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The main creative forces behind Mad TV, Fax Bahr and Adam Small, were writers on the sketch show In Living Color. Perhaps because Mad is free of the white Ivy League frat-boy image that has burdened the world of late-night network comedy--just last week John Pike, a late-night programming executive at cbs resigned over accusations that he had made racial slurs in a meeting with members of the comedy group the State--Mad TV has taken bigger risks tackling controversial racial issues. In a sketch that took a sharp knife to the culture of victimhood, Bryan Callen portrayed a slacker who felt beaten up by the world because he was one-eighth black. Callen, as white as Matthew Perry, unleashed a rabid tirade about the injustices he suffered because of his "appearance." More irreverent still was a send-up of Mad About You titled Mad About Jew, which imagined Louis Farrakhan married to Whoopi Goldberg, here a publicist for Comic Relief 15.

Not surprisingly, such spoofs of pop culture are a staple of Mad TV's lineup, and some of its filmed movie parodies have been especially clever. Gump Fiction set America's most beloved dumbbell in the world of Quentin Tarantino, and unlike so many famously unfunny SNL skits, it actually gained momentum as it went along: See Forrest dance awkwardly with an Uma Thurman look-alike; see him assassinate President John F. Kennedy.

Of course, Mad TV is not without its lapses. Though it has steadily improved since its unpromising early episodes, there are still sketches so heavy-handed in their attempt to appear politically incorrect that they are virtually unwatchable, such as one offensive and recurring bit in which Mary Scheer plays an old bimbo whose chain-smoking causes cancer in everyone around her.

But despite shortcomings, the presence of Mad TV has made the battle for late night livelier than anyone might have anticipated. Nearly each week Fox and NBC issue press releases pointing to a triumph in one ratings category or another, and Mad's impressive performance has shown that SNL's supremacy may not be tenable any longer. Night Stand, a syndicated faux talk show, has acquired a small but devoted following since it made its debut in late night last fall. In it Tim Stack (who describes Night Stand as "Must Find TV") assumes the role of indulgent talk-show host Dick Dietrick, a master of the lame double entendre. Fox, meanwhile, is covering its bases in case Mad TV loses its momentum. This spring it will air a variety show, to be produced by Roseanne, that will alternate with Mad. A second project, from screenwriter Steve Kerper, is, according to Lauren Corrao, a development executive at Fox, "a comedy show so original in its concept it cannot be described." (Hmmmm.) But save for UPN, which is considering, among other things, an adult game show or soap opera to go up against SNL, none of the other networks have immediate plans to challenge it. "It's a little amazing,'' notes UPN entertainment president Michael Sullivan, "that no one has really tried to counterprogram SNL all these years." Especially considering that the overall late-night weekend audience has been growing steadily.

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