There are many forms of comedy – standup, monologue, sitcom etc. One of the most enduringly popular forms of the last fifty years has been the television sketch comedy. Celebrated practitioners have included Monty Python, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Fry & Laurie and Little Britain. All of these teams have produced sketches which bear repeated performance by fans in bars and common rooms, to much hilarity. Almost invariably, however, such sketches depend to a large extent for their effect on the quality of performance, at least as much as the quality of the script. Many of them work to set up punchlines, or take time to develop. NTNOCN’s classic Gorilla Interview, for instance, doesn’t get a laugh at all until Gerald says “Sixty eight”, and doesn’t get a whopper until he uses the word “Livid”.
For me, there is one comedy sketch which stands out as an almost Zen-like example of perfect comedy.
In the first instance, it transcends performance. Almost the entire impact of the sketch is in the script. You could have the whole thing read out by a couple of computer speech synthesisers, and it would be at least 80% as funny as the original.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no flab whatsoever. Not a single word is wasted, barely even a syllable. If it were a poem, it would be a haiku, or a perfectly proportioned sonnet.
The sketch is The Two Ronnies “Mastermind”, here:Mastermind
Observe, every single thing Barker says is a set up, and every single line Corbett delivers is a punchline, without any exceptions, starting with the very first line.
Admittedly, some of the references are now a bit dated, but that’s not a weakness of the script per se, and in any case such references could be updated without compromising the structure or effectiveness at all.
But structurally, and verbally, I truly believe that that sketch is not only the best one the Two Ronnies ever did, but in fact the single best comedy sketch ever written in English. It’s hard, to be honest, to imagine one ever beating it, given my criteria.
I’d be very happy to hear alternatives, however. If there’s anything, by anyone, which approaches the economy, structural purity and performer-independence of that script, tell me.