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.”
NEXT: More brilliant Brits, groundbreaking standup, and… a cat who can drive a car
15. “Crown Heights Story” sketch, In Living Color (1991)
“They did a parody of West Side Story that was Hasidic Jews and black people,” says Peele. “And it was just very well put together. We love realizing full musical numbers. I’m a fan of all that stuff.”
16. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler
“If you want to understand a certain type of comedy, you have to pay attention to people like Amy and Tina, who are Chicago comedy people,” says Key. “There’s a style there that is indicative of really quality thought-out comedy in the 21st century.”
17. “Toonces, the Driving Cat” sketches, Saturday Night Live (1989–93)
One of SNL’s most bizarre recurring characters, the feline Toonces could drive a car—but not very well! “That one’s huge. That was one of the first sketches I saw that really embraced a childlike silliness,” says Peele. “I always talk about the difference between ha-ha laughter and aha laughter. Ultimately, I think the heady stuff is something that everybody has different opinions on. The stupid-funny is just more universal.”
18. Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (1974)
Legendary comedy director Mel Brooks spoofed Universal monster movies in Young Frankenstein and—with help from co-writer Richard Pryor—Westerns in Blazing Saddles, both in 1974. The films have since become classics themselves, inspiring generations of comedians to mix lowbrow humor (like Saddles‘ groundbreaking wind-breaking scene) with high-concept genre parody.
19. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon
The two comic actors have now played highly convincing, frenemy-ish versions of themselves in three Michael Winterbottom-directed films: 2006’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 2011’s The Trip, and its recently released sequel, The Trip to Italy. “There’s such a verisimilitude to everything that they do,” says Key. “But still there are always the really fun laugh-out-loud moments in the midst of all of it.”
20. Richard Pryor
“Think about how amazing, how unearthly good Richard Pryor was,” says Key. “And think about the fact that he was fettered by drugs. Imagine if he wasn’t. What would that have been?”
21. The Tracey Ullman Show (1987–90)
The Emmy-winning (and Simpsons-birthing) sketch series was a showcase for the Brit entertainer’s skills as a comedian and mimic. “To see a person who’s experiencing sheer joy when they perform, watch any episode, any season, of The Tracey Ullman Show,” says Key.
22. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
Cook and Moore first found fame in the early ’60s as members of the satirical stage revue Beyond the Fringe, which played on London’s West End and Broadway. The pair subsequently starred on the TV show Not Only…But Also and in the films The Wrong Box (1966) and Bedazzled (1967), plus recorded a series of deliberately disgusting Derek and Clive albums. “The fun they have with each other is infectious,” says Key. “Dudley Moore was just a heavyweight, and he’s one of those guys that we forget about.”
23. The Marx Brothers
“Anything the Marx Brothers did with Paramount, their early movies, is good—so from The Cocoanuts to Animal Crackers,” says Key. “I prefer Animal Crackers over Duck Soup. But in a comedy syllabus, you should watch Duck Soup. Shouldn’t be that big of a deal: It’s not a long movie!”
24. Peter Sellers
Sellers earned acclaim in his native U.K. with the ’50s radio show The Goon Show, became a global star as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, and scored Academy Award nods for 1964’s Dr. Strangelove and 1979’s Being There. “He’s so heartbreaking and hilarious in Being There,” says Key. “That was robbery, that he didn’t win an Oscar.”
25. “The Audition” sketch, Mr. Show with Bob and David (1998)
An actor (David Cross) does a monologue from a play called The Audition at an actual audition, causing confusion. The other roles in the sketch are played by Cross’s fellow Mr. Show frontman Bob Odenkirk and future Community actor Dino “Starburns” Stamatopoulos, who also penned the skit. “It messes with your reality,” says Peele. “If you keep the audience off balance, you can come at them with something they weren’t expecting more easily.”
26. “Sound Name” sketch, A Bit of Fry & Laurie (1989)
Before Hugh Laurie was House, he and Stephen Fry had a BBC sketch show that featured this elegantly surreal skit, in which Fry’s policeman is bemused by the insistence of Laurie’s character that his surname is the sound of a cigarette lighter dropping onto a desk. “They’ll break the fourth wall or in the midst of a sketch break the convention of the sketch,” says Key.
27. Waiting for Guffman (1997)
Filmmaker Christopher Guest plays, wonderfully, a theater director in this tale of small-town thespianism. Costars include Guest regulars Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Catherine O’Hara, and Fred Willard.
28. Mr. Bean (1990–95)
British TV star Rowan Atkinson has played two classic comedy characters: the verbose Blackadder and the rubber-limbed lead character of the massively successful Mr. Bean. “Mr. Bean is something I’ve always enjoyed,” says Key. “That kind of physical comedy is really important to me.”
For more, check out Key and Peele’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday.