For fourteen years, FOX ran a show opposite Saturday Night Live called Mad TV. I imagine the pitch was, “What if we made Saturday Night Live, but cheaper?”
“And with more screaming?”
I can speak with some authority on the subject. When I was 20, I had the crazy luck of being hired on Mad TV.
I was given the job of video researcher. I’d never done it before, but I had interned at The Onion, which made me sound smarter than I was. I didn’t tell them my internship involved running around New York City, hot gluing The Onion’s logo to hundreds of newspaper boxes.
As video researcher, it was my job to get the writers the footage they needed to parody things. So my desk sat in the middle of a massive VHS tape archive. Imagine the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but filled with tapes marked, “I’ve Fallen And I Can’t Get Up” or “Bob Barker Drunk On Circus Of The Stars.”
We even had a tape of the forgotten NBC sitcom Inside Schwartz, about a white guy haunted by the ghosts of sports stars. It’s on YouTube! You know, the thing that made my job obsolete.
Although I worked way too hard for zero money, sometimes 24 hours in a row before a taping…I still look back on it as a weird wonderland. The job came with free sandwiches, unlimited sodas, and the cheapest legally allowed health insurance. Also: we got overtime after hour sixteen.
I’d made it!
I didn’t like the show, but it was easy to avoid, because no-one on staff watched it either. Everyone, from the PAs to the EPs, spent their time applying for other, better jobs.
Not me. Every other Thursday, the crew was given tri-tip steak for lunch. This was enough to keep me around for four solid years.
The offices of Mad TV came alive after 7 PM, when the checked out, poorly paid staff went home. After the lights went out, I’d invite my equally-poor comedian friends over to the studio lot to fuck around.
We’d get really high (or rather I’d get high, and they wouldn’t judge me), then race around the lot in golf carts. We’d race past the sets of That’s So Raven or Mind of Mencia, mouths brimming with free sandwich meat, and feel way more important than we were.
Thursday was my favorite night to have friends over, because of the legendary Thursday night television lineup in the fall of 2006. I’m talking, of course, about Cavemen, Carpoolers and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
We took particular interest in Studio 60, because it was a show about SNL. So was Mad TV. Both shows were created in the shadow of something cooler than they ever could be.
Think about it: we were sitting in the studio of a shitty show, watching an even shittier show, which somehow had an even SHITTIER show inside of it!
I think the loudest we ever laughed as a group of friends was when we heard this now classic line from Studio 60:
“Since when did ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ become a distinction we care about in the entertainment industry?”
“Since the first plane made a left turn and gunned it’s engines into the north tower, kitten.”
Yikes, right? It doesn’t take a genius to know that’s horrible writing. What made it better was that next to the TV was a giant poster of this:
And that’s kinda where Mad TV sat. Studio 60 had this insanely high minded, Dionysian idea of what comedy was. SNL was actually important. And Mad TV was right in the middle—a show that nobody seemed to care about, but fuck it, at least it was crazy.
I always felt bad for Mad TV. It had one of the most talented crews in all of television, but that crew was working in a garbage factory. Writers and actors had great ideas that would regularly be rejected and destroyed by the world’s worst showrunner, a guy whose name I won’t mention, because fuck him.
We had writers and actors who later went onto win Emmys and Peabodys on 30 Rock or Key & Peele. Everyone’s favorite indie movie this summer, Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, has both a Mad TV star and writer right in the poster. Even the amazing Difficult People is showrun by Scott King, a guy who I imagine was fired by our showrunner for not being shitty enough.
And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the crew. The hair stylists, wardrobe artists and set designers alone had over a dozen Emmys between them. One of them worked on SNL in the ‘80s, and regaled me with how he and Chris Farley came up with motivational speaker Matt Foley’s disgustingly perfect hairdo.
It was weird to work at place that felt kinda…pointless. Despite all of the talent, and all of the experience, none of it mattered. We worked on a show that was a cheaper copy of another show, run by an idiot, where you got to watch amazing comedians and writers trade a steady paycheck for years of their lives.
But hey, at least it had free sandwiches!
Asterios Kokkinos is a comedian in Los Angeles and a real New Yorker.