Sunday, July 24, 2005

TV Review: Mad TV, maddeningly annoying

"You are watching Mad TV" a chipper little voice sings time to time throughout Fox's Mad TV. We think the voice should be encouraged to continue with, "Why?"

Know the annoying guy who thinks he's entertaining when he recites an entire routine (from Monty Python, Living Color or whatever)? How like the character in Barry Levinson's Diner (acting out The Sweet Smell of Success), he never gets that he's not amusing, just annoying? That's Mad TV.

We're fans of sketch comedy. We just don't see a lot of comedy in the sketches. Or a great deal of thought. When they succeed these days, it's usually the result of a clever parody like The Big Store (we didn't realize it was a spoof of The O.C. until we watched The O.C.). But that's what they rely on too often.

They're not alone on that. Saturday Night Live was once the home of characters by Gilda Radner, John Belushi and others -- characters you could enjoy who were based on something funny that they had observed in life, not from their TV screens. These days they rely far too much on spoofs of the famous.

More and more, when Mad TV actually prompts a laugh, it's as a result of such a spoof. But more often than not (the Oprah spoof) the jokes aren't really funny. The impressions aren't really dead on either. Chevy Chase could never do Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live. He did Chevy Chase in every skit. For those who've forgotten, Saturday Night Live got by just fine when he was gone. When alumni are remembered, it's not for their impressions. Mike Myers is remembered for Wayne of Wayne's World. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd (as a team) are remembered for the Blues Brothers. Gilda Radner is remembered for Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella and Judy Miller (not that Judy Miller) and Lisa Loopner of Lisa and Todd. We laughed at her parody of Patti Smith (Candy Slice) but that's not what she's remembered for.

We're having a hard time seeing much that the cast of Mad TV will be remembered for. Stephanie Weir does create characters but they all seem to resemble one another. Ike Barenhotz, whom Rebecca thinks is a hottie and would be willing to watch week after week if he just strutted around in a pair of BVDs, is a good sport. All the people onscreen seem to be. They're just not that funny.

Sometimes that results from the fact that they have bad material (hire better writers!) but a lot of the cast writes for themselves. And please, no more Charlotte Rae parodies. When the only "joke" from including "Rae" in a skit is her thong riding up on her, there's a problem. If you bring on "Rae," you're bringing her on for a reason. The thong joke didn't require "Rae."

There's also a fondness for "Connie Chung." (And a fondness for men who dress up as women.)
There are many jokes that could be done using "Connie Chung," jokes that would go to the state of the news today. That's not happening. Instead, the "joke" is that Connie's a bitch and she's been pregnant.

We realize that Mad TV tries to be in the spirit of Mad Magazine. Mad Magazine is far funnier than anything from this show.

On tonight's episode, there was one funny skit, one that actually appeared like someone worked on it as opposed to saying, "Hey I do a good Anna Nicole! You do a great Bill Cosby! Let's mix them together!" It was a couple, speaking to the camera, about their wedding. Which took place on 9-11. It was funny.

But that's too often the exception. There's a skit called "Asian Man" that might be funny if Bobby Lee was ever playing anything (in any other skit) other than an Asian stereotype. Skits like "Asian Man" seem to get tossed in to suggest that "See, we're not using racial stereotypes." Oh, but you are. Oh, but you are.

Like Saturday Night Live, Mad TV's more interested in a celebrity embarrassing himself or herself (Bill Cosby, Whitney Houston, go down the list) than in commenting on anything that's actually going on in life. And there's something troubling that their "hard hitting" skits revolve around celebrities as opposed to politicians.

Politicians embarrass themselves weekly (check the papers -- but we don't get the feeling that anyone writing material for Mad TV actually reads a paper -- or much else). Even the Bully Boy gets air kisses as opposed to hard hitting caricatures.

Throughout the show, you've got the feeling you're watching a really bad high school revue where people grab catch phrases made famous by others to get a laugh that they haven't earned themselves.

Tonight's "key skit" appeared to be about Celine Dion. The joke? She must go on singing and will toss her baby to the audience in order to. It wasn't funny. It wasn't a skit. It was a "sk" -- a lame idea that never got fully executed. We're not fans of the Dion and can rip her apart in a matter of minutes. We could do it funny or we could just do it factually. Mad TV doesn't want to do the work. They want to indicate and count on you filling in the blanks.

But a better question is why, since Dion's been performing exclusively in Vegas for some time and since she's not doing anything thus far this decade that she hadn't already done in the nineties, Dion's even being spoofed?

How did that pitch session go?

And who hailed the skit as funny?

There was an intervention skit a few weeks back (we usually have it on during our writing of the reviews -- we'd planned to review it awhile back for Rebecca who's in love with Ike but we kept waiting for something positive to say along with our negative criticism). It used a healthy portion of the cast and was actually funny for most of the skit. There's a retirement home reoccruring skit that's occassionally funny. (The stroke bit is overplayed.) (Repeatedly within each skit.) The Abercrombie & Fitch skits are usually funny and it's a credit to Mad TV that they stumbled upon that first.

If you're not able to do impressions, you aren't able to. That's not a gray area. You can or you can't.

And we'd suggest that the women doing Ellen and Meg Ryan, et al. should have long ago been told that they neither look nor sound like the women. They also have nothing to offer, the "characters," to the skits that they're included in. It's an easy laugh (something we were talking about with Cedric earlier tonight) that's not worthy of a laugh. Cedric calls it a "name check" that gets a giggle not because of anything that's done but because of, "Is that supposed to be Meg Ryan!"

Is that how low sketch comedy has fallen?

Look, we don't expect Nichols & May from a sketch comedy show entitled Mad TV. We do expect to laugh.

Paul Vogt, an overweight man, seems to think he's funny repeatedly playing overweight women -- where the joke is that they're fat. He's Stephanie Weir's teenage cousin in some skits, he's Charlotte Rae in some skits, he's Camryn Manheim in some skits. And the joke is always "What a fat woman!" Is Vogt bothered by that? He should be. All those jokes apply to himself if you leave out the gender. (Or maybe, like many male performers, he thinks only women can be criticized for their looks?)

Daniele Gaither is actually funny when she's allowed to put her stamp on a character. A character, not an impersonation. She's probably the most talented member of the cast and if they weren't resorting to "name checks," she'd probably be utilized more.

Stephnie Weir is over utilized but since her characters are usually actual characters, we feel bad for saying that. Dot is funny, for instance. (The annoying child that needs constant attention.) But the constant reliance on her makes us fear that she'll soon be running on fumes the way Michael McDonald has as he desperately attempts to create another Stuart.

Which brings us to the man that causes what Rebecca's delicately termed her "moist days," Ike Barinholtz. A big, beefy guy (not fat, but surely the kid who had to wear Tough Skins pants growing up), we honestly didn't register the attraction until he started losing weight (and resembling Ben Affleck). We prefer him big and beefy. (Like a tostada or buritto.) He's a good sport. And when he's playing one of the studs of the skits (in the retirement home sketches, in the Abercrombie skits, in The Big Store, etc.) he's funny. We're not sure whether that's because as a stocky guy (formerly stocky), he's able to spoof the dream date caricature or if he's just more comfortable in those roles. But he was the weakest point of the intervention skit and of any skit where's he's supposed to be a regular guy being funny. By contrast, playing an overly groomed, new news anchor, he saved a really lame skit. (A sketch on local news has a lot to parody. The "happy talk" and "flirting" they got. That's all they got.) Let him play pretty boys because that's the only time he's knocking them out of the park. (He's also amusing in the interviews at openings and awards shows.)

When Mad TV started, there was the hope that it would either knock Saturday Night Live off the air (Fox especially was hoping for that) or it would prompt Saturday Night Live to get better. (SNL always gets better because it so frequently destroys itself every other season.)
After all this time, you'd think that people behind Mad TV would look at what works and what doesn't.

Since they won't, we will.

Musical guests provide nothing. It's not a regular segment and when it happens now, audiences are more likely to feel, "Hey, I tuned in for a comedy show!" At an hour (minus incessant commercial breaks) the show really doesn't have the time to waste on music. (Nor on the "let's talk the audience!" Unless it's an actual skit.)

Half the cast should have been fired a long time ago. (And maybe they have been? The official site doesn't show a large majority of performers we saw on the show tonight.) But so should the writers. Comedy is in a rut over all the place. For a sketch comedy show; however, that doesn't cut it. Sketch comedy doesn't depend (or shouldn't) on what a sitcom did.

Instead of hauling Charlotte Rae (for instance) out of mothballs or thinking that at this late date "Bruce Lee's cousin" is funny, they need writers that can create actual characters, not lame parodies. They should also stop speaking down to the audience.

Now maybe they're core following is, in fact, made up of seventh graders (or seventh grade drop outs) who are obsessed with celebrities and will chuckle as they point and say, "Look, it's supposed to be Dr. Phil!" Continuing to go after that "demographic" may explain why the show still struggles for viewers. If the Law & Order franchises depend upon "ripped from the headlines" plots, Mad TV is "ripped from the tabloids" (frequently really old ones we keep waiting for a joke about Cher's breast lift in the seventies to turn up). Whether it's the Kino Lady or the Nice and Pretty Nails woman, the characters (the few) that have gotten positive word of mouth for the show have not been celeb parodies.

If the performers are capable of creating real characters, someone's stopping them. Which goes to the issue of writing. Having sat through at least six episodes as we've done our reviews, we think every writer should be fired. (Performers who write or help write their own bits can be retained but they need strong assistance.) Mad TV plays like it's written by guys who went to school each Monday and ripped off Belushi or Radner, "dazzled" their peers with their "impressions." (Think Marshall on Square Pegs.) They've learned to copy what other people do to be funny, they just haven't ever grasped what actually made it funny. Which is why Mad TV falls flat repeatedly.

After all these years (ten, in fact), that the show still can't pull it together screams of the need for new writers. When Tina Fey was promoted to head writer as Saturday Night Live, the show actually became funny again. (Helped out back the fact that a lot of performers attempting to steal from Belushi, Myers, et al left around the same time.) When hiring writers, here's a tip: anyone who pitches, "I've got this great idea about ____ and how ___ they are" doesn't get a callback if the skit's "humor" dervies from the fact that we're seeing a parody of some famous or semi-famous celebrity. Can the writers create funny, original characters? If they can, they can also do any celeb parody that might be needed. But if all they can do are these celeb parodies, they're not able to find any humor in their own world.

The sitcom isn't dying. It's fallen on hard times, true. It's been through them before. But one of the things hurting comedy the most these days is the fact that people aren't relating to it. There's no, "Something like that happened to me once!" Instead, the "recognition" derives from the fact that you saw it somewhere else before, on another show. As audiences are forced to sit through yet another carbon copy of a joke that got a laugh somewhere else, they're less and less amused. Humor is by its nature observational. Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin and other comic greats get that. The people who grew up stealing catch phrases and amusing other kids but never added anything original don't rate the term "class clown." They're class copycats. And they're copycat humor is like a photo copy of a photo copy of a . . . With each copy, it gets less and less sharp and less and less focused.

Mad TV needs to stop trying to build it's laughs on others and start creating a few of their own. (And Rebecca would never forgive us if we didn't add her plea that Ike Barinholtz perfom every skit in a pair of BVDs. We believe white BVDs are Rebecca's preference, but we could be wrong.)

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