After watching MADtv and TALKSHOW with Spike Feresten (don't ask me about the capitalization of entire words — that seems to be a thing with both shows) I'm realizing that the current climate of sketch comedy is the same outside the SNL umbrella as inside it.
MADtv, for all intents and purposes, has been the only stable network late-night alternative to Saturday Night Live in SNL's 32-season existence. I don't understand the one-or-the-other dichotomy between the two shows at all – both shows can be funny at the same time, and they can also be at their worst simultaneously.
MADtv has been a perennial second cousin to SNL, but there aren't that many differences between the two shows. They both draw from the same talent pools (Upright Citizens Brigade, Groundlings et al.) and possess the same overall show structure. SNL has regular musical guests, while MADtv's are optional. Sometimes both shows have cartoon features. This season has seen appearances by Martin Short on both shows. It's the MAD vs. Cracked argument translated to television, essentially, except that in the sketch comedy field MADtv is seen as the ripoff.
How does MADtv stack up on its own merits these days, then? Well, the show isn't really that different than I remember it from many years ago. It still relies on shock humour, its longtime stock in trade, but it doesn't seem to be relying as much on it as I feel it has since the late 1990s.
For instance, a sketch about Dane Cook nails his act – his mannerisms, his rushed and stammered delivery, the image he presents as a comedian. Not finding Dane Cook funny, I thought Ike Barinholtz's parody was spot-on. Another sketch featuring Bobby Lee as one of the stars of Korean soap Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive was credible as a bit of faux-Asian surrealism, especially when characters were holding pinwheels for some undisclosed reason.
Martin Short as a sex-obsessed version of himself reminded me of Short's versatility at SCTV. I found it surprising since I didn't expect this from Short, and Nicole Parker's reactions to his advances were very good. It's nice to see Martin Short not playing to sketch comedy favouritism, and his segment was much better than I figured it would be.
Of course, MADtv had its share of missed sketches. Michael McDonald's turn as a Samoan whose genetic structure is so pure that his mouth is an antiseptic was a lame excuse to have McDonald lick people and breathe on things. The new recurring feature Weekly News with Toby felt like a bad Adult Swim series jammed with topicality. A Deal or No Deal sketch featuring superstitious black contestants started out okay, but the superstitious rituals felt too dragged-out and made the sketch longer than it should have been.
Still, these are just nitpicks. For a show I personally stopped following regularly a long time ago, MADtv was suprisingly enjoyable for me. The current cast seems capable and tight-knit. John Cena made for a decent special guest, even if the requisite parody of The Marine didn't feature any explosions or John Triton FU-ing Robert Patrick. It's the first time I've enjoyed a MADtv episode in a while and it's at least intrigued me enough to see another one. I didn't expect this from MADtv, but there still seems to be life in it. I'm placated.
As for TALKSHOW with Spike Feresten, Jerry Seinfeld was the show. While TALKSHOW isn't horrible, it doesn't seem like much of anything. Feresten is amiable enough – his gimmick is that he's uncomfortable doing a talk show, but he doesn't seem too nervous and his writers have written for Late Night with David Letterman and The Larry Sanders Show. They have the pedigree. TALKSHOW is good for what it is, but it ultimately feels like twenty-odd minutes.
Seinfeld makes for a good interview (he's promoting a film, natch) and his segment was far and away the highlight of the show. His jabs at his former writer – well, let's just say that "Tina Fey wannabe" – make me wonder what he enjoys more, being on TALKSHOW to help support Feresten or making fun of the guy. Seinfeld seemed to enjoy talking to Feresten and he's still strong comedically.
As for the rest of the show, apart from a running gag featuring Nannies Deb and Stella from Nanny 911 in cross-promotional graphic form and a fake commercial from Discrimi-Nav (with Preju-Display) there doesn't seem to be anything to TALKSHOW. It's not dissimilar to other talk shows, and that might be TALKSHOW's greatest weakness. Introducing the segment "Comedy For Stoners" seems pointless – it's a clear concept and would be treated as a throwaway gag on a David Letterman or Conan O'Brien-type show. Also, a "people who watch Saturday late-night television are on drugs" joke? That joke seems cribbed from 1976.
I think TALKSHOW could survive, since it is in its first year and has a relatively strong lead-in. I'll give it another shot, since Julia Louis-Dreyfus features in a future episode. TALKSHOW isn't exactly a throwback, but it feels oddly familiar. When's Garry Shandling going to guest?