Sketch comedy didn’t die with The Fast Show – you just got old

Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson in The Fast Show
Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson in The Fast Show - Tyson Benton/BBC

The return of The Fast Show for a 30th-anniversary live tour has sent quite a few people into Ron Manager mode, chuntering about a golden era of sketch comedy which Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, Caroline Aherne and the crew helped to define. Jumpers for goalposts, quoting reams of dialogue, shouting “Scorchio!” as you skipped home for tea. Isn’t it? Mmm. Marvellous.

And if you’re only watching TV, it’s easy to see how you could come to that conclusion and there’s no danger of The Fast Show itself returning to the BBC. “People always say to us, ‘Are you going to do more Fast Show?’” Higson told The Sun. “I don’t think we’ll do any more TV stuff, we can’t do anything better than what already exists. We’re all quite old. If you try and do new stuff, people will just say, ‘Oh, this new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff’. And if you just do the old characters, they’d be like, ‘Can’t they just do something new?’.”

Between the start of The Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1990 and the end of Limmy’s Show in 2013, there was an unbroken run of sketch shows on mainstream TV channels which straddled the alternative and mainstream comedy worlds. The Fast Show, The Real McCoy, Smack the Pony, Goodness Gracious Me, Vic and Bob’s various ventures, The Day Today – a sketch show by stealth – and Big Train broke a lot of new ground in the nineties. Then as the noughties turned, Little Britain became so huge people were willing to buy a PlayStation 2 spin-off game based on it.

Sketch shows eat up a huge amount of material and ideas, and so they were a good place for newer writers and performers to get a foot in the door. The turn of the millennium show Bruiser, for instance, was a springboard for David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Martin Freeman and Olivia Colman – and there was extra help with the scripts from, among others, Richard Ayoade and a pre-Office Ricky Gervais.

For a while it looked like literally anyone could do a sketch show. Anyone who’s seen Mat Horne and James Corden’s post-Gavin & Stacey effort Horne & Corden can attest to how wrong that is. They’re expensive – Harry Enfield once reckoned sketch shows cost three times what a panel show does, what with costume changes, comedy beard changes, set changes and so on – and by the turn of the 2010s, panel shows made a lot more sense: one set, a lot less prep, and no comedy beards to stick on.

Sketch comedy has been pronounced dead quite a few times, and right now there isn’t much on British TV. ITV’s slightly ungainly hybrid The Stand-Up Sketch Show tried to refresh things with mixed results. Kiell Smith-Bynoe’s sketch pilot Red Flag last year was great, and stuffed with stars like Jamie and Natasia Demetriou, but didn’t make a series. Famalam has been in hibernation since 2020. Demetriou and Ellie White’s own brilliant Ellie and Natasia and Celeste Dring and Freya Parker’s Lazy Susan made it look like a revival was on the cards. Since then, though, things have dried up.

But sketch comedy isn’t dead; it’s just not where it used to live. Its natural home is on social media. Through the noughties comedians leapt on YouTube as a way to get timely ideas out before they went stale, and as a low-pressure environment to try out stuff which might have been filtered out of a production meeting.

Peter Serafinowicz’s 50 Impressions in Two Minutes, for instance, was exactly in that internet sweet spot of being daft and throwaway, but absolutely worth watching. Now Instagram and TikTok’s best sketch comics are in the shop window for TV roles: Lucia Cheskin, AKA Chi with a C, and Ed Jones of sketch crew Crybabies popped up in Channel 4’s Big Boys, and Harry Trevaldwyn made it into the British remake of Call My Agent.

Sketch is the basic unit of comedy on the internet now, and the fact that you don’t need to know the comic’s persona or back catalogue – or, indeed, anything beyond the few words in the caption setting the scene up – mean that an act you’ve never heard of before can make a dent in your Insta feed or For You page with an ease that a two-minute stand-up clip might not. That goes for TV sketches too. It’s a rare day on the internet when Tim Robinson’s hot dog guy from the peerless I Think You Should Leave – the one who insists we’re all trying to find the guy who did this – doesn’t make an appearance.

And the exact thing which made sketch less tenable on TV is one of its strengths online. Cheap, deliberately half-arsed props and costumes are funny. One of Munya Chawawa’s first big hits was an impression of Nigella Lawson where a T-shirt flipped backwards over his head made for a decent approximation of her hair. Kae Kurd made a very passable nasal cannula out of some old iPhone headphones for a sketch where he recovered from a bank holiday bender in hospital. Ed Jones does a lounge singer impression using what is very clearly a TV remote as a prop microphone.

That lo-fi look and feel – the sense that you’ve just stumbled on a random member of the public who had a funny idea and decided to do it – has helped bring sketch comedy to a brand new audience who want little nibbles of comedy which looks and sounds like they do.

Five young sketch comedians to watch

1. Durk and Ski

Two workmates who started doing funny videos for a laugh in their spare time have built up such a following that they’ve even done some live shows. Their best stuff riffs on the mundane becoming increasingly strange, and their long-running parody of Coronation Street – which even had its own Christmas special episodes – is both very funny and genuinely gripping.

2. Freya Mallard

Mallard is a stand-up most of the time, but is a good example of a comic who’s managed to build up a following by combining live work with deeply relatable sketches in Instagram and TikTok. See the one with her mum who can’t remember the melody to any song, or her collab with fellow comedian Abi Clarke pulling apart how Gen Z are written for TV.

3. Kae Kurd

Also predominantly a stand-up and podcast host, Kurd’s ear for an impression is absolutely impeccable and showcased best in his short skits – especially when he’s picking out the different cadences of radio presenters.

4. Zara Gladman

Probably best known for her conceited, snobbish Glaswegian West End Mum character – forever wild swimming and getting on her high horse about VAT rates on school fees – Gladman also does an extraordinarily accurate rendering of what it’d be like to have a Scottish news reporter for a flatmate.

5. Davina Bentley

Bentley is absolutely ruthless when mocking the sly, hypocritical ways Hollywood men apologise and too-cool-for-school history podcast bros, but the piece de resistance is Gary Lineker’s big spinning wheel of podcast ideas. Extra points for the felt-tip goatee here.