^pBy Robert Lloyd
Los Angeles Times
Sketch shows are the stealth bombers of television.
Compared to the dramas and sitcoms that dominate the conversation in this Triple-Platinum Age of television, they can seem ephemeral, the well-fortified institution of “Saturday Night Live” notwithstanding — a fancy version of something amateurs put on in coffeehouses and YouTubers post with a smartphone and half an idea.
Yet they are an excellent vehicle for distinctive, even oddball points of view.
Nothing on television in recent years has been more ambitious or radical than HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness,” a sort of Afrocentric art-variety show by way of Jean-Luc Godard from the Brooklyn-based filmmaker Terence Nance; or Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Adult Swim series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”
Often beginning with the question “What if?” sketch comedy is all about possibility. It can be abstract, absurd, or shot through with topical urgency, expressing from series to series or sketch to sketch an individual vision or group dynamic.
Freed from the demands of narrative and character development, sketch comedy tends to be more intellectual than emotional. It’s perfect for parody, satire, social commentary or examining the small quirks of human nature.
Comedy Central has lately premiered “Alternatino With Arturo Castro,” which brings a Latinx sensibility to the form; two series with African American creators and casts, HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and IFC’s “Sherman’s Showcase,” debuted last week.
“Black Lady” was created by and stars Robin Thede, who was the head writer on Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” — Wilmore is among the famous faces, including Angela Bassett, David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine, Laverne Cox and Khandi Alexander, to guest on Thede’s show — and had her own current-events comedy, “The Rundown With Robin Thede,” on BET. She’s joined here, in an exceedingly nimble main cast, by Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis (“The Game”) and Ashley Nicole Black (“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”).
All sorts of ideas, big and little, spin about in “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” but there is a tendency for ordinary things to quickly become extraordinary. A groom (Thede) can say anything but “I do”; language itself breaks down. A bit in which friends drink wine, gossip and play party games is revealed (small spoiler, sorry) to be taking place after the end of the world.
More modest, but with plenty of sideways charm, is “Sherman’s Showcase,” from “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” writers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin. (With Salahuddin’s brother, Sultan Salahuddin, they also created and appear in the fine new Comedy Central sitcom “South Side.”) The series presents itself as a series of infomercials — hosted variously by executive producer John Legend, Mary J. Blige and Morris Day — flogging a “partially complete 23-DVD boxed set” culled from a long-running Saturday morning dance show in the mold of “Soul Train.” A collection of essentially discrete yet mutually enhancing bits gathered under a fictional umbrella, it also has a wisp of non-chronological narrative surrounding its recurring characters, host Sherman McDaniels (Sala-huddin, in a procession of astonishing jackets) and his not wholly simpatico producer, Dutch Shepherd (Riddle, who acquires an eye patch and military regalia).
While it’s true that some comedy is meant for specific eyes and ears, there is nothing particularly exclusive about “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” “Sherman’s Showcase” or “Alternatino.”
It would be a sad, static world, in any case, if we only listened to voices that sounded just like ours. That’s what Twitter is for.