Saturday Night Live is an institution that has been considered overrated and underrated since its debut in 1975, always provoking debate, always somewhere on the minds of everyone in the comedy world, and subsequently and most importantly of all, always watched and analyzed every single week. And it seems that from the very beginning, everybody that wasn’t NBC knew that they were screwed, and have continually opted to not counter with their own original programming. Fox seems to be the one network that refuses to admit defeat, throwing up their own comedy shows on Saturday nights since 1989, and returning to the weekend late night original programming game with their ADHD block of Axe Cop and High School USA! tomorrow night. But it turns out that throwing up syndicated repeats of CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, or another airing of Zack and Miri Make a Porno might be the right call, if the past is any indication. Here are 11 shows that dared to challenge Lorne Michaels and his not ready for primetime players, and 11 failures.
Comic Strip Live! (1989-1994, Fox)
Fox began their depressing, senseless war with NBC with Comic Strip Live!, a show showcasing stand-up comedy taped at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles (not at the New York comedy club that actually shares its name with the name of the show). It actually was successful and cheap enough that the young network created another stand-up comedy show on primetime on Sunday nights called The Sunday Comics, but that only lasted nine months. Comic Strip Live! never really was much of a competition towards SNL in terms of drawing comedic talent, but they did once have Rich Hall.
The Howard Stern Show (1991-1992, Syndicated)
This was the first, and more successful, of Howard Stern’s attempts to take a chunk out of SNL’s ratings, probably because Stern enjoyed more creative freedom than usual, because he wasn’t beholden to a broadcast network. At times in New York, Stern’s ratings were double SNL’s during the 11:30-12 half hour, yet the show was cancelled and dropped from all 65 TV markets because the program wasn’t profitable, according to a network spokeswoman. According to Stern though, the reason for the departure was that him and his staff couldn’t handle the workload of both the TV and radio shows. Apparently that wouldn’t be an issue just a few years later.
ABC In Concert Country (1994, ABC)
ABC launched an off-shoot of their late Friday night In Concert program to focus exclusively on country music artists. Premiering on June 4, 1994, it was supposed to run until September 10th in its initial episode order, but despite appearances by Billy Ray Cyrus and Tricia Yearwood, and competing only with reruns of SNL, it aired its final installment in August instead, never to return. By “it” of course I mean country music, until Taylor Swift single-handedly resurrected it over a decade later.
Primetime Tales of the Crypt (1994-1995, Fox)
Junking human beings who told jokes on stage for an animated corpse who loved puns too much, Fox ran broadcast network friendly versions of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt in the mid 1990s, but after premiering to promising ratings in the first few weeks against SNL reruns, not enough of an audience watched the network’s attempt to mentally prepare them for Artie Lange in drag.
Madtv (1995-2009, Fox)
What can you say about Madtv that hasn’t been forgotten by everybody else? The show made 321 episodes, won 5 Emmys, employed Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Andy Daly, Will Sasso, Arden Myrin, Nicole Sullivan, Alex Borstein, Ike Barinholtz, Michael McDonald, Josh Meyers, Patton Oswalt et al., yet it’s hard to name more than a few sketches from the series other than Borstein insisting that individuals resembled men, Lange threatening to risk his own health to maim others, and a kind of creepy man child with an unfortunate bowl cut. It was on for 14 years, and this Deal or No Deal parody featuring Key and Peele has over 14 million views on YouTube, so some people must have watched.
Night Stand with Dick Dietrick (1995-1997, Syndicated)
Night Stand is better remembered for running on the E! network (if it’s remembered by anyone at all), but the show ran back-to-back episodes on syndication, in some places (including New York City) during SNL. Tim Stack played Dick Dietrick, the host of a parody of the trashy talk shows that were all over the place at the time. It didn’t reach much of an audience because its cleverness was always overshadowed by the bawdiness it was mocking. In the episode “Illegal Alien Star Search,” Phil Hartman appeared as a “very famous comedian from Germany” who performed a tight three minute stand-up set almost exclusively in his character’s native tongue.
Saturday Night Special (1996, Fox)
Roseanne Barr’s comedy-variety show co-starred Jennifer Coolidge, Kathy Griffin, and Laura Kightlinger, hired Mr. Show director Troy Miller to share the directing duties, and trotted out a lot of popular guest stars like John Goodman, Sharon Stone, Ben Stiller, Rodney Dangerfield, Tupac, Radiohead, Green Day, Alice in Chains, and The Smothers Brothers, and lasted six whole weeks for their trouble before Madtv regained the 11 o’clock time slot. The little footage on YouTube that exists of the program are of the musical acts.
The Howard Stern Radio Show (1998-2001, CBS)
Howard Stern was very outspoken in his intentions to usurp Saturday Night Live, but instead got trounced in the ratings. An unofficial SNL site gleefully has kept some of the reviews The Howard Stern Radio Show received, including “”On TV, he’s revealed as a nasty manchild mired in a midlife crisis, creatively bankrupt and unable to apply his former genius to a new medium that he obviously doesn’t understand,” from the good ol’ New York Post. It didn’t help that some of Howard’s fans were upset that it was similar to the E! Network show that ran on weekdays, and a majority of CBS’ affiliates wouldn’t even air the show in the first place. Stern’s confidence *did* provoke Lorne Michaels and NBC to throw a “Best of Eddie Murphy” special on against the premiere of the “King of All Media“‘s show instead of a regular repeat, the first and last time any competition was seriously considered.
Talk Show with Spike Feresten (2006-2009, Fox)
When Talk Show with Spike Feresten was renewed for a second season, it made the show the longest running talk show in the history of Fox, and that is one of the saddest things I’ve ever written. Talk Show was former Seinfeld and Simpsons writer Feresten’s take on the standard late night format, with a “Fox edge” to them — e.g. the recurring segment “Comedy For Stoners” comes to mind. Some of the guests the show booked were impressively eclectic for a broadcast network — one episode claimed both Carl Reiner and an 18-year-old Bo Burnham as guests.
The Wanda Sykes Show (2009-2010, Fox)
Wanda Sykes’ turn at getting a late night talk show didn’t last after one season. It’s a bit of a shame: Sykes would occasionally moderate panels consisting of strange combinations of celebrities a la The Graham Norton Show, like Kevin Hart, Wayne Brady, and Charlotte from Lost, or Snoop Dogg, Niecy Nash, and Neil Patrick Harris. There was also alcohol.
Sit Down, Shut Up (2009, Fox)
Sit Down, Shut Up was a pretty decent animated show that unfortunately was run by Mitch Hurwitz, and therefore destined to be constantly teased and beaten by Fox. When ratings weren’t good enough during primetime, Sit Down was pulled from the schedule for four months, to randomly return at midnight on very early Sunday mornings. Once the network ran out of original episodes, Fox’s long streak of fighting SNL with original programming came to an end, mumbling something about running repeats of Fringe and New Girl for a few years. That all changes tomorrow, with animated shows with creators that have yet to look at Netflix to retain their creative sanity.