TORONTO — Sketch may be one of the oldest forms of comedy, but it continues to break new ground.
After the success of “Key & Peele” and the still-running “Baroness von Sketch Show” comes a flood of TV and stage ensembles with fresh, diverse cultural perspectives.
The upcoming CBC series “TallBoyz,” HBO’s recently launched “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and Canadian-based stage troupes including She the People and Tita Collective, are among the more niche voices breaking through to the mainstream and speaking to demographics that hadn’t previously had this kind of comedy tailored to them in North America.
“I think it’s a sign of the times,” says “TallBoyz” cast member Guled Abdi, who moved to Toronto as a refugee from Somalia in 1991 and went to school in Nairobi, Kenya from ’96 to 2005.
“There have always been people doing things that are on the fringes or considered alt, but now alt and mainstream is one and the same. You can enjoy both equally…. There seems to be more room for these voices and networks that are willing to take the chance on (them).”
Debuting Sept. 17, “TallBoyz” features Abdi and other members of the all-male sketch comedy troupe TallBoyz II Men of Toronto: Vance Banzo, Franco Nguyen, and Tim Blair. Comedy star Bruce McCulloch of “The Kids in the Hall” is among the executive producers of the half-hour series, which explores themes including friendship, race, nostalgia and toxic masculinity.
“People are ferocious for authenticity,” says McCulloch.
“Somewhere in that work, in the point of view, there’s a cultural, in some cases, or an emotional or social integrity with where the material is coming from.”
Also on Sept. 17 is the season 4 premiere of the CBC’s all-female “Baroness von Sketch Show,” which explores contemporary cultural issues including dread about the state of the planet and politics around gender, identity and sexuality.
“I think we’re in a sketch comedy moment, which is really lovely, because it’s such an amazing way to talk about so many different things,” says Jennifer Whalen, a cast member on “Baroness von Sketch Show,” which also airs on IFC in the U.S. and is on Netflix.
“Our culture has been dominated by one perspective for a long time, and frankly television has been from a white male perspective, for good and for bad. There have been some great things come out, but it also is narrow. And I think it’s fantastic that we’re seeing people break into that and people who have not seen themselves on screen and represented in the way that they know to be are now having the chance to do that.”
The Second City’s She the People is also an all-female sketch revue, which includes queer women and women of colour. Its latest show, “She the People: The Resistance Continues,” has a Canadian cast and recently played in Toronto, at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival and is currently running at the Edmonton Fringe festival.
“There seems to be more unique voices than there ever was before, and that comes from people seeing themselves reflected on the stage and then being able to seriously consider our art form,” says Carly Heffernan, director of “She The People: The Resistance Continues” who also starred in the original Second City Chicago production.
“Over the past five years it seems to have really picked up speed.”
Other examples include the Tita Collective, an entirely Filipina troupe in Toronto; “A Sketch Comedy Extravaganza Eleganza,” which is billed as “a queer-forward” revue featuring queer talent in Toronto; and The Templeton Philharmonic, a Toronto comedy duo whose sketch comedy “blends period pieces, surrealism, and biting social commentary with a feminist bent.”
“The standard template for a sketch show for 40 years was ‘Get the five funniest white guys you can find together,'” says Miguel Rivas, co-host of CTV’s satirical news series “The Beaverton” who is also a sketch star in groups including Tony Ho, which is billed as “Toronto’s dark comedy darlings.”
“You’ve got ‘Kids in the Hall,’ ‘Monty Python’ — amazing comedy that I adore to this day, but there was clearly a void waiting to be filled in terms of niche things to say. When something like ‘Key & Peele’ hit, it felt unbelievably revolutionary … because there was just an entire realm of existence that was not being joked about in this format that everybody intuitively understands.”
While Abdi feels the trend is due to the times we’re in, he also points to the influence of YouTube and social media video apps like TikTok and the now-defunct Vine, which have given a platform to niche voices and allowed them to create quippy sketches for little to no money.
“I’m still getting used to that idea that this will have an effect on people who are coming up to see us on screen, even if the sketches don’t resonate with them,” says Abdi.
“Like, ‘Oh, it’s possible we can also get on screen.'”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press