Bye Bye, MADTV

Farewell, oh, MadTV! For fourteen seasons
Your comedy was staid and slightly slow.
And yet, for a variety of reasons,
I think I’m gonna miss you when you go.
Accept this rhyme from one who’ll never know
Why no one who was ever on your show
Became a superstar like Piscopo.

It’s so easy to trash MadTV, Fox’s cynical attempt to pull off a complex, multi-layered ripoff troika: it’s Saturday Night Live meets In Living Color meets Mad Magazine. And since many of the writers were from SCTV, you could even call it a quadruple ripoff (what’s like a troika, only four instead of three?). But there have been plenty of nights when Mad had more laughs than SNL, and whole seasons when it was better than SNL. The broad lowbrow comedy of MadTV could be pretty refreshing when you changed the channel from another one of SNL‘s cute, comedy-for-comedy-writers skits.

There was always something a little compromised about MadTV, though. If you look at the list of cast members (no superstars, but a lot of good people) and writers they’ve had over the years, they really should have had more memorable sketches or characters than they did. Yet while SNL occasionally comes up with a sketch that really catches on, MadTV rarely did. Cult-favourite comedy writer Dino Stamatopoulos — writer for The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show, Moral Orel — wrote for MadTV for a season; he explained to TV Squad that the show did not take full advantage of the available writing talent:

Actually, there’s a lot of great writers on Mad TV, but none of the good stuff gets through, really. When it does, it’s very poorly produced. There’s something about the show that looks so cheap.

New York Magazine recently had an article on product placement in TV, prominently featuring MadTV and its showrunner, Dick Blasucci (an SCTV guy) that gave a hint of some of the problems:

The deal they’d cut guaranteed four sketches for Toyota. Classic product placement, and if it kept them on the air, where was the harm? But then Blasucci started to get notes. Showing the Yaris wasn’t sufficient, said the rep from Madison Road. The characters must praise the car’s features: its roomy interior, its sleek lines. The writers pitched a spoof of a commercial, with a young couple making out in the Yaris, panting about its fuel efficiency. No, said Madison Road. Cut the parody bit. The skit should just feature the couple panting over the Yaris. They aired it—and Blasucci began to recognize he was part of “an experiment,” a test of how far the sponsor could go.

I think I first realized how compromised MadTV was when I saw a sketch — it must have been about five years ago — where someone sang a song about all the bad programs on TV, and didn’t mention any Fox shows. Say what you will about SNL, but it’s at least allowed to make fun of its own network, and while it has its writing weaknesses, it’s seen as a place for talented writers on the way up, whereas MadTV was clearly a place for talented writers who couldn’t find a job elsewhere (because they were considered too old, like the SCTV guys, or too troublesome, like Stamatopoulos).

But on a laugh-by-laugh basis I don’t think MadTV had that much to be ashamed of, at least by comparison with SNL. And it delivered what Fox was looking for, a late-night comedy show that would skew younger than SNL and at least keep them in the game on Saturday nights.

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