Are you a cute and funny blonde girl? Did you appear on an overlooked sketch comedy show now being released on DVD? If so, Appellate Judge David Ryan will probably find a way to hit on you. Trust us.
Our reviews of MADtv: The Complete Second Season (published March 27th, 2013), MADtv: The Complete Third Season (published August 22nd, 2013), and MADtv: The Best of Seasons 8, 9, and 10 (published January 18th, 2006) are also available.
What, me worry?
MAD TV debuted in the fall of 1995 as Fox's attempt to go head-to-head with NBC's Saturday night juggernaut, Saturday Night Live. Fox hoped to use the cachet granted by the show's connection with America's foremost comic/satire magazine to grab a share of the late night comedy market. Bankrolled by music legend Quincy Jones, the show was a traditionally-formatted hour of sketch comedy, just like SNL, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, The Carol Burnett Show, and its other spiritual predecessors.
Although the show never garnered enormous ratings, and never really matched the ratings of SNL, it has proven surprisingly resilient. It's now entering its tenth season, despite having had two complete cast turnovers in that period. How has the show survived? Simple—it somehow manages to be consistently funny (a claim SNL can't make), and from time to time it's outrageously funny. Warner Brothers has now begun the process of bringing this show to DVD, starting, logically, with the first season.
Facts of the Case
MAD TV is, as described above, a pretty straightforward sketch comedy show, taped in front of a live studio audience. Each 42-minute show contains about ten vignettes of varying content. Unlike SNL, MAD TV originally avoided recurring characters, instead focusing on short one-premise sketches. That's not to say recurring characters were completely absent; in fact, no fewer than three recurring bits were launched in this first season. The shows are sprinkled with occasional musical guests or stand-up comedian acts as well. Connections to MAD Magazine come through animated segments based on the "Spy vs. Spy" cartoons and the works of artist Don Martin.
Early on, MAD TV established a reputation for producing spot-on parodies of Hollywood films, beginning with the first show's "Gump Fiction," a strange but hysterical blending of Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. (Cast member Phil LaMarr had appeared in the former as the hapless Marvin, who meets his messy end in the back seat of Jules's convertible.) Animator Corky Quackenbush also provided stunningly executed "claymation" films that parodied the look of the Clokey cartoons (Gumby, Davey and Goliath) and the Rankin-Bass holiday specials (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, et cetera), to great comedic effect.
The cast from this first season is one of the more talented bunches of actors ever thrown together into a comedy show. None of them were well-known prior to the show's debut, but several have gone on to bigger and better things. Most people now know Orlando Jones as "The 7-Up Guy," thanks to his long series of commercials for the soda, but he's also had several film roles. David Herman and Phil LaMarr don't appear in front of the camera very often, but they're among the most in-demand voice actors currently working. (If you're a Futurama fan, you've heard both of them. A lot.) Mary Scheer has also done some voice work, and produced the TV show Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. Artie Lang is a regular on Howard Stern's radio show, and appeared on Norm MacDonald's sitcom The Norm Show. Bryan Callen starred on Inside Schwartz, and can currently be seen on Fat Actress. The adorable Nicole Sullivan did a good deal of voice work for Family Guy (which co-starred former MAD TV cast member Alex Borstein), and eventually landed a full-time role on The King of Queens. Only two of this initial cast (Sullivan and long-timer Debra Wilson, who didn't leave until 2003) lasted beyond the end of the third season, with most leaving after season two. But for those two years, this was a striking accumulation of talent.
I remember watching MAD TV when it first premiered back in 1995. I liked it—but I didn't like it enough to stop watching Saturday Night Live. (I do remember that I thought Nicole Sullivan was really, really cute—but I'm shallow as a kiddie pool, so go figure.) It was a real pleasure to rediscover this show on DVD nearly a decade later. It's a surprisingly funny show that is exceptionally well-written, and it clearly deserves a place in the sketch comedy pantheon.
MAD TV's strength is in the general simplicity of its comic bits. Most of the sketches on the show are "single-premise" concepts—i.e. there's only one funny thing going on in the sketch. Call it a "one-note joke." Single premise concepts can be risky, because you're always in danger of overextending that premise—and when you do, things get very unfunny very quickly. MAD TV solves this dilemma extremely well: they keep everything short and sweet. Sketches rarely run longer than three minutes, which is plenty of time to hammer home the comedy of the premise, but not enough time to let things drift into the danger zone. It also makes the show pretty snappy—things move along quickly, and you never feel trapped inside a bad sketch. (I'm looking at you again, SNL…)
There is an enormous amount of comedy in this DVD set—nineteen full episodes (roughly 13 hours of material), plus several bonus features, including the full "200th episode" from the ninth season. Shockingly, there are almost no clunkers among the sketches. Everything on-screen is no worse than "moderately funny." That's a triumphant achievement for a show like this. It would be pointless, not to mention insanely time-consuming, to do an episode-by-episode rundown for this show, because it's so diverse in its offerings. There's a music video from the Rolling Stones. There's a spoof of James Bond films starring supermodel Claudia Schiffer. (She's actually pretty good, believe it or not.) There's a performance by the band The Presidents of the United States of America. There's Mary Scheer doing one of the best Barbra Streisand impressions I've ever seen. There's a recurring bit with Sullivan and Herman playing annoying Gen-X newscasters. There's a version of the Rankin-Bass "Rudolph" special done in the style of Scorsese's Raging Bull. There are recurring faux commercials for a dating service named "Lowered Expectations" (their motto: settle for what you can get). And much, much, much more.
Some of the humor is moderately raunchy, but no more so than SNL has been recently. (Paging Col. Angus…) Since this was a network show, most profanity is bleeped—but it did air in a late-night slot, so only the worst words are cut. It's probably not a show for sub-high-school aged kids. But they probably wouldn't get a lot of the humor anyhow. (See the rebuttal section for more details.)
Warner provides a good chunk of extras on the disc. About half an hour's worth of filmed-but-unaired sketches are provided. Some of them are funny; with others, it's clear why they were cut from the broadcast. There's also a solidly funny 10-minute blooper reel. The second side of the final disc has the complete 200th Episode from 2003, which featured the return of several departed cast members. (Including, interestingly, Artie Lang—who had been fired in 1997 due to his raging cocaine problem. He's cleaned up now.) Finally, several sketches spanning the entire run of the show are included in a "best of" section, organized based on what the sketch is spoofing. Some of these are absolutely hysterical—I strongly recommend the "edited for PAX-TV" version of The Sopranos.
Picture and sound are about what you'd expect from a television series on DVD. The Dolby 2.0 surround mix is a bit bass-heavy—make sure you don't wake up the neighbors by playing the Heavy D-composed theme song too loud.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On the whole I have very few complaints about this set. But the viewer should be warned: a lot of the humor in the show is very topical. If you don't remember the big news stories from 1995-6, or if you don't remember the specific commercials from that season that the show parodies, you might not find certain things all that funny. (Although O.J. humor will never get old, right?) That's why kids probably won't enjoy this set as much as their parents would. But the topical humor only amounts to roughly a third of the total sketches at most, so there's still a lot to enjoy here.
MAD TV—The Complete First Season is a very solid package for a very entertaining show. Although MAD TV is often overlooked when discussions of sketch comedy shows come up, it's not for lack of quality. Fans of Saturday Night Live or SCTV should find a lot to enjoy here, and the set should have good replay value.
Not guilty. And Nicole—if you're still single, and would be interested in dating a starving writer, by all means give me a call. You're SO my type…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• MAD TV 200th Episode
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