The Sketch Performer

Specialists in slapstick and burlesque humor, these performers are not so much word illusionists as facial contortionists. They convey ideas physically, with a rubber face and exaggerated body language, and squeeze out every drop of the humor through repetition. The sketch performer is an effective actor who can make an audience see a fly buzzing around a soup plate or an old man crossing the street.

The comic must make the audience believe he's an irate husband, a doorman, a German professor, a turtle, a baby, or Napoleon. One of the most talented was Phil Silvers, whose Sergeant Bilko character was popu lar on TV for years. The audience identified with this noncom with brass balls and a love of gambling.

Voice quality is extremely important. A good sketch may combine pantomine, mimicry, and accurate impersonation. A Jewish accent gooses the humor out of the interview skit perfected by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in their 2,000 Year Old Man album. Reiner acted as a reporter questioning Brooks, playing an old man who claimed to be a firsthand observer of history. The performance tension was contagious, because Reiner appeared to be throwing out impromptu questions. Brooks loved it: "The best time for humor is the first time it's performed. There's something in the voice, the excitement, the fighting for your life when somebody challenges you."

Reiner: Tell me sir, what was the means of locomotion two thousand years ago?

Brooks: What d'ya mean, locomotion?

Reiner: What was it that got you to move quickly from one place to another?

Brooks: Fear.

The success of Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners skits was based upon characters the audience could feel superior to: Ralph Kramden was a bus driver and his friend, Ed Norton, worked in a sewer.

Skits, the heart of burlesque and review comedy, have become rare comedic meat. They are in only a few TV formats, like take-offs on quiz shows, news broadcasts, and interview shows on Saturday Night Live and Not Necessarily the News. Benny Hill, typecast as a middle-aged chaser of well-endowed girls, uses escalation skits with soft-core double entendres. Carol Burnett got her start as a skit performer, and the greatest of all was Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows.

A list of just a few other artists in this category would include Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, John Belushi, Jack Gilford, Chevy Chase, and Alan Arkin.

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