Conan O’Brien has been killing it lately, whether he’s crafting perfectly-structured sketches about lake house murders or recurring sketches that play around with structure itself in unexpected and hilarious ways. And then there’s this sketch about the college admissions cheating scandal, which on some level has no structure at all:
The best jokes are never about what you think they’re about at the beginning, and this one—a hilarious joke about musical theater disguised as a mediocre joke about the college admissions scandal—is a delight from the moment the googly-eyed audience member starts singing. The violinist’s entrance is also a lovely touch, but the sketch crosses over into greatness at the exact moment the cop crosses over into a tremulous falsetto, swaying back and forth like a cobra as he does his best imitation of a theremin. If this were a Saturday Night Live sketch, the joke would be that a banal situation sparked an elaborately-produced musical, complete with choreography and costumes, a la “Bodega Bathroom.” As this sketch shows, though, it’s just as funny—funnier, even—if the musical is a half-assed travesty. Not unrelatedly, here’s Conan telling John Mulaney that one of the most interesting things to him about “Bodega Bathroom” was the moment where Mulaney accidentally dropped his bow tie:
Sketch comedy, like joke writing in general, is usually a structure-forward form: a situation escalates until there’s a payoff. It’s less rigid than sonnets, but a long way from blank verse. You can see the shadow of that structure in the conversation between Conan and the audience member: three increasingly unethical stories about fraud until Conan reveals that the cameras are rolling. But that cop’s falsetto, which was in no way set up by anything that came before it? That’s just pure poetry.