The 1990s were the most prolific decade for TV sketch comedy. From long-lasting network giants like Saturday Night Live to basic cable cult shows like The State and Upright Citizens Brigade, it was almost impossible to avoid sketch shows during the '90s. But were any of them any good? Did they have any sort of impact on the current comedy landscape? Check out this list of the 9 best sketch shows of the '90s, and remember a time when some of today's biggest stars were dressing up in funny outfits to make us laugh between commercial breaks.
Not just the best sketch comedy show of the '90s, but possibly the best sketch show of all time. The brainchild of comic David Cross
and sketch comedy veteran Bob Odenkirk
, Mr. Show
ran the gamut from razor-sharp satire to brilliant absurdity in each episode - sometimes in the course of a single sketch. The show ran from 1995 to 1998, specializing in comedy with no middle ground. Its sketches could most politely be described as "edgy." The fact that it ran on HBO didn't hurt; the looser standards of late-night cable TV helped an already-groundbreaking show push the envelope even further. All four seasons of Mr. Show
are available on DVD, and should be picked up by any fan of truly bold and original sketch comedy. It's a no-brainer.
2. The Kids in the HallCanadian import Kids in the Hall ran in the U.S. (both on HBO and CBS) from 1989 to 1995 and is, of all the sketch shows on this list, the closest in spirit to the original Monty Python's Flying Circus. The series was a mix of live sketches and taped segments, giving the cast free reign to experiment with form. The five members (no females, leaving the cast to often perform in drag) brought absurdity to new levels; their out-there approach meant they frequently missed, but the hits always made up for it. Not surprisingly, the show has developed a considerable -- and well deserved -- cult following. The entire series is available on DVD.
It lived a short, two-season life on MTV (and an even shorter one on CBS), but while it burned, The State
burned brightly. Though it aired on MTV, The State
managed, for the most part, to avoid simple pop culture parodies. Instead, the 11-member ensemble developed memorable characters (would-be rebel teen Doug; Louie, the guy with only one catchphrase) and showed more sophistication than its network brethren. Despite a premature demise, a number of worthy projects have been born out of The State
, including Reno 911!
and the 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer
. After several years in limbo, the complete series of The State
will finally be released in July of 2009.
Keenan Ivory Wayans' hit debuted on FOX in 1990, where it ran for five seasons. As pretty much the only sketch show to feature mostly African-Americans, much of the humor was culturally based. Still, a number of recurring sketches -- including "Fire Marshall Bill" and the "Men On..." series -- proved that the cast could do impressive character work, too. Either because it ran on FOX or because it operated outside the mainstream, the show consistently got away with riskier humor than its contemporaries. It also launched the careers of Wayans and several siblings (Damon
, Shawn, Marlon), as well as David Alan Grier
, future Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx
and some guy named Jim Carrey
. It can still be seen in syndication and is available on DVD.
The FOX network never really got a handle on what to do with this show, which ran for 12 episodes between 1992 and 1993. It was too heavy on parodies of pop culture; things like Beverly Hills 90210
and grunge music are targeted in multiple sketches, which don't date particularly well. But there's real talent at work here, and a willingness to try anything for a laugh that gives the show charm. Besides star Ben Stiller
, the show's ensemble included Janeane Garofalo
, Bob Odenkirk
and Andy Dick, and it was written and produced by Judd Apatow (of The 40-Year Old Virgin
and Knocked Up
fame). Seeing it now (the complete series is available on DVD) reminds us of a time when Ben Stiller was really funny, before family comedies became his bread and butter.
6. Saturday Night Live
Had the '90s not been such an uneven time for this, the biggest sketch comedy show of all time, it might have appeared higher on the list. But while SNL entered and exited the decade with some of its strongest seasons, there were some dark years in the middle. Most of the old guard had jumped ship by 1994, and producer Lorne Michaels brought in a cast of "ringers" (including Chris Elliot and Janeane Garofalo); the result was one of the lowest creative points in the show's 30+ years. By the end of the '90s, though, a new cast was brought in that included Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri and Tracy Morgan. The show was reborn and worth watching again, and an entire new class of comedy stars was born - some more deserving than others.
7. Upright Citizens Brigade
Comedy Central's cult sketch show featured only four cast members and ran from 1998 to 2000. Like Kids in the Hall
before it, Upright
avoided pop-culture parodies and depended on a deep, deep absurdist streak and the impressive range of its ensemble (which included a pre-SNL Amy Poehler
). It's a far more challenging show than some of the others on this list, but die-hard fans of sketch comedy owe it to themselves to check it out. The first two seasons of the show are available on DVD.
A sketch comedy with an even more abbreviated run than The Ben Stiller Show
, The Dana Carvey Show
premiered on ABC in the summer of 1996. Eight episodes were produced, but the network canceled the show after only six due to low ratings. Still, with a talent roster that also included Steve Carrell
, Stephen Colbert
, Louis C.K.
, Robert Smigel (better known as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
), it's impossible to argue that the show didn't have an impressive comedic pedigree. The complete show was released on DVD in May of 2009.
9. The EdgeA forgotten sketch comedy from 1992, it's notable mostly for the participation of future Friend Jennifer Aniston and (once again) screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, prior to working on The Dana Carvey Show. Though MTV's Julie Brown was the de facto "host," Aniston, Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) and future Mr. Show cast members Tom Kenney and Jill Talley helped round out the ensemble. This is certainly the most uneven show on the list -- there's a reason it's in ninth place -- but it did have its share of bright spots. For every three sketches that were meant to be "edgy" but weren't, there would be one idea that was genuinely dark and funny - like killing off the cast in the opening moments week after week.