From Alternative To Mainstream: Careers of '90s Sketch Comedy Legends

By Ethan Stanislawski
Guest Contributor

This fall, as part of the New York Comedy Festival, the Paley Center celebrates the twentieth anniversary of The Ben Stiller Show, a short-lived but influential sketch program that expressed a new sensibility in the comedy world in the 1990s: a sophisticated, self-referential, ironic approach that signaled a clear break with the aggressive, joke-centered style of the preceding decade’s stand-up boom and inspired cultishly devoted audiences (smart, jaded pop-culture addicts) who were made to feel like members of an exclusive club. The movement was usually called “Alternative Comedy” in the media, a designation that no one involved liked, which, given the iconoclasm and love/hate relationship with media endemic to the scene, seems appropriate.

In honor of this occasion, we decided to look at the careers of twenty notable performers from one of the richest decades of sketch comedy (presented in alphabetical order), tracking their progression from underground favorites to mainstream success. The revolution was televised.


1. Judd Apatow
The son of a comedy club waitress, Judd Apatow made his bones in the standup scene throughout the '80s. It was Apatow’s stint as head writer on The Ben Stiller Show that helped him realize writing and directing may be a better track. The rest, as they say, is history: he cocreated two cult-classic TV shows (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared) and also wrote, directed, and/or produced several hit comedy films (Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Bridesmaids, and many more) making Apatow to be the first name mentioned when discussing comedy filmmakers in the past decade. He has fostered the careers of many prominent comedy talents, including members of the so-called “frat pack” scene and the “bromance” genre (Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill); functioning almost like a repertory company, this group is sometimes jokingly referred to as “The Apatow Mafia." Apatow is also one of the principle people behind Funny or Die and an executive producer of HBO's Emmy-nominated series Girls.

VIDEO: See Apatow reunited with the casts of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared at PaleyFest 2011.

VIDEO: See Apatow with his comedy friends, Garry Shandling, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Andy Dick, and more at PaleyFest 2008.

Explore Apatow's work in the Paley Center Collection.


2. Scott Aukerman
Aukerman was a comedy nerd and devoted Mr. Show with Bob and David fan before Bob Odenkirk brought the relatively young and inexperienced writer onto the later seasons of Mr. Show, writing some of their most noteworthy, convention-defying sketches. Aukerman struggled to find his footing in Hollywood for nearly a decade until he began Comedy Death Ray (now Comedy Bang Bang), one of the most celebrated comedy podcasts, featuring A-list comedy talent in interviews and in absurd, Mr. Show–style satire, self-referential in-jokes, and bizarre segments and radio sketches. The show’s obsessive fanbase led to Aukerman converting Comedy Bang Bang into an IFC mock talk show. He also cocreated the internet hit Between Two Ferns, a celebrated interview series with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die.



3. Michael Ian Black
The State was iconic for an entire generation of an MTV audience that switched seamlessly between grunge’s generational rage and snarky laughter. The State was far larger than most classic sketch groups, and the most iconic performer to this day remains Michael Ian Black, who showed an early flair for playing pompous jerks that would continue throughout his career. On TV, he was probably most notable as the quirky Phil on NBC's Ed as well as being the most prominent recurring panelist on VH1’s I Love The… series. He never lost his allegiance to The State, working with several cast members in Wet Hot American Summer (and having sex with future Sexiest Man Alive Bradley Cooper) and starting equally beloved but cut-short sketch shows Stella and Michael & Michael Have Issues as well as the mock variety show Viva Variety. More recently, he was featured in the Bachelor-parody web series Burning Love. Black has released a standup album and published a memoir as well as a children’s book. He’s currently the most famous television spokesman for an online travel service not named William Shatner.



4. Steve Carell and 5. Stephen Colbert
Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert came up together at Second City in Chicago in the early '90s, with Colbert serving as Carell’s understudy in the early days. The two became inseparable throughout the '90s, cowriting for The Dana Carvey Show and serving as the voices for Robert Smigel’s hilarious Ambiguosly Gay Duo sketches on Saturday Night Live. Both eventually spent five years as correspondents on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, providing cutting-edge satire of cable news while developing their own voices as character actors. Carell eventually starred in the American remake of The Office, which, along with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, helped seal Carell’s status as one of the leading stars of comedy. Colbert, meanwhile, cocreated and costarred in Strangers with Candy, a satire of afterschool specials, which ran for three seasons. He later started The Colbert Report, a spinoff of The Daily Show, turning him into a star of political comedy with his now seven-year-running spoof of conservative media personalities.

VIDEO: Watch Carell and Colbert at a 2002 Paley Center panel with The Daily Show.



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About the Author
Ethan Stanislawski is a standup comedian and writer based in New York City. Growing up in New York in the '90s, Ethan will be the first to tell you that everything that happened in Seinfeld is 100% true.

The Paley Center's Arthur Smith (Assistant Curator) and Eden Gauteron (Associate Editor, Creative Services) also contributed to this article.