|MADtv - The Complete First Season|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 21 September 2004|
When you compare “MADtv” to its primary late night competition, “Saturday Night Live,” it must certainly be viewed as the new kid on the block. But believe it or not, this inventive sketch comedy program has already been on TV for nine years now and has gone through a series of significant cast changes. This first season set, however, is an introduction to the show when it was still brand new. Although its virgin cast cannot compete with the star quality of Bill Murray, John Belushi and Chevy Chase -- all alumnus from the initial SNL debut season -- this set nevertheless contains plenty of extremely funny stuff.
Since “MADtv” airs in the same late Saturday night time slot as SNL, and shares similar entertainment goals, it’s probably worthwhile to first point out where these two programs differ. First of all, “MADtv” does not feature regular guest hosts or musical guests. This means you won’t see any celebrity monologues at the beginning of each episode, nor will you catch a couple of musical performances toward the middle and end of each program. In fact, this troupe doesn’t even have a house band to its name, so the only music you’ll likely hear occurs during its intro and outro bumper music clips. So what you get here, with the exception of a few sporadic standup spots, is nearly pure sketch comedy from start to finish.
If you’re paying close attention, you will also notice that individual episodes have recurring comedic bits from time to time. One such repeated gag is called “Lowered Expectations,” which finds the players having fun with the whole video dating service industry. These segments feature bottom-of-the-barrel singles, both male and female, that are obviously severely desperate for companionship. There are also a series of animated “Spy vs. Spy” clips, featuring characters from the old Mad Magazine, a black-clad spy trying to outdo an exact replica white-clad spy, and vice versa. With these two oddballs, it’s nearly impossible to decide just which one is the good guy and which one is the bad guy, as if that even matters. As a final example, Episode 18 finds the cast poking fun at Generation-X stereotypes by imagining what news programs might look like with two Gen-Xers as the newscasters.
Of course, what ultimately transforms a good sketch program into great one is the presence of memorable characters. During “MADtv’s” first season, a few notable regulars begin to grow and take shape before our very eyes. One of these nut cases is a cold and abrasive woman called Vancome Lady, played by Nicole Sullivan. The irony of this bit is that, while she’s consistently put into job situations where people-friendliness is a necessity, she clearly cannot stand humans or human contact at all. Another hoot is Paul LaMarr’s hyperactive UBS Delivery Man. This character is obviously patterned after brown-shirted UPS employees. LaMarr’s UBS Delivery Man talks breathlessly too fast, and he seemingly cannot keep his legs, arms or any of the other parts of his body still. He’s one of those guys with ambition to move up in the company, but it’s as if he is somehow genetically engineered for nothing better than straight package delivery and getting on people’s nerves. Elsewhere, Artie Lang, the self-described “fat guy” in the group, has a few standout moments as well. There’s one bit where he plays an exercise and muscle-building guru. For whatever reason, the sight of overweight people lecturing others on health issues is always funny. They all did it: John Candy, John Belushi and now Lang. Lang also has another recurring role in an unusual sitcom parody, where the bit is based around the premise that his white body is somehow mysteriously inhabited by a black mom. In each sketch, this chubby Caucasian rules his/her household with a sisterly iron fist.
After viewing these three double-sided, dual-layer DVDs, you start to notice the strengths of each participant. For example, when a nerdy, dumb white guy is called for, Bryan Callan most often fits the bill, whereas when an uptight woman is needed, Mary Scheer is usually cast for it. Sullivan is on screen whenever a sexpot is necessary, and Debra Wilson is the lone African-American woman, with Orlando Jones as the crew’s third African-American member.
Rather than trying to recreate the comic book visuals of the original Mad Magazine, the producers of this show (who include executive producer Quincy Jones) just stick with approximating – in live-action form – that pioneering publication’s irreverence. The troupe revels in this irreverence repeatedly with movie parodies, such as “Babewatch,” which makes an unlikely connection between the TV skin flick “Baywatch” and that loveable animal film “Babe.” Nevertheless, there are also a few unsubtle hints toward this TV program’s prior print media origins now and again. For instance, Alfred E. Newman’s name is reconfigured, abbreviated or hinted at whenever a title is required in a skit. His grinning face is also shown onscreen whenever an episode breaks for commercials.
There are smart and memorable moments – too many to single out – in this collection. But some of these just have to be described: “Crimson Tide 2,” which is about a military submarine crew of PMS-ing women, and the game show spoof “Vague,” with vague questions presented by its host to its nondescript contestants. When these dupes answer too specifically, they’re asked if they can try and be a little vaguer. Silly stuff, indeed.
Although “MADtv” wasn’t able to attract many A-list celebrities during this, its first season, it wasn’t completely without a little star help. For instance, Kato Kaelin plays himself in one episode, and the glam-rock group Poison also appears on that same program. Whoopi Goldberg and Claudia Shiffer also make appearances during this initial season. While there isn’t a regular slot set aside for musical segments, there are still a few musical artists involved. One particularly effective piece involves Presidents of the United States of America playing themselves while performing various public domain songs in their own nerdy, pop-rock fashion. The Rolling Stones are also presented – albeit, in video form – for the debut of their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The extras of this box set are nice additions, though hardly essential. On the third disc, for instance, you get the 200th episode, which includes Sullivan lazily reprising her Vancome Lady character. There are also sections labeled Best Commercial Parodies, Best Movie Parodies, Best TV Show Parodies, Best Music Video Parodies and Best Animation. But since each of these segments only contain a few examples of each, they hardly constitute what could be termed “greatest hits” collections.
With SNL currently in one of its not uncommon low periods, the sketch comedy world is ripe for an ambitious upstart. Because it’s quickly approaching a full decade of existence now, “MADtv” is beginning to prove that it has true staying power. Since “MADtv” doesn’t have the same hallowed legacy that SNL must live up to, these players really have nothing to lose. How long it will last, and where it will fit into the grand (comedy) scheme of things is, of course, anybody’s guess. But as shows such as “In Living Color” and “The Ben Stiller Show” have already proven, “Saturday Night Live” is far from the only game in town. It would be sheer madness to argue otherwise.