Sketch comedy is a notoriously uneven form. Just take a look at Saturday Night Live, a series that has had its share of ups and downs over the course of its 40-year run. Crafting a successful sketch, let alone an entire episode or series, requires striking a balance between the universal and the specific, the grounded and the absurd, the third funny thing in a list of three things. Even when a series is firing on all cylinders, humor is still subjective. What kills in the writers’ room may die onscreen.
Television history is filled with sketch shows. Some are brilliant: Mr. Show, The Kids in the Hall. Some are weirdly idiosyncratic: Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, The Dana Carvey Show. Some just are: Mad TV, In Living Color.
Over on Comedy Central, the sketch show is in the midst of something of a renaissance. These new shows tend to have more focus than the classic format. Rather than function as a grab bag of disparate ideas, these are expressions of a singular creative vision. Call it auteur sketch comedy, if you like.
Something similar has existed in scripted sitcoms since almost the beginning. Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Ellen, and Home Improvement were all developed from their respective stars’ standup material. However, in the world of sketch, building a series not only around a particular comic’s material, but also his or her point of view and identity is relatively new.
We can trace the roots of this current moment to 2003 when Chappelle’s Show, gave Dave Chappelle a forum to take on the issue of blackness in America. The results were memorable and groundbreaking even if the series did flame out in epic fashion. (Though even then, the circumstances around which the show ended were an extension of the discussion Chappelle had started on the show.)
This new crop of series takes their cue from Chappelle by delivering their jokes through a particular subject or worldview. The most direct descendant is Key & Peele, which, like Chappelle’s Show addresses issues of race with both subtly and bluntness. Inside Amy Schumer functions similarly in its take on gender, sex, and modern feminism by pushing back against sexist cultural tropes.
Kroll Show, which just kicked off its third and final season, is decidedly less political. However, the series is just as relevant in its absurd and immensely entertaining take on reality TV and the ephemeral nature of celebrity.
The creation of comedian Nick Kroll, best known for his role as Ruxin on FX’s The League, the series is a VIP list of some of today’s best comics. Jenny Slate, John Mulaney, Jon Daly, Chelsea Peretti, Jason Mantzoukas, Ron Funches, and Joe Mande all perform and/or write on the show.
Not since The Dana Carvey Show has there been such a cosmic convergence of comedic talent. (Some context for those of you who don’t remember this spectacular albeit imperfect and doomed series from 1996: It aired on ABC. It only lasted seven episodes. And it featured one of the deepest benches of comedians possibly ever assembled, including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Louis CK, Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, Bob Odenkirk, Dino Stamatopoulos, Robert Carlock, Greg Daniels, and Jon Glaser — all of whom have made significant contributions to comedy since.)
Aesthetically, Kroll Show shares less with its Comedy Central sketch siblings than it does with series like Portlandia and Tim and Eric. All three shows are built around dense, interconnected universes populated with recurring characters and callbacks. It’s no surprise then that all three share an editor in Daniel Gray Longino, whose strange cuts and experimental segues add to each of these series’ quirks.
While recurring characters on a show like SNL tend to be one-note catchphrase machines, the characters on Kroll Show have grown and developed over the series’ run. Within Kroll Show’s universe, a breakout character on one show will often get a spinoff where he or she will likely interact with a character from another show.
Kroll and company understand the rhythms and beats of the world they’re lampooning in a way that can only come from people who have fully immersed themselves in the material. For as trashy as reality TV is, Kroll Show acknowledges that we all still kind of love it — if only because it makes our lives look better by comparison. The show, then, throws its jabs lovingly.
Take for example the unlikely romance between Jenny Slate’s vapid PR maven Liz and Kroll’s “toilet baby” C-Czar whose arc has unfolded across multiple sketches from their meeting on “Ice Dating” to C-Czar’s earnest attempt to learn about fatherhood on “Dad Academy.” For all its silliness, I’m actually rooting for these guys. (I mean, are they all that different from the monsters we watch and become invested in on actual reality shows?)
So far season three has kept on pace with the series’ consistently funny run. Kroll’s decision to end the series after three seasons may be a let down t fans, but it’s feels like a smart creative choice. While he admits it wasn’t is plan going into season three, as production drew to a close he realized that most of the show’s characters had reached a “natural conclusion.”
“So as opposed to stringing out more seasons, we wanted to feel like we were going out with the best work that we’ve done,” he explained to Vulture in December. “As I’m sure you’ve watched a lot of shows you’ve loved continue to make shows because they could and the quality began to dwindle.”
If only more series were so enlightened (ahem, Modern Family).
Kroll Show will be missed, and though part of me wishes I could watch Kroll and Mulaney do their “Too Much Tuna” characters on an endless loop until I die, I respect Kroll’s decision to leave on a high note, and I’m eager to see what he and the rest of his gang will do next.