Culture Clash: Panel Shows vs. Sketch Shows

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Photograph: Lisby

Following recent criticism that comedy panel shows are taking over our television screens and leaving no room for the classic sketch show, two writers from the Culture team go head-to-head over this timely debate.

Panel Shows – Sarah Dutton

CC Image on Flickr by Lisby

I’ve always found panel shows a lot funnier than sketch shows; it’s something about the improvised nature of them which makes them feel so much more natural than the more contrived sketch show. I think it takes a lot more skill from the comedians that participate than it takes a load of people sitting around in a room carefully constructing a joke, and while I am aware that some panel shows are not as off the cuff as they first seem, I would say the majority of them are pretty improvised. You can tell by the way the comedians are sometimes caught off-guard by their own jokes, or the jokes of their colleagues, and crack up in the middle. For me this is almost the best part of them, you never quite know what’s round the corner and neither do the stars. Scripted comedies usually leave this up to canned laughter, and while there is definitely a benefit to deadpan humour, for me it feels slightly more wooden, awkward sometimes.
I think it is hard to class sketch shows and panel shows in the same part of ‘comedy’, because it takes a very different approach and set of people. We like things that happen naturally, why else do we have a million reruns of You’ve Been Framed on all the time, and spend hours watching YouTube clips? When scripted comedy goes wrong they usually take the scene out and film it again: if you are the sort of person who enjoys watching these out-takes then it is impossible to say you don’t like panel shows.
If I’m trying to think of comedy shows, it’s the panel shows that pop into my head: QI, Mock the Week, Would I Lie To You etc. I struggle to think of sketch shows where I laugh as much as I do at panel shows. Watching Lee Mack trying to pretend he used to be a flamenco dancer or whatever ridiculous lie he has to smuggle past the opposing team wins hands down to his own sketch show ‘Not Going Out’, which was all right for one series, but quickly got tired. The beauty of sketch shows is that they never get boring, most of the above mentioned shows are in some innumerable series, especially QI. Not only that, but the repeats are just as enjoyable.
There are programmes that bridge the gap, and manage to refresh both formats, and one of my favourites is Outnumbered. This is obviously not a panel show, but does combine scripting and improvisation successfully. In this programme, the children have no script, while the ‘parents’ do. I’ve always found the children far funnier than the adults, and this shows the merits of improvisation over scripting. I’ve got nothing against scripted sketches, but I personally think making an audience laugh at the spur of the moment is a more impressive skill than spending hours coming up with scenes and sentences.

Sketch Shows – Tom Fitzgerald

CC Image by Paul Drummond - Flickr

Much of the most iconic British comedy of the past century exists in sketch shows such as Monty Python and the Two Ronnies, which have both made national treasures of their stars. Even in sitcoms it is scenes with sketch-like qualities that often provide the best entertainment, such as the relic scene in Blackadder’s first series. Indeed, much of Rowan Atkinson’s craft was honed by performing sketches as part of the Cambridge Footlights, where his comedic talent was chiselled into its sculpted form. A bit like Michelangelo’s David, except in the shape of Mr. Bean.
From a cultural perspective it could also be said that sketch shows are ideal for a modern audience, containing lots of short, quick segments, mirroring the increased pace of modern life. The existence of ‘open source’ sketch shows such as BBCR4’s Newsjack allows for the display of up-and-coming talent, which fits well with modern cultural tendencies toward individual opportunity and increased mobility within the arts. This is enabled solely by the fact that sketch shows are made up of small segments, meaning that comedy is no longer the esoteric last supper of a few select writers, but is rather a feeding of the 40,000, but with laughter instead of fish sandwiches and a production company instead of that preachy bearded guy from the Old Testament’s sequel. I can’t remember its title.
Sketch shows seem to have an indelible influence on culture, whereas panel shows merely comment on culture and are more ephemeral, like a newspaper rather than a book. Much of their meaning depends on current affairs, so they won’t be as lastingly funny as sketches based on physical or character humour. For example, What’s My Line (1950-1967) is recognised as one of the greatest American panel shows, but when viewed by a modern audience most of the guests are unfamiliar and much of the humour has lost its original meaning. This sometimes leaves the modern viewer to wonder what the audience is laughing at, unless they happen to possess a degree in mid-20th century American pop culture.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that scripted sketch comedy has over panel show improvisation is that it allows the writers and comedians to perfect the performance before it is broadcasted, ensuring that the sketch is as funny as it can be. But irrespective of all this reasoning, what I find most endearing about sketch shows is their capacity to make even the most mundane of everyday situations funny. It’s this ability to find humour in the most dull things that can bring laughter and cheer to any part of an otherwise ordinary day. Hopefully this will be something to bear in mind next time you try to buy four candles, or take a silly walk into town to return an ex-parrot.