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Saturday Night's Other Comedy Show

Television: Renewed for a fifth season, Fox's 'Mad TV' has gained a toehold in a slot whose champ is 'SNL.'


The line outside Building 11 at Hollywood Studios' Sunset Boulevard lot doubles back on itself twice as it snakes toward a door guarding the set of Fox television's "Mad TV." It's a common scene for TV shows that tape before live audiences, yet it's one that still brings a smile to Phil LaMarr's face.

"When we first started, we had audiences full of busloads of Marines and people from rehab who were happy to just be out of the house," says LaMarr, who has been with the show since its premiere four years ago. "Now you actually have people who have seen the show, recognize the characters, are happy to be here. And when a character comes out, you don't have to hit the applause sign. People have actually seen it."

Welcome to "Mad TV," Saturday night's other sketch-comedy series, an edgy and irreverent hour of slapstick and parody that has nonetheless remained one of network television's best-kept secrets.

Slowly, that's beginning to change. Now the show, which airs Saturdays at 11 p.m., is drawing laughs and an audience. One weekend this winter, for example, the show drew 6.4 million viewers, its best performance in more than a year. And for the season "Mad TV's" ratings (2.6) and share (9) numbers among viewers ages 18 to 49, are about 20% higher than they were two years ago.

That's still a long way from posing a serious challenge to NBC's "Saturday Night Live," whose share of the late-night audience is more than twice as big. But it was good enough to win the show renewal for a fifth season, the network recently confirmed.

"It's like the little engine that could," says cast member Mo Collins. "It's really pulling itself up a hill here and it's paying off. We're getting viewers now."

The "Mad TV" story is more a tale of survival than of success, however. The show has endured seven cast substitutions, a major budget cut, a change in executive producers and a cancellation scare midway through its first season.

"When you've been in the business as long as I have, you think you've pretty much seen it all," says executive producer David E. Salzman. "But this has been a new experience in almost every way. And it's been really tough.

"We've never really caught a break with this show. If anything, we've had the opposite."

Yet the challenges have made the show better, Salzman insists. For example when Fox cut "Mad TV's" budget more than 10% last spring, to about $700,000 an episode, Salzman wasn't sure the show could survive. Skits necessarily grew longer because producers had to fill air time with fewer resources, and sketches that required costly special effects were dismissed out of hand.

Yet the show thrived.

"I think we did our best season this year," he says. "Sometimes with less you can do more. It forces you to be really creative."

It's the last day of taping for the season and a kind of giddiness envelopes the set. After producing 25 shows in 23 weeks, the cast is looking forward to vacation--to a point.

"We're all going to really love a break for about two weeks," says Nicole Sullivan, one of three survivors from the first season. "And then we'll all be calling each other, saying 'Hey, what are you doing?' "

Although seven of the show's 10 principal players have been with "Mad TV" for two seasons or less, the cast is very close. In fact, Adam Small, one of the show's original executive producers, married someone he met on the set.

But the camaraderie is as much a coping strategy as anything else. Unable to rely on the network for support, the cast has turned to one another.

"I don't even pretend to lie. We are definitely treated like the bastard orphan children of the network," Sullivan says. "They tend to ignore us. We just don't matter that much."

"It's kind of like, I imagine, going through boot camp," adds LaMarr. "They just keep throwing stuff at you and then you survive. Sure it would have been great to have been coddled and treated like the network's baby. I'm sure there's a wonderful joy in that.

"But I certainly feel like any success we get, we've earned. Because we're Fox late night. This is the ghetto of comedy."

Nothing personal, the network says, it's just business.

"I think everybody feels they're not getting enough promotion, they're not getting enough this," says Mike Darnell, the executive vice president for alternative programming at Fox. "Based on the ratings and what the show cost, we weren't making a profit. It was purely financial."

A Little Stability in the Late Night

Still, what the network couldn't do for "Mad TV," "Mad TV" has managed to do for the network, which is provide stability. Late night has long been Fox's programming graveyard, one littered with the remnants of such disasters as "The Joan Rivers Show," "Chevy Chase," and "The Wilton North Report." Yet "Mad TV" has managed to establish a foothold, however small, in that troubled turf.

"We've never had a hit in late night," Darnell admits. "In fact, we've had nothing but failures. But [I'm speaking only of] late-night Monday through Friday.

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