The 50 Best Sketch Shows That Aren’t ‘Saturday Night Live’
Before Jason Sudeikis was a Saturday Night Live cast member, he dismissively referred to the show as the comedy McDonald’s. He wasn’t wrong — with 163 cast members and nearly 50 seasons to its name, SNL is the “300 billion burgers served” of sketch. But just as McDonald's isn’t the only place in town to get your fry fix, SNL isn’t the only comedy show to satisfy your sketch cravings.
Here are the 50 best sketch shows that don’t air live from New York on Saturday nights…
Mr. Show with Bob and David
Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and company damn near killed themselves finding a way to seamlessly transition between unrelated sketches. (The seemingly insignificant background character in one bit, for example, might show up as the focus of the next.) The result was a surreal, interlinked comic universe that set the tone for 1990s sketch and beyond.
The presence of young Kenan Thompson just reinforces the idea that Nickelodeon’s All That was a junior version of SNL. The show’s diverse cast and hip-hop sensibilities eventually found their way to Saturday night as well.
The Whitest Kids U’ Know
The clever self-own in the group’s name defused what could have been an easy criticism. Their show was an instant hit on Fuse, which of course led to Fuse restricting all of the edge that made the show interesting in the first place. The Whitest Kids moved to IFC, which more or less did the same thing. Networks are dumb.
With SNL all-star Fred Armisen behind the wheel, a newcomer might have expected a Saturday Night rip-off. But Portlandia had an alt-rock sensibility all its own, somehow turning the Pacific Northwest’s quirky culture into its own comedy ecosystem.
The original Saturday Night Live raided the ranks of the Second City improv company to fill out its cast. The troupe fought back by letting loose its Toronto all-stars in a fake Canadian television station. SCTV rivals early SNL for the comedy stars it created, including John Candy, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin.
Before Parks and Rec, The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel rocked it in this 2000s sketch anthology.
In Living Color
The 1990s sketch show was a phenomenon, celebrated for its mostly Black cast and introducing the world to rubber-faced Jim Carrey. Keenen Ivory Wayans did it all, from writing to producing to creating the whole dang show. In addition to a boatload of Wayans family members, the show gave us Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson.
The Carol Burnett Show
The original cast of SNL turned up their noses at the old-fashioned humor of Carol Burnett, but Tim Conway would have been a comedy star in any era. Rock solid.
From its timeslot to its very name, Fridays was an unapologetic rip-off of Saturday Night Live. The show never really caught on, but it provided a launching pad for two comics who make Seinfeld possible: Larry David and Michael Richards.
The Tracey Ullman Show
Tracey Ullman isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t deny that her 1980s sketch show gave us The Simpsons. D’oh — it even features the live versions of Julie Kavner and Dan Castellaneta!
Not Necessarily the News
Sure, it was a Weekend Update-style news parody, but there were also commercial spoofs and straight-up sketches. It also introduced the world to future SNL cast member Rich Hall and his Sniglets, which were a thing in the 1980s.
Upright Citizens Brigade
The gonzo comedy troupe literally built chaos into their sketch show, framing the bits around an organization of agents dedicated to societal disruption. Amy Poehler parlayed her success here into a triumphant stretch on SNL.
A Black Lady Sketch Show
It would be easy to laud A Black Lady Sketch Show simply for showcasing Black female comics, but it’s also freaking hilarious. Recently canceled, but maybe someone will bring it back?
Maybe the truest competition that SNL ever had. The sketch show was ostensibly based on the eponymous humor magazine but it had little to do with that version of Mad other than Alfred E. Neuman skipping around the opening animations. As for the actual comedy, if you last for 14 seasons, you must be doing something right.
Key & Peele
Speaking of MADtv, both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were alums. But Key & Peele does much sharper work, taking home a couple of Emmy Awards and even a Peabody for its sharp satires of pop culture and racial politics.
What was more unlikely — the cultural explosion detonated by Chappelle’s Show or its creator’s decision to walk away from a reported $50 million at the height of its success? Success takes a toll, and Chappelle made a career U-turn to focus on his mental health.
The Ernie Kovacs Show
When Saturday Night Live won its first Emmy Awards, Chevy Chase singled out an inspiration for his gratitude. “I would like to thank Ernie Kovacs,” Chase said. “I swear.” The lessons that SNL’s writers learned from the eccentric Ernie Kovacs Show were the reason why.
The Dana Carvey Show
All you need to know about Carvey’s gone-too-soon sketch show are the names of the people in his writers’ room: Louis C.K., Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Robert (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) Carlock, Dino (Community, Mr. Show) Stamatopoulos and Carvey himself.
Jimmy Kimmel’s puppet-populated sketch show had an all-star squad of comics providing its voices, including Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, Susie Essman, Wanda Sykes, Kevin Nealon and Tracy Morgan. Any show that employs Biz Markie to pull pranks is okay with us.
A sketch show that’s animated? KaBlam! won’t be the only one on this list, but it might feature the most crazily diverse lineup of visual styles. Superhero parodies might seem tired these days, but they don’t get much funnier than the show’s Action League NOW!
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In
Comedy sped past the 25 MPH speed limit and into the passing lane with Laugh-In, a sketch show completely unlike anything else in its day. Even if the show failed to truly represent the counterculture, it appropriated enough of its color schemes and lingo to create something that felt new and exciting. If you like to stomp your foot on the jokes-per-minute pedal, Laugh-In is for you.
Your Show of Shows
The original Saturday Night Live was also broadcast live for 90 minutes every week. Like Dana Carvey, Sid Caesar employed a murderer’s row of comedy writers on this show and his Caesar’s Hour, including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen. Every show on this list can name Your Show of Shows as a spiritual ancestor.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
While Laugh-In looked the part of counterculture comedy, it was the relatively straight-looking Tom and Dick Smothers who really delivered subversive laughs in the late 1960s. The brothers regularly fought the censors, with CBS refusing to air entire segments of the show (like Harry Belafonte singing “Lord, Don’t Stop the Carnival” over footage of the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention). CBS canceled the show and replaced it with Hee Haw, which somehow did not make this list.
The Muppet Show
Recurring characters, pop-culture parodies and musical numbers by the 1970s hottest stars — it was as if Saturday Night Live was covered in felt. The show might not have come to be if the Muppets themselves weren’t kicked off the early SNL. The characters were hated by the original cast and writers. “Whoever drew the short straw that week,” SNL writer Alan Zweibel has explained, “had to write the Muppets sketch.”
The Kids in the Hall
Lorne Michaels’ second foray into sketch comedy television, The New Show, was a flop. But try #3, producing fellow Canadians The Kids in the Hall, turned out just swell, thanks. The group named themselves after a Sid Caesar insult — when a joke on Sid’s show bombed, he simply blamed “the kids in the hall.”
The Ben Stiller Show
Young Stiller was joined by future comedy stars Bob Odenkirk and Janeane Garofalo, as well as future sex criminal Andy Dick, in a show that shined brightest when doing spot-on movie parodies like A Few Good Scouts.
Before there was Strangers with Candy, Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert teamed up in an equally bizarre series. Exit 57 led to a fictional suburb of the Quad Cities, where all of the show’s sketches took place. Bring on the CableACE nominations!
I nside Amy Schumer
Before the collective culture decided it no longer liked Amy Schumer, Inside was one of the most popular sketch shows on TV. Did this sketch predict what happens when our favorite female funny people reach a certain age?
The State is back out on tour, but its members have been pretty darn busy in the years since their show ran on MTV. State alums went on to create Reno 911, the Wet Hot American Summer movies and the Night at the Museum flicks, while starring in shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Party Down and Childrens Hospital.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
A home for surreal and even anti-humor, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim find the funny in the borderline repulsive. The show’s jitterbug editing style and gross-out antics served as a template for a generation of social media comedians.
I Think You Should Leave
SNL alum Tim Robinson has built a gem of a show by examining life’s minutiae and finding ways to SLOWLY GET VERY VERY UPSET ABOUT IT ALL. GODDAMN IT! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?
The Richard Pryor Show
Pryor’s show lasted only four episodes in 1977 competing against Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. America wasn’t quite ready for sketches featuring a nude Pryor with his genitals removed or the one about a Black rock star who takes out his white fans with a machine gun. It still might not be ready for them.
Who says sketch comedians can’t be action figures? Pop-culture parodies get the doll treatment in this fast-paced series of blackout bits.
The Tom Green Show
Imagine Jackass with physical stunts replaced with social and psychological peril — Tom Green brought cringe to sketch, often at his own expense (or more often, his parents’). While Green himself was the show’s main recurring character, other favorites like Billy Bob and Hockey Guy brought the laughs as well.
While it purported to be “the last cartoon show of the day,” the show’s hilarious animation was intercut with bits featuring host Doug Dale and sketches starring the Anipals (rubbery cousins of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog). Bring this one back, please.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Is it really over? The show features improvisational comics like Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady making up sketches on the spot, a comfort-food favorite that’s been somewhere on our cable dial since 1998. With the Whose Line gang hanging it up this year, an era has passed.
Possibly the most offensive show on this list, and that’s saying something. No less an authority than Simpsons creator Matt Groening says the kids show parody “is so weirdly funny the top of your head will burst and your skull will fly out."
The Big Gay Sketch Show
Comedy Bang! Bang!
Sure, Comedy Bang! Bang! can look like a traditional talk show, with host Scott Aukerman hanging with today’s top funny people. But the interviews more often than not devolve into character sketches, with weirdos like Bobby Moynihan’s foul-mouthed Fourvel showing up to disrupt the discussion.
Get a few drinks into funny smart people and let the comedy roll. One of the best arguments against Prohibition ever.
With pals like Jenny Slate, Jon Daly and John Mulaney on board, Kroll entertained the masses with obnoxiously funny characters like Bobby Bottleservice.
Important Things With Dimitri Martin
You might best remember Important Things as a showcase for Martin’s one-liners and acoustic guitar, but it delivered its fair share of funny sketches as well. Comedians like John Oliver, John Mulaney and Nathan Fielder helped kick it up a few notches.
W/ Bob & David
Are we cheating here? W/ Bob & David is more or less Mr. Show, just without a title that’s owned by HBO. But it feels different — there’s less reliance on the clever transitions, and the cast’s maturity shows up in the writing and performances. Odenkirk especially feels like he learned an acting trick or two since the 1990s.
Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun
Big Ol’ House of Fun is the perfect name for this goofy exercise in amusement. No social commentary, no pop culture parody — just good ol’ fashioned weirdness from three dopey-looking fools. And you can dance to it!
The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show
One of streaming’s first stabs at sketch comedy felt like it was just finding its footing in 2020. We’re guessing this one got paused by the pandemic, but why not bring it back to see what Shlesinger learned from that first set of shows, Netflix?
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Sure, most of us think about MST3K as a few robots riffing on bad movies, but there are plenty of scripted comedy bits in between the banter. Who wouldn’t want to watch a sketch show starring Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day?
Saturday Morning All Star Hits!
SNL’s Kyle Mooney created this parody of terrible children’s television programming from the 1990s, with a mix of purposely cruddy animation and live-action comedy. Sketch veterans Beck Bennett, Chris Redd and Paul Rudd help out.
You Wrote It, You Watch It
Prior to The State getting its own show, David Wain and company produced this low-budget sketch show for MTV. The premise: Viewers wrote letters about crazy things that happened to them, and then members of The State would act them out. Did we mention the whole thing was hosted by a leather-jacketed Jon Stewart?
That Damn Michael Che
Apparently, Michael Che can’t get enough sketch since he simultaneously performs on SNL and his own sketch show. Since That Damn Michael Che is produced by Lorne Michaels and features comics like Heidi Gardner, Cecily Strong and Colin Jost, you can understand why we sometimes get a little confused.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
There are only a few shows on this list that can be considered inspirations for Saturday Night Live and Monty Python is definitely one of them. Like nothing else that had come before it, the show features bizarre animations, sexual innuendo and true absurdity that still hold up 50 years later.