Like practically every cultural property made within the last 25 years or so, MadTV has risen from the dead: On Tuesday night, the long-running sketch comedy show returned to kick off a limited eight-episode primetime run, nearly a decade after it first went off the air. A new crop of relative comic unknowns are leading the pack, with original cast members, including Nicole Sullivan and Will Sasso, returning to make cameos as their signature characters. Instead of airing on its original network, Fox, its revival is on the CW.
Aside from giving birth to the far superior Key & Peele (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key both started as MadTV cast members), the show is probably best remembered as a scrappy, less sophisticated cousin of SNL. Like its predecessor In Living Color, which ran from 1990 to 1994, MadTV specialized in boisterously broad and scathing humor, trafficking unabashedly in racial, gendered, and sexual stereotypes. This identity didn’t make it a critics’ darling, but it was popular with audiences for some time. (Yes, the show was nominated for 35 Emmys, but almost all of them were for technical awards, like hair and makeup.) In 2016, many—most?—of these caricatures don’t hold up well, if they ever did to begin with. And so the biggest question surrounding this resurrection—besides “Why?” and “Wait, did this show really stay on the air for 14 seasons?”—was this: Will the new MadTV adjust to the current cultural climate and be a little less … politically incorrect in its new incarnation?
The answer, apparently, is yes. The premiere, which included a recurring Game of Thrones parody and, of course, lots of Trump satire, was thoroughly inoffensive. Safe, even. A Dora the Explorer sketch—yup, 16 years after the kids’ show first premiered, there’s a Dora the Explorer sketch—makes jokes about gentrification and calls out Mexican stereotypes; it’s a far cry from the extremely popular but problematic fast food worker Bon Qui Qui and chola duo Melina and Lida of the show’s old days. Elsewhere in a slightly more inspired sketch, a play on Elizabeth Warren’s penchant for ruthlessly going toe to toe with Trump finds the senator dropping disses at a rally as if she’s in a rap battle, much to the excessive delight of one black audience member in particular. When Hillary Clinton awkwardly tries to follow that performance up with a line about hot sauce in her bag, the black audience member isn’t having it: “That is offensive! Don’t pander to me!”
MadTV seems to have progressed in the sense that the minority characters are no longer the butt of the joke because of their minority status. In the past, such lowbrow humor was the show’s bread and butter: There was Ms. Swan, played by white comedian Alex Borstein, in what was essentially “yellowface”—an Asian woman with a thick accent whose foreignness is the gag. In one sketch set at Starbucks, Ms. Swan goes back and forth with the barista about her order, only to have a pissed off customer behind her finally yell, “Why are you so stupid? Just order!” Another recurring Asian character, Bae Sung—this time played by an actual Asian actor, Bobby Lee—is similarly held up as an infantile adult who frustrates all of the “normal” Americans around him; he’s an “interpreter” who appears to not know any of the languages he claims to speak. In the punch line of one of his sketches, a character played by Ike Barinholtz comes in to save everyone from his stupidity by interpreting Bae Sung: “I’ve got a brother who’s an idiot, so I’m fluent in dumbass,” he quips.
Sketches like these abound in MadTV’s history, from a spoof of Spike Lee’s He Got Game that unrelentingly makes the prison-turns-men-gay joke to a skit in which two men pretend to be gay for years in order to sleep with women. But unlike Three’s Company, one of these guys makes it pretty clear that—wait for it—he’s not really pretending. It could so often be joke-writing at its laziest, but there was an audience for it at the time—just listen to the live studio audience let out a collective grossed-out groan-laugh when the two men kiss.
And yet even if the new version doesn’t rely on such sophomoric, out of touch humor anymore, that doesn’t mean it’s actually funny. The numerous parodies feel too late, the jokes predictable (why are people still trying to crack on Bill Clinton’s sexual promiscuity and Lena Dunham’s nudity?), the characters still mostly one-dimensional. It feels like a knockoff of a knockoff. Which is a shame, because for all of the original’s unfunny and offensive sketches, MadTV could also occasionally be very good and smart. See: the recurring character of Angela (Stephanie Weir), a teen whose obsessive impulse to expose prejudices in others via videotaped “social experiments”—“cool kids” don’t like fat people; all old people are racist—ultimately reveals her own prejudices in a sly, funny way. Or Nicole Randall Johnson’s particularly great impersonation of a ruthless male harasser in a movie theater, which places the ridicule squarely on the guy rather than the object of his unwanted affections. Such sketches proved that humor could be provocative without being mean, racist, sexist, or homophobic. The show didn’t often strike that more difficult balance between titillation, insight, and hilarity, but when it did, it struck gold. In its new, blander incarnation, it’s hard to imagine why MadTV needs to exist at all.