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Sketch troupes take low road

TELEVISION REVIEW

The Whitest Kids and Mitchell and Webb are often tasteless and sometimes just stupid. But they're still funny.

February 09, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Sketch comedy has been around awhile, obviously, but the short form has a particular currency in our ADD age, when we measure out our life in download times. All Internet comedy is sketch comedy by default.

The Whitest Kids U' Know is a five-man comedy group with some cyberspatial currency. They came more or less out of New York's School of Visual Arts, established themselves as a going thing in the city, won an award at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and wound up with a self-titled television show that begins its second season Sunday night. (It has moved to the Independent Film Channel from the mostly music Fuse. One difference is that they can now say or show whatever they want -- IFC practices premium-cable values.) They have a popular website, YouTube presence and more than 15,837 MySpace friends.

Without exactly meeting their high standard, the Whitest Kids call to mind the Kids in the Hall (and share a producer, Jim Biederman), especially in their readiness to cross-dress. Even more, this show features the first topless cross-dressing I can remember seeing, in one of the best pieces, in which a lap dancer enumerates what she'll do for various amounts of money: "For $304, I'll write you a speech. . . . Four dollars and 36 cents, I'll go to the store with you. Four dollars and 37 cents, I'll paint you a picture of a dolphin."

It doesn't always work, and comedy being as much a matter of taste and generational prejudice as pop music is, there are many who would say that it doesn't often work, and some who will not find it funny at all. I blow hot and cold from sketch to sketch, and there were times watching the first four episodes that I found myself laughing at something I knew was on the wrong side of the fine line between stupid and clever. There is a running gag involving a rogue testicle, and a family sitcom parody in which the son has had a whale penis grafted to his head and his friend has a "sideways giraffe vagina" where his lips used to be. What works there isn't the concept so much as the son's sullen offense at his mother's disapproval. Being in their mid-to-late 20s, the Kids like to make fun of the way people younger than themselves talk and act. (That is possibly the first sign of getting old -- the moment when you can use youth slang only with irony.)

The stranger bits are the more interesting: Cowboys out on the range put on shows for one another, communicating "through silly little parables and stories instead of making real connections"; a man disguised as a jewel thief disguised as a Eurotrash sherpa blackmails a man who has just climbed Mt. Everest into stealing the world's biggest diamond from hell. Music-video parodies are frequent, and while none I saw was as good as any number from "Flight of the Conchords," they're done with some stylistic panache.

The production values are a funny mix of the accomplished and the (perhaps intentionally) amateur -- reinforcing the impression that a show is being put on in somebody's uncle's barn. (The wigs are just terrible.) Energy and charm patch some of the holes, and one thing about a sketch is that it's usually over fast. There might be a better one coming along.

Generally more sophisticated, with better production values (and really, really good wigs), but at times no less silly or foul-mouthed, is "That Mitchell and Webb Look," which began a local run last night on BBC America. Starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb of the ongoing British sitcom "Peep Show," it doesn't break any new ground, but it follows honorably in a line that runs from Morecambe and Wise through Cook and Moore, Monty Python, Frye and Laurie, David Walliams and Matt Lucas of "Little Britain," and, most particularly, "The Fast Show" (or "Brilliant," as BBC America calls it here). It's a familiar mix of TV parodies, fake ads, meta-gags and historical satires, wonderfully acted and quite smart.

It's a show that swings for laughs with a line like, "If there's anything we've learned in the last thousand miles of retreat it's that Russian agriculture is in dire need of mechanization" (says one Nazi to another). Or a satire of technological change set at the dawn of the Bronze Age. "What's wrong with stone?" asks a chipper of stone axes. "Does stone not work all of a sudden?"

"Bronze is brilliant!" he's told. "User-friendly, multi-purpose, zeitgeisty. . . . Have you thought of retraining as a smelter?"

But there is also a sketch about a boy with buttocks for a face.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The Whitest Kids U' Know'

Where: IFC

When: 11 p.m. ET/PT Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-LDS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language, sex and suggestive dialogue)

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'That Mitchell and Webb Look'

Where: BBC America

When: 9:20 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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