comedy festival around it was an auspicious and daunting challenge. Before we even launched one critic openly challenged us in an article, so we invited him to be a judge and now we can safely say he’s a sketch comedy fan.
Attitudes have really shifted since then and I think many people are more in tune with what sketch comedy is today. So much so that we have two news series’ of shows (the Feature Series and the Solo Series), a new writer’s competition and a video sketch competition all backed by some heavyweight judges from the likes of the BBC to independent production companies like Little Comet and Lucky Giant.
How did you get involved in running the event?
Back around 2008 we were both performing sketch comedy as part of the world’s only Arab and Israeli sketch troupe – doing comedy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was this amazing collusion of people who came together in London (the only place we think a sketch group like this could have formed).
We had a sell-out Edinburgh, went on an international tour and took one of the longest standing ovations I’ve ever encountered. But then we hit a glass ceiling and before we knew it we had nowhere to turn and the group dissolved. Out of its ashes came the idea to start a platform to support sketch comedy in the UK.
Such existed across the pond in Canada and the US and what with Britain’s history in sketch comedy it only seemed logical we should have one. We were suddenly surprised that we didn’t! So we set out to fix the problem ourselves.
What can we expect at this year’s festival?
Expect the unexpected and you’re almost there. The festival is an annual showcase of Britain’s sketch comedy talent, so it’s a bit like a military air tattoo but for comedy.
Each year we scout the country, seeing what everyone is doing and following their progress. We find a cool venue to takeover somewhere and then invite the most exciting acts that year to put on a showcase.
It’s one big annual pageant, a chance to show-off born from the very stigma we grew out of. Everybody is in to prove how funny sketch comedy is. So they bring their best material for a sort of one-off performance. If they were stand-up comedians they’d all be dropping the mic at the end of their sets.
Any particular acts you are looking forward to seeing?
On the opening night there’s a show with This Glorious Monster and So On & So Forth, two acts who are so slick you think would be appearing on TV already. It’s a bar we set at the beginning and mean to carry on throughout the festival.
Then we’re closing the festival with Gein’s Family Giftshop, an act who won last year’s Best New Act award and was subsequently voted Chortle Best Newcome. They’re performing alongside Late Night Gimp Fight, who have just signed up to do a new series of Impractical Jokers on Channel 5. In fact it’s going to be the Gimps last big show of the year so it’s like a send off for both us and them!
What are the key elements of a great sketch group?
There’s certainly no prescribed formula for a great sketch group but there’s things to look out for. The judges for our New Act Competition work with three criteria, which kind of apply universally:
Content – it’s important that you know how to write something that you can execute properly. You often need to discover your style of comedy that is inherent to you. And you need to know how to end a sketch, that’s often quite tricky.
Composition – you need to consider how everything hangs together. You’re taking your audience on a journey and nobody likes a bumpy ride that jolts from one sketch to another.
Company – often the difference between a good sketch act and a great sketch act, is how well gelled they are together. It takes time build trust and instinct together and work united as a company. A great sketch group are always supporting each other.
You wrote recently about the lack of sketch shows on UK television. Do producers see it as a risky genre?
I think producers are unfamiliar with it these days. When they think sketch comedy they imagine a bunch of loosely connected funny skits but this isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s going on in the live scene, where the rules are being rewritten.
There seems to be a general apathy towards sketch here in Britain, where people have forgotten just how funny it can be –look at Key & Peele across the pond, they’re two sketch comedians who have become so big they were hired by the President to appear at his correspondent’s dinner, in the middle of his speech.
Key & Peele at the White House correspondent’s dinner
TV these days though is very business-minded, made up of pitches backed by quantifiable values, working to sell the channel rather than the entertainment. So sketch does suddenly become risky, letting some no-namers write their own material and try something original, outside of convention. But great things are never achieved by playing it safe.
Despite the lack of TV exposure there seems to be a growing demand for live sketch, with two groups among the best newcomer nominations at last year’s Fringe. What’s your take on the overall health of the UK sketch scene?
We’re going through a renaissance right now with sketch comedy, where we’re able to discover all sorts of exciting new things. It’s a comedy form that has been squeezed so tightly over the past decade that it’s had to reinvent itself, catch up with changes in the culture of comedy and the way we consume it. At the moment the live scene is on the very forefront of this transformation.
Where this will end we don’t know yet. Perhaps the live scene will detach itself from the screen? Maybe it will reinvent the sketch show for TV? Possibly it could find a home online creating a new format for mobile entertainment? The challenge will be whether we have the pioneers ready to take the risk.
For now though you’ve just got to get out and go see some live sketch comedy, see what it’s all about these days. It’s time for us to reconnect with a misunderstood comedy form and witness what’s being done to it in the hands of our bright young comedians.