Your Humble Blogger recently came across the British skit comedy show Them from that Thing, which was evidently broadcast last summer. I have so far only watched half of the first episode (of two), but I particularly liked the last sketch in that half, the Psychic Awards. Enough that I watched it twice, and laughed the second time as well. Enough that I am bothering telling you about it, right?
Now, oddly enough, as I was getting that linky link up there, I discovered through my mad internet search skills that Saturday Night Live did a Psychic Awards 2012 sketch that aired five months before. I watched the SNL one, and didn’t laugh even a little. So I thought I would write up the similarities and differences, and why (I think) I found one funny and the other not.
First of all, I don’t really think that Them from that Thing copied the skit from SNL. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were written first— SNL certainly used to write their shows in the actual week of the show. Them was a filmed show with, like, production values and stuff (more on that later), and probably used material built up over some time. Not to mention that they both work from a pretty obvious premise. I usually attribute this sort of thing to the general zeitgeist; if a thing is a cultural Big Deal, then parodies and skits around the thing will happen. In this case, I kinda thought that psychics were ten-years-ago rather than being current, but on the other hand, I don’t watch TV, so what do I know?
Anyway. The similarities: The topic, of course: psychic award show. That dictates the format: Them had a single hostess, while SNL had a host and hostess. The main gag was about predicting the deaths of the psychics, and then as they work through that premise, both versions have the deaths take place at the awards ceremony as predicted. That’s the obvious payoff, of course, and it’s not a surprise that they both use it.
So. Why did I find one much funnier than the other?
First, the aspects that have nothing to do with the actual sketches as aired. I saw the British one first, so that wasn’t fair to the second one. I’m a pathetic Anglophile, so that wasn’t fair to the American one. I am an old fogey who remembers when SNL was good, which is really really unfair to any recent SNL skit. I had seen fifteen minutes or so of Them leading up to that skit, and I saw the SNL version cold, and that isn’t fair either. And then, of course, I only saw the SNL one when it came up as a potential issue with the version I liked, which is not at all fair. All of that contributes to my mood, which is going to be at least as strong an influence on my finding anything funny as any inherent property in the thing itself.
In addition, I should keep in mind that (as I mentioned before) the SNL version is part of a show where they have to come up with something like 45 minutes of skit comedy a week for half the year. They don’t have time to refine the writing. It’s also live, or much of it is, so they can’t keep running takes until they get the rhythm right—or the special effect. The smoke bomb gag failed because the smoke bombs failed; the other show didn’t have to deal with that. In addition, SNL has to use their guest star, who that week was the not-funny-at-all Lindsay Lohan. And finally, SNL has these days an absurdly large cast of fourteen or so, all of them (according to what I hear) jockeying for screen time, so there’s a temptation to use as many of them as possible, which isn’t necessarily good for the comedy.
That’s the problem, really, with the SNL version of the skit: too many people, not enough focus. First they have the Best Foreign Psychic Award (which isn’t actually intrinsically funny) with four cast members. Five including the wife. Then they have one of those memorial montages, only of the people who would die in the next year rather than the last, which is a very funny idea—but they do five more cast members and a dog before getting to the punch line. The dog wasn’t funny. I mean, at that point, your only choice is to make a joke of going over the top with the list, but still: the dog wasn’t funny.
The Them version had one award and three nominees, and that was it. One host, one spouse, one line for the bear wrangler. That’s it. This gives them time and space to add in a rivalry between two of the psychics, which raises the stakes and makes the award show funnier. Mostly, though, it just clears out the not-funny bits and focuses on the funny. We go from A to B to C, and then back to A, to B, to C and back to A for the end, and that’s it. You get the repetition of each prediction, which is always good, and the payoff of each one, and that’s good, too. I was going to write about it as an excellent model for a comic sketch specifically because of that clarity and focus: one, two, three. They didn’t go wider with the joke, they went further. Their version was sharp and the other one was blunt, and that’s why theirs was funnier.
Also, as far as I can tell from those three minutes or so, the cast of SNL are illiterate gurning halfwits. So there’s that, too.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,