oral history

An Oral History of MADtv, the Sketch Show That Never Quite Changed Comedy

Illustration: Vulture and Photos by MadTV

Last month, the CW turned heads with an announcement that they were resurrecting MADtv, the saucy sketch comedy series that ran on Fox for an astonishing 14 seasons before it was canceled, in 2009. “It has brand awareness,” CW president Mark Pedowitz explained to Vulture shortly after the news broke. “In a world where you have to create that sort of awareness, it already has a leg up.”

Pedowitz wasn’t able to share much about what to expect from the revival, other than that original executive producer David Salzman will be back to reboot the series with a new cast in an eight-episode run, and that alumni are expected to appear, either as guests or even as members of the new cast.

MADtv first came to life when Salzman and music mogul Quincy Jones, whose joint production company (QDE) was behind The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, bought the rights to the then-43-year-old Mad Magazine — one of the earliest pop-culture parody machines in modern America. It debuted on October 14, 1995, airing on Fox at 11 p.m. on Saturday nights, directly across the dial, and country, from Saturday Night Live, which was at the time suffering one of its worst-ever slumps. (That March, New York Magazine published the lengthy, excoriating feature “Comedy Isn’t Funny: Saturday Night Live at twenty—how the show that transformed TV became a grim joke.”)

MADtv had a long and complicated history at Fox, which increasingly neglected the series in terms of both marketing and budget, and it never escaped the shadow of SNL. But during its 14-year tenure on the air it was a home to talent from celebrated sketch series like The Ben Stiller Show, Kids in the Hall, SCTV, and In Living Color, and it helped kickstart the careers of several big fish in today’s comedy pond — from Patton Oswalt to Key & Peele. Here, then, is a brief look back at the cult sketch show that died but refused to stay dead.

Fax Bahr (co-creator of MADtv, 1995–98): David Alan Grier called me one day and said, “Keenen [Ivory Wayans] just fired the entire staff on In Living Color. If you have any sketch ideas, now’s the time to come in and pitch.” Eventually he hired Adam [Small, MADtv’s co-creator] and me to staff that first full season, so then we were off and running in the sketch world. A couple years later, through our agents, we were set up with Quincy Jones and David Salzman, who had just gotten the rights from EC Comics to the Mad Magazine brand. I guess [William] Gaines, who founded Mad, hated television — just despised it — and would never sell the rights. But, like, the second he died, EC Comics was out trying to sell the rights. [Laughs]

Once planning for the show was set in motion, the inaugural cast was assembled: Debra Wilson, Nicole Sullivan, Phil LaMarr, Orlando Jones, Artie Lange, David Herman, Bryan Callen, Mary Scheer, and Craig Anton.

Debra Wilson (original cast member, 1995–2009): There were five auditions — three in New York and two in L.A. I was told when I had booked it that I was the first one hired for the show.

Nicole Sullivan (original cast member 1995–2004): My agent said, “You have an audition for MADtv. They want to see five of your characters or five minutes of your best stuff.” I was like, “I don’t have any characters and I’ve never done stand-up. But let’s see how it goes.” I would put that audition at about 3 out of 10. Later Fax and Adam told me, “You were clearly the least seasoned in this world. But we also wanted people the audience would like to have dinner with.” It was a baptism by fire.

Bahr: We shot the pilot and Fox really loved it, immediately giving us an order for 12 episodes. About halfway through those 12, they picked us up for the rest of the season. We had 12 writers in the beginning — we tried to get as many Ben Stiller Show writers as we could, and young comics. Patton Oswalt was the first writer we hired — Patton and Blaine Capatch.

Patton Oswalt (staff writer, 1995–96): I didn’t know I was the first writer to be hired. I would have been less of a dick if I’d known that. Poor Fax and Adam. They hired me when I was in my 20s, and I was at the height of my self-righteousness, as far as comedy and pushing the edge goes. Blaine and I were trying to re-create the anarchy of Mad Magazine from the ’50s and ’60s, when it was trying to rip into society.

Bahr: [Small and I] had never really run a show before, so we brought in John Blanchard, who was the director from Kids in the Hall and SCTV. David Salzman was the day-to-day guy. And Quincy … [Laughs] … well, there was one time he watched a run-through that didn’t go well, and he was like, “You know, we just gotta put some salsa in there — just add some spices.”

MADtv debuted in October 1995, airing at 11 p.m. on Fox. From the beginning, it appealed to a diverse audience, with its version of broad, brash sketch comedy.

Bahr: The magazine was an amalgam of different artists doing their own little short bits, so we wanted to utilize that same approach. We would do short sketches and, like in Mad Magazine, movie parodies. We also had animation; that first season, we did Spy vs. Spy a couple times per episode. We definitely wanted it to be edgy. And we really worked hard to find a diverse cast of people who were great actors.

Nicole Garcia (casting director, 1998–2009): There were executives that wanted a little more diversity and then there were some that just wanted the most talented, regardless. Our show skewed a little more urban, in a way, so they definitely wanted to have that represented. Finding a Latino, male or female, was always something we were looking for. We always had diversity in the cast. That was very much a part of the creation.

Alex Borstein (cast member 1997–2002): In L.A. and New York, our numbers always skyrocketed over Saturday Night Live. SNL’s pieces and sketches spoke to a very white, suburban world. Even though it was made in New York, its audiences tended to be kind of vanilla in the old days. MADtv really filled a different vacuum. Most of the fans were rainbow. Fans of Ms. Swan in particular. She fit everything. People were like, “Oh my God, that’s my Greek grandmother.” “Oh my God, that’s my Mexican aunt.” “Oh my God, that’s my Chinese this …” “That’s my black this …” Everyone had that kind of experience. MADtv seemed to actually serve a real purpose in the community.

Sullivan: I certainly played the majority of the racists on the show [Laughs]. We wanted to make people look stupid. That’s a big thing on MADtv. We were just setting my characters up to look like an idiot. And there were so many black members of our team, it was inevitable that that’s what a lot of stuff was gonna be. SNL would have that one black dude, and he would do something every three or four weeks where he’s, like, a thug, and that would be it. We were doing it every week.

Josh Meyers (cast member 2002–04): The diversity of our cast allowed us to do some different stuff, certainly, but it also lent itself to the playing of stereotypes. Just playing the stereotypical African-American, the stereotypical Asian-American. MADtv could certainly do that, and did that. I don’t think always to great success.

Keegan-Michael Key (cast member, 2004–09): The powers that be were not going for social commentary. What’s the outrageous joke? Let’s go for it, and let’s pull no punches. Of the people who say to me “I used to watch your show,” 65 to 70 percent of them would be Hispanic. Based on my own experience, I’d say the main demographic was people of color — Hispanics and blacks — who are middle class. And it’s more about class than race. Sometimes if people do manual labor or jobs of that variety, at the end of the day they’re like, “I’m tired. I want to go home. I want to laugh my ass off. If I’m going to watch comedy, what I really want is to identify with something immediately. It’s not about subtle or intellectual drama. I work too hard. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to laugh.”

Then, also, there was a kind of outrageous broadness about the show that appealed to that demographic. People like to feel stimulated and titillated by seeing something they think they’re not supposed to see. People walked up to me and went, “Y’all is wrong.” The majority of the people in that demographic I’m speaking about are churchgoers, so there’s a moral center to what you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do. In a manner of speaking, you’re “not supposed to” watch MADtv.

Borstein: MADtv always wanted to be kind of an urban, hip, pop-culture machine. What made the show great was that they hired writers for whom that wasn’t their forte. They hired a lot of people that were extremely literate, extremely cerebral — people interested in trying to educate the public. It was this good clash, since the higher-ups were like, “Can you put Whitney Houston in it?” “Can we add Rosie O’Donnell to that?”

There was that constant battle between going for something … not necessarily lowbrow, but more of a popular nature, and combining it with things that were weird. There’d be one sketch that was Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown high on coke, and then the next sketch would be this strange piece called “Sir,” where the only word Pat Kilbane and Will Sasso said to each other was “Sir.” It was brilliant, weird, postmodern. It felt very Kids in the Hall or Mr. Show-ish.

Michael McDonald (cast member, 1998–2009): MADtv was a little bit more rebellious, a little rougher. Politically, we hit a little harder. And we would go after Democrats as much as Republicans.

Sullivan: When we did impressions, they were pretty mean. Britney Spears at one point saw me, and her bodyguard very not-so-subtly pushed me about seven feet away from her. Lea Thompson and Caroline in the City was another one. Holy crap, we couldn’t have rubbed that one harder onto the asphalt. I saw her at a charity event, and she and her daughter were not very pleased to see me. That sketch was probably the meanest one I’ve ever done. The only thing I didn’t approve of was the Chelsea Clinton stuff. I thought that was mean, because she was just a little kid. But MADtv was not afraid to be mean. That was our goal.

Will Sasso (cast member, 1997–2004): MADtv was a network show, so we would come across the people that we were lampooning — a lot. They would write in or they would have their publicists go, “Hey, stop clowning so-and-so.” I heard through a mutual friend that a man who’s a wonderful comedian — who I really respect and love — didn’t quite care for my impersonation of him. On the other side of things, you do an impersonation of the Rock and he’s not gonna fuckin’ give a shit — he did a piece on the show. I thought that my impersonation of Fred Durst was kind of shitty to Fred Durst, right? Come to meet him, and he’s a super sweetheart about it. He was just like, “When the fuck have I ever said ‘Holy macaroni?’” I’m like, “You said it. I have the research tape here of your MTV release for your album.”

Key: To this day, my favorite sketch ever on MADtv was one I was barely in. Michael McDonald was playing Steve Jobs, and he was revealing a new product for Apple called the iRack. And then there was another sketch that was about two politicians, one was a Republican, one was a Democrat, and they were giving their speeches and doing all their points, and then you realize halfway through the sketch that they’re both just saying the same bullshit — eventually they both started speaking in unison. Brilliant, super-smart sketch. But what gets all the popularity on MADtv? Coach Hines. I was a walking cartoon — a sight gag. I had super-high shorts up my ass, my fuckin’ whistle, and a stupid soup-strainer mustache, and that’s what they were tuning in for. I adored playing that character, even if none of the Coach Hines scenes are my favorite. There was really well-executed political satire on that show, but I feel like that was not what they were going for, necessarily.

Blaine Capatch (staff writer, 1995–98): I always thought MADtv was very mainstream. I don’t want to say, “calculated” in a bad way, but they weren’t trying to offend anyone. They wanted to be accepted. It was never “alternative.” Patton [Oswalt] and I were slinging shit into the wind sometimes. But I understood the concept of Mad Magazine was all pop culture parodies, so they made an effort to keep it accessible and mainstream.

Oswalt: In the two seasons I was there, there were some pretty brilliant sketches that would get through, despite the network fumbling it. I always said it was interesting how over at Mr. Show they had complete freedom and probably the best writers and minds in comedy and yet, every now and then, despite all of that, something shitty or hacky would get through. Whereas, over at MADtv, every now and then something really brilliant and subversive and avant-garde would get through.

Though it ran for more than 300 episodes on the network, MADtv was never really appreciated by Fox. In response, the cast rebelled.

Bahr: One of the problems was that Fox didn’t own the show. That was during the period of all that vertical integration, where everyone wanted to own the material they were putting on the air, so we were always treated as this redheaded stepchild. They would promote the Fox-owned shows on Saturday night, and they would never promote what was gonna be on MADtv. As long as we hit our number, and they could make those ad sales, they were okay with us. But they were always trying to develop other things at the same time.

Wilson: It’s not like Fox totally didn’t respect us at first. No sooner did we edit that pilot that Fox turned around and said “yes.” They knew they had a hit on their hands. When MADtv finally came along and hit the late-night market, they were extremely encouraged, and said, “Let’s put our money into it.” However, once we had a foothold in the market, they got very comfortable. They began to cut the budget. “Keep doing what you’re doing, but we’re gonna give you less to do it.”

Sullivan: They would be like, “We’re gonna promote Melrose Place tonight,” and then have us shoot interstitials. But it was to publicize their show. It was startling how little promotion we got. They just thought, “Oh, it lives there, it stays there, it’ll do what it does.” There was a window — about year three — where there was a great cast, solid writing, and they had a real opportunity to be like, “Here’s the cool show, everybody.” But they didn’t. The second the budget started getting cut, things just looked shittier and shittier and shittier.

Key: Very often we were going for a shock laugh. You’re at the writing table, and maybe it’s a really puerile sketch that has a lot of potty humor in it, but everyone’s laughing, so let’s do it. I would get frustrated because you’d have 15 people at the table — eight of them are writers, two are the showrunners, and the rest are execs — and all the writers and showrunners are crying they’re laughing so hard at a sketch. Then you find out three days later the sketch isn’t getting picked. So you go, “Okay, there’s clearly two different considerations here, right?” Comedic/artistic consideration versus commercial consideration.

Mo Collins (cast member, 1998–2004): We constantly had to laugh at how poorly we were treated by the network. We were just not being able to thrive. We did well against SNL, with nothing. We always called ourselves “the little engine that could.”

Wilson: We knew that we were redheaded stepchildren, which bonded the cast. We would go on press junkets in other states and act the fuck out. Even though we all had our own different personalities, we were the bad fuckin’ kids of MADtv.

Sullivan: They were terrified of us, make no mistake. Like, when Artie was being Artie. We were mean even to the other shows. One time, we were at an event with all the Fox people and one of the actresses there had a new show that was opposite Monday Night Football. Every time Artie walked by he’d go [sings Monday Night Football theme]. I remember one time we were at this event, and we were out of control with free drinks. At one point, I went up to get a drink, and they go, “They asked us to cut MADtv off.” I was like, “The whole cast!?”

Bahr: Fox had so much difficulty with Married With Children, with the Parents Television Council boycotting the show, and then they got a lot of feedback on The Simpsons. So they employed these very strict guys who would come in and veto a lot of things we did. We would just write the most vicious, nasty sketches we could, knowing they’d be killed, so we could continue to push the envelope. But they couldn’t kill everything. That was our war of attrition. We allowed them to kill a few things, and then we’d get what we wanted.

Sasso: Our censor, Kevin Spicer, was there all the time. He would come on the set, like, “Guys, come on, you cannot say that.” Then these hilarious arguments would start. We had Scott Thompson [from Kids in the Hall] come on and reunite with [Kids in the Hall writers] Brian Hartt and Garry Campbell, and he’s doing a Buddy Cole piece. I forget what the context was, but the word “buttplug” is in it. Censor comes in, “Na na na.”

And I remember Scott going, “Well, why can’t I say ‘butt plug’? Is it because it’s me? Is that why? I’m sure if Will said ‘butt plug’ everyone would fall down laughing.” And [Spicer] was like, “You’ve gotta say ‘dildo.’” Scott’s like, “No, I’m saying ‘butt plug!’” This is a 25-minute argument about whether to say ‘butt plug.’ And I’m going, “Hey, Scott, if you’re not gonna say ‘butt plug,’ can I say ‘butt plug’? Hey, we should make a sketch that’s just called ‘Butt plug,’ where I say ‘butt plug’ over and over again.”

As a sketch show airing on Saturday nights, MADtv was instantly and consistently compared to Saturday Night Live. As a result, many felt competitive with the late-night institution, or at least resentful of it.

Bahr: When we started we wanted to bring SNL down. It was described as a wounded zebra, and we were the young lion. But they rebounded that year [’95]. Part of it was because of our competition. We got word that Lorne had seen our pilot, and I think he heard footsteps. They got Will Ferrell that year and raided the Groundlings, actually getting a couple people away from us that we were looking at casting. They resurged. They were the big dog, and we wanted to take their place. But it was difficult because it’s such a great format. When you go live, it’s so immediate. We would develop things for a long period of time and try and be topical, but we were always three weeks out.

Sasso: I remember coming in and almost right away having a sketch that poked fun at Saturday Night Live. It was about the way they do sketches, in the “It’s Pat,” “Massive Headwound Harry” archetype. The kind of SNL sketch that starts with a song and some photoshopped images of the characters that you can tell they took on, like, Thursday. (“When is Tom Hanks coming in? Wednesday? Okay, we’ll take those pictures.”) And then it’s like: Here’s the beat, here’s the character, let’s do this five times, and then that’s the end of the sketch. There’s no natural ending and then the camera just wipes sideways to G.E. Smith playing a blues lick.

I had the attitude like, “We do our show here. We don’t care what they’re doing. We’re all funny people. Why do we have to look up at their balls?”

Capatch: In the beginning they wanted us to take some shots at SNL, and say, “Hey, we’re not your father’s Oldsmobile.” But the attitude of the writers, even though we were pretty green, was: Don’t waste time on your show talking about another show. I’ve always been pretty objective about comedy, so I knew the show I was on wasn’t SNL, and I knew it wasn’t going to get that kind of cachet or hipness. We just kept our heads down and did what we thought we could do with what we had.

If you set out to take down this titan, then everybody’s just going to be waiting for you to take it down. Our main advantage was we had a half hour before SNL came on, that people could watch and if they liked us they could stay, or they could flip over. We would make jokes about that every now and then: “Please don’t flip over and watch the monologue!”

Sullivan: I remember at one point, in season three I think, we were beating them in the demographics for a little while. But for the most part we were trailing them. Lorne Michaels played it brilliantly. He literally never mentioned our show. People would ask him and he would just be like, “Mm-hmm,” and walk away.

Oswalt: We had the advantage of having Garry Campbell and Brian Hartt, who were Canadian and already used to the tension of living under the shadow of Hollywood and America. They were like, “We just don’t give a shit. Let’s just do our own thing and find our own voice.” So they were very, very early guideposts for a lot of us. And then you had cast members like Dave Herman and Mary Scheer and Artie Lange that just weren’t needy. They weren’t like, “We want to do what SNL is doing.” They were just like, “We’re happy to figure out our own thing, at our own pace.”

Borstein: MADtv was never competitive like I heard it was at SNL. It didn’t feel pitted against each other. Also, women had such strength on our show. I kept hearing at SNL how hard it was for the women to be heard — this was before Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler. We were queens. There was never any inequity between the males and females on the cast in terms of getting sketches on. Although, I later learned I was being paid less than the men, which was annoying.

Meyers: My brother [Seth] was on SNL at the time, and I felt like, well, there’s no room for me over at SNL, so what else we got? And it was a cool couple years to have us overlapping from 11:30 to midnight. It forced my parents to finally buy a TiVo.

My biggest problem was the overall look and feel of our show. SNL has an audience of 300 and they’re there for two hours. Our audience would be rotating in and out throughout an evening. I feel like we had an audience that was trained, or would just naturally become, kind of that Married With Children audience, with a lot of “Ooooooh!” Or a character would enter and they would just lose their minds for a bit too long. It sounds like I’m blaming the audience — I’m not. But sometimes there would be a very good joke, and that joke would just get laughed over because they would laugh at a set-up a little too loud. SNL, being live, gives it that feel of excitement that MADtv could never really compete with. The excitement of the room of Studio 8H just translates to the people at home in a way that MADtv never could.

Key: There were some severely funny things that happened on MADtv, but they wanted it to be like Mad Magazine. Well, that’s a very narrow spectrum. If you’re just trying to do parody of popular films and television, you are going to run the risk of not having a huge audience. We know that every election cycle SNL is going to attack that as best they can. We know that part of why Tina Fey became the juggernaut she became is the fact that Sarah Palin exists. It wasn’t just icing on the cake, that was the icing fucking factory. It cemented SNL as always being at the vanguard of political satire in the United States of America.

MADtv was ever reaching for that. At one point in time, the showrunner that I started with was brought on for the very specific reason of competing with SNL. And I was thinking, “But unless you take the sketches that we like and the writers we like, it’s not going to be that.”

McDonald: Some people frame it in terms of, like, “Was there a rivalry?” Honestly, I never for a second thought of it in any way as a rivalry between both shows. I had many, many friends on SNL. We all came from the same comedy pools. I auditioned with Jimmy Fallon and Chris Parnell for SNL. Chris and I were in each other’s hotel rooms helping each other rehearse. And really, there was no contest [Laughs]. They were the very well-connected, well-funded show. We were sort of the kids in the corner. But I viewed that as a good thing. We got away with murder, comedically, subject matter-wise.

Last year, CW purchased the rights to MADtv’s back catalogue with the hope of streaming it on CW Seed. Realizing it was the show’s 20th anniversary, they decided to kick off the launch with an anniversary reunion special on the network. The ratings were solid enough for Pedowitz to revive the show. All of this has allowed those who were once a part of MADtv to look back on its legacy.

Pedowitz: I spent a while with my team working out “is this the right property?” At the end of the day we kept coming back to this: There’s a lot of sketch comedies that parody pop culture out there. Why not bring back the one that was really the source of it?

McDonald: It’s just nice to see more sketch comedy, because I’m a fan of the form. I’m sure they’ll bring in a new cast of young folks, since sketch is a young man’s game. I just hope they’re able to bring back some of the writers and producers, because they certainly could help provide that sort of DNA link. But the old show lasted 14 years, and changed sort of incrementally every year. Who knows: maybe it’ll be ten times better. That’ll be the sad thing, if it comes back and it’s, like, “Wow, this is so much better than the old show!” 

Collins: It’s nice to see that there is this love of MADtv. It’s fun that they are going to go ahead and get a new cast and make some new MADtv. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t know that that’s going to satisfy what people actually want. The interest is in what we did those 14 seasons. And to that, I just say: Please put those years up somewhere streaming for people to see. What we did back then was glorious, and I hope it lives on in its truest form.

Wilson: We still get mad respect. I shaved my head, my entire body is covered with tattoos, and still I get stopped on a regular basis, either because somebody recognizes my voice, or they still see my eyes. The other day I was at a looping session for a voice-acting project, and the person who was conducting it says, “You know what’s all over Facebook, Debra? That sketch you did on MADtv.” That show still gets mad props, because it was groundbreaking in its envelope-pushing. It doesn’t have to be on for the number of years Saturday Night Live is to have an iconic force out into the world.

Oswalt: Amongst people who know comedy, it’s a brilliant case study in people struggling and failing to overcome a lot of network presuppositions and hindrances. A lot of people look at it the same way as The Dana Carvey Show: “Oh, what could have been right here. Look at this.” Lasting 14 seasons with the kind of restrictions and temperance that it had is pretty miraculous. There was a real camaraderie going on there of, “Hey, we’re in this, and no one’s paying attention, so let’s do the best we can.” There was just something really beautiful. If I was a young sketch performer coming up, I would think that watching MADtv would be just as valuable as watching Mr. Show and SNL, in terms of, like, “Sometimes this is what you have to do to overcome.” Maybe there’s a generation that will discover it — we just haven’t seen it happen.

McDonald: You drive onto the lot of, let’s say, Warner Bros. The security guards with the name tags would lose their minds: “Oh my God, MADtv. Love the show, love you.” They’d let you on, they’d give you a special place to park. Every janitor, every assistant, every cafeteria worker — same thing. Then you got to the studio executive, or the producer, or the person in power, and they had never seen the show. There was a cool factor that SNL had, and MADtv did not, within the business. Our show was discounted as being cheap and broad. But Nicole Sullivan and I talked about this: Anybody with a name tag loved MADtv. It was a show for the average person, the working stiff.

Key: I don’t know why I’m being coy, ’cause they can’t fire me [Laughs]: MADtv did not have a lasting impression. Most of us have worked since then, and have done okay for ourselves, but I would have to say it’s like we started from scratch. There were people in the industry that knew enough, but there was never that paradigm-shifting thing that happened with MADtv.

That said, it never waned in its edginess. That’s something I liked about it. Now, whether the edginess was political or it was mean, or name-calling, or bullyish, whatever brand of edginess it was, it maintained its edginess. For that I will always appreciate it.

An Oral History MADtv, Fox’s Fraught Sketch Show