Failed Sketch Shows As Talent Incubators

For the last few months, a lot of people have been linking to the famous “First Black President” sketch from The Richard Pryor Show, his network TV show that produced some good sketches, a lot of censor battles, and only four episodes. Seeing the sketch again, one thing that jumps out at you is that for a show that bombed, this show had a lot of then-unknown people who went on to successful careers: among the writer-performers on the show were Robin Williams — before Mork, before anything — Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, Sandra Bernhard and John Witherspoon.

But that show is hardly the only flop sketch show that produced an impressive crop of young talent. The Dana Carvey Show, which will be released on DVD later this year, was almost as bad a flop, and had performers like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert when they were almost completely unknown (producer Robert Smigel introduced their “Ambiguously Gay Duo” characters on this show, and transferred them to Saturday Night Live when it was canceled).

The Fox Network had not one but two flop sketch shows in 1992 that featured a bunch of people who would become famous later: David Mirkin’s The Edge had the young Tom Kenny, Jennifer Aniston and Paul Feig, while The Ben Stiller Show had Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and Bob Odenkirk, as well as providing the first big TV writing jobs for David Cross and Dino Stamatopoulos.

Then you’ve got Fridays and its unleashing of Larry David and Michael Richards (and the awesome Melanie Chartoff, one of the people on my list of character actors who always make a TV episode better), though you could dispute whether that counts as a flop, since it lasted two full seasons and got decent ratings.

There must be other examples I’m not thinking of at the moment. I wonder if it’s true that flop sketch shows often produce a lot of people who go on to bigger things, or if I’m just making a correlation/causation error here. (Since sketch shows usually start with a mostly young supporting cast, any sketch show will start out with a bunch of young, talented performers; if it flops, some of them will go on to succeed elsewhere. If it succeeds, they’ll become stars on the show itself.)

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