By Mark Sachs
Times Staff Writer
October 19, 2006
That's right, not New York, and not Saturday night, although the comedy troupe performing onstage hails from a long-running late-night sketch show airing on Saturdays. The scene is the Improv Olympic West nightclub, and the cast is from "MADtv," which just kicked off its 12th season on Fox. Between taping new episodes, the cast has committed to spending its foreseeable Tuesdays at the cozy Hollywood Boulevard venue working up new material via improv sketches and scenes in front of an audience.
Given that many actors can scarcely stand sharing a soundstage with their series costars during their day jobs, seeing the "MADtv" contingent cheerfully taking on this open-ended weeknight gig seems a tad unusual, to say the least.
"We want to raise the bar for the show, and this is where characters are really developed," says Michael McDonald, now in his cast-high ninth season. "Unlike sitting in a room and trying to come up with something and then feeling trepidation about whether it's going to work, here you get immediate feedback. We're pretty much all trained in improv, and so it's like a Ouija board, with all our hands on the table and no one quite knows where it's going to go."
"It's fun for us, but it also has its benefits for the show," adds cast mate Nicole Parker. "And it's hard to just sit at home and try to come up with stuff."
Several members of the cast have trained previously with IO West director Charna Halpern, who started the L.A. branch in 1997 after opening the original club in Chicago 25 years ago across from Wrigley Field.
"The cast approached me and said they would love to come here and work on some things," Halpern said. "It builds camaraderie, it builds trust and it builds friendship. The group works so much better after doing something like this. And I love having IO alumni come back, like Arden Myrin, she came to me in college and I used to take her home after classes and let her stay at my house. And Ike Barinholtz, he was the IO bad boy, always playing tricks on me. I wanted to kill him. And Jordan Peele, I pulled him out of my class and put him right on stage. He was ready. Keegan-Michael Key was from Second City, but he would come over anyway.
"The club is their living room, and they're welcome to stay as long as they want."
Amid all the good vibes, however, lies the thinnest layer of resentment from some cast members who feel the show's producers could demonstrate more support for their efforts with promotion and billing. The IO show can't call it "MADtv" even though the full cast is in attendance, including Frank Caeti, Crista Flanagan, Nicole Randall Johnson and Bobby Lee. Instead, the improv session is billed as featuring "the cast of 'MADtv.' "
"I can't imagine any other show in which the actors are willing to do basically free publicity and why the producers won't embrace it," McDonald says. "It's almost as if the leadership doesn't know what to do with us unless we're flying under the radar."
That "under the radar" tag and the show's relatively low pop-culture profile in comparison with fellow Saturday-night denizen "SNL" dogs "MADtv" even after all these years, a fact acknowledged by executive producer David Salzman.
"We're the quietest hit in show business," he says in a phone interview, "and there are several reasons for that. "One is that I'm the opposite of a publicity hound....['SNL' producer] Lorne Michaels is a friend, but Lorne likes the limelight. So part of the fault — if there's a fault — lies in my own lap. The second thing is that they were a groundbreaking show back in 1975 and they were the Time magazine of their category, and no matter what Newsweek does, it's still not Time magazine.
"But in almost 19 years of business," Salzman added, "Fox has had one success in late night to this point, and it's us. We're literally an oasis. NBC's strongest part has arguably always been late night, and they brilliantly cross-promote everything, including 'SNL.' They've always been the late-night leader. Fox isn't even in that business."
Salzman said the different structure of the two programs also is a factor, with "SNL" using its top-tier guest hosts far more prominently on the show than "MADtv." Those hosts and their high-profile projects have big promotional machines behind them, and that helps take "SNL" along for the ride.
As for the "MADtv" billing at the Improv Olympic, Salzman said it's purely a legal issue.
"Just calling it 'MADtv' would give the impression that you're seeing the TV show live, for which we don't charge," he said. "That's misleading, because they're kind of workshopping stuff. So what we said was that you can introduce them as the cast of 'MADtv,' but in terms of advertising and selling tickets to it, if you do that and call it 'MADtv,' here's the number of the Warner Bros. legal department."
The TV show got its title as a nod to Mad magazine, and it occasionally even featured elements of the satiric monthly, including animated "Spy vs. Spy" segments. But Salzman, who has been involved with "MADtv" from the beginning, said the show went its own way beginning in its third season. Since then, the hourlong program has siphoned off a younger, more urban audience from "SNL," yet has failed to generate a true breakout character, which may be another source of frustration for the ever-evolving cast.
As McDonald says when asked if the "SNL" cast would book an improv engagement like "MADtv": "No, they're too busy making movies."
Salzman, who points to McDonald's "Stuart" character as the show's most popular, insists that when it comes to sheer ability, his show's cast compares favorably to "SNL's."
"They're incredibly in-demand people," he said. "Will Ferrell and Tina Fey will tell you that Michael McDonald is as talented as anyone around, and Nicole has been appearing on Broadway with Martin Short, and he calls her the most talented comedian he's ever worked with."
Key, a fourth-season performer who also hosts "The All New Planet's Funniest Animals" on the Animal Planet channel, advises not to take the occasional grumbling of the cast too seriously.
"Yes, as actors sometimes we get huffy and up in arms, but that's just kinda part of being in show business," he says. "But we genuinely enjoy each other. We hang out together, we have dinner parties, and after we come off the stage with the improv show, everyone's eyes are twinkling and everybody's excited.
"I'll be here as long as they want to employ me."
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