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Sketch comedy comprises a series of short scenes or vignettes, called "sketches", commonly between one and ten minutes long. Such sketches are performed by a group of comic actors or comedians, either on stage or through an audio or visual medium such as radio and television. Often sketches are first improvised by the actors and sketched down based on the outcome of these improv sessions; however, such improvisation is not necessarily involved in sketch comedy.
An individual comedy sketch is a brief scene or vignette of the type formerly used in vaudeville, and now used widely in comedy and variety shows, talk shows and some children's television series (such as Sesame Street). Warner Bros. Animation made two sketch comedy shows, including Mad and Right Now Kapow.
Sketch comedians routinely differentiate their product from a "skit", maintaining that a skit is a (single) dramatized joke (or "bit") while a sketch is a comedic exploration of a concept, character or situation.
In Britain, it moved to stage performances by Cambridge Footlights, such as Beyond the Fringe and A Clump of Plinths (which evolved into Cambridge Circus), to radio, with such shows as It's That Man Again and I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, then to television, with such shows as Not Only... But Also, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Not the Nine O'Clock News (and its successor Alas Smith and Jones), and A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
In Mexico, the series Los Supergenios de la Mesa Cuadrada, created by Mexican comedian Roberto Gómez Bolaños under the stage name Chespirito, was broadcast between 1968 and 1973, creating such famous characters as El Chavo del Ocho and El Chapulín Colorado.
While separate sketches historically have tended to be unrelated, more recent groups have introduced overarching themes that connect the sketches within a particular show with recurring characters that return for more than one appearance. Examples of recurring characters include Mr. Gumby from Monty Python's Flying Circus; Ted and Ralph from The Fast Show; The Family from The Carol Burnett Show; the Head Crusher from The Kids in the Hall; Martin Short's Ed Grimley, a recurring character from both SCTV and Saturday Night Live; and Kevin and Perry from Harry Enfield and Chums. Recurring characters from Saturday Night Live have notably been featured in a number of spinoff films, including The Blues Brothers (1980), Wayne's World (1992) and Superstar (1999).
The idea of running characters was taken a step further with shows like The Red Green Show and The League of Gentlemen, where sketches centered on the various inhabitants of the fictional towns of Possum Lake and Royston Vasey, respectively. In Little Britain, sketches focused on a cast of recurring characters.
In North America, contemporary sketch comedy is largely an outgrowth of the improvisational comedy scene that flourished during the 1970s, largely growing out of The Second City in Chicago and Toronto.
Such sketches made during the 1970s and 1980s were If You Don't Stop It... You'll Go Blind and the sequel Can I Do It... 'Til I Need Glasses?, The Groove Tube, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), The Kentucky Fried Movie and its sequel Amazon Women on the Moon, and Monty Python's And Now for Something Completely Different and The Meaning of Life.
Since 1999, the growing sketch comedy scene has precipitated the development of sketch comedy festivals in cities all around North America, including festivals in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Montreal, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and Philadelphia.