Highly satirical sketch comedy
show on the Fox
network, produced by Fax Bahr and Adam Small and roughly based on a license from MAD magazine
. First broadcast on October 14, 1995, the show has always been scheduled in the 11 PM to midnight Saturday time slot, making it the network's only non-prime time
programming. At time of writing, the show has since run continuously, for a total to date of 7 seasons of approximately 25 episodes each, with a 8th currently in production.
The show is performed by a rotating cast of about 8, scouted and recruited from among major city comics and standup artists, as well as traditional "feeder" comedy troupes such as Second City, the Groundlings, and Live on Tape. This core is occasionally augmented by outside actors and guest stars, and musical acts occasionally but not regularly have one or two performances in an episode, though they generally do not appear in any skits. Performers do create some of their own material, though the show maintains and for the most part relies on a writing staff.
The show typically begins with a three-minute or less opening skit on the MADtv "stage", usually by one of the cast members acting as themselves, although there have been variations - season two, for example, tended to open with guest celebrities, cast members posing as celebrities, or cast members in character. The ending would also use the stage, with the entire cast assembled for credits and fade-out. In between were several prerecorded skits (the "stage" parts were also prerecorded - to the best of my knowledge, the closest the show ever came to "live" was when the opening referred to a boxing match conducted earlier that evening. Versions had been recorded for a victory by either side - as it turns out, the match was postponed the day of the bout, and both segments were shown, followed by a third that referred to the postponment, apparently recorded that day. The whole thing seemed too perfect though, and the concept not very funny without the repetition, that I have to wonder whether that would have been used as the intro had events gone as expected).
Typical skits include television, movie, and commercial parodies, important figures or references from current events placed in entirely unrelated contexts, character-focused pieces, and the general absurdism which tends to characterize modern sketch comedy. It had always been common for one theme or concept to recur through the course of an episode, and as the show lengthened its tenure on air, it began to accumulate a few running skits, carrying over from show to show. These usually revolved around one or two recurring characters and tended to focus on verbal repartee, although there have been some exceptions, like the "Lowered Expectations" dating service of the first four seasons. In any case, these are not relied upon heavily, and most episodes consist of entirely original content. These skits would sometimes be supplemented by animated shorts, usually Spy vs Spy or other pieces based on the works of Sergio Aragones or other Mad Magazine illustrators. In addition, the show has aired many acclaimed, typically uber-violent claymation shorts, although given that they tend to be obviously based, stylistically when not explicitly, on Davey & Goliath, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or other "vintage" works of the medium, they might arguably fall under the "parody" category noted above. The number of segments per episode originally trended towards the high teens, with each pieces averaging around three minutes or less, though this includes brief pieces like animations and commercial parodies. In more recent seasons, the number has moved more to the low two digits, with skits growing longer, with more internal structure and plot.
All that said, I might as well acknowledge the elephant in the living room - Saturday Night Live. Depending on time zone, the two shows have always been in direct competition to some extent, and even if this were not the case, are sufficiently similar in format and structure that comparisons, and some degree of rivalry, between the two are inevitable. I myself am a MADtv partisan, and find it superior to SNL. Reasonable people may disagree, but in any case, I feel I should lay out the basis of my opinion.
The most obvious difference between the two is that MADtv is entirely prerecorded. This allows for more complex skits, to some extent, which may incorporate scene changes, makeup and wardrobe changes, special effects, more intricate sets, and exterior and on location scenes. All of these improve the quality of the show, in my opinion, and enable it to pull off media parodies more convincingly (it's notable here that a lot of the MADtv movie parodies are in fact movie trailer parodies, incorporating quick cuts, voiceovers, and excerpts from multiple "scenes"). This also allows for better incorporation of guest stars into skits, given that dialogue and directions need not be simple enough for non-actors or actors with other commitments for the week to completely memorize an episode's worth. This brings me to the second point - while MADtv does feature guest stars, increasingly more often as the show grows more "established", it does not focus on them to the extent that SNL does - they typically do not have the extended (and usually unfunny) monologue, and usually do not appear in the majority, let alone the entirety, of an episode's segments. This reduces the "gimmick" factor of the show, and leaves the writers freer to construct less awkward scripts. Musical guests are infrequent, typically more obscure and more comedic (though less so of late), and their performances are not as over-produced, usually employing static lighting and camera angles. It is notable here that there is no MADtv house band. Further, the running skits tend to be less overused and of higher quality when they are employed. Recurring skits tend to be focused on the characters themselves running into different situations, and less the same characters doing the same things in a different context. As mentioned before, it's not uncommon to see an entire episode without a running skit, and there are no segments like Weekend Update which the show is obligated to include in each episode, regardless of the amount of material available (or lack thereof). Finally, the material and the time given a sketch match up better - you won't see two minutes of joke lasting 10 minutes of airtime on MADtv, though this may be more attributable to the shorter running time (60 vs 90 minutes) and the prerecording which absolves the writers and planners of having to create an entire episode on a weekly basis.
All considered, many people have compared MADtv to the "golden years" (mid-late '70s or late '80s-early '90s, depending on who's doing the comparing) of Saturday Night Live. In SNL's defense, MADtv debuted against the background of a particularly weak period for the former, and should Lorne Michaels' baby climb back out of its rut, the competition might begin to seem less one-sided. Regardless, SNL tends on average to lead MADtv in the Nielsen ratings, though MADtv does occasionally claim a particular night and leads in the advertiser-friendly youth demographic.
All in all, one of the funniest non-animated shows I've encountered in my life. Between the new seasons broadcast on network TV and five-times-a-week syndication on TNN, it's effectively ubiquitous, and given an opportunity, I would recommend watching the show to anybody.
Cast members, current and former: