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The origin story of SNL's edgy rival, MADtv (part 2)

MADtv cast (top, from left): Crista Flanagan, Alex Borstein, Arden Myrin, Will Sasso, Keegan-Michael Key, Johnny Sanchez. (bottom): Mo Collins, Bobby Lee, Debra Wilson Skelton.
MADtv cast (top, from left): Crista Flanagan, Alex Borstein, Arden Myrin, Will Sasso, Keegan-Michael Key, Johnny Sanchez. (bottom): Mo Collins, Bobby Lee, Debra Wilson Skelton.
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett C

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Almost every year that it was on the air, MADtv was on the verge of cancellation. But somehow it kept trucking for 14 seasons, until Fox finally chose not to renew it in 2009. Some new blood arrived in season three that gave the show a lot of its personality over the years, including a 22-year-old aspiring actor from Canada named Will Sasso.

“I wanted to be on 'Saturday Night Live' when I was a kid,” Sasso says. “It was kind of like growing up playing a sport, wanting to be drafted by your favorite team. And ending up on 'MADtv'... to me, it’s the absolute equivalent. Yeah, it was my 'Saturday Night Live' — which will be the name of my autobiography: My 'Saturday Night Live.' Just me in pastels with my chin on my fist.”

Sasso brought a barrage of original characters and impressions to the show, including wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton.

Another season three hire was Alex Borstein, a Chicago native who was doing improv in L.A. “The first three years were, you know, honeymoon, incredible,” she says. “It raises your game. You’re working with all these other smart, creative people. You’re surrounded by it.

"It feels like a college kind of atmosphere. It was never competitive like I heard about it was at SNL. It didn’t feel pitted against each other. They also tried to be very even-handed about seeing who had [ideas] every week, and making sure people had [opportunities].”

Borstein is best known today for her role on another irreverent Fox show, "Family Guy," as the voice of Lois Griffin. As a matter of fact, Seth MacFarlane’s hit animated series almost began as a segment on "MADtv" — the way "The Simpsons" started out on "The Tracey Ullman Show."

“I think 'MADtv' was perfectly suited to Fox when it was developed,” Borstein says. “I think Fox wanted that demographic, too — that kind of young, urban, popular culture, hip demographic.”

Borstein’s most popular character from "MADtv" was Ms. Swan, whose voice she modeled after her Hungarian grandmother.

Michael McDonald auditioned for "MADtv" in 1997 within days of auditioning for "Saturday Night Live" (along with Jimmy Fallon and Chris Parnell). At 34, he was the oldest cast member — and he became the longest running, staying through the second-to-the-last season.

“I ended up playing a lot of the politicians 'cause I was the oldest white dude,” McDonald laughs. “And so every senator and every serial killer, I basically knew I was going to be playing that.”

One of McDonald’s fan-favorite characters was the dimwitted, conniving child Stuart:

Stuart’s mother was played by Mo Collins, who also joined the show during its fourth season. She had trained in improv in her home state of Minnesota, but had never been cast in anything for TV.

“I saw that show and I just sort of knew it was a match,” Collins says. “And a lot of that had to do with how much they were letting, or allowing, the women to be funny — the women were so strong. We had Lauren Dombrowski, who was one of our writer/producers, who was just about as tough as they come. And we had a ton of writers that were exceptional at writing for women [who] were men. We had women on the staff as well. And then you have female performers that are bringing stuff in. And so, how can it not be female-strong if all those things are in play?”

Most of the women on the show had hugely popular recurring characters. Borstein’s Ms. Swan appeared in something like 20 sketches over the years.

“I kept hearing at SNL how hard it was for the women to be heard,” Borstein says. “This was before Tiny Fey was there and Amy Poehler. And we were queens, you know. We had no problem getting our material on the air, and doing it in a big way. And Swan ... the first time we did that sketch and they saw that it worked and worked huge, they were like, We want this every week. Another one, another one, another one.

"MADtv" took on social, political, and racial issues, but usually in a grittier, more scathing way than "Saturday Night Live."

“I think politically, we hit a little harder,” McDonald says. “And we would go after Democrats as much as Republicans. And I think that made us a little different from most of the other places. I really feel like we kind of shot in all directions. I think 'MADtv' was a little bit more rebellious, and a little bit more the kid in the back of the room that is shooting spitballs.”

Everyone who spoke about "MADtv" feels nothing but pride and fond memories about the show. But nearly everyone agreed that Fox let the show down, both in terms of financial support and promotion.

“I mean, they would use us, like, ‘We’re gonna promote "Melrose Place" and whatever tonight,’” Nicole Sullivan recalls. “And they would [have] us do interstitials. But it was to publicize their show. I just think they thought, ‘Oh, [MADtv] lives there, it stays there. It’ll do what it does.’”

Some say the problem was that Fox didn’t own the show — Quincy Jones and David Salzman’s production company did — so the network didn’t treat it like one of its own. Beyond the network, there seemed to be a lack of respect for "MADtv" in the entertainment industry at large.

“We definitely felt like the bastard stepchild,” Sasso says. “We definitely felt like the second option. We definitely felt like we were invisible while we were making the show, as far as the town was concerned, as far as show business was concerned, as far as the ratings were concerned. The ratings were great, especially when you consider how spread thin it is now on TV. And the viewership was really strong.”

"MADtv" did win five Primetime Emmys in 14 years — but they were all for costumes and hairstyling, and one for music. Michael McDonald joked that it was a show for people who wear name tags — blue-collar, everyday folks from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who found it relatable and cathartic.

That’s in direct contrast to "Saturday Night Live," according to Alex Borstein. “SNL’s pieces and sketches spoke to a very white, suburban world, really,” she says. “Even though it was made in New York, its audiences tended to be kind of vanilla in the old days. And 'MADtv' really filled a different vacuum. I mean, most of the fans were rainbow. And fans of Swan in particular... anybody would feel that she was an immigrant, and it fit everything. People were like, ‘Oh my god, that’s my Greek grandmother.’ ‘Oh my god, that’s my Mexican aunt.’ ‘Oh my god, that’s my Chinese this, that’s my Korean this...’”

If "MADtv" was poorly supported and promoted while it was on the air, it’s been even more poorly preserved. In an age where you can stream nearly every series in the history of TV on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon — or at least find a pricey box set — only a few seasons of "MADtv" have been released on DVD, and some of them are heavily edited collections. You can find a lot of sketches on YouTube, but they’re fan uploads, and usually in terrible quality.

But maybe being perpetually overlooked and dissed helped define the show. “I feel like we got away with murder, comedically, subject-matter wise,” McDonald says. “I thought we got to hit a little harder, and I think that came from the fact that the people in charge at our network ... barely knew that we were on the air. And that’s a great thing. To be overlooked in comedy can be a great thing, ’cause it’s freedom.”

Perhaps "MADtv" was simply ahead of its time. It just missed the boon of the Internet, which has proven to be the perfect carrier for sketch comedy. And it just predated the explosion of quirky, alt-sketch comedy series, both on TV and online — shows like "Portlandia," "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Key and Peele." It’s such a bull market for sketch shows these days that the Television Academy created a new special Emmy category this year.

“Had YouTube been there, we’d all be famous right now," Collins says. “Twitter... all of that. We’d be huge. I mean, shoot, if you can burp on camera for five minutes and get a million followers these days, you gonna tell me that our show wouldn’t have been going nuts?”

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