Keegan-Michael Key Weighs in on the ‘SNL’ Versus ‘MADtv’ Debate
Dana Carvey was surprised to learn that Keegan-Michael Key was the only cast member of MADtv to also host Saturday Night Live, a revelation he shared with the comic and his wife/co-author Elle Key on this week’s Fly on the Wall podcast. That bit of trivia got Carvey thinking: What was the sensibility of MADtv vs. that of Saturday Night Live? Was it a Coke and Pepsi thing? Was it a yin vs. yang? Does either of those comparisons make any sense except in Carvey’s head?
Key, who’s promoting his new History of Sketch Comedy Book, agreed that each show had its own aesthetic. “I think the biggest difference was there was a really unapologetic naughtiness about MADtv. It was very bawdy and raunchy. And I think because it was flying under the radar a bit more, there was that sense of ‘we really are going to push the envelope.’”
“It was very underdog,” agreed Carvey's co-host, David Spade. “It was very much ‘we can do whatever we want,’ rough around the edges,” Key said. “We would get to do those ten-to-one sketches earlier in the show.”
What’s a ten-to-one sketch? Key helpfully paused to explain to listeners who aren’t supernerdy about all things SNL. Ten-to-one refers to the clock on the East Coast when Saturday Night Live is wrapping up its live broadcast for the night, a time when one might reasonably presume that many viewers have fallen asleep. That’s the spot producer Lorne Michaels reserves for “one of the experimental sketches or experimental videos or really super-absurdist sketches.” Or sketches that got few laughs during the dress rehearsal, noted Carvey, despite sometimes being the sketches that stand the test of time. (Audiences don’t always recognize greatness in the moment.)
“Comedians and sketch performers love those sketches, adore those sketches,” said Key. “We used to fight a lot with our executive producers on MADtv, but they would often let us do those sketches smack dab in the middle of the show.”
One other key difference for Key was the diversity of the two casts during the time he was a performer (2004-2009). MADtv was “pushing kind of an ethnic envelope too because there were four African-Americans on the show at the same time,” Key said. “And that was something that you weren't seeing as much on SNL.”
While the two shows competed head-to-head against each other, Key believes SNL was the big brother in the scenario. MADtv did start a half-hour earlier, so “you never wanted your sketch to be on at 11:30,” Key admitted, “because SNL was about to come on and people would switch over.”