Mad, mad, mad, world

May 13, 2009 at 12:00 am

When it exploded on the scene, nobody gave it a Mine That Bird chance of winning TV's popularity derby. Its network had a biblically horrific record in late-night programming, its competition was too entrenched — legendary, even — and the branding device upon which it decided to hang its identity was as passé as the NBC peacock. Did anybody under 60 even know who Alfred E. Neuman was anymore?

But now MADtv is 14 years old, and while it may not have achieved cultural phenomenon status, let's face it, many of those seasons were edgier and far more entertaining than its renowned rival Saturday Night Live. And when the irreverent sketch comedy series ends its run on FOX with a special "MADtv Gives Back" hour at 11 p.m. Saturday (Channel 2 in Detroit), the finale will mark the end of an era for late-night television — and Detroit.

"There's a big Detroit connection on the show," claims MADtv executive producer David Salzman, who counts himself as part of it: He earned his master's in mass communications at Wayne State University and launched his broadcasting career here. "[Cast member] Nicole Parker, her roots are from Detroit. Her parents grew up there and she still identifies with it. And Keegan-Michael Key [co-founder of Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre], his Coach Hines character was taken from someone he knew at the Shrine of the Little Flower Church around 12 Mile and Woodward."

Salzman, who created MADtv, and such notable TV projects as the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" movie adaptation Their Eyes Were Watching God, in partnership with music icon Quincy Jones, notes, "We feel a great sense of accomplishment with MADtv, without having promotion in that time period and how difficult it is to go up against SNL and everything else, somehow we developed our own very distinctive identity, which is really truer to Detroit than it is to New York or L.A. It's very multicultural, very urban, a hip-hop soundtrack. Ours has been the most multicultural cast, we think, of any comedy show on television."

It didn't have the raw genius of an Aykroyd, Belushi, Sandler or Ferrell to work with, but MADtv did ignite the careers of comics like Will Sasso, Debra Wilson, Mo Collins and Alex Borstein, all of whom will be returning for the final show on FOX with special guest Fred Willard, joining such current standouts as Key (who does a mean President Obama), the hysterical Bobby Lee and underrated Crista Flanagan. The key phrase in that last sentence might be "final show on FOX": Though the network is pulling the plug, MADtv reruns have provided happy filler for years on Comedy Central, and Salzman says the show could find a new first-run home.

"I don't view this as necessarily the last episode," he says. "We're still talking with other parties about continuing original production on the series. I'm not saying for sure we're going to make a deal, because the economics of doing a show like this is part of the reason I think FOX came to its decision. Our attitude is, if we're going to continue to produce the show, we want to do it as well as the 326 hours we've done before. That's part of the challenge, being true to what the show has been for 14 years."

In its infinite programming wisdom, FOX didn't originally envision MADtv as a late-night franchise. "At the time, they had a deal with the then very popular Roseanne Barr, who had a star-studded late-night show that failed miserably," Salzman recalls. "That helped FOX appreciate how hard it is.

"So when our pilot was sold in the mid-'90s, I think it was partially just to get me out of their offices. I kept talking to them about the show and why it was going to work. The reasoning was, every young person in America grows up with MAD in their DNA, that the magazine still counts for something. My thesis was that none of us ever fully graduates from high school, so all those ridiculous pranks and coming into our sexual identity and being influenced by the mass media, all of that is still in play. So FOX said, 'OK, if these guys are crazy enough to want to kill themselves producing a show, we'll try it in late night.'"

What should we expect from Saturday's FOX farewell? "We know it's dangerous territory when you start to do finales," says Salzman. "I mean, look at poor Seinfeld. Bloggers are still writing about how they missed the boat. You want to bow out in a way that satisfies the fans, the critics and yourself. We tossed around eight to 10 different ideas, then we decided to go with a 'MADtv Gives Back' that's modeled on the special episodes of another successful FOX series. We're keeping our fingers crossed."

Wonder what he meant by that? Just an Idol thought.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]