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The Sketchy History of Sketch Comedy Movies

The Sketchy History of Sketch Comedy Movies (photo)

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Monty Python’s 1983 film “The Meaning of Life” effortlessly set the gold standard in sketch comedy movies — which, for clarification, we’ll define here as feature-length anthologies of stand-alone comic bits that don’t serve to push along any overarching storyline. But while the Pythons’ greatest film (gauntlet thrown down!) omitted a plot, their skits were still tied together by the most timeless of through lines: the trials of human life, presented in chapters like “The Miracle of Birth,” “Middle Age” and “Death.” Furthermore, 1971’s “And Now For Something Completely Different,” a re-filmed compilation of greatest hits from the first two pioneering seasons of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” is arguably the silver medalist of its kind, and good luck coming up with a third film that actually deserves the bronze.

The cold, hard truth is that sketch comedy movies are nearly impossible to pull off, and most are doomed to fail the test of time. Even with noteworthy players, such stuck-in-their-moment forgettables as 1976’s “Tunnel Vision” (featuring John Candy, a pre-senatorial Al Franken and Ron Silver’s screen debut), 1977’s “American Raspberry” (with Harry Shearer, Warren Oates and Kinky Friedman) and 1980’s “Loose Shoes” (Bill Murray, Buddy Hackett, and, strangely, Kinky Friedman again) are irrelevant to 2009 society’s collective funny bone. Since snack-sized portions don’t allow for deeply developed characterizations, sketch comedy’s weapon of choice is usually pop-cultural satire — which, at its most trenchant, shoves its whoopee cushion right up under the zeitgeist’s ass.

However, this only works in the present tense, since cultural trends move to the fickle rhythms of American taste. “Tunnel Vision” and “American Raspberry” spoofed their era’s TV programming (as did the more significant, if equally outmoded and tamely scatological “The Groove Tube,” which introduced audiences to Chevy Chase in ’74), and “Loose Shoes” played off movie trailers that have since evolved dramatically.

1977’s “The Kentucky Fried Movie” (directed by John Landis, and written by the trio behind “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun”) and its 1987 quasi-sequel “Amazon Women on the Moon” fare better, if only because their jokes about lowbrow multiplex product and ’50s sci-fi camp were eccentric and occasionally clever enough to earn nostalgic followings. Even if they were prescient (and they weren’t), the absurdities of genre conventions are hardly a dangerous or evergreen topic.

But are their failings really about banal thematic fodder? Hands down, what’s still the most esoteric American sketch comedy movie to date is “Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video,” the late Michael O’Donoghue’s bizarre, low-budget 1979 send-up of sensational shockumentaries like “Mondo Cane.” Originally set to be broken up as a series of “Saturday Night Live” video segments, the studio execs dismissed it as too racy, but even as a feature, it’s more of a cult curiosity than a rewatchable gut-buster. And if sex sold as often as the commercial chestnut dictated, it wouldn’t matter that such naughtily suggestive, skin-baring ’70s sketch comedies like “The Boob Tube,” “If You Don’t Stop It… You’ll Go Blind!!!”, “Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses?” and schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis’ little-known perversion “Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In” were all painfully unfunny, too.

09102009_OnionMovie.jpgSince, technically, Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask)” proves an exception to the rule (though it is a rare breed: an adaptation of a non-fiction book), perhaps we should be discussing the genre’s largely unchanged form. It’s easy to dismiss any omnibus film as inconsistent by its very nature, especially when there are multiple creative collaborators to spoil the proverbial broth. But when it comes to sketch comedy — whose roots expand from American vaudeville, British music hall and the improv scene made popular by such troupes as Second City and the Groundlings — it really comes down to whether it makes us laugh or not, right?

Not quite. As even a well-regarded “SNL” classic illustrates, there’s frontloaded A-material and there’s plenty of crap sketches that run in the final minutes after the Nielsen ratings have been safely recorded. Extended to a feature format, sketch comedy has only one “episode” to nail it and a lot more screen time to fill. Even if we all had mutually agreeable tastes and senses of humor, it’s their patchwork structure that interrupts the momentum of what can keep us enthralled for an hour-and-a-half at a time.

Segues between skits are often perfunctory (David Wain’s 2007 “The Ten,” based on the Ten Commandments, comes to a dead halt whenever Paul Rudd addresses the camera between scenes), and when there’s little to build upon with the start-and-stop of each new sketch, these movies are only as good as their worst bits. We’re not far past 2008’s “The Onion Movie,” probably the most recent comic anthology of this very rigid configuration, and even with its modern takes on race, politics and corporate tyranny, it’s still as toe-curlingly awful as its long-buried ancestors.

[Photo: “The Onion Movie,” 20th Century Fox, 2008]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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