In 1995, "Saturday Night Live" was celebrating its 20th anniversary. But the show was flailing. Most of the cast who made it such a boom comedy economy during the late ’80s and early ’90s had moved on or been fired. New York Magazine ran a hit piece in March of that year, titled: “Comedy Isn’t Funny: How the Show that Transformed TV Became a Grim Joke.”
Meanwhile, on the other coast, Quincy Jones and David Salzman — whose production company was behind "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" — had just purchased the rights to Mad Magazine. They saw an opportunity in the 40-year-old publication, with its irreverent satire and pop culture parodies, to compete with NBC’s ailing sketch comedy king.
"We wanted to bring them down," says Fax Bahr, who had been a staff writer for the first two seasons on Keenan Wayans’ sketch series, "In Living Color." "I think it was described as they were the wounded zebra, and we were like the young lion that was gonna try and take them down."
Bahr and his writing partner, Adam Small, were hired as show-runners for this new series called "MADtv."
"Our approach was — like the magazine — an amalgam of different artists who were doing their own little short bits," Bahr explains. "So we would do short sketches and, like in 'Mad Magazine,' movie parodies. We wanted to be topical. Definitely wanted it to be edgy. We really worked hard to find a diverse cast of people who were great actors — really versatile, solid actors."
The first person they cast was Debra Wilson. She created dozens of characters and impressions during her eight years on the show, the most popular being Oprah Winfrey.
"I walked into the room," Wilson remembers of her audition, "and 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 rest of the cast was mostly made up of people with stand-up, improv and comedic writing backgrounds — including Phil LaMarr and Artie Lange. And then there was Nicole Sullivan.
"They had a lot of really seasoned Groundlings people and seasoned stand-up people," Sullivan says. "Later, Fax and Adam told me [I was] clearly the least seasoned in this world. But [they] also wanted people that the audience would like to have dinner with. But I will say I was the least talented person who was cast, and I was very much learning, like baptism by fire."
With their diverse cast in place, Bahr and Small shot a pilot. Fox loved it and ordered 12 episodes, then eventually a full season. The first episode of "MADtv" premiered on Oct. 14, 1995.
Fox had established a brand as a home for edgy, envelope-pushing comedy. But Bahr says that didn’t mean the MADtv crew could get away with everything.
"[Fox] had so much difficulty with 'Married with Children,' I think they were getting a lot of feedback on 'The Simpsons,' and so forth," Bahr says. "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 show’s initial 12 writers were mostly young stand-up comics and people with sketch comedy backgrounds. The first writer they hired was a young stand-up named Patton Oswalt, along with his writing partner, Blaine Capatch.
"People like Blaine and I were way ... trying to recreate the anarchy side of 'Mad Magazine' from the ’50s and ’60s," says Oswalt, "when they really were trying to rip into society."
The show wasn’t live, but it was taped in front of an audience. This gave it some of the same energy as "SNL," but the cast could also improvise and do multiple takes. There were also lots of pre-taped sketches and movie parodies that were shot on location with big budgets—like "Gump Fiction" from season one, written by Oswalt:
Each episode was a mix of original characters, impressions, parodies and cast monologues. The first season even had animated bits from the magazine’s "Spy vs Spy" cartoon. The shadow of "SNL" always loomed large over "MADtv," which aired on Saturday nights at the same time.
But Debra Wilson says, "I think it had a different feel than a 'Saturday Night Live,' because it wasn’t theatrically presented. It was multimedia. And it was fast-paced. It had a very L.A. feel to me —although I’ve had a number of fans think that it was actually shot in New York.”
The show’s ethnic and gender diversity alone set it apart from the mostly white boys club over at "SNL." The first season’s eight cast members included three people of color and three women.
"I certainly played, I would have to say, the majority of the racists on the show," Sullivan recalls, laughing. "We wanted to make people look stupid. And so my characters, even though they weren’t real, were just sending them up to make her look like she’s an idiot."
"We were a ton edgier than 'Saturday Night Live,'" she adds. “There were so many black members of our team, it was inevitable that that’s what a lot of stuff was gonna be, you know?"
Debra Wilson thinks they were even too edgy for Fox. “We would go to Fox junkets and parties, and we would be the bad kids in the corner,” she says. “But we liked that reputation. So even though we all had our own different personalities and our own different relationship makeups within the cast, we were the bad f----n’ kids of 'MADtv.' We were the badass kids of the block.”