‘Not Afraid to Be Mean’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘MADtv’
Widely considered SNL’s edgy L.A. cousin, the series that did an entire sketch off a single Malcolm X joke might never have been if Quincy Jones and David Salzman didn’t buy Mad Magazine in 1995. The duo — responsible for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — created MADtv to compete with sketch comedy shows like Lorne Michaels’ baby, and while never achieving the same heights, they still gave us some memorable and often hard-hitting parodies, not to mention the power pair of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
So let’s dive into the making of the series that remains one of the best sketch shows to date...
‘Family Guy’ Was Supposed to Have Its Debut on ‘MADtv’
During an interview with IGN, Seth MacFarlane revealed that his cartoon about a Rhode Island family was initially going to debut on MADtv. “Family Guy was supposed to be a series of shorts on MADtv, in the way that The Simpsons began on Tracey Ullman,” MacFarlane explained. “It just came down to a budgetary thing. They didn’t really have the budget to do any kind of animation at that point.”
Naturally, Some Celebrities Weren’t All That Happy About the Way They Were Parodied on the Show
“When we did impressions, they were pretty mean,” cast member Nicole Sullivan admitted. “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.”
Who Got in the Door First?
The first writer hired was friend of Cracked, Patton Oswalt, along with his writing partner Blaine Capatch. “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,” Oswalt told Vulture. “Poor (executive producers) 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 recreate the anarchy of Mad Magazine from the ’50s and ’60s when it was trying to rip into society.”
The First Cast Member
Debra Wilson was the first cast member to join MADtv. Of her audition, she said, “There were over 20 Fox executives, with Quincy Jones, David Saltzman, Fax Bahr and Adam Small. You’d go in, and you’d do a couple of your characters. You had to do impersonations or impressions. So for me, I felt like they were in my playground. And instead of just doing my characters, I’m talking to people as my characters.”
The Origin of Stuart
Michael McDonald, MADtv’s longest-running cast member, developed his Stuart character while working with the Groundlings. The actor revealed that he returned to his childhood to create the dazed persona. “Stuart was what I like to call little dark windows from the past,” McDonald said. “The relationship between Stuart and his mother, played so brilliantly by Mo Collins, was based on the relationship I had with my mom. I would often just take things that happened and put that into sketches. When I originally gave the script to Mo, she read it and said, ‘Michael, this is really sick,’ and my response was, ‘Well, the year was 1975.’”
The Magic of Key and Peele Almost Never Happened
It turns out that the show initially only wanted to cast either Keegan-Michael Key or Jordan Peele. The two were pitted against each other during the audition process, with Key believing they simply saw how perfectly the two bounced off each other in any given sketch.
The Show Refused to Let Peele Out of His Contract
The comedian and acclaimed horror director was royally peeved when SNL offered him a job in the late aughts, only for MADtv to block it. Peele said that the show was “using my fate as chess pieces,” but that it ultimately led to the evolution of his career when he realized he wanted to be a producer. “These producers are making these decisions about art and comedy, and they didn’t know anything about art and comedy,” he explained. “I want to be a producer and bring my artistry to that, and they’ll all be sorry.”
The Show Purposely Wrote Unairable Sketches So Their Risky Ones Could Be Approved
“(Fox) had so much difficulty with Married… with Children, I think they were getting a lot of feedback on The Simpsons, and so forth,” executive producer Fax Bahr once said. “They employed these very strict guys who would come in and veto a lot of things that we did. So we would just write the most vicious, nasty sketches that we could, knowing they’d be killed, so that we could continue to push the envelope. That was our war of attrition. We allowed them to kill a few things, and then we’d get what we wanted.”
The Fight Over the Term ‘Butt Plug’
Cast member Will Sasso shared how Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall once fought with the censor Fox appointed to MADtv. “We had Scott Thompson come on and reunite with (Kids in the Hall writers) Brian Hartt and Garry Campbell, and he’s doing a Buddy Cole piece,” Sasso said. “I forget what the context was, but the word ‘butt plug’ 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 (the censor) 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.”
The Time the Show’s Studio Audience Turned on the Cast
While the show wasn’t recorded live like SNL, it was filmed in front of a studio audience. Sullivan has recalled the one time the audience did not like what they saw: “I remember exactly where I was standing and exactly what happened. We were doing that Darlene McBride sketch, and it was so offensive that the audience started booing. I had to hide behind a monitor. And that’s the clip that’s gone viral (years later) because it’s exactly Donald Trump’s platform. That’s what’s so fucking crazy. It was the one sketch where the audience was like, ‘That’s too much. No one would ever say that stuff,’ and yet…”
Debra Wilson Left the Show Because of a Financial Dispute
“I was a tenured cast member from the beginning, from pilot,” the seasoned actress explained, “and people were coming in after me making more than me. And when I realized there were white male cast members who were coming in after me making more than me, I went, ‘Okay, can we talk about this?’ And the answer essentially was no. When I was told, ‘All the things you want to create and be on the show has a monetary value, and we don’t value it as much as the new people coming in, that’s when I left.”
Alex Borstein Lost Out on Starring in ‘Gilmore Girls’
The comedian said that Gilmore Girls wanted to cast her as Sookie (ultimately played by Melissa McCarthy) after she went in to audition. But schedule-wise, Borstein could not do the show and MADtv. It did, however, set up her writing career. “When I auditioned for Gilmore Girls, I met Amy and her manager producer at that time, Gavin,” Borstein said. “I developed two pilots with Gavin, and that set my career off as a writer as well, so I’m pretty happy. I don’t think I would have done that if I was doing Gilmore Girls.”
Why the Vancome Lady Didn’t Make Her Return in the Latest Season
MADtv dropped its 15th season in 2016, with eight episodes that were much more toned down than their predecessors. When an interviewer told Sullivan they were disappointed that we didn’t see a return of her famous Vancome Lady, the actor said, “Here’s the thing with Vancome… Everything’s so mean nowadays, like, where does she go? What can she say? She was always so much worse than everyone else, but now everybody’s so mean, so she’s just run-of-the-mill.”
Ike Barinholtz Struggled to Get Work After the Show Ended
The actor said that when he first came to L.A., he was “bussing tables and couldn’t even get an audition; there was a feeling of like, ‘Eh, we’re all broke actors,’ and you don’t know any different. And then you get MADtv, and I was on that show for five years, making a decent income and just busy, and then it ends, and I don’t get anything for three, three and a half years. Initially, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to get a pilot now.’ Like, I’ll head to the pilot district and find me a pilot and just do that. That did not happen. I tested a lot, over and over and over again, but I’d never make it to the final level.”
It was during this time that Barinholtz started writing Central Intelligence, which would star Kevin Hart and The Rock.
The iPad Spoof That Came Before the iPad
Five years before Apple would launch its money-making iPad, MADtv did an iPad spoof. Only it wasn’t centered around a computer tablet but rather the idea of connecting an iPod to a woman’s vagina during her period.
When Apple revealed that they were going to release a brand new tech device, MADtv director Bruce Leddy tweeted, saying that if it was called an iPad, he’d gladly take a residual check.