''Mad TV'' enjoys quiet success -- The 'other' Saturday night sketch show just wants a little respect

By Josh Wolk
Updated September 10, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT


Mad TV is celebrating its 10th season, a television anniversary often met by showers of tributes from the industry and critics alike. Here’s the showbiz testimonial that cast member Bobby Lee got this summer: He bumped into a ”really popular, hip comic” (whom he declines to name) who asked, ”Are you still on Mad TV?” Yes, replied Lee, to which the comedian crowed, ”I can’t believe that show’s still on. It sucks!” Reflecting recently on this unsolicited ego dropkick, Lee says, ”I walked away and started to weep a little bit. Some people just don’t think our show’s cool.”

What was especially notable about this encounter was not the cruelty of the unnamed comic but the fact that anyone described as ”popular” and ”hip” uttered the words ”Mad TV” aloud in the first place. In 10 years, Mad has been unable to generate an iota of the buzz and respect of its time-slot competitor, Saturday Night Live. ”There are sketches that we do that I’m so proud of, they’re so funny,” says head writer Scott King, a seven-season Mad veteran. ”And you’ll pick up a magazine or listen to a radio show and it’s just ‘Look what SNL did this weekend!’ You can’t help but feel, Man, could someone please pick us up?” And while SNL spawns a movie or sitcom star every few years, many don’t realize — or credit — the origins of Mad TV‘s most accomplished alumni like The King of Queens‘ Nicole Sullivan or Orlando Jones (who, by the way, got more juice from his 7-Up commercials than from two years on Mad TV). Yet the media’s deafening silence is disproportionate to Mad‘s quiet success. Last season, the show, which attracted 4.6 million viewers, was ranked highest in teens in all late-night shows (including The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Show With David Letterman) and second for men and adults 18 — 34. (Second, that is, to — damn you! — Saturday Night Live.) And its racially diverse cast has made it a clear favorite of African-American and Latino audiences. Says executive producer David Salzman (somewhat oxymoronically), ”We’re actually more popular than most people realize.”

Mad TV now has both nothing and everything in common with the humor magazine from which it takes its name. Its main connector, the Spy vs. Spy cartoons, is gone, but the show still shares the magazine’s snickering, mischievous sense of humor. ”It’s that sense of ‘the scenes we’d like to see,”’ says Salzman. ”It’s about comeuppance, authority being sent up. It’s the high schooler in all of us that never dies.” In its early years, Mad TV was more a comic version of junior high: Six-year troupe member Michael McDonald recalls auditioning and reading season 3 scenes, which were ”about pissing and s— and sex, real teenage-boy stuff. I think the show’s grown up a lot.” This was largely due to the arrival of veteran SCTV writer Dick Blasucci in season 4, who brought a more mature sense of humor and love of pop-culture parody.