Great Sketches #4: “The Wrath of Farrakhan”, In Living Color

What makes a sketch dated? It might seem like there’s no surer way to give your work a sell-by date than by inserting references and characters that are ripped from the headlines of a moment, but I would argue that ideas and attitudes age worse than names and events. As a recent revisit to the Al Gore “lock box” bit has proved for me, SNL’s best political bits can still funny even years after their original air date if there’s a deeper logic and purpose under all the jabs.

Take In Living Color, the 90’s show that helped launch the Wayans family, David Alan Grier and Jim Carrey into stardom. On the one hand, many of its sketches traffic in jokes that trade on gay, sexist and racial stereotypes in a way that have not aged very well, even though this was hardly the only show to benefit from this. At the same time, we have sketches like “The Wrath of Farrakhan”, which nods to some positively ancient cultural figures (by today’s standards) while staging a surprisingly relevant parable about inequality in entertainment.

To understand this sketch, you really only need to be familiar with two things: original series Star Trek and Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan (and if you don’t know the latter, the sketch helpfully explains who he is for you). I imagine that once the writers noticed the inescapable pun with Wrath of Khan the rest kind of fell into place. In 2018, this bit fits comfortably alongside the Black Mirror “USS Callister” episode and the ongoing conversations about privilege and representation, while still being quite funny and including such memorable lines as “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” pronounced with a soft “f”.

The sketch itself pits the original Enterprise crew, led, of course, by Captain James T. Kirk (Jim Carrey) against the minister (Damon Wayans) and two of his cohorts, who beam aboard to confront the captain about the oppression on his bridge. The real life Farrakhan has said plenty of objectionable things, and other In Living Color sketches would poke fun at his paranoia and antisemitic rhetoric. Here, though, Wayans’ impression is merely a device (albeit a fun one) to voice problems that many people of color have likely had with Star Trek’s supposedly “utopian” vision of the future from the beginning. Or, as Wayans puts it, “it is that same lie that’s got white boys rapping and the Fat Boys acting“.

As Carrey’s Kirk overacts to superhuman levels, Farrakhan stokes mutiny among the crew. It’s hard to argue against him. For example, if Lieutenant Uhura (played by Kim Wayans here) is an equal member of the team, how come she’s mainly a glorified secretary (and, as the sketch puts it “occasional chocolate fantasy”) for Kirk? In its original airdate, the character of Uhura was seen as revolutionary, but in hindsight much of her significance comes from simply existing rather than being given much agency as a character, at least until later media.

The same goes for Mr. Sulu (Kipp Shiotai), who lists off the ethnic slurs he’s had to endure under the Kirk regime. While the humor here does depend on objectifying women and assigning racial cliches to Uhura and Sulu (sassy black woman and “horny Asian brother”, respectively), you could argue that this is all part of the point. Kirk is perfectly fine with stereotyping his crew as long as they don’t challenge his authority. Plus, Sulu’s despair at being denied the chance to “do the nasty” with any of the show’s infamous sexy alien ladies echoes more recent concerns about the lack of romantic lead roles for Asian men.

Once David Alan Grier’s Spock calls him a “Caucasoid”, Kirk makes one last attempt to get Farrakhan off his ship, but ends up whimpering like a little child and running off to his room as the minister takes the captain’s seat. Even in a parody, even knowing the baggage of Farrakhan, the final sight of the spaceship traveling to Sylvia’s Soul Food Shack with the hypermasculine Kirk dethroned is strangely inspiring.

I always feel like I’m killing the actual jokes in these sketches by analyzing them. There’s so much to be said about this piece before you even touch on how funny it is. Damon Wayans’ Farrakhan would reappear several times in future In Living Color episodes, which makes the audience’s immediate response to him all the more remarkable. They’re not laughing because they’ve seen his other sketches, since this was only the show’s second episode. And all the supporting actors are great, from Farrakhan’s call-and-response cronies to the rest of the Enterprise crew.  There’s also a neat inversion going on here: the original Captain Kirk was always lauded for being human and emotional, but Carrey’s version acts more like a scrawny malfunctioning robot than a real person. Naturally, this lets the normally “alien” Spock come across as a level-headed dude with some good points to make (at least one person involved with this must have been a legit Trek fan, too, for there to be a reference to Nimoy being “a better director” than Shatner).

Trek heads have long rhapsodized about creator’s Gene Roddenberry’s supposedly hopeful, multiracial vision of the future, but that doesn’t mean it’s always been perceived the same way by every viewer. A sketch like this reminds us that Hollywood often expects people of color to be satisfied with negligible progress while it insists on putting white people front and center. In its own way, this sketch is both subversive and optimistic, and damn if it doesn’t make me feel like there’s still a chance to use science fiction  to empower the less privileged. Wouldn’t that be Vulcan grand?


Great Sketches #3: “Fitbit” by Baroness Von Sketch Show

The miracles of teh YouTubes mean that I can be intimately familiar with a sketch show’s material without ever even having seen an entire episode. That’s how I feel about Baroness Von Sketch Show, a Canadian group I really like and know solely through individual bits as opposed to their actual IFC program. Maybe that means I’m not the best source of information about them, but I at least know their stuff well enough at this point that it was tough deciding which of their sketches to write about, seeing as there are multiple contenders (you will almost certainly hear more about them if this series continues).

I’ve decided to go with this one mainly because it involves the entire ensemble and shows some of the group’s strengths. During a lunch break, an office worker (Jennifer Whalen) asks an orange-eating employee (Carolyn Clifford-Taylor) to join her for a quick jaunt up and down the stairs so they can meet the requirements of her Fitbit, only to find out that her friend plans to nap instead, since her Fitbit says she’s missing sleep. The idea that the logic of the Fitbit could justify all sorts of questionable behavior is enough to justify a sketch in itself, but things take a turn as we see other variations. Another woman apparently named “Shosh” (Aurora Browne) explains that she’s wearing a “Fatbit” to measure “every time society body shames me” before sorrowfully eating a sandwich. We also learn about similar devices for tracking sex and fun before we get to the punchline, delivered by final group member Meredith MacNeill, which is so good that I’m not even going to reveal it here because you should really just watch the sketch yourself. Come on. It’s less than a minute.

Having seen almost all of the other IFC Baroness sketches currently on YouTube that I can while living in this country, I like how many of the group’s trademarks appear in even this simple bit. Whalen often gets to rattle off declarative bits of dialogue like here and she’s a pro at it, while Browne is a master of facial expressions (she does something similar when she sadly eats a blob of birthday cake frosting in this similar sketch). Clifford-Taylor and MacNeill’s roles aren’t as tied to their recurring traits, but I will say that many of the group’s sketches follow a tried and true path of ramping up to a big payoff and delivering spectacularly. Punchlines are, in my experience, supremely hard to write, which is why, I suspect, many comedy troupes today avoid them altogether in favor of non-sequiturs, segues, or, in the case of SNL, the camera just dollying back toward the crowd to indicate that the sketch is now over. Baroness clearly cares about its writing as much as performing and that always gets points in my book. The final shot of the original duo’s silent reactions is perfectly timed, too, as Whalen clutches her wrist in shame while her friend downs an orange slice like a Tequila shot.

In a larger sense, it’s a great sketch because it takes so many turns while still sticking to a coherent premises. This could have easily ended with a simple shot of all of the women back at work carrying out what their respective trackers tell them to do. Instead, we get a harsh rejoinder that really shows how powerless everyone else in this situation feels. It echoes a theme that comes up in other Baroness sketches, that the greatest freedom a woman can gain comes from not giving a shit, a near-impossible task when society is constantly holding you to unobtainable standards and every thing you do seems like a tell. The fact that I heard someone quoting this very sketch today on the train proves that real people I don’t know are into this group, so hopefully the Baronesses will continue exploring the many ways we’re all dying inside for a long time. Meanwhile I will try to search for a legal, artist-supporting way to watch the actual show itself. If only they awarded visas to help you get caught up on TV…

Great Sketches #2: “The Word ‘Gay’,” Fry & Laurie

The more you workshop pieces as a comedy performer, the more you realize that nothing you work on is ever truly finished. That being said, there are some sketches that come damn near close to perfection, and this one, from the very first episode of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” from 1987, is a great example of using every single second of a piece to its fullest potential.

The Fry and Laurie of the title are writer/scholar/gay icon/general force for good Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, known to most as House but also a musician and adorable scruffball in his own right. The two have instantly recognizable chemistry together and put their own spin on the classic “straight guy/goofball” dynamic that seems inescapable to any pair of people who tries to do jokes together.

Unlike most double-act bits, though, this sketch is a game of agreement. Dressed in matching trenchcoats and apparently playing older men (although there’s no real attempt to portray this) the two of them lament the fact that “gay” no longer means what it used to mean. It used to be such a lovely word! And so, it turns out, were several other words, before they were overtaken by same sex hedonists, including “pouffy”, “arse bandit” and even “homosexual”. The punchline, that the two men are about to go meet some “screaming benders” for gay sex, is inevitable but not overly predictable, and everything leading up to it opens like a trapdoor from one escalation to the other.

There’s so much to unpack here. Despite the fact that each character is basically the same, there are so many moments where delivery makes a line sing (Laurie’s dramatic love for “the GREAT BRITISH SENTENCE” or Fry’s “it’s one of the great words!”). The very first joke doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the bit (and doesn’t get much of a laugh) but sets up the interplay. It’s filled with lots of ideas, too, from the notion that language is constantly evolving (something Fry in particular seems to be obsessed with) to the always-relevant parody of those people pining for an innocence that never existed. “If only I didn’t have to think about all these people who aren’t like me” may have well been the rallying cry for the people who voted a certain terrifying demagogue into the White House last year. The punchline also points at the rank hypocrisy that especially seems to crop up among those who target homosexual people as long as their own lives don’t have to change.

One of the things that fascinates me about comedy is the way it appears in different places around the world. In my amateur research, it feels like every culture has some variety of this setup: two people playing off each other. You can see the joy of performing immediately here, and it becomes more evident as the two of them get to switch voices and inflections to give examples of different sentences “My word, Jane, the garden’s looking quite homohsexual this morning”) throughout their rant. The whole thing starts at a ten as far as energy levels go and only gets bigger, louder and crazier from ther

Sketches like this are almost inspiring in a way, and capture so much of what comedic inversions of logic can do. Fry & Laurie would go on to create all sorts of work that challenges or departs from standard duo setups. This bit shows that old structures can still work in a modern setting. And keep the change.

Great Sketches #1: “Progression of a Mad Hatter” by Derrick Comedy

I like comedy. Do you like comedy? Not everyone does. But as someone who appreciates short stories, comic ideas and sharing YouTube videos, I’ve decided to do a series about the 50 sketches I consider among the best I’ve ever witnessed. These won’t be ranked and won’t come in any particular order, but since I’m trying to encapsulate a whole range of different styles and performers, chances are something you like will pop up on this list eventually. We begin today with a 2006 sketch from Derrick Comedy, the group that gave us the erstwhile Childish Gambino and Troy from Community, Donald Glover.

Derrick has more famous sketches, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. It’s very old-fashioned in its approach and feels almost like a vaudeville bit as filmed in someone’s living room on a home video camera. The same year this sketch appeared, the 23-year-old Glover would get hired as a writer for 30 Rock, setting the course for his future superstardom, and I can imagine him using this, at least in the early days, as a kind of sizzle real for everything he can do in a single clip.

The premise here is very simple. Donald Glover plays a modern day hatmaker who decides to practice his craft “the old fashioned way”, even though we’re told that this has led to previous hatters losing their sanity. It’s all really just a way to play out someone’s slow escape from reality, and what makes it is Glover’s commitment to what he’s doing as his actions gradually get more absurd.

Each ridiculous thing he says is delivered with a completely straight face, as if he’s speaking a different language (the line “slimy. What’s for dessert?” has shades of Tracy Morgan). Even when he’s dancing around in his underwear to Stevie Wonder, there’s never a sense that Glover’s playing up his silliness just for the camera. In a weird way, it’s almost tragic, pivoting to the same kind of poignancy as a zillion “right to life” dramas in the span of a second. And as far as comedy writing goes, it’s hard to argue that there’s ever been a more finely-crafted sentence than “I need you and the kids to get in this orange: I’m going to go build a lamppost out of cinnamon buns” in American history. The ability to get utterly caught up in your character, even for a goofy internet video, is a great tool for comedian and it’s clearly served Glover well.

Yes, you do have to get past the poor production values, which sometimes make the dialogue hard to hear. It’s also a pretty limited sketch: all of the comedy comes from one character, and the hatter’s wife (I can’t find the actor’s name, though it appears to be Melanie) is a traditional “straight” role, who only really exists to drive the plot forward. Still, she does an excellent job playing it like a drama, especially in the final scene, which couldn’t have been easy given everything leading up to it.

I remember an interview with Glover in which he said that the first Derrick sketches that appeared on YouTube in the early days were met with confusion, as if people didn’t yet understand that the platform wasn’t just for home movies. Derrick was certainly one of the first groups to take advantage of this and bits like this are still around to show us why.