Sketch comedy comprises a series of short, amusing scenes or vignettes, called "sketches", commonly between one and ten minutes long, performed by a group of comic actors or comedians. The form developed and became popular in vaudeville, and is used widely in variety shows, comedy talk shows, and some sitcoms and children's television series. The sketches may be improvised live by the performers, developed through improvisation before public performance, or scripted and rehearsed in advance like a play. Sketch comedians routinely differentiate their work from a "skit", maintaining that a skit is a (single) dramatized joke (or "bit") while a sketch is a comedic exploration of a concept, character, or situation.Sketch comedy is a genre within American television that includes a multitude of schemes and identities.
In Britain, it moved to stage performances by Cambridge Footlights, such as Beyond the Fringe and A Clump of Plinths (which evolved into Cambridge Circus), to radio, with such shows as It's That Man Again and I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, then to television, with such shows as Not Only... But Also, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Not the Nine O'Clock News (and its successor Alas Smith and Jones), and A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
An early, perhaps the first, televised example of a sketch comedy show is Texaco Star Theater aka The Milton Berle Show 1948–1967, hosted by Milton Berle. In Mexico, the series Los Supergenios de la Mesa Cuadrada, created by Mexican comedian Roberto Gómez Bolaños under the stage name Chespirito, was broadcast between 1968 and 1973, creating such famous characters as El Chavo del Ocho and El Chapulín Colorado.
While separate sketches historically have tended to be unrelated, more recent groups have introduced overarching themes that connect the sketches within a particular show with recurring characters that return for more than one appearance. Examples of recurring characters include Mr. Gumby from Monty Python's Flying Circus; Ted and Ralph from The Fast Show; The Family from The Carol Burnett Show; the Head Crusher from The Kids in the Hall; Martin Short's Ed Grimley, a recurring character from both SCTV and Saturday Night Live; The Nerd from Robot Chicken; and Kevin and Perry from Harry Enfield and Chums. Recurring characters from Saturday Night Live have notably been featured in a number of spinoff films, including The Blues Brothers (1980), Wayne's World (1992) and Superstar (1999).
The idea of running characters was taken a step further with shows like The Red Green Show and The League of Gentlemen, where sketches centered on the various inhabitants of the fictional towns of Possum Lake and Royston Vasey, respectively. In Little Britain, sketches focused on a cast of recurring characters.
In North America, contemporary sketch comedy is largely an outgrowth of the improvisational comedy scene that flourished during the 1970s, largely growing out of The Second City in Chicago and Toronto, which was built upon the success in Minneapolis of The Brave New Workshop and Dudley Riggs.
Notable contemporary American stage sketch comedy groups include The Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and The Groundlings. In South Bend, Indiana, area high school students produced a sketch comedy series called Beyond Our Control that aired on the local NBC affiliate WNDU-TV from 1967 to 1986. Warner Bros. Animation made two sketch comedy shows, Mad and Right Now Kapow.
Australian television of the '80s and '90s featured several successful sketch comedy shows, notably The Comedy Company, whose recurring characters included Col'n Carpenter, Kylie Mole and Con the Fruiterer.
An early British example is the influential The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959). Sketch films made during the 1970s and 1980s include If You Don't Stop It... You'll Go Blind and the sequel Can I Do It... 'Til I Need Glasses?, The Groove Tube, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), The Kentucky Fried Movie and its sequel Amazon Women on the Moon, and Monty Python's And Now for Something Completely Different and The Meaning of Life.
Since 1999, the growing sketch comedy scene has precipitated the development of sketch comedy festivals in cities all around North America. Noted festivals include:
- British Comedy Awards
- List of sketch comedy groups
- List of sketch comedy television series
- List of recurring Saturday Night Live characters and sketches
- Saturday Night Live TV show sketches
- Brave New Workshop
- Brigham, Armando (2 November 2020). "A Brief History of Sketch Comedy and its Evolution From 1959–2020". hollywoodinsider.com. Retrieved 15 October 2023.