MAD Magazine has long been a staple of snarky childhood life, introducing kids to the concept of satire and delighting them with absurd mockeries of popular dreck – the “Weird Al” Yankovic of print. They always referred to their staff as “The Usual Gang of Idiots,” but despite that, it’s still going strong today, although its voice might get too often lost in the glut of malarkey on the internet these days. At San Diego Comic-Con, I sat down with John Ficarra, Editor-in-Chief of MAD Magazine, for a lively conversation about MAD’s place is in this loud new world, and he made me guess their spoof names for Orange Is The New Black and 2 Broke Girls, and I went 1 for 2.
Crave Online: I’m a fan of MAD Magazine going way back, and I’m curious how MAD works in the internet age. It always used to be this cool, underground kind of thing for kids, but with so much stuff out there now…
John Ficarra, Editor-in-Chief: It’s hard. The death of innocence happens at a much earlier age these days.
Yeah. MAD used to be the one to kill it.
Yeah! (laughs) We wore that badge proudly. But I think there is still, for a certain percentage of kids when they get that first issue of MAD – I suspect you were one of those kids, because I was one of those kids – they say ‘oh my god, this thing exists? Where the hell was this all this time? Why wasn’t I given a handbook about this?’ The percentage is smaller, but I still think that kids get it. Even if their innocence has been lost at an earlier age, when they get MAD, there’s still something about it, especially from a print point of view. I think there’s something nice still about getting it in your hands. It’s your possession, it’s stashing it under your bed, it’s putting it in your backpack and trying not to get caught in school with it. So I think there’s still some rites of passages that continue on, despite authorities trying to kill it.
So is it generally a kid readership these days? What do you know about the demographics?
What do you think the average age is?
Well, I figure there’s a lot of nostalgia involved with parents sharing it with their kids as well as kids finding it on their own.
That’s exactly right. Average age is 24, median age is 19. We get the very smart 12-year-old kids, no question about it, and they read it maybe up until 16, they start discovering girls, they get into sports, they’re worried about getting into college, we lose them. But then we find that, when they get out of college, we get them back. Once we have them, at that point, it seems like we don’t lose them. Our mail, anecdotally, bears this out. We don’t have any real demographic surveys of recent times, but I suspect, just from the way the mail runs, that’s it.
So how usual or unusual is your gang of idiots at this point?
It’s very fun. We start each day sitting in my office trying to come up with something for the blog, Madmagazine.com, because we upload something new every day. So that, at times, can be so much fun and so hilarious, but at other times, when nobody has an idea, it can be ugly. (laughs) Once we get finished with that, then we’ll start working on the magazine.
What’s the publishing schedule?
Six times a year. Then we also do what’s called “bookizines” four times a year with Time Home Entertainment, so we’re on the newsstands ten times a year. Did I do that math right?
I’m incapable of correcting you.
(laughs) And of course, we also do the big books. We’ve got a big Don Martin book coming out this year. Next year, a big Frank Jacobs book coming out. We do special books with Barnes & Noble. They’re a great publishing partner. We have Planet Tad with Harper Collins coming out very soon, so there are always projects. Then we have a lot of things in the hopper that I can’t necessarily talk about right now, but I think over the next six months, you’re going to hear a lot of noise about MAD. Some projects going forth that are really nice.
So how was the connection with the most recent incarnation of MAD TV?
We’re both owned by the same company, Warner Bros. Animation did it. It’s ended now, sadly, because they did bring us a huge influx of new younger readers, because the program was younger. So I think, as those kids got a year or two older, it whetted their appetite for the kind of humor MAD does. That was a wonderful show. Sam Register, Peter Gerardi and Kevin Shinick, who were the execs and writer on the show, really understood MAD, took the gestalt of it, and made it their own with their own means that they had for animation. They were great guys to work with. I can’t say enough good things about them.
So how has the format of the magazine changed and how has it remained the same?
Well, the obvious things are cosmetically – we are on better paper, in color, and we take ads. Those are the easy things. I think the magazine continues to evolve because we reflect what’s going on in society. As society changes, so does MAD. Certainly the language is a lot coarser that it was back when you were probably reading it, and some of the imagery is. We’re way more political. Politics is sorta like sports now. People follow this stuff a lot differently. They follow the grosses of movies. They follow who’s ahead in polls in politics. They follow the ups and downs, so it’s much more immediate. There’s a 24-hour news cycle and a 24-hour comedy cycle. So we’re involved in that. The fact that we have the blog allows us to participate a lot more, whereas with the magazine, if something happens, we’re six, eight, ten weeks out – who cares about it at that point? If something happens, we can sometimes get it on the blog within an hour, and that’s really satisfying, and we can tell by the likes that we get that people appreciate it when it’s current, fast and immediate.
That makes it a challenge to find out what to put in the print form that can be more “evergreen,” as they say.
Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s the exact phrase we use.
That’s the exact phrase a lot of people use.
Tree people use it, too. Well, we kill a lot of trees, so I guess we’re all part of the same family in that regard. We kill a lot of jokes, too, now that I think about it. Serial killer wouldn’t be too strong of a phrase for that (laughs). But I think that some of it’s evergreen, some of it is things that can’t be too topical because you have to know the original to get the jokes. So if we’re doing a TV show, we want the reader to have seen a couple episodes of the show, or if we did a movie spoof, we want enough time for people to have seen it in theaters or on DVD or online or something. That’s really helped us because it allows us to do a movie that may have closed in the theaters soon but then picked up a big audience. So if we can time it to when it’s coming out on DVD, that has a whole second life where it’s fresh in people’s minds and we can do it. The other thing is now with binge-watching. Not this next issue coming up but the one after it, we’re doing Orange Is The New Black.
I have to know what the spoof title of Orange Is The New Black is.
Can you guess what it is?
… Orange Is The New Blecch.
Well, we’ve been working here too long (laughs).
No, I’m just a fan from way back.
In fact, that wasn’t the original title. Desmond Devlin wrote it, and I said “Des, we have to give this one to the fans. We have to call it Orange Is The New Blecch.” There was that wonderful scene in The Simpsons where they spoofed MAD. “I know, we’ll call it Everybody Loathes Raymond!” and the guy playing me says “well, we were up all night, but it was worth it!” We quote that all the time in the office (laughs).
Is there a threshold of popularity a show or movie has to reach before you go ‘all right, let’s sink our teeth into it?’
Sometimes it’s just if I like it. Sometimes it’s like ‘this is really interesting’ and it will allow us to do something. A lot of times, a show will be popular, but especially if it’s a comedy, it’s very hard to do. We’re trying to do 2 Broke Girls now, and it’s a very difficult show to do because so much of what’s come in from the writer and keeps going back is that it’s too much like a line that could be in the show, because it’s an awful show. They just write anything at all. There’s no real character development, there’s no real sense of taste. So how we get our arms around it is proving very challenging. Would you like to guess the title of this one?
Hmm… ‘Pee-yew! Broke Girls?’ No…
Few Joke Girls.
Holy cow, that is fantastic.
Dave Croatto of our office came up with that. We said ‘oh, bingo!’
Pass my congratulations to him.
The other thing I should mention is that MAD is a highly collaborative process. Sometimes stuff will go in write from the writers, other times we’ll be writing all over it and sending it back, playing off each other. That’s true of the blog, that’s true of every MAD product. It’s not so much about ego, it’s about ‘let’s get it as good as we can.’