For a while in the mid-1990s, NBC’s Saturday Night Live was slumping badly, and Fox sensed an opportunity. The upstart fourth network green-lit a weekly, hour-long sketch comedy show vaguely based on Mad, the venerable humor magazine that had been running since 1952. The publication’s founder, William M. Gaines, hated television and never approved a small-screen adaptation, but after he died in 1992, music mogul Quincy Jones swooped in and bought the rights. The resulting series, MadTV, spent 14 years on the Fox late-night schedule from 1995 to 2009 as a cheaper, raunchier alternative to SNL without ever really changing the game as Fox had hoped. Now, as The CW prepares to launch its reboot of the series, Vulture’s Tim Greiving presents an engaging oral history of MadTV with quotes from the people who made the show happen, including cast member Keegan-Michael Key and writer Patton Oswalt. Other interviewees include long-time cast members Mo Collins, Nicole Sullivan, Will Sasso, Michael McDonald, and Alex Borstein, best known for her “Ms. Swan” character.
From the start, MadTV was more diverse than the traditionally waspy SNL, and its humor was broader, ruder, and less intellectual. And MadTV had its sights set firmly on SNL and its large, enviable audience. Pretty much everyone interviewed for the article agrees on those particular facts. But from there on, opinions differ as to the show’s tone and content. Blaine Capatch, a writer for the series, maintains that the producers of MadTV “weren’t trying to offend anyone.” Sullivan, on the other hand, contends that “MadTV was not afraid to be mean. That was our goal.” As evidence, she cites a particularly vicious Caroline In The City spoof that definitely did offend actress Lea Thompson, who was portrayed as a vacuous ninny.
So was the show edgy or not? In this article, it depends who is talking. And sometimes, it depends which era of MadTV is being discussed. As with any long-running comedy, different regimes of writers and cast members came through, each with its own agenda and its own idea of what’s funny. Fox never owned the show, so after after a successful launch in 1995, the network bosses largely gave up on promoting the series. The show survived for years with very little support from Fox. What the show did have, however, was a very busy and hands-on censor who wanted to ensure that the comedy didn’t get too raunchy. There is an amusing anecdote involving Kids In The Hall veteran Scott Thompson and the term “butt plug.” By and large, however, MadTV was intended as a comedy show for working-class viewers who just wanted to laugh and not have to think too much about what they were watching. If that meant silly accents and sillier costumes, so be it. Most of the show’s veterans seem comfortable with that legacy.