Television sketch comedy is having a moment. Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, and the recently departed Kroll Show are just a few of the shows growing a genre dominated for 40 years by SNL. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel’s most memorable late night bits could easily belong on a Second City stage. Netflix is bringing back Mr. Show alums Bob Odenkirk and David Cross for a new sketch project. Even Louie, which follows a more narrative structure, is often dominated by stand-alone vignettes.
Sketch isn’t just for comedy nerds anymore. Twitter is lousy with videos the day after these shows air, delivering bite-sized content for quick workday consumption. “haha sooooo funny,” the dumbest person from your high school class posts. “omg lol PREACH!!!” writes a former Potbelly co-worker with whom you’re still inexplicably friends. Everybody is sharing, liking, and commenting all over social media, so that SNL’s sketch skewering sexism in The Avengers is trending next to breaking news on Boko Haram.
These videos aren’t going viral just because of the chuckles, funny though they may be. These comedians are using razor-edged satire to Say Something. For every Key & Peele College Bowl sketch (genius, but fluff), there are social or political commentary pieces like Amy Schumer’s “A Very Realistic Military Game.” Nick Kroll has sharply parodied the empty-headed bimbos (and mimbos) all over reality TV, reminding me just how embarrassed I should be for eating up Real Housewives of New York with a spoon (I continue to watch, but with more chagrin: “I need something to unwind to,” I say, pouring an extra-large glass of pinot grigio). SNL’s shining moments—noticeably fewer in the age of more polished comedy programming—are mostly satire as well.
Season three of Inside Amy Schumer, in particular, is killing. Schumer digs deep into feminist, age, and body image issues, often using herself as the punching bag. In “Last Fuckable Day,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette celebrate Louis-Dreyfus’ final moments as a desirable woman in the eyes of the media. Schumer puts her own appearance on trial for a full twenty-two minutes in “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” an impeccably crafted parody of 12 Angry Men. Seriously, forget about whatever you’re doing right now, and watch it. It’s perfect.
Schumer comments so often on her appearance, in fact, that after watching an episode start to finish, her sketches are diminished by a tedious sameness. I’m often left thinking, “Ok, ok, we get it. People tell you you’re fat and ugly, and you’re taking control of that image.” But not everyone gets it—the danger of devaluing women in both the media and the world at large is a message that bears repeating. And for me, Schumer’s sketches are better consumed independently from each other to maintain their edge.
It’s not enough for comedy to provide an escape anymore. We’ve ignored what’s going on outside our doors for long enough, and while we were hidden away inside, the ice caps melted and the NSA learned we sexted our exes. Horrifying police brutality further divided cities and races. Nail salons littered throughout major metropolitan areas systematically exploited immigrants. The world is (almost literally) exploding, and the best comedy on TV right now is making us face that. There’s still a place for jokes solely as entertainment, but we don’t need that as badly right now. We need change.
Bob Odenkirk’s well-publicized comments speak to sketch’s fleeting popularity. There’s a bubble, and it’s going to burst. I don’t disagree. At some point, sketch will fall out of fashion, as all styles do. (Bye, multi-cam sitcoms!) But in the meantime, it’s speaking clearly and loudly for the greater good.