Yesterday, Comedy Central announced its cancellation of Sports Show with Norm Macdonald. Although I’m not a sports fan, I do like Norm and found his show clever and entertaining, a lot more so than most of the Comedy Central 10 pm hour place fillers. The former Weekend Update anchor’s offbeat delivery, bits like “What The H?”, and palpable enjoyment of hosting his own show made it one to look forward to each week.
And Comedy Central canceled it.
But this was not the first time Comedy Central canceled a show before it’s time. (Not including The Curious Case of Chappelle’s Show.) Let’s take a look back at some of the best shows it took off the air.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1996; on Sci-Fi Channel from 1997-1999)
Before South Park (which is probably the best show ever aired by the station, has been one of television’s strongest shows for over a decade straight, and is the definitive show of the last decade- that’s right The Daily Show fans), there was the Satellite of Love. Comedy Central’s first real cult hit started its life on a Minneapolis public access station before moving to basic cable during its second season.
Gizmonic Institute mad scientists Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and his lackey TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff, though the original second was Dr. Larry Erhardt (played by not-Simpsons-connected Josh Weinstein)) send janitor Joel Robinson (show creator Joel Hodgson) into space and force him to watch terrible movies as part of an experiment. Robinson responds by creating robots Tom Servo (voiced by Weinstein in first season, by Kevin Murphy for the subsequent nine), Crow T. Robot (voiced originally by Beaulieu, then by Bill Corbett during the Sci-Fi years), the “female” Gypsy (Weinstein, Jim Mallon, and Patrick Brantseg), Magic Voice, and Cambot,
Crow and Tom Servo joined Joel (and later Mike Nelson) in the theater where they made fun of primarily B-science fiction movies but also branched into “teensploitation” films and occasional action movies. Sandy Frank’s Godzilla and Gamera, Steve Reeves Hercules, Harold P. Warren’s Manos: The Hands Of Fate were some of the show’s most renowned fodder. Joel/Mike and the Bots also performed skits around every half hour and mocked the occasional short before the film, which led for some of the series funniest moments.
One of MST3K‘s greatest impacts was introducing the term “MST” (a verb) into the national lexicon, meaning to make snarky comments about a movie/TV show and, apparently, fan fiction. It’s even on urbandictionary.com.
The show is also unique for losing its star (Hodgson) and replacing him in the middle of season 5 with the more-than-comparable second host (head writer Michael J. Nelson). Although Joel v. Mike debates raged across the vast lands of the Internet, Nelson found himself as lead for a number of classic episodes.
After a truncated final season on Comedy Central, MST3K moved to the Sci-Fi Channel where it quickly became apparently the new station didn’t completely understand the show by instituting rules for no shorts (only one short appeared during the three year run) and decreeing only Sci-fi/Horror movies. However, thankfully, this rule was eventually abandoned.
Although Sci-Fi era villains Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), Dr. Bobo (Murphy), and Observer (Corbett) never rose to the excellence as Dr. F. and TV’s Frank, Sci-Fi did air some episodes that ranked with the best of Comedy Central’s offerings including Girl With Gold Boots, Puma Man (he flies like a moron), and Hobgoblins.
Today, the stars of the show belong to competing movie mocking organizations that both perform live shows and feature available-for-download “episodes.” Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff, Weinstein, and Pehl lead Cinematic Titanic (www.cinematictitanic.com), which silhouettes the five stars in front of B-films. Rifftrax (www.rifftrax.com) features the Sci-Fi trio of Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett insulting shorts and modern films. You’ll never watch Twilight without thinking “I’m Harpo.”
Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn (2003-2004)
Norm MacDonald’s Weekend Update successor, co-host of MTV’s Remote Control, almost Scott Evil, and Broadway star Colin Quinn received the post-The Daily Show slot with Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn before Stephen Colbert developed his empire. A half-hour program, Tough Crowd featured a panel of four comedians discussing the current issues of the day. Unlike Comedy Central’s earlier current events panel show, Politically Incorrect, Quinn populated his line-up exclusively with comedy professionals, the vast, vast majority of whom were stand-up comedians. Not “arena” stars (although people like Jerry Seinfeld (who later directed Quinn’s one-man show Long Story Short), Chris Rock, and non-stand up Will Ferrell did appear), but New York staples and headliners like the late Greg Giraldo, Jim Norton, Nick DiPaolo, and Patrice O’Neal.
Although the show ran for two years, its absence still disappoints, as the show offered something different to the network. Yes, the series talked about the news like its lead-in, but not through snarkiness and well-crafted jokes. Instead, the often-hilarious commentary derived from repartee. Additionally, the show did not merely offer insight into the comedy mind, but insight into the underappreciated stand-up comedian’s mind. Tough Crowd might have appeared unpolished, but that was the point. It wasn’t about hitting the punchline and getting out talking points, but giving us a brief glimpse at the back room of the Comedy Cellar.
Founding members of former MTV sketch comedy troupe The State, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain started Stella as a combination of live comedy show and internet shorts. The Wain/Showalter combination was also responsible for modern cult comedy classic Wet Hot American Summer. (NOTE: Previous The State members, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, also starred in and created another popular Comedy Central program, Reno 911!).
Stella featured Showalter, Black, and Wain as ridiculously close, suit-wearing roommates in a New York City apartment who go on crazy, nonsensical adventures (such as buying illegal mustaches, plotting murders, or joining an orgy) and featured recognizable stars such as Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, and Edward Norton. Employing the absurdist style of comedy present in the 2001 summer camp film, Stella adapted several typical comedy tropes to their unique sensibilities to create an experience unlike any other on the channel.
Unfortunately, the show only lasted 10 episodes before being replaced by discount-Chappelle’s Show Mind of Mencia, which somehow lasted for four seasons.
Showalter and Black later returned to Comedy Central with the enjoyable Michael & Michael Have Issues, a show about them filming the show. This, again, was unjustly canceled after one season.
David Wain returned to television in 2010 as a producer and writer for Rob Corddry’s Children’s Hospital, currently airing its third season on adult swim (Thursday at midnight, well Fridays at midnight if you get technical). Of all shows on the air right now, Children’s Hospital (co-starring fellow The State alum Ken Marino) comes the closest to the sensibilities that made Stella so memorable.
TV Funhouse (2000-2001)
Let’s face it. Every season of Saturday Night Live has sucked. When you’re watching it live, it’s the worst season the show has ever produced. Nevertheless, the Will Ferrell years probably were the worst since the mid-80s. Sure, it gave us Will Ferrell and Celebrity Jeopardy…but not much else. The Spartans, Mary Katherine Gallagher, the Roxbury guys- it was a trying time for the show. At the very least, the cast of recent seasons seem to know how to work together, something that era never managed to achieve.
But the period also gave us one of the greatest things ever on the long running sketch comedy series: Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse. Bizarre, dark, and hysterical, these animated shorts skewered topics with a precision and humor the rest of the show could never even try to match. The infamous and banned Conspiracy Theory Rock!
the Disney Vault,
and Christmas Time For The Jews,
along with the recurring The Ambiguously Gay Duo and The X-Presidents, represent just some of the terrific bits developed by the ex-head writer of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the man behind and inside Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.
In 2000, Comedy Central gave Robert Smigel his own show: TV Funhouse. A Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-type series, the half-hour TV Funhouse featured the adventures of host Doug Dale and his Anipals as they fought against testing cosmetics on animals, traveled to Mexico and Las Vegas, became addicted to Christmas cheer (obtained by turning spinal fluid into powder), and other zaniness. The show was punctuated by animated segments in the style of educational shorts, old cartoons leeching off of pre-existing properties (e.g. Black Sabbath), commercials (e.g. JoKamel, which merged cigarette spokesperson Joe Camel and Pokémon), super heroes (e.g. Wonderman, who uses his secret identity to get laid), and other standards in the appropriate visual style.
Comedy Central canceled the show after one season, but Smigel admitted the difficulty in producing the series and how every episode went over budget. Nevertheless, TV Funhouse was one of the best and smartest shows ever put on tiny C inside larger reverse C.
TV Funhouse recently made a long awaited return to Saturday Night Live with a live action version of The Ambiguously Gay Duo starring Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon as Ace and Gary.
Another recurring taped bit from SNL around this time was Bear City. Although it lacks the recognition it deserves, the T. Sean Shannon-created segment was excellent .
That’s My Bush! (2001)
The second television series from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone only earned one season from Comedy Central. Known for their hard hitting satire, Parker and Stone’s That’s My Bush! was always meant to be a parody of typical, laugh-track sitcoms, no matter the result of the 2000 Presidential Election.
That’s My Bush! was a Typical Man show (see the promos for Tim Allen’s hideous looking Last Man Standing to get an idea), but the Typical Man in this case was The President. The show brilliantly combined hot button issues such as abortion (completed with survived aborted baby), gun control, and the war on drugs with the most overused conventions in television, right down to two fighting characters getting locked in a tiny room together.
While running the country, Bush had to deal with such characters as an exasperated Karl Rove (the ever-present Kurt Fuller, currently in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris); wacky, Jefferson D’Arcy-esque neighbor, Larry O’Shea (John D’Aquino); and a sexy-ditzy secretary, Princess Stevenson (Kristen Miller). They show never gave Bush (played by Timothy Bottoms) the blasting many viewers expected or hoped for, instead portraying him as a decent albeit goofy man just struggling to make it through the day.
The show aired from April to May in 2001. Then came September.
Well that’s a dark place to end it.
On the bright side, Futurama returns this Thursday.
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