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Parody is chief ingredient in recipe for Fox's "Mad TV'

Published Sep. 28, 2005

The show, considered an alternative to Saturday Night Live, is entering its sixth season.

When comic actor Will Sasso does something as outrageous as dressing up like Liza Minnelli for a sketch on Mad TV (11 p.m. Saturdays on Fox), two thoughts enter his mind.

The first: "Oh, my gosh. I can't believe I get paid for doing this."

And the second? "This wig itches."

Now entering its sixth season, Mad TV, Sasso says, has proved itself to critics and the audience. He says it doesn't get the respect it deserves from the network.

"We're kind of the red-headed stepchild. At any kind of Fox function, you'll see Mad TV at the kiddy table in the back, next to the buffet. We're a late-night sketch show, and there is more money in prime time.

"It's a great show. A fun show. So, I don't care about the place where we sit at functions."

Almost from the beginning, Mad TV has become a top alternative to watching Saturday Night Live. Both are topical sketch shows, but mainstay Nicole Sullivan says the shows have a lot that set them apart.

"We have two totally different audiences," she says. "People usually don't watch both. They either watch one or the other.

"We do parody very well, better than they do. But I think they do political satire really well, maybe better than we do."

While Saturday Night Live has created characters that have become pop icons _ from The Church Lady to Mr. Peepers the Monkey Boy _ Mad TV is best known for the icons it loves to laugh at.

"We make fun of the things that people laugh at in their living rooms," Sullivan says. "People love making fun of things. It's really that basic."

Through the years, Sullivan has mocked such sensations as Drew Barrymore (in a prison sketch in which her cellmates are Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston) and Britney Spears (as a guest on Politically Incorrect who catches President Bill Clinton's wandering eye).

With Sasso, the targets are less obvious.

"It wasn't my idea to do Kenny Rogers. It was one of our (former) writers, Blaine Capatch," says Sasso.

"He had this idea for a Kenny Rogers Roasters spoof. (The idea) was just sitting in a pile of papers, and I saw it one day. . . . So I told them I wanted to do it. As often happens when I do something on the show more than two or three times, I got bored, so I turned (the character) into a maniacal drunk."

Of Minnelli: "I heard secondhand that she enjoyed my impression of her. It was one of the first things I did when I got here. Go figure. Whatever. You guys think it's funny."

Sullivan says she has never heard from a celebrity about an impression, but "I've gotten looks. People pretend to be good-natured about it. Now what are they saying behind my back? Who knows?"

Parody is handled differently by Mad TV actors, too. Sometimes, they turn the parody on themselves. After Sasso lost 200 pounds, he devised a sketch in which he could no longer be Mad TV's token "fat funny guy" a la Chris Farley or John Belushi.

"It was a statement I wanted to make," Sasso says. "I've never done a role because I was supposed to be the overweight guy."

Mad TV even turned a popular candy bar commercial into a statement about racial injustice.

In the new season, Mad TV will spoof the HBO prison drama Oz but not Survivor _ or at least not very much.

"Some things," Sasso says, "tend to parody themselves, and we don't need to do it very much. Survivor is like that."

"We do two different kinds of parodies," Sullivan says. "One is what we do good-naturedly, like making fun of a show like ER. We'd never really make fun of ER because ER is brilliant.

"Then there are things we think are brilliant. We make fun of John and Patsy Ramsey, but not in a lighthearted way. There are dumb actors that we make fun of. And I have a lot of friends in this city, so I won't do anyone I know.

"I won't be willing to lose a friendship over a spoof."

Sasso isn't worried that the show will lose its flavor or run out of targets.

"So long as there is a world to parody, we will have ideas. Sketch comes from everyday life. You can see someone on the street, and it can turn into a five-minute sketch," he says.

"Really, our comedy can be found all around you, every day."