Inside the New ‘MADtv’ with Castmember Chelsea Davison

2009 marked the end of a 14-season run for the FOX sketch comedy show MADtv. The series, through its audacious and irreverent takes on pop culture, helped boost the careers of performers like Mo Collins, Orlando Jones, Key & Peele, and Ike Berinholtz. It gave us unforgettable characters like Ms. Swan, Stuart Larkin, Dot Goddard, and Coach Hines. Since its departure from the airwaves, it has only lived on in the forms limited syndication, DVD box sets, and YouTube clips. That changes tonight, as a newly revived MADtv premieres at 9PM on the CW. Executive Producer David Salzman is back with a fresh cast and guest appearances from some of the show’s past standouts. I talked to new cast member Chelsea Davison about the legacy of MADtv, the revival’s diverse new cast, and what’s in store for this summer’s eight new episodes.

MADtv is back!

It’s amazing. It’s crazy. It’s been gone for a little while and now it’s back on the CW.

I’m part of the generation that remembers watching it and then switching over to SNL. I would start MADtv and then try to make the decision of whether or not I was going to switch over to SNL when it started.

I remember it that way as well. It was a nice thing where you got a little bit of one and then you could watch a little bit of the other. Now there’s no competition because we’re airing in the summer when SNL isn’t new. And it will be on Tuesday nights. There’s definitely a shift in the approach now, making it not as much as of a competitor, but more of a new voice to take over while the other one is off. Obviously, we admire everything SNL has done to make sketch comedy what it is. But I think there’s more than ample room for both to exist. We’ve seen that with all the other amazing sketch shows that have come out.

Nostalgia-based entertainment is popular right now, but the challenge is giving the fans of the old stuff a new experience that pays respect to what they remember while doing something new and fresh. How do you guys plan to do that and at the same time make it appealing to a younger crowd who may not be familiar with the original MADtv?

The cast, all eight of us, are diverse in every meaning of the word: our backgrounds, what we bring to the table, our experience. We are young. For the most part we’re pretty new. This is probably the most high-profile thing most of us have done, with a couple of exceptions. It’s a nice way to appeal to a young group and have a clean slate to start. That said, a lot of the writers are from the original MADtv. We have a lot of the same voices from the original. We’re also bringing back some of the MADtv All Stars. The first episode is Will Sasso and Nicole Sullivan. Having them around automatically brings that fun energy because they know how MADtv is supposed to go. Filming with them on the live side was just amazing. They get to bring back some of their classic characters. For people who have watched the show you’ll get to see some of the characters that you love and some performance cameos where you know the person is a ringer that is going to bring it. But if you’ve never seen MADtv before you won’t be missing anything because in addition to those old characters you get this new generation of cast members talking about the things that you care about now: Game of Thrones, The Bachelor, tons of stuff about the election, a really great sketch about political correctness. I feel like we are tackling the things that the younger generation is already talking about. We can appeal to both, not just in the nostalgic way, but also in a way that has a ton of things to offer and say.

You mentioned diversity in the cast members. This is a pretty diverse cast, especially in terms of gender and race. Was that a conscious goal when the cast was being assembled?

MADtv has always been super diverse. That’s something that people loved about it back in the day. Because it had a more diverse cast, it could tackle things that other shows couldn’t do as well. The casting process was done by Julie Ashton, who is an incredible casting director. They looked at well over a thousand tapes. Diversity was in mind, but their search was so wide. I don’t think there was a quota that they were trying to fill. They wanted things like… one of our guys, Piotr Michael, is an incredible impressionist. He’s a white guy, but he brings something so different to the table. Michelle Ortiz is a classically-trained opera singer. She can do amazing singing characters. There are so many different skill levels. By expanding the search, they were able to find diversity in all ways. And yeah, it’s really exciting and cool to have gender equality as well. We read sketches that are just the girls. And even when the sketches are more male-centered it’s not like, “Oh, this is another one of these ones where we are just playing the waitresses.” We have a mix of all types of sketches because we have the flexibility to do it.

It’s cool that the focus was on talent and that a diverse cast just occurred naturally. That means that the people that were casting this show were looking in the right places. Because of the systems that have been in place for so long, it’s probably easier to just use traditional casting methods or pull from lists of people with bigger credits. It’s cool that they are cultivating new talent.

That’s something that we are so excited about. It feels like we’re joining an institution. The people that have come before us, like Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Will Sasso, Mo Collins, Debra Wilson… there are so many people who have gone on to great, great things. In the way that SNL has always carried that mantle, I feel like MADtv, especially in more recent years, has done that as well. Their alumni have continued to go on to do better and better things over time. Even when it went off the air, so many sketches had a second life online and it became clear how much people missed it. People were able to give it a second look and say, “This was really smart and really funny.” It’s a really big step for a lot of us. Before I got cast on MADtv I was a staff writer on @midnight. I was on the other side of things, writing jokes everyday. I absolutely loved my job, but because there was that search, my reps were able to say, “She did Just for Laughs. She does characters. Let’s submit her tape.” Similarly, we have Adam Ray, who was in Spy, The Heat, and the new Ghostbusters. He’s done some big things, but this is such an incredible opportunity because it’s so different doing one role versus getting to show your characters, your writing, and your perspective. It’s a dream come true for so many of us.

Will and Nicole both had really great things to say about the new show. Who else from the original cast will be returning this season?

Bobby Lee is going to be coming up very soon. We have a bunch more, but I can’t say yet. But the favorites are returning and it’s been really exciting for us as we started to read some of the sketches with those people as they came in for table reads.

Are there plans for any other special guests to be part of this season?

Yeah. In the first episode there are a couple by non-MADtv people. I think that will happen more and more as the season goes on. But one of the differences between MADtv and something like SNL is that MADtv will do cameos for special guests without seeming like we are beholden to an outside celebrity. It’s really about letting sketches shine. But there definitely will be some surprises.

Eight new episodes will run this summer. Are there any plans in place for what’s coming after that?

With any show there’s always a sort of trial run to see what the reception is. But I think everyone on our side and at the network is excited and feels like everyone who watches will be excited too. We have to see what the reception is, but the goal would be to bring it back, whether that’s making more episodes or making it a summer event every year. That’s all flexible. The first thing is to put out eight episodes to show that it’s 2016 and this is MADtv’s take on what’s happening. For instance, in the past MADtv didn’t really get into the political ring. This year there’s a ton of political stuff. Politics is pop culture now. It’s not something separate. It’s entertainment. It only makes sense to take some swings at that too.

Inside the New ‘MADtv’ with Castmember Chelsea Davison