There’s something timelessly romantic about the rise and fall of the underdogs. From the heroic last stand of the three hundred Spartans to the dying fart of that dumb streaming platform Quibi, we love to cheer on those who face insurmountable odds, then mourn them when Goliath inevitably triumphs.
Within the realm of TV comedy, the greatest of these dark horse dreamers has got to be MADtv, Saturday Night Live’s wilder, louder, messier little brother. Loosely born from the branding of MAD Magazine, this Quincy Jones-produced crass menagerie of sketch comedy’s most marvelous misfits stormed into the 1990’s during one of SNL’s more pronounced slumps. MADtv raised hell for 15 seasons as they dared audiences to compare them to their snooty Saturday night counterparts.
Of course, MADtv was never truly going to threaten the success of a colossus like SNL, but they did succeed in showing audiences what a sketch comedy counterculture could look like. While SNL was churning out manicured, professional sketches born from a sophisticated entertainment machine, MADtv gave their fans loud, rude, often offensive and seldom boring scenes that seemed to be pulled straight from the mind of a mad genius with the maturity level of Alfred E. Neumann himself.
Here are three sketches from MADtv that would make Lorne Michaels’ head spin:
The Sopranos on Pax TV
MADtv approached parody in a very different way from SNL. This sketch is a rare example of MADtv eschewing vulgarity in favor of vulgarity by omission as they masterfully satirized both the over-the-top profanity of The Sopranos as well as the lukewarm blandness of Pax TV. For our younger readers, Pax TV, now known as Ion Television, was founded in the late ‘90s by Home Shopping Network mogul Lowell "Bud" Paxson in an attempt to create a channel exclusively for family-friendly programming, which pretty much just meant buying up the syndication rights to other networks’ underperforming shows and heavily censoring them for the pearl-clutching contingent. We don’t need to explain how funny it is to imagine the milquetoast staple of nursing home common rooms attempting to edit the most indulgently indecent show on premium cable.
Compare this sketch to one of SNL’s attempts at parodying David Chase’s masterpiece – 2013’s “The Sopranos Diaries” made a similar attempt in juxtaposing the violence and vulgarity of The Sopranos with a more family-friendly program in The CW’s Carrie Diaries, a teen-drama prequel to Sex and the City.
What jumps out to us right off the bat is that Will Sasso’s Tony Soprano impression is roughly a thousand times better than Bobby Moynihan’s. The MADtv sketch is a tight two minutes and fifty-three seconds – it gets to its biggest joke in the first thirty seconds, and the rest of the sketch is an escalation of the strong premise. SNL’s parody spends almost a minute and a half longer on less than half the idea, and they rely heavily on stylish production design, superfluous pop culture references, and their signature zoom-in-on-actor-making-funny-face-and-loud-noise-while-crowd-forces-laughter trick instead of attempting to write clever satire. When it comes to parody, SNL sometimes has a bad habit of getting bogged down under the weight of its own production value at the expense of good writing while MADtv excelled at making great writing work on a shoestring budget.
No Blacks on the TV Screen
Another shining example of MADtv doing celebrity impressions better than SNL, Phil LaMarr parodied SNL alumnus Chris Rock’s spoken word track “No Sex in the Champagne Room” in a sketch that blurred the line between comedy and public service announcement.
While neither SNL nor MADtv ever shied away from tackling touchy topics like racism, MADtv was certainly the more voracious of the two in addressing the representation of black people in popular media. MADtv was created with a diverse original cast as producer Quincy Jones was intentional about creating a platform that amplified the voices of non-white performers. Few voices were clearer than Phil LaMarr’s in “No Blacks on the TV Screen.”
2007 was a drastically different time in terms of representation in the media - the discussions that are commonplace in 2022 about the responsibility of TV’s decision makers to give everyone a chance to tell their stories hadn’t reached the boardrooms of the networks and production companies with the power to make those changes. As historically progressive as SNL was, even they were guilty of whitewashing their programming – when “No Blacks on the TV Screen” aired, all but two of SNL’s eleven repertory players were white, and the writers’ room was a virtual “who’s who” of guys who looked like the sons of Utah congressmen.
To SNL’s credit, they’ve made significant strides towards building a program better representative of the entirety of America. In 2017, SNL crossed a milestone when Lorne Michaels chose Michael Che to become the first black head writer in the show’s history. And it only took them 43 seasons to get there!
“No Blacks on the TV Screen” gave a glimpse of the genuine passion and frustration that the black artists on MADtv had about the state of black representation in 2007 America. It also showed the sharp edge of MADtv – you’ll never see SNL call out every popular television show and network in America the way Phil LaMarr did with soothing grooves and mood lighting.
It’s not fair to cherry pick the worst example of SNL’s attempts at addressing black stereotypes in popular media when talking about MADtv’s best success at the task, but that’s not going to stop us from linking one of the worst sketches in SNL history. “Boo Boo Jeffries”? What was Alex Moffat thinking?
Malcolm X in the Middle
To round out the field, we chose a sketch that incorporates the essential elements of MADtv that we’ve already discussed – their gift for parody and their propensity for social commentary – and added the last, and maybe most important element of the show: they were never afraid to be absolutely stupid.
Seriously, the writers for MADtv thought of a single pun and decided they were done writing this sketch. That pitch meeting must have been ten seconds long – one person asks, “what if we did Malcolm in the Middle but with Malcolm X?” Then everyone laughs and high fives each other before breaking for lunch.
Not only is it stupid, but it’s stupid about a person whose message was serious and sensitive – SNL has plenty of very stupid sketches, but you’ll never see them trot out Keenan Thompson holding an ice cream bar to do Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dreamsicle.”
As smart as the writers at MADtv could be, they never took themselves so seriously that they forgot to be irreverent, immature, ironic a–holes, as is expected of any humorist writing under the “MAD” moniker. MADtv regularly put on sketches that a contemporary SNL audience would consider racist, sexist, homophobic, insensitive, disrespectful, and sacrilegious for no reason other than they could. One of the benefits of hiring a diverse cast and crew is that if everyone gets a voice, that means you get to make fun of everything.
This is one of the stranger comparisons, but put “Malcolm X in the Middle” next to the SNL’s cold open on the week following the 2016 election – Kate McKinnon’s rendition of “Hallelujah” mere days after the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the death of Leonard Cohen is an iconic piece of sad serendipity and one of SNL’s most memorable moments in the last decade.
It also wasn’t funny. At all. Of course, neither McKinnon nor the writers intended for the scene to be funny – they were trying to aptly capture the sorrow and anxiety of one of the most tumultuous weeks in this nation’s history. On a comedy show. Which people watch in order to laugh. Imagine if, following the 2000 election, MADtv sent out Andy Daly dressed as Al Gore to sing “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” by The Cars.
These sketches are diametrically opposed, and it’s impossible to imagine either one airing on the other’s program. MADtv was iconoclastic, and as such, they would never allow themselves to take any topic so seriously as to forget that their main job was to make people laugh. SNL sees itself as not only within the zeitgeist, but as the zeitgeist itself. SNL takes the job of being the comedic voice of the nation so seriously that it creates a rigidity in which only a certain kind of content can be made in a certain way.
Every week, the cast of SNL gets up onstage and says “this is the world as we see it, this is how you should see it, too.” MADtv spent fourteen years simply going on camera and saying “look what I can do.”
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