The History of Sketch Comedy Tracks the Humor

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and guests Keegan-Michael Key & Elle Key during Thursday’s October 26, 2023 show. Photo: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS ©2023 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key authored The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey through the Art and Craft of Humor last year.

The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey through the Art and Craft of Humor by Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key
The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey through the Art and Craft of Humor by Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key (Chronicle Books).

It was not until sometime after Yom Kippur before I started reading The History of Sketch Comedy. Maybe even after October 7. I’m not sure. But anyway, it would ultimately take me until mid-November to finish reading. I had taken it with me for the lengthy bus ride to and from the nation’s capital for the March Against Antisemitism. And then, I somehow forgot to write about it. If I’m being honest, it’s a wonder that I was able to finish the book at all, especially with a terrible focus in October and November.

Before the world changed, I had an opportunity to listen to Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key in conversation with Kelly Leonard during their Chicago Humanities Festival stop. Elle grew up in a Jewish family but Keegan-Michael had never heard any of the classic Jewish jokes that she grew up hearing. Their conversation fell under the SAG-AFTRA strike restrictions and as such, it meant having to get creative about what they could and could not talk about. Give it a watch for yourself!

During their talk, Elle described the book in this way:

“The book is Keegan’s life, Keegan’s journey, my interest in Keegan, my understanding of Keegan, and some of it is my interpretation of Keegan…Everything in the book is Keegan, history, and some of my journey and my life.”

You know you’re in for a treat when the introduction hits at some of the hard-hitting questions:

  • Why are we here?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Who’s on first?

Now, the Keys might not be able to answer the first two questions in their book but if you want to know everything about Who’s on First, you’ve come to the right place. No, seriously, Who is the man playing first base. Anyway, the whole sketch is really a form of cross talk but it’s so hysterical. I could be reading the script, watch or listen to the routine and won’t stop laughing. That’s just how funny the routine is. At some point, I’ll watch some more of the Abbott and Costello films in my physical media collection. But back to the larger picture, the two writers share their passion for comedy.

Sketch comedy is not only on television. Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding made up a legendary comedy team and they did radio. The Keys include one of their sketches in the book: Slow Talkers of America. They reprint the script and break down the bit in the process.  Another bit that makes its way into the book is a spoken word sketch performed by Nichols and May, Morning Rounds. We have Konstatin Stanislavski to thank for the “bits” phrase in comedy. He was breaking a script down into beats but it was spoken as “bits” due to his Russian accent.

There’s a full chapter about sketch comedy going to the movies. This means Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Kentucky Fried Movie, and more. It’s a chapter that I was really looking forward to reading. Anyway, it’s a chapter for “pure sketch films” and those films with scenes that serve as a stand-alone sketch. It goes all the back to the silent comedy era with W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The silent era would give way to the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Comedy movies would evolve to include road movies and screwball comedies. It was kind of light on sketch comedy movies. The world would have to wait for Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams.

As they make their way through the history, the book is interspersed with a number of essays by some of the biggest names in comedy: Mel Brooks, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, John Oliver, Tracy Morgan, Carol Burnett, Jim Carrey, Jordan Peele, and more. Every chapter finishes with a Hey, You Can’t Do That moment.

Ultimately, The History of Sketch Comedy is a mixture of memoir and history lessons. You’re not just taking in someone’s personal history but a history in comedy dating back to the 16th century. But first, the earth cooled and the dinosaurs came. If you’re not laughing, this is probably not the right book for you.

The History of Sketch Comedy (Chronicle Books) is available in bookstores.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.