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‘Kroll Show’ and establishing sketch series longevity

| Tuesday, February 11, 2014

WEB_Banner_KrollEmily Hoffmann
“Kroll Show” is currently in the middle of its second season on Comedy Central and has been subtly subverting the common perils of sketch comedy series. Created by comedian and actor Nick Kroll, the show features a cast of recurring characters including many developed by Kroll over the course of his career. These characters exist in sketches parodying various reality shows including a Jersey Shore-wannabe bouncer hunting ghosts, a Justin Bieber-type teen actor starring in a stereotypically Canadian “Degrassi” rip off and a Silicon Valley dog plastic surgeon with a series of shows aping everything on the Bravo and E! networks. Through its first two seasons the show has created its own substantial universe, much like IFC’s “Portlandia,” but one that exists inside a television screen rather than a surreal community.

A typical episode of the “Kroll Show” will focus on two or three of these satirical shows, with individual sketches acting as distinct scenes. The episode bounces around from show to show, like a channel surfer juggling TV commitments. This allows for each exaggerated show and character to advance without feeling worn-out or repetitious. Whereas typically sketch comedy shows struggle to create new, fresh material as they age, the “Kroll Show” has set itself up to be able to continue being funny using the ideas it has established early on.

So often, sketch comedy series last only a few seasons, or even less, because the creators and writing staff find it too difficult to keep up the high level of comedy, while not solely relying on old material. Longevity for a show of this form just isn’t usually realistic.  Dave Chappelle infamously left production of his show, “Chappelle’s Show,” (for which Kroll has writing credits) in part due to the shadow cast by the popularity of one of his characters. More acutely, Eddie Murphy felt it necessary to devote a sketch to killing off one of his characters on “Saturday Night Live” because he did not want to be known as “Buckwheat” for the rest of his career.

This is very dangerous territory for a sketch show, as audiences always remember their favorite skits, while disregarding the duds that aired beside them on a weekly basis. Viewers then naturally compare anything new to the best sketches the show has done.  They forget about the unfunny sketches or ones that just don’t stack up and expect everything to be on the level of their list of top five sketches from the show.

As problematic as this is for the audience, it’s even more demanding for the show’s creators. Watchers need every sketch to hit as hard as their favorites, or they end up disappointed. Meanwhile, creators feel in some part obligated to return to old, popular sketch concepts, either for fan service, or because they believe it will reliably get a laugh.  One prime example occurred when “SNL” aired a sequel to its low-key absurd “Court Stenographer” sketch featuring Fred Armisen as an old woman. The original premise was very basic, but the unexpected silliness made it a huge hit. However, when the show went back to the well, it barely tweaked the sketch’s formula and, although the audience loved it the first time — since they knew what was coming ¾ the sequel fell completely flat.

The hilarious “Key and Peele,” another sketch comedy show currently airing on Comedy Central, fell guilty to the same double-dipping when it crafted a second “East vs. West” sketch. The simple fake name readings became an instant classic for its absurd, but all too close to the truth, riffing on outlandish names in professional sports. But when Key and Peele came up with a second batch of names, there was something very deflated about the sketch that resulted. Looking back on the first sketch, it retains all of its value, perhaps because it was the original and viewers get the same feel from it as the first time they saw it; however, the second edition could never stack up.

“Kroll Show” carefully and cleverly sets itself aside from these possible issues through the show’s structure. Somewhat like the running threads through “Mr. Show” episodes, ideas and sketch progressions come about organically. Still, “Kroll Show” takes this conceit further by compiling its show and generally each episode with multiple sketches from the same fake show. Characters are allowed space to develop and become familiar, meaning that the comedy does not only come out of concept. The characters can then continue to appear in future sketches, whether in the same parody or even in a new one. There is no sense of reliance on old-hat bits or gags, yet the show does not have to abandon an idea once the immediate impression wears off.

Clearly, Nick Kroll and company have taken into consideration the sketch series that came before them — from classic “Kids in the Hall” to contemporary “Key and Peele” — putting their show in a position to not only succeed in the short run, but last if they so desire it to. And Kroll is no stranger to sketch based comedy, either. He also wrote for “Human Giant”—with fellow comedians Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer — which lasted two seasons on MTV and gave him visible experience on navigating within the medium.

“Kroll Show” airs Tuesday nights at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.

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About Matt McMahon

Notre Dame Class of 2016 student studying Finance and English. From Mercer County, New Jersey. Interests include music, television, film, and writing. Also food. My Mom didn't like what else I had to say here so I took it down.

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