MADtv: Chelsea Davison on Creating Comedy and Characters

The CW’s revival of MADtv premieres this week and we talk sketch comedy, characters, and returning cast with Chelsea Davison.

We truly are living in an enlightened time for sketch comedy. Never before has the genre been more plentiful and accessible as classical and post-modern takes on the format get equal love. This boom, in some respects, has led to new platforms for sketch comedy, but it’s also seen certain classic series return, like in the case of MADtv. The original series ran for nearly 15 years on Fox, while introducing people to the likes of Will Sasso, Alex Borstein, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele. 

The CW ran a reunion special for the series last year, which proved to be so successful they chose to go all in by bringing the series back. CW’s MADtv, which features a new cast of eight comedians, will also feature several cast members from the original series as hosts. With the property making its return this week, I got to dig into the evolution of sketch comedy and the original series’ legacy with new cast member Chelsea Davison.

DEN OF GEEK: Were you a big sketch person before all of this? What’s your history with the format? 

CHELSEA DAVISON: Yes! I am such a huge sketch comedy fan. Growing up, SNL was kind of the big one for me, but MADtv was always part of that. I feel like I was one of many people that started off with MADtv and then when SNL was on, switch over to that. So in that sense Saturday nights were just a huge sketchfest. I suppose to go in order, in high school I got really into comedy and sketch and would watch a ton of stuff online. I was really into “Derrick Comedy,” “Olde English,” The Whitest Kids U’ Know… More recently I feel like I watch Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Netflix’s The Characters

Ad – content continues below

A lot of my favorite stuff though honestly isn’t even in sketch shows. There are a lot of sketches on non-sketch shows. I think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has some of the best sketches around. Like Rachel Bloom was just off making sketches on YouTube before all of this, but now they not only work as their own thing but they’ll also connect to the larger show and become even richer.

It can sometimes be difficult to tap into natural comedy, especially with the artifice of production all around you.

Well something that I’m excited about on MADtv is that we don’t have prompters or cue cards, so everything is off book. We’re actually talking to the other people. That’s something that always drives me crazy. Like there are certain hosts on SNL where it’s clear that they haven’t done a lot of sketch comedy—or even acting—if they’re a sports person or a musical guest. Sometimes you get people that just read the cards and that can so often be death to a sketch.

Do you know if the old MADtv operated that way as well? 

The old MADtv did, too. That was something that we weren’t sure of coming in because some of us are doing these character monologues that sometimes are like four or five pages long. We asked if there would be any sort of assistance and they were like, “Absolutely not. We don’t do that. We want it all to feel connected and have that connection between actors.” So also, being past that barrier of everyone just knowing their stuff sometimes makes it easier to do more grounded material because you have the ability to be more theatrical. 

MADtv happens to be an hour-long sketch show. Does that influence the runtime of sketches at all? 

Ad – content continues below

Well I think the battle is always “where can we cut?” but that sometimes means cutting jokes, which you never want to do either. At the same time, we just filmed an intro at our last live taping that we were told we might have to cut down, or just scrap it all completely, because it’s seven minutes long. And that’s a wash for an hour-long sketch show to throw seven minutes into a sketch. At the same time, if we were doing a half hour sketch show a seven-minute sketch wouldn’t even be a possibility.

Do you have a favorite sketch that you’ve written or one that you’re particularly proud of? 

I have a couple answers. One that I have a soft spot for is the first “Lena Dunham Sketch” that I had done because it was the first impression that I had ever done. I had never done characters or impressions before, just stand-up, but I got to do a show where I was doing an impression of a character, so I did it for that. I put it online and it got a lot of traction—Lena Dunham auditioning for Zero Dark Thirty—and that’s how I got my agent. So that sketch is significant in the sense that it kind of changed my life and my Lena Dunham will be in the first episode of MADtv so that’s also very exciting. 

Other than that, there’s one sketch character that I do. I won’t spoil it, but basically it’s one of my favorites and it gets really mixed reactions. So the fact that that’s going to be on MADtv is very vindicating for me because the people that don’t like it aren’t wrong, but it IS nice to be like enough people think it’s funny that they took the risk to put it in. So that’s very exciting, too. 

Speaking of characters and voices, you now have seven other cast members to think about. How has writing for them been?

Well it’s a little different here because we have a team of amazingly talented writers. We, the cast, pitch things like for ourselves, or as a group, to them. Then we work with the writers, they’ll take a stab at the sketch, and then maybe we’ll try and heighten it. That being said, the cast all brought in a lot of characters and ideas, but it is very collaborative with them. So I’m not going in with old sketches or just going off and writing new ones, it’s a pitch process through them.

Ad – content continues below

How are you guys going about the whole, “This is a revival of an old show” angle? 

The blend that we’re trying to focus on is making it all fresh for a new, younger audience that hasn’t seen the original MADtv, but then also doing stuff that caters to our lifelong viewers who miss the old cast, miss the old characters, and that’s why we’re bringing so many of them back for this new season. So it’s a lot about balancing that nostalgia and our fresh new voice and take.

You mentioned that some of the old cast is returning. How are they being incorporated into things?

So we’re just starting the process, but Will Sasso and Nicole Sullivan returned to be in the first episode. They’re in the whole episode, but are threaded throughout. So it’s a little like SNL, but unlike SNL there are sketches where they’re not in it at all. It’s not like they’re doing an opening monologue or anything. It’s much more like in the first episode they are our guests of honor and we let them shine, but we’re also establishing the new cast. So it is a bit of a delicate balancing act but I think that the show is doing a great job with it. So they’re coming back. Bobby Lee is coming back. We’ve got a bunch of other people too that are coming back but we can’t announce who they are yet. I’m very excited though. They’ve come in for table reads and it’s just been to not only see some of the classic characters, but be apart of them, too. 

If you could build your own sketch troupe out of any comedians, who would you pick and why? 

Oh boy… Some names… Dave Foley is always so, so funny. Will Sasso, I loved him on MADtv, but whenever I see him do anything, even like on Vine, he’s so energetic and creative. I would always want him on my team. Who else… Robin Williams if he was still alive. I’m sure he wouldn’t stick to the script, but if you have a wild card, he’s one of the best. I love Key and Peele because they have so much chemistry together that it’d be nice to just pluck them. The problem is that when I start thinking about the ladies that I want, it’s pretty much all of them and much harder to narrow down. Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri—that whole chunk of SNL. Obviously, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey. They are just these pockets of women that I wouldn’t know how to pick just one. I can’t take Kate McKinnon and not Cecily Strong. Everyone’s so good! 

Ad – content continues below

The revival of MADtv begins July 26th, at 9pm, on The CW.