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Can Roseanne Save Sketch Comedy?

TV’s toughest critic hopes to take on ”Saturday Night Live” with ”Saturday Night Special”

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Roseanne’s concept for Saturday Night Special, her rapid-fire late-night comedy show, is fairly simple: ”I want something other than the usual kind of white-guy college-humor crap,” she says. ”When I hosted Saturday Night Live, I had suggestions to do things different, but they’re stuck in that rut. I don’t think [they’re] funny at all when they sneer at women and talk about t—. I like something with a little bit of intelligence to it.”

Please explain, then, the proposed skit about ”Female Mud Wrestling.” Tacked to the wall of the SNS writers’ ramshackle offices in Studio City are columns of note cards with prospective sketch titles: ”Sherlock Homo.” ”Crack Babies.” ”Foreskin Heads.” ”We’re All Going to Die Cereal Flakes.” (”Sugar-coated grim reminders of a world full of false hopes and shattered dreams, for children who didn’t ask to be brought into this world,” a writer elaborates.) And ”Female Mud Wrestling.”

”It’s just the sort of thing we do at 11:30 to make sure nobody turns to Saturday Night Live,” says Allan Stephan, SNS‘s supervising producer (and, it should be noted, a white guy).

Saturday Night Special will debut April 13 on Fox in the 11 p.m.-to-midnight slot. Assuming timing is everything in comedy, you have to wonder if Roseanne’s usually fine-tuned comedic clock might be a bit off. The leaky flagship of the sketch-comedy fleet, SNL, has been shelled by critics and viewers alike; although it remains the highest-rated show in late night, this season’s ratings have dipped 24 percent to date. If it has a challenger, it’s the show Saturday Night Special is replacing, MAD TV, which is currently on hiatus. Since its debut last October, MAD has occasionally tied SNL in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic and often beaten it in some young demo categories.

But MAD‘s success has been modest, hardly a watershed for the beleaguered genre. In the past few years, the coffin has closed on such sketch shows as The Ben Stiller Show, The Edge, The Kids in the Hall, Townsend Television, MTV’s The State (which tanked in a tryout on CBS), and Comedy Central’s Exit 57. And ABC newcomer The Dana Carvey Show is now lagging in the ratings after a top 10 debut. All of which seems to beg the question, Has sketch comedy become as tired a television relic as the stand-up comedian flailing in front of a brick wall?

Roseanne’s defense is that SNS is not a sketch-comedy show; it’s a variety show: ”We’ll have bands, cartoons, short films, man-on-the-street stuff, novelty acts, dancers…”

Maybe so. But as with SNL and The Dana Carvey Show — also technically variety shows — Saturday Night Special will live or die by its sketch comedy. At a press conference before the taping of the debut episode, Roseanne admits to being ”scared s—less.” In nearly the same breath, she also predicts that she can ”finish” SNL, especially considering the damage MAD TV has already done. She maintains that her show will be ”fresh” and ”exciting” and explore ”uncharted territory.” When asked exactly how it will be different, she practically barks, ”It’s funny!”

The ghosts of failed sketch shows don’t seem to faze Roseanne, and she has her theories about how to revive the genre. But so do her rivals. Together, their ideas create a six-point recipe for avoiding the banana peels strewn across the road of sketch comedy.

1. The funny bone is not a male organ. ??When I was at Saturday Night Live, if they could have had no women at all and just guys in drag, they would have been content,?? says Janeane Garofalo, who joined SNL in 1994 after a stint on the Emmy Award-winning Ben Stiller Show. ??There’s a false idea that women aren’t as funny. When they hire guys, they just have to be funny; when they hire funny women, they better be giving erections.??

3rd Rock From the Sun creator Bonnie Turner, formerly one of two women on a staff of 15 SNL writers, went on to create the short-lived 1994 sketch series She TV. When the show was dropped by ABC, the fledgling WB network considered picking it up. ??They said, ‘We just absolutely love the show, but we want to fire all the women and hire younger women,’?? Turner remembers with a sarcastic laugh. ??They also wanted to change the name to Men Are Pigs, or something like that. They thought women’s comedy was male bashing.??

Fax Bahr, executive producer of MAD TV, agrees that sketch com would be helped by a reduction in testosterone. ??Saturday Night Live has existed with that same [frat-boy] mentality for many years. I don’t think we have that mentality.??

Roseanne has taken great pains to be sure her show doesn’t have it either. Her cast of seven includes three women, and half the segments on the debut are female driven. Roseanne insists she wants to ??do something that hasn’t been touched by [late-night] television, which is anything having to do with women or relationships.?? She is quick to add that the show’s humor is not feminist: ??It has a female edge.??

2. Keep it moving. At its worst, Saturday Night Live has proved Einstein’s theory of relativity by demonstrating how a five-minute sketch can seem like a century. ??The pacing of our show is much more kinetic,?? insists SNS executive producer Joel Gallen. Roseanne calls it ??slash-and-burn comedy. It’s fast-paced, roll ’em in, roll ’em out. MTV meets Laugh-In.?? Most SNS skits, Roseanne promises, will clock in at two and a half minutes — three minutes less than a typical SNL sketch.

MAD TV benefited tremendously from this faster pace, and Dana Carvey has taken that a step further by cramming his entire show into 30 minutes. If brevity isn’t the soul of his wit (and the backbone of his show), it’s the next best thing. ??I want to see stuff that just makes me laugh and gets out of my way,?? says Carvey.

3. Bring on the big names. ??I find on some sketch shows, if I don’t know the people, I’ll flip away,?? says Carvey. ??The shows that I grew up with always had a host driving them, whether the Smothers Brothers, Carol Burnett, or Jackie Gleason. Nameless, faceless sketch people, even if they’re funny, can’t work.??

This has been MAD TV‘s biggest hindrance. ??We don’t have a breakout star,?? admits MAD executive producer Adam Small. ??I think next year we’ll include a guest host every week.??

It’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on executive producer Roseanne, who will host the first episode of Saturday Night Special and continue to make appearances. In addition, there will be high-profile cameos (Sharon Stone, Eric Idle, and Party of Five‘s Scott Wolf for the debut) and not one but two music guests per show, including Bush and Melissa Etheridge the first week, and Alice in Chains and D’Angelo the second. Such buzz acts will help draw the young viewers who have supported MAD TV.

Indeed, Roseanne says her target audience is even younger than MAD‘s: She’s aiming for the 11- to 25-year-olds. This might explain Jason Davis, an 11-year-old who will make guest appearances. ??I know his mom,?? says Roseanne. ??He cracks me up.?? At rehearsal, the audience is treated to three takes of Davis ogling ??babes with big t—ies.?? Fortunately, that version of the skit won’t air.

4. Recurring characters get recurring viewers. This thought makes the SNS crew flinch. ??Is there going to be, like, Church Lady or the Lie Guy??? asks Stephan, who supervises the writers. ??I don’t think our sketches are on that level.??

Might want to rethink that. Memorable recurring characters and catchphrases are a sketch-comedy show’s cheapest advertising. (Fess up: How many times have you said Schwing!) ??For better or worse, [SNL] just lives and dies by its recurring characters and catchphrases,?? says Church Lady creator Carvey. At one point on SNL, he says, ??we had, like, five of them going — the Copy Machine Guy, Wayne and Garth, Hans and Franz. The ratings were just climbing.??

5. Don’t just push the envelope — tear it up. No problem for Roseanne. ??How do you stop her??? says Stephan. ??If somebody says, ‘We’re not sure we can do this,’ she’ll whisper, ‘Do it, and do it bigger.’??

Unlike Dana Carvey, SNS isn’t hampered by its time slot. Carvey’s prime-time show, as most everyone knows, swiftly lost a sponsor after Taco Bell developed indigestion over such first-episode bits as President Clinton suckling puppies and babies from lactating nipples. If the show were on closer to midnight, chances are he wouldn’t have caught flak.

??You want to push the envelope,?? says Roseanne. ??But you don’t want to do an hour of penis and fart jokes like they do on SNL. I wouldn’t do anything that’s offensive to 11- to 25-year-old people. I’ve given birth to those people and they live in my house, so I know what I want them to see.??

Given her desired demographic, what there won’t be is political humor. ??I don’t think the people who are gonna watch this show give a s— about [politics],?? says Roseanne. ??I don’t give a s— about it.??

6. Don’t be hasty with the hook. Perhaps the biggest challenge Saturday Night Special faces is to hit its stride in the mere six episodes Fox has ordered. Sketch troupes don’t just jell overnight — or even over a season. Mark McKinney learned this when he went from the well-oiled Kids in the Hall to Saturday Night Live. ??Last year, there was no mystery as to why SNL was getting beat up: The cast was big, and no one was in the same place,?? McKinney says. ??You had Chris Farley and Adam Sandler with movies — that was distracting. You had Kevin Nealon and Ellen Cleghorne leaving. You had people just arriving. This year, we’re all relearning the process of doing live TV together.??

??Television is not very patient at all, and sketch comedy is not a thing that develops easily,?? says Terry Turner, Bonnie’s husband and writing partner. ??Because it’s the unruly kid in the class, people have to cut it a lot of slack and say, ‘Bobby’s kind of a big problem, but have you seen the artwork?’??

All of which, come to think of it, is a perfect description of Roseanne’s latest venture. Based on the rehearsal for the first episode, this unruly kid has some developing to do. Many of the sketches fall flat, and none were terribly groundbreaking, but the stand-out skit — Roseanne doing a hilarious spoof of Demi Moore on the pre-Oscar Barbara Walters Special — is as funny as anything on TV. One powerful Hollywood woman lampooning another? Only Roseanne would attempt it.

Hopefully, Fox will cut SNS some slack. ??You need at least a year,?? grumbles Roseanne, ??but I’m satisfied that I got six episodes. I guess.??

Additional reporting by Dan Snierson and Vicki Jo Radovsky

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