Inventory: 9 TV sketch-comedy bits that should have inspired recurring characters
- Meddling Kids + Sidekick + Mysteries = Series: 13 Hanna-Barbera productions that recycled the Scooby-Doo format
- Jukebox superhero: 26 songs about Superman
- “No Such Agency”: 11 movies that tried to warn us about the NSA
- Heroes on trial: 16 superhero court cases
- Over there: 30 foreign series that need immediate legal import to the U.S.
1. "The Grungies," The Ben Stiller Show
Most sketch-comedy shows that luck into a popular bit keep returning to it until everyone forgets why it was funny in the first place. So it's probably best to be grateful for the sketches that never got run into the ground. But it's still easy to wish for more of The Grungies, the Ben Stiller Show group that dragged grunge's self-seriousness into the over-the-top comedy stylings of The Monkees. Stiller is great as a frontman whose urge to rock out conflicts with his manager's urge to sell out. But the best joke may be the way the Grungies skit updates The Monkees' careful use of drug-inspired humor without any actual drug content. (The sketch had a weird second life a couple of years back when That '70s Show producer Mark Brazill bafflingly accused Stiller producer Judd Apatow of stealing the idea, leading to a one-sided e-mail battle of wits that circulated on the Internet, and ran in Harper's in 2002.)
2. "Wyckyd Sceptre," Mr. Show
David Cross and Bob Odenkirk's revered HBO sketch show had a policy against recurring characters (serial arrestee Ronnie Dobbs being one of a few exceptions), but Wyckyd Sceptre's debut in season four seemed ripe for sequels. Sceptre, a hard-partying heavy-metal band, doesn't see the connection between fucking each other and homosexuality. When a "party tape" leaks—featuring Cross giving it to Odenkirk in the ass, and John Ennis blowing Cross—Sceptre's label confronts them about being gay. Bewildered, Ennis exclaims, "It was just a party!" The sketch closes with Sceptre playing Fire Island, perhaps becoming more aware of their desires. The Mr. Show crew excelled at playing burnout rocker dudes, and when paired with graphic gay sex, it was hilarious. Seriously, that shot of Cross giving the devil's horns while having an orgasm? Awesome. Alas, Mr. Show didn't have a season five.
3. Dave Chappelle as Prince, Chappelle's Show
No catchphrase from Chappelle's Show caught on quite like "I'm Rick James, bitch!", from the show's first "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories" sketch. But while Chappelle's Rick James character is undeniably funny—even though "I'm Rick James, bitch" became the "Schwing!" of its day—it overshadowed the even more hilarious sequel starring Chappelle's version of Prince, with his unlikely aptitude for basketball and pancake breakfasts. Of course, Chappelle's Prince might hold up better because the bit wasn't driven into the ground, but surely "Game… blouses." was a catchphrase worth repeating by the nation's college-dude population.
4. "Roy's Food Repair," The New Show
During his self-imposed exile from Saturday Night Live, producer Lorne Michaels called in favors from friends and ex-employees and made a foray into prime-time comedy with the short-lived 1984 series The New Show. SCTV's John Candy hosted the second episode, and in one great sketch starred as an affable "food repairman," dealing with smashed birthday cakes and cracked taco shells with the kind of aplomb only a veteran culinary artisan can muster. The highlight of the sketch comes when Paul Simon walks into the shop, holding a bag of salted pretzels that have lost their salt. Candy patiently explains the time and expense of a salt-reattachment procedure. "Or you could just buy another bag," he offers helpfully. The New Show was cancelled after five episodes, but it would've been great to see Candy back on that little stool again, earnestly walking customers through what it takes to restore their snacks to their original luster.
5. "The Dancing Muchachos," Exit 57
The Comedy Central sketch show that introduced the nation to Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris lasted long enough that it could've brought back these three costumed swingers, with the "musty smell of their dancing, chafing thighs," for at least one more sketch. There was so much more to know! How do they decide who gets to wear which color? When do they practice their choreography? And why is Humberto only the designated driver "on every other night?" Mostly though, we'd like to see more of Colbert's broad-gestured but almost credible Latin dance moves. Even a decade ago, he was a performer who left everything on the stage.
6. "Dipping Areas," The Kids In The Hall
The Kids brought back popular characters all the time, but maybe there was something too subtle about this restaurant sketch's concerned waitstaff, who hold up a customer's dessert order so they can debate whether the two "islands of mousse," the "light chocolate dusting," and the four "dipping areas" are all properly proportioned. Are the dipping areas big enough for the mousse? Could more be added? Or would that force the waiters to plop their thumbs into the middle of the dusting? Everything about this sketch—the pretentious foodie-speak, the irresolvable complexity of the dessert, and the way the waiters take an active, caring interest in improving the product—balances perfectly. Would it throw it have thrown that balance off to add just a little more?
7. "Racist In The Year 3000," Mr. Show
Even on stand-up albums released years after Mr. Show folded, David Cross couldn't talk enough about growing up scrawny and Jewish among the rednecks of Georgia. So it's surprising that he didn't get more mileage from the fourth season's space-bound Byron De La Beckwith VII, "practically the last pure white man in the galaxy," who aims to revive his bloodline with his childlike companion Dougie (Bob Odenkirk). Byron is an ideal match for Cross' ability to spin wonderful gibberish out of the dialects he mocks, marrying white-trash with science fiction: "My daddy always said to me, 'You can't trust a man what's made of gas!'" At the end of the segment, Byron battles "the Mulattorus," a beast bred from all the human races, "with just a pinch of sand crab."
8. "Five Bucks," The Vacant Lot
Yet another criminally short-lived sketch show, The Vacant Lot was more than just the "little brother" troupe to Kids In The Hall, even though it did include Nick McKinney, the brother of KITH member Mark. The Lot often one-upped even the Kids with surreally grotesque bits such as "Five Bucks," where Paul Greenberg brags to a friend about his impressive bargain-hunting skills by showing off his latest expensive acquisitions (including "special eclipse-watching glasses" and a newly transplanted heart) with the too-cool, offhanded remark that he got them for only "five bucks." His pal is impressed—until Greenberg's eyes melt and his heart explodes. Such a simple premise could have fueled countless other sketches without growing tiresome—provided the gross-out factor was continually upped, that is. The "five bucks" catchphrase still pops up today on the Internet, even among people who don't really remember its origin, indicating that it has plenty of life left in it, even if the show itself doesn't.
9. "Skinheads From Maine," The Dana Carvey Show
Obviously written as a chance for Dana Carvey and Stephen Colbert to show off their impeccable Downeast dialects, "Skinheads From Maine"—much like the very similar "Germans Who Say Nice Things" from the same show—is a simple sketch about how the right (or wrong) accent can make almost anything funny. As Carvey and Colbert sit idly on the porch, whittling and smoking from corncob pipes, Carvey remarks, "Lilacs are blooming early this year," before casually commenting, "Holocaust didn't happen, y'know." Meanwhile, Colbert is busy carving a "hate stick for beatin' on the Spaniards." As with many DCS sketches—and unlike Carvey's former home at Saturday Night Live—there's no attempt to awkwardly wedge in a plot. Instead, it's just a nice, lazy summer's eve with two pleasantly hate-filled bigots who talk funny. Sure, there's an underlying subtext ("racism is ridiculous"), but the lack of any real message makes it a premise worth revisiting over and over.