If Shasta McNasty is memorable for anything other than having the worst title in the history of television, it’s that it headlined an era of sitcoms so bad that it forced the Baltimore Sun to ponder the format’s mortality, to despair at the thought of something called Shasta McNasty being “an end in itself.” This assessment was overwrought—the 1999-2000 season gave us Freaks And Geeks, Mission Hill, and Clerks: The Animated Series, as well as Malcolm In The Middle—but not overly so. This was also the season of forgotten curios like The Mike O’Malley Show, Battery Park, Sammy, Talk To Me, Then Came You, God, The Devil And Bob, and Work With Me, all of which were yanked by their respective networks after only a handful of episodes.
Shasta McNasty, on the other hand, was allowed by UPN to air its 22 episodes, despite having been hammered the hardest. Critics throughout the country, monocles mid-shatter, gnashed their teeth at the comedy: “Outlandishly bad,” “depressing,” “aggressively stupid and offensive.” The San Francisco Examiner likened it to “being punched really hard in the nose but not falling down,” while the New York Daily News said it was like watching a biology teacher electrocute dead frogs to stimulate their muscle contractions. One despondent critic called it a “dumbedy,” presumably before tossing their pencil in the air and shotgunning a Coors. Sitcoms rebounded, obviously, the seeds of their reinvention sprouting from the premiere of the BBC’s The Office a year later, but surely this low-stakes comedy about Venice Beach’s friskiest friends isn’t as bad as these pearl-clutching critics proclaimed.
Except that, rather miraculously, it is. Shasta McNasty is, to channel our inner Maude Flanders, reprehensible, a deeply cynical reflection of the 12-34 demographic it sought to court. Created by Jeff Eastin, the series tracks a trio of bad boys—Scott (Carmine Giovinazzo), Dennis (Jake Busey), and Randy (Dale Godboldo)—with eyes for little but long legs, fake boobs, and cold beers. The pilot opens with the dudes (who make up the hip-hop group the show is named after) filming a busty neighbor without her knowledge as she strips and sleeps with her boyfriend. The follow-up finds them relentlessly harassing Verne Troyer—Dennis, deranged in his hatred, nearly froths at the mouth while mocking the actor’s height—who enters their good graces only after he acquiesces to being used as a human bowling ball. In another episode, the boys’ search for girls with “no self-respect” leads them to an “eating disorders clinic” where they tell a room of anorexic women to “eat a cheeseburger!” Shasta McNasty is essentially what It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia would look like if it idolized its characters.
We could go on, but nobody needs a catalog of the offenses of a 20-year-old UPN sitcom. Besides, Shasta McNasty is more interesting as a Poochie-like scramble, an artistic identity crisis that somehow overestimated its audience’s desire for “eXtReMe” portraits of boys bein’ boys. It’s also representative of a network that seemed to exist in a constant state of reinvention. Throughout the ’90s, UPN scored modest hits with Moesha, In The House, and Malcolm & Eddie—Black-led shows popular with Black viewers—but floundered in its repeated attempts to cultivate white audiences. Scour the network’s trash and you’ll find it overflowing with failed comedies, from the dreadfully low-rated Reunited Head Over Heels, a comedy about a “video dating agency” that, according to E!, was considered the “worst” new show of the 1997-1998 season.
It was a prime opportunity, then, when UPN became the home of WWF SmackDown! in 1999, a year of ratings dominance and utter salaciousness for Vince McMahon’s juggernaut that lands smack dab in the middle of its famed “Attitude Era.” Any given episode of WWE programming at the time saw “Stone Cold” Steve Austin chugging beers after wins, women stripping down in “bra and panties” matches, and a cigar-chomping wrestler called The Godfather offering his stable of “hoes” to opponents as a bribe. Shasta McNasty—which, now that we think about it, sounds like the name of an Attitude Era wrestler—was created as a counterpart to Smackdown!, a way to inject the franchise’s ribaldry into the network.
“It’s really a guy thing for us,” Adam Ware, UPN’s then-COO, told the New York Post. “We really felt that [males] 11 and up were underserved and there were two shows that really hit right down the middle of that pipeline—one was wrestling and the other was this show.”
A marketing blitz on SmackDown!, which also served as a a lead-in to its sneak preview, helped the Shasta premiere score a staggering 4.5 million viewers. But ratings swiftly took a nosedive once the show moved to its regularly scheduled timeslot, leading to a tumultuous run that saw the offensiveness dialed down and the visual palette reimagined. Before long, the McNasty was dropped from the show’s name, the timeslots began changing, and a will-they/won’t-they romance sprung up between Scott and a neighbor played by Jolene Jenkins, one of the few female roles not cast with a supermodel/Playboy Playmate. Women were still demeaned and violated on a regular basis, but the characters were just a touch less sociopathic while doing so.
What’s so surprising about this sweaty attempt to reframe the show as a bawdier Friends is the confidence with which UPN debuted it. Only the smallest fraction of critics were granted early access, with the New York Post reporting that UPN “figured that newspaper reviews—favorable or (mostly) otherwise—would make no difference to the young male audience the network is targeting with the show.” In a saucy dig, UPN added that it didn’t think “those young males read newspaper TV reviews.”
Ware, meanwhile, sniffed at the bad buzz that had already begun circulating. “Critics are saying stuff that they said 10 years ago when Fox came along,” he said. “I mean if you remember all the commotion made about Al Bundy and Bart Simpson, it feels kind of the same.”
Busey, for all his spiky ’dos, did not evolve into the 21st century’s Bart Simpson, and Ware’s claim that UPN is “very in touch with this 12-34 year-old guy” was undercut not only by the show’s bad ratings, but by the swiftness with which the network retooled it. After premiering in October of 1999, Shasta went on hiatus two months later, returning in January with its new shorter name and friendlier package. But there were signs that the show struggled with its general thrust from the get-go: Shasta, after all, introduced itself as a story about the eponymous hip-hop trio trying to reignite after their record contract goes belly-up—UPN marketed it as “The Monkees meets the Beastie Boys”—but the group’s musical ambitions factor into roughly three of its 22 episodes, including the premiere and the finale. What’s in between is comically formless, as if someone who’s only seen MTV’s Next and the music videos of McG tried to turn a Spencer’s Gifts into a TV show. It’s doubtful the series would’ve been better had it committed to exploring the trials and tribulations of a fledgling hip-hop act, but it would have at least had a peg.
You can see the shades of the show it wanted to be in the pilot (penned by Eastin) during which an ambulance ride is shot like a music video with original lyrics about their misadventures. Elsewhere, a character breaks the fourth wall like Zack Morris, thought bubbles pop from Busey’s spiky dome, and Giovinazzo gets bit in the dick by a parrot that keeps calling him a “jagoff.”
None of it is funny or all that original, but Dennis Dugan—the Happy Gilmore director who’s also helmed some of Adam Sandler’s most dire latter-day efforts—at least has a vision. But, like Sun-In from a growing head of hair, these splashes of personality fade until Shasta McNasty evolves from obnoxious and “in your face” to wilted and mediocre. The meta bits remain, though mostly to acknowledge either the critical response or the numerous retools. “They don’t call us ‘Shasta McNice,’” Randy cockily says in an early episode. A rejoinder is offered in the show’s back half: “We’re a little less ‘McNasty’ now.” It’s almost sad. Once upon a time, the “McNasty” was the point.
In a 2006 interview, Dilbert creator Scott Adams blamed the failure of UPN’s Dilbert animated series on Shasta McNasty, which he called “the worst TV show ever made.” He said, “On TV, your viewership is 75% determined by how many people watched the show before yours. That killed us.” He’s since changed his tune, saying that UPN canceled the show because he’s white—yeah, he’s a Trump guy now—but Shasta McNasty remains a punchline, if for no other reason than its awful name. In a 2007 A.V. Club interview with Mary Lynn Rajskub (who was recast after the pilot), the actor recalls filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson razzing her over the name alone: “He was like, ‘Shasta McNasty, Mary Lynn? Really?’”
Normally, we wouldn’t encourage you to judge a show based on its title, but, in this instance, trust Paul Thomas Anderson. Shasta McNasty is, for lack of a better word, McNasty.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe.