Looking Back at MADtv

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MADtv was created by Fax Bahr and Adam Small, two writers from In Living Color, Fox’s first sketch show. It’s very easy to see MADtv as Fox’s follow up to In Living Color. Both shows were directed (at least initially) towards black and Latino audiences, both made extensive use of crude and crass humor, both relied heavily on reoccurring characters and both were critically-derided.

A key difference was that In Living Color had the Wayans family behind it. While the show was frequently inconsistent, it was capable of some great sketches on race in America. That aspect was largely absent from MADtv. Instead the show mostly stuck to two main categories: topical pop culture parodies and wacky characters.

Last week I complained about SNL of the late ‘90s over-relying on repeated characters and catch phrases, but what they did is nothing compared to the sketch recycling MADtv is guilty of. The show had a seemingly endless supply of goofy characters with signature catch phrases. The most obvious example of this was undoubtedly Stuart, the man-child played by the show’s longest serving cast member Michael McDonald.

Pretty much every single Stuart sketch is the same. Stuart and his mom attempt to do some mundane task like buy something, dine out or whatever. Stuart’s childish antics drive the employee trying to help him crazy while he spits out his catch phrases (“Look what I can do!”, “Let me do it!”, “Dooooon’t!”, and “I don’t wanna say!”) until finally they give up. It wouldn’t be a bad sketch if it had only appeared once or twice, but instead they did 38 of them over the course of 9 seasons. 38! Why on Earth does there need to be 38 of these sketches?

Then of course there were the Ms. Swan sketches, which are more or less the same as the Stuart ones, but with a different over-the-top character at the center of it. Ms. Swan is a short Asian lady that speaks with a funny accent and can never answer even the most basic questions that employees of the stores she visits ask her, causing the employees endless amounts of stress. If that sounds a lot like the Stuart sketches you’re not wrong. You could pretty much swap Swan and Stuart into each other’s segments and never notice.

These two characters and their repeated appearances on the show really exemplify how incredibly lazy the writing on the show is. Their segments have no plot or even a narrative, they’re basically just scenarios you can plop the signature character in to let them parrot their catch phrases for a few minutes. Stuart and Swan aren’t the only examples of this either. There was also the Vancome Lady played by Nicole Sullivan, who rudely dismisses customers with her own catchphrases again and again, or Dirty Talker Funky Walker, or said outrageously “dirty” pick up lines.

Overall the show just seems so lazy and unambitious. The jokes are always the most obvious and easiest ones to do. The whole premise of last week’s 30 Rock begins with Liz bringing in a guess female writer because the staff only writes dumb sketches about women being unreliable when they’re on their period (Amirite guys?). It should come as no surprise that MADtv actually did one of those sketches. Maybe making menstruation jokes about a movie called Crimson Tide was just too easy for the folks at MADtv to pass up, but that’s kind of my point. They seem to always go for the lowest hanging comedy fruit.

Sketches like that one, a pop culture parody, was the only other kind of sketch the show did. These basically consist of recreating the source material, but adding in more sex or violence. Like The X-Files? Well then you’ll love “The XXX Files”! Like High School Musical? Well, then you’ll love it when they dress up like Zac Efron and sing about being sexually molested!

Considering on lazy the show is I’m surprised it didn’t do more political humor. When you’ve got a brand new hour to put together every week, and you’re not interested in trying very hard it’s pretty easy to do a quick sketch riffing on the latest political scandal, especially in election years when there’s new gossip and rumors almost every day. This is something SNL figured out long ago. For whatever reason though the political humor on the show is limited to a few bits of Will Sasso or Frank Caliendo acting dumb as either Clinton or Bush. That’s not to say every sketch show needs to be overtly political, but it could have provided a way for there to be less than 25 sketches of the Vancome Lady covering her ears and shouting, “na na na na.”

Look, I realize there are people out there that like MADtv, it lasted 14 seasons after all, I’m just not one of them. Again and again the show just seemed to insult my intelligence, as if it was afraid I wouldn’t get a joke if I didn’t see it 38 times. Unfortunately, you’ll never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator, so shows like this one will always be around.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.