Saturday Night Live: The 8 Kinds Of Sketches You Find On The Show
We’re not here to accuse Saturday Night Live of being formulaic. Well, not exactly. But frankly, putting together a 90-minute show every dang week without some kind of template would be nuts. So while there’s plenty of room for creativity -- a Monkey Trial or a Meatballs that occasionally breaks out of the traditional boxes -- there are eight kinds of comedy sketches you’ll find on most any episode of SNL. So sit back and enjoy some Almost Pizza or Totinos while ComedyNerd breaks ‘em down.
The Political Cold OpenThis is a bit that went from “reliably funny commentary on current events” to “obligatory Trump is going off the rails” over the past few years. Thankfully, after a barrage of Biden sketches (with an equally furious flurry of Biden impressionists -- Jason Sudeikis, Jim Carrey, Woody Harrelson, James Austin Johnson), SNL seems to be back to mixing up the show opens again.
But the political open will always be in the mix. Producer Lorne Michaels seems to think (and he just might be right) that when wacky political stuff goes down during the week, viewers start chomping at the bit, anticipating the comedy commentary that’s coming on Saturday night.
The Political Cold Open can be a star-maker as well. From Will Ferrell’s George Bush to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin to Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton, the sketches allow performers to forge some of their most iconic characters.
The Game Show/Talk Show ParodyIt might feel like we’re cheating here by combining game shows and talk shows into a single category, but as sketch formats go, they have a lot in common.
First, and most importantly, they both have built-in endings, often the toughest part of writing a sketch. The game show contestant wins or loses, the talk show goes to commercial break or signs off for the night. The hard part is already done!
Second, both formats are instantly familiar to viewers, with plenty of tropes for the writers to tweak. Everyone knows the show Jeopardy -- that familiarity allows Celebrity Jeopardy writers to get crazy with stupid category names, contestants who fail to answer in the form of a question, and an exasperated Alex Trebek.
Finally, both formats give cast members a chance to bust out their celebrity impressions. You do a Dionne Warwick? Random but OK! We’ll give her a talk show. Maybe Bill Hader’s Lindsay Buckingham can stop by.
The Recurring Character Rides AgainLet’s mosey on over to the NBC.com SNL gift shop
Recurring characters are an SNL staple, giving the writers a break as crowd favorites like Kate McKinnon’s Colleen Rafferty or Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle do their thing. (And if they catch on, it opens up the ol’ character coffee mug income stream.) Creating a sketch just becomes a game of Mad Libs: Target Lady … goes to the dentist … develops a crush on a stockboy … discovers Target’s extensive collection of boxed wine … meets her first lesbian. Character meets situation, wind up Kristen Wiig and let her go.
The Faux-mercialCommercial parodies have been an SNL staple since the Danny Aykroyd days.
Like the game show/talk show parody, fake commercials come with built-in endings and everybody-knows-’em tropes, making them nearly foolproof comedy vehicles. They’re often pre-taped, giving comics and writers a chance to polish them up before air. The fact that they’re barely indistinguishable from the real thing just adds to the hilarity. And what the hell, let’s add a little social commentary as well.
The Weekend Update Character CameoOver the past few seasons, the Recurring Character has moved from straight sketch work to spots behind the Weekend Update desk. Maybe that Baby Yoda costume is just too difficult to move around.
This isn’t exactly new -- Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna appeared almost exclusively alongside Chevy Chase.
In addition to providing a platform for breakout characters like Stefon and the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party, Weekend Update in recent years has served as a launching pad for new cast members who may not get many spots in regular sketches. That’s how Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones broke through, and new cast members are taking advantage. Check out Aristotle Anthari’s stand-up robot Laughingtosh 3000 or Sarah Sherman in the version of herself who lives to torture Colin Jost.
The Celebrity Impression Roulette WheelMost SNL cast members have a few celeb impressions up their sleeves -- it’s one of the ways they get cast in the first place. But what to do with them? In addition to celebrity editions of game show like Family Feud
Got a talented host who can do a lot of musical impressions? Create a cockamamie premise like “Streaming music service is down so Ariana Grande needs to imitate all of today’s top pop stars.”
And how do we get the underused Melissa Villasenor into a sketch? Set up a fake audition scenario where she can break out her Owen Wilson.
The Ludicrous Music VideoPerhaps credit Lonely Island with bringing the music video parody to 30 Rock. From the time that Lazy Sunday blew up and basically created YouTube, music videos have become show staples. (As for early Lonely Island, we’re partial to “I Ran”.)
The SNL ladies took over in the 2010s with classics like “Back Home Ballers” and “(Do It On My) Twin Bed.”
Once more, this sketch category is a writer’s dream as the writing structure (verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-ending) is baked in--just add jokes!
The Ten-to-One SketchLike the show itself, we saved the Ten-to-One for last. Ten-to-One (your time zone may vary) refers to the last time slot of the night, so Lorne can assume most viewers have either tuned out or fallen asleep. In other words, it’s time to get weird.
How so? One of the original Ten-to-One sketches featured Steve Martin and Bill Murray pointing at offscreen objects and yelling “What the hell is that?”
There’s no way that sketch opens a show, or leads into Weekend Update. But at ten to one? What the hell, let’s goof around and see what happens. Sometimes, it’s magic -- that’s the spot where Lorne and Co. threw the first Wayne’s World sketch, thinking it was too quirky to catch on. (It caught on.)
The King of the Ten-to-One was Will Forte, a performer who seems more interested in creating bizarro oddballs than in generating cookie-cutter laughs. He got the giggles anyway in kooky show-ender sketches like “Potato Chip.”
Ten-to-Ones definitely require more viewer patience, but it’s often rewarded with comedy eccentricity like “you will never pee in the absence of gravity!” We think that kind of weirdness is worth staying up for.
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Top image: Broadway Video