The best TV of 2013: Comedy Central’s new wave of sketch shows

The best TV of 2013: Comedy Central’s new wave of sketch shows

For 2013’s best of TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. Between now and December 20, we’ll be unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three shows of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll.

One of the most exciting developments in TV in the past year was the emergence of numerous new and hilarious sketch shows on Comedy Central. In the past, the network has been hit and miss, but in 2013, it skewed far more toward hit. Here are the shows that made their mark on our memories of the year.

Nathan For You
Staying true to his Canadian heritage, Nathan Fielder is incredibly polite and helpful. On his series, in which he attempts to help small business owners boost profits via most unusual ideas, he tried to increase foot traffic at a local restaurant by instituting a free-to-use-the-bathroom policy, tried to improve sales for a caricature artist by rebranding him as an incredibly racist man known as “The King Of Sting,” and tried to give people the option to hire actors to portray family and friends at their funeral so they’d seem more well-liked. So considerate, Fielder is.

But of all the dead-serious stunts Fielder pulled for the sake of others, the most ambitious moment was purely for himself. “We’ve all seen escape artists risk death before,” he said at the top of the freshman comedy’s fifth episode. “But tonight, I’m going to risk something even worse: becoming a registered sex offender for life.”

This begins “The Claw Of Shame,” in which Fielder backs himself into a metaphorical corner, but only after traversing an elaborate (and even more metaphorical) maze. His goal will be accomplished when a claw machine, specially calibrated, pulls down his pants, exposing his genitalia to a group of young children. And for that to happen, he’ll have to fail picking the lock of police-grade handcuffs in a 90-second window. And for that, Fielder took lessons, read up on the indecent exposure law, hired a company to specifically build the claw (which, for no good reason, ran on Windows 95), and so many other things that demonstrated his commitment to the absurdity.

Nathan For You played a dangerous game in its first season by invoking such pageantry. This meant things couldn’t be simple; the series wouldn’t have the sure-thing broad comedy of Workaholics or Tosh.0. But Fielder helped viewers see that the simplest solution to anything is never the most fun.

Key & Peele
Sketch shows either improve dramatically or tank catastrophically as they get older. Key & Peele was a surprising and welcome hit for Comedy Central out of the gate in its first season and stepped up its reputation up in season two. By the current third season, it was holding down the mantle of the best sketch show on television. The show started out trying not to repeat sketches, but has recently embraced its recurring characters without overusing them. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key continue to write material that challenges and throws a funhouse mirror up to stereotypes and spoofs topical material as sensitive as the Trayvon Martin murder.

But this is also a show that can spoof Miami Vice and get away with such a dated reference by re-creating the show with perfect visual attention to detail. Directed by Peter Atencio, Key & Peele is the most stylish and beautifully curated sketch show around, and has stepped up its visual game in this third season, showing off a range of styles. Another dated-reference sketch that had no business working as well as it did was a parody series of PSAs starring Mr. T, shot on grainy video, made complete with nasty-looking fonts.

Two kids bully each other and are told to respect their appearance by Mr. T (Peele), but then, when they later try to prompt further appearances by considering drugs and alcohol, they realize he’ll only appear for specific purposes. Saying, “Your hair is stupid!” immediately summons him, shouting, “A person’s hair is the artwork they present to the heavens!” Every turn of the sketch is perfect: In three minutes, it progresses from a basic ’80s spoof to a reality-warp of the very nature of PSAs to a personal take on Mr. T’s inner pain. In its best moments, Key & Peele is a master class in sketch writing and presentation, and in its third season, moments proving that arrive with pleasant frequency. 

Inside Amy Schumer
From the opening sketch of its first season, Inside Amy Schumer knew exactly what it was doing. It features a casting session for “Two Girls, One Cup,” wherein Schumer tries to find a silver lining to her character’s degrading performance. Given many opportunities, the director refuses to cushion her even a little, but she takes the part anyway. Money, hygiene, or safety would have been nice, but all that matters in the end is that Schumer gets to be on-camera. Some of the show’s themes appear in embryonic form (feminism, princess entitlement), while others are already full-grown (sexual frankness, self-debasement). Those ideas run throughout the segments in this variety show, which consists not only of sketches, but also generous sequences of stand-up, Real Sex 2.0 man-on-the-street montages, and in-depth interviews with people in careers like sex work.

But the ideas Schumer’s playing with are at their sharpest in a sketch from the second episode about sexy selfies. It begins with Amy clipping her toenails and singing to herself about how pretty she is, before getting a text. “Send me a pic. A sexy 1,” writes Bobby. After taking a few on her own that result in some blurry shots of expressions ranging from sneezy to broken-jawed, she calls a friend for help.

Enter Danny P., the catty motormouth photographer of a sexy selfie service who whirls into Amy’s apartment, passive-aggressively praises her design skills (“Do you teach art to cats?”), and forces her into a number of uncomfortable outfits and positions in search of the perfect pic. The punchline: By the time she finally sends it, the recipient has changed phones. Except for the Amy character’s relative innocence, it’s the show in a nutshell: a trenchant take on modern single womanhood animated by indignity.

Kroll Show
Nick Kroll has always been very funny in relatively small doses, with guest spots on Comedy Bang! Bang! and Reno 911, among others. But his 2011 hour-long special, Thank You Very Cool, stumbled by mixing skits featuring his popular characters—Bobby Bottleservice, Fabrice Fabrice, etc.—with stand-up. Kroll Show focuses those characters (and a bunch of new ones) into a whip-smart satire of reality TV disguised as a sketch show. Kroll is at his funniest when he’s playing characters that might as well be real, like the Hollywood publicity-firm ladies of “PubLIZity,” who constantly bicker, while dreaming up marketing ideas that are probably less dumb than those executed every day. It’s clear that Kroll and his writers are ridiculously conversant in the muddy waters that they’re spoofing. If they weren’t, then “Armond Of The House”—a pitch-perfect play on Dr. 90210 featuring Andy Milonakis as Kroll’s horrible son—wouldn’t so lovingly mirror its subject matter, and “Ghost Bouncers”—featuring Bobby Bottleservice—wouldn’t ring so true. (Maybe that should be “true.”) It’s tricky water to navigate, but in its first season, Kroll Show managed to maintain a balance of silliness and a strange sort of reverence for its subjects. It’ll be interesting to see if the show can maintain that quality with a longer season: The first only ran eight episodes, and it’s been picked up by Comedy Central for another 10.

The Daily Show With John Oliver
With the election in the rearview mirror, Jon Stewart took a well-deserved leave of absence to direct his first feature film. But instead of putting The Daily Show on hiatus, Comedy Central put John Oliver at the desk as interim host. It was the first time since Stewart started manning the desk that a guest host would take over for more than an emergency fill-in. And Oliver’s first week set the tone for the bare minimum: lots of pre-recorded bits filed by the various other correspondents, familiar guests like Seth Rogen, and a nightly joke about Stewart’s whereabouts. 

But soon after Stewart’s break began, the news exploded with scandal and intrigue. Anthony Weiner’s penchant for tweeting risqué photos of himself to women who are not his wife, San Diego mayor Bob Filner’s sexual harassment, Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the Texas legislature, Paula Deen’s racist comments, Edward Snowden’s leaked information and search for a country safe from extradition, and Russia’s anti-gay legislation dominated headlines for the summer, a time when The Daily Show is usually scrounging for content. 

Oliver wasn’t just there to keep the bare minimum going. He had a full-blown star turn, as major story after major story yielded the best episodes of the year, a sorely needed jolt in the arm for a program that in preceding months dragged without fresh political campaign news. The expertly deployed sound bite from Mystikal’s “Danger” in response to Weiner’s badly mishandled mayoral campaign is the defining clip of Oliver’s tenure, followed closely by the Wendy Davis and Paula Deen episodes.

Oliver also came a long way as an interviewer in a few short weeks. His interview with Egypt men’s soccer coach (and former USMNT coach) Bob Bradley was the highlight of his 32 shows, but interviews with Louis C.K., Josh Oppenheimer, and a makeshift emergency reshuffled interview with Aaron Sorkin after the power went out in The Daily Show studio are all great examples of Oliver blooming in the spotlight. The August 15 broadcast sums up Oliver’s summer guest hosting gig by touching on every major story he covered while sitting in the big chair—and getting an appropriately mocking send-off from the other correspondents. If Stewart ever decides to retire from The Daily Show to focus on film or family or anything else, Oliver has earned the right to be the first name on the list of candidates for the next host.

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