What are the essential sketches, performers, and shows every comedy nerd should know? EW’s guest editors Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele offer a master class. Warning: Some of the clips ahead contain strong language.
1. Eddie Murphy
As Key says, “I don’t know if there’s ever been anybody in history working at a level like he was working at. To have that much talent, that much charm, that much discipline, all of that wrapped up into one. To think about 48 Hrs., Trading Places. Aw, man!” Adds Peele: “If I had a kid and I wanted to form him into a perfect comedy nerd, I would tell him to watch the Saturday Night Live sketch where he puts on whiteface and he goes on the bus, and the last [nonwhite] guy walks off the bus and everyone starts a party. They’re passing around cigars and sh–. That’s a huge one.”
2. “Who’s On First?” routine, Abbott and Costello (1938)
Says Key, “It’s one of the best constructed comedic things that’s ever existed in the English language.”
3. “Word Association” sketch, Saturday Night Live (1975)
SNL host Richard Pryor plays a job applicant who is enraged by Chevy Chase’s racist vocabulary during a word-association test. (Chase: “Jungle bunny.” Pryor: “Honky.” Chase: “Spade.” Pryor: “Honky honky.” Chase: “N—er.” Pryor: “Dead honky.”) “This is my favorite SNL sketch,” says Key. “Peter Sellers and Richard Pryor, they’re it for me. They are beyond.”
4. “Dead Parrot” sketch, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969)
In the most famous skit from the iconic comedy show, Michael Palin’s pet-store owner refuses to admit that a parrot he has sold to John Cleese’s character has, in fact, shuffled off this mortal coil. “It’s classic Python absurdism,” says Key. “It beats a joke into the ground to get extra laughs, which I think only masters can do. If you’re new at that, you shouldn’t even tread on those waters.”
5. Mork & Mindy (1978–82)
The wildly popular Happy Days spin-off starred the late Robin Williams, Pam Dawber, and, toward the end of its run, Williams’ comedy idol Jonathan Winters. “Mork & Mindy blew my mind. Like, ‘A person can do that?’ ” says Key. “Pam Dawber is just stuck in between these two irresistible forces that couldn’t be stopped.”
6. “Dick in a Box” short, Saturday Night Live (2006)
Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island crew teamed with Justin Timberlake for this genital-obsessed R&B parody. “It’s so thick with laughs,” says Key. “It’s prurient material, but it just blows me away how well constructed that piece is.”
7. Bill Cosby
“No one can wield a story the way he can wield a story, and vividly play the characters inside the story at the same time,” says Key. “And he changed television. He’s just amazing and still has it in his late 70s.”
8. The Office (U.K. version, 2001–03)
“You have to watch every episode of The Office,” says Peele. “That was a game changer as far as tone for me.”
9. Fawlty Towers (1975 & 1979)
Monty Python comedy-troupe member John Cleese co-wrote this classic sitcom and also perfectly played the lead role of snobbish, employee-abusing hotelier Basil Fawlty.
10. Lenny Henry
Though unfamiliar in the U.S., the actor and stand-up has been one of the most famous comedians in the U.K. since he was a presenter on the anarchic children’s TV show Tiswas back in the ’70s. Henry’s other credits include the sketch show Three of a Kind, which costarred Tracey Ullman, and the sitcom Chef!
11. “The iRack” sketch, MADtv (2007)
“Michael McDonald was playing Steve Jobs, and he was talking about the iRack, which was a new product, which was just a rack,” says Key. “Everybody at the launch is talking to him: ‘The iRack looks unstable.’ The whole sketch is an analogy of what was happening in Iraq. MADtv was known for a lot of fantastically funny puerile stuff, but I thought this was a clever, scathing satirical scene. I didn’t write it, but I was very proud of it.”
12. “Offensive Translator” sketch, The Catherine Tate Show (2006)
Tate is a British actress (Doctor Who, NBC’s The Office) and comic whose characters include the misguidedly confident Helen “I can do that!” Marsh. In this sketch, Marsh volunteers to translate CEOs at a multinational business summit. Instead, she lets loose a string of gibberish-filled imitations of their native tongues. “I just can’t stop laughing at it. It’s so silly,” says Key.
13. Veep (2012–present)
“Veep is so well written but also so well acted,” says Key. “A lot of that has to do with Allison Jones, who’s the casting person. There’s a poetry in the way [show creator] Armando Iannucci and his writers write those words.”
14. That Mitchell and Webb Look (2006–10)
The creators of this British sketchfest are David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who also star on the beloved cult sitcom Peep Show. “There’s a sketch where they’re playing Nazis, and one of them says, ‘Hans, have you noticed our caps have skulls on them? Hans…are we the baddies?’ ” says Key. “A lot of what Jordan and I wanted to do initially with Key & Peele is influenced by Mitchell and Webb.”
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