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?
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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