Opinion: Rose Johnson of Birthday Girls On British TV's Fear Of Sketch Comedy

Editor's note: There is currently a lot of sketch comedy on the live circuit. There was recently even a whole festival devoted to the genre – Sketchfest. And From November 15 - 19 high energy trio Birthday Girls bring their hit Edinburgh show Sh!t Hot Party Legends to the Soho Theatre. Below Birthday Girls member Rose Johnson writes about her love of the form and wonders why television doesn't love it just as much at the moment.


I think we can all agree that 2016 will go down as A Bad Year, right? I’m not talking about Brexit, the dark farce of the US election, or even the deaths of approximately half the world’s best celebrities. Nope, I’m talking about sketch comedy. To the casual observer, British sketch comedy would appear to be in A Bad State. It’s nigh on impossible to get a sketch show commissioned for British TV at the moment (case in point: the brilliant People Time that last year was turned down for a series).

Instead, risk-averse channels are increasingly plumping for the safer, cheaper format of the panel show to populate their schedules, and it feels like only a matter of time before the sketch show gets officially declared dead (again). It’s enough to throw even the most seasoned sketch comedian (seven Edinburghs anyone?) into an existential crisis. And yet there are still people that do it. There are still people that spent last Saturday driving to Gloucestershire to perform their latest sketch show to a village hall full of confused farmers. 

Why? Because live sketch comedy will never stop being exciting. It might make absolutely no financial sense to do it (What’s worse than getting paid a tenner for a gig? Having to divide it by three. But who needs a pension, right?), but there will always be a demand for it, in terms of both performers and audience. Of course, stand-up will always be the dominant, more popular comedic form – it’s more direct, more relatable, more accessible – but for me, watching stand-up can never quite match the utter ridiculousness of watching sketch.

Let’s not forget that sketch comedy is basically a group of grown adults doing a series of tiny stupid plays. In what other form of performance would you be able to watch a 31-year-old woman perform a grotesque caricature of Ian Rankin, with the real Ian Rankin sitting in the audience? (The 31-year-old woman is me, and Reader, I married him*). In these worrying times of political turmoil, it’s no surprise that watching something as purely esoteric, silly and escapist as sketch comedy seems like an attractive prospect to audiences.

And it is exactly this sense of inherent ridiculousness that makes sketch comedy so much fun and so addictive to perform. Because it is almost completely unviable as a career, sketch comedians do it for no reason other than for the love of it. There is a unique joy in that, and that joy is infectious. Plus, when something doesn’t work on stage, the fact you are doing it for no other reason than for the love of it makes the failure even funnier, especially as more often than not you’ve spent a good three hours (and £50) making the props for a sketch that turns out to be monumentally unfunny. Imagine spending the day making a goose hat, then going onstage in character as a goose who gives out shots of Apple Sourz while ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’ plays over the PA, and getting nothing but bemused silence. Way funnier than if it had worked. Just ask Beattie ‘Lucy The Shot Goose’ Edmondson. 

Of course, all sketch comedians dream of a time when the British sketch show has a proper resurgence on TV – when channels provide proper investment and development for emerging talent, like across the Atlantic, and we can all make our own shows like SNL, Inside Amy Schumer and Key and Peele. For now though, we will always find a way to do the thing we love, in whatever medium we can. Online, the People Time cast have made their own web series, 2016: Year Friends, and many sketch groups are taking a similar route (we’re currently making a web series with Turtle Canyon Comedy about the adventures of a struggling sketch group, cos you gotta raise awareness somehow). On the radio, BBC Radio 4 continues to commission some great sketch shows (Daphne, The Pin and Lazy Susan amongst them).

But it is live, of course, where sketch comedy will always thrive. TV, online and radio are great platforms, but it is very difficult to recreate the atmosphere and energy of actually being there. We’re performing our booze-fuelled, energetic party of a show at the Soho Theatre in a couple of weeks. It’s silly, raucous escapism and it’ll leave you in a great mood. Come along and see for yourself why, far from being dead, sketch comedy is in fact in ruder health than ever.

*I didn’t, but he does follow us on Twitter now so it hasn’t all been for nothing.

Birthday Girls perform Sh!t Hot Party Legends at the Soho Theatre from 15th-19th November, 9.30pm. Tickets here.






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