A cultural institution for decades under the leadership of editors Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein, John Ficarra has been at “MAD Magazine’s” helm for over three decades. In his time running the revered humor publication, Ficarra helped spearhead numerous changes, increasing the number of women working for the magazine, creating an internship program, and building a website and blog at MadMagazine.com.
While a number of legendary creators including Sergio Aragones and Al Jaffee were there before Ficarra, he helped bring on a number of other acclaimed cartoonists, including Peter Kuper, Tom Bunk and Hermann Mejia.
The magazine continues to come out six times a year, in addition to four Bookazines published annually through Time Inc. Last year “MAD” published a new collection of the first 23 issues of the magazine in three books highlighting Jack Davis, Will Elder and Wally Wood. Just in time for issue #538, out this week on newsstands, Ficarra spoke with CBR News about the state of the magazine business, satire in today’s day and age, and the magazine’s place in our culture.
CBR News: You were first hired at “MAD” as associate editor in 1980, and in 1984 you became co-editor of the magazine with Nick Meglin when the late Al Feldstein retired. When you took over, what were you thinking in terms of what worked and what needed to change at the magazine?
John Ficarra: Well, it was certainly daunting. It came as a really big surprise, because I didn’t see Al leaving. I felt the magazine needed some changes when I was the associate editor. I remember being in meetings where song parodies were being pitched, and they were to Broadway shows that nobody remembered anymore. I said, we should be doing Barry Manilow — he was huge back then. There was some pushback. Clearly, some of the contributors were starting to age out of being in touch with pop culture, and they were falling back on old things that they remembered.
Part of the change was forced upon us just because we had a couple of deaths. Norman Mingo died. Jack Rickard died. Another part of it was people leaving. The big loss was Don Martin. We were scrambling to replace them, and at the same time Nick and I realized that we needed to bring new blood into the magazine, both on the writing end and the art end. It was just a question of, how are we going to do it?
The art end was easier, because Nick had tremendous entree to all the artists working. I remember bringing in work by this artist I loved, and Nick said, that’s Gerry Gersten, I play tennis with him. So we brought Gerry Gersten into the fold. Drew Friedman came in, and Rick Tulka and Hermann Mejia came in. I was a huge fan of John Caldwell’s, having seen his stuff in other magazines, and he’s been in just about every issue since the late ’80s. Antonio Prohias got sick, so we had to figure out what to do with “Spy vs Spy.” We ultimately ended up with Peter Kuper, and Kuper has really made the strip his own. One of the big hires was Sam Viviano. I had suggested Sam to Al and Nick, and they hired him for an art job before I even became co-editor. Sam was one of our first artists who started working digitally. We were on a real learning curve with that, and Sam helped in that regard. Years later, when the art director position became open, Sam was a natural choice. That was 17 years ago, and he’s had a tremendous impact on the magazine.
Though people have moved on or passed away, “MAD” continues to have a legendary group of contributors. In practical terms, what does it mean to be editor at “MAD.” I’m sure it’s intimidating to ask Sergio Aragones or Al Jaffee for changes.
It is extraordinarily intimidating. [Laughs] The other thing is, these guys are legends for a reason. They know what they’re doing.
I’ll never forget for the third “Stars Wars” movie, Mort Drucker drew this splash — “Re-Hash of the Jet-Eye.” This is one of my favorite “MAD” stories just because it speaks to the strengths of everybody involved. It was a great script by Dick DeBartolo going in, but then Drucker drew the seven dwarves mixed in with the Ewoks when he sent in his pencils. Nick was an incorrigible punster and wrote, “May the dwarves be with you” in the margins. We looked through the script and found all of the instances where he could do riffs on that pun. When Luke got his hand cut off, it was, “May Blue Cross be with you” and at the end, “May divorce with you.” It was just littered with those things. It speaks to the great collaborative effort “MAD” has always been. From the writer who writes the script, to the editors who send it back for rewrites, and then it goes to the art department and the artist will add his stuff. And when he sends his pencils, we’ll respond to that, and it goes back to the artist who inks it and adds even more things. By the time the spoof hits the newsstand, it’s got a lot of people’s fingerprints on it, and hopefully there’s a lot going on on many different layers to entertain the readers. Willy Elder used to call all the background gags “chicken fat.”
You mentioned him earlier, but one great hire was Peter Kuper for “Spy vs. Spy.” I love Peter’s work, but he’s not an obvious choice to work at “MAD.”
One of the great things about the ’80s, when we were over on Madison Avenue, was there was a bookstore on every corner, so on my lunch hour, what does an editor do? He goes into bookstores and buys books. I saw a travel journal that Peter did and I said, I love this guy. I always kept him in the back of my mind.
He wasn’t the logical choice for “Spy” but what had happened was, we had approached maybe six or eight artists and asked them, if you were to do “Spy,” what would you do? They all came back doing bad Prohias. We knew that we didn’t want to do bad Prohias — we wanted to make a statement that it was changing. Peter had always done an airbrushed stencil style, and I said to Nick, what about approaching Peter and seeing what he can do with it.
Peter was a little reluctant at first, of stepping into Prohias’ shoes. Those are very big shoes to fill. He said, “I’ll try it and see where it goes.” Twenty years later, he’s still doing it. But even he morphed. He went from that black, airbrushed stencil look to a color stencil look, and then, because it was sometimes tough to see the jokes in the stencil — because it couldn’t be as intricate — that’s when Peter went to the line with color, creating many different stories on a two page spread. He generally has a big frieze up on top with the two spies interacting, and then his main story, and then a small strip on the side. I think it looks great. I really love the way “Spy” is going.
The other thing we did to bring in new talent — and this really had a big effect on the magazine — is we started an internship program. Many writers and editors came from that. Jacob Lambert, Dave Croatto, Dave Shayne, all of whom are current or former editors, were interns. Several of our current freelance writers were also interns. A lot of times, we’ll get great interns, but they’ll go away and strike it rich. Megan Ganz was an intern — I don’t know if she’s still on “Modern Family,” but she was writing for that show for a while. The other intern who struck it big is Chris Miller, who did “The LEGO Movie” and is doing a few TV shows and one of the new “Stars Wars” movies. There are people who come through who use “MAD” as a stepping stone, but other people, fortunately, stay with the magazine on some level, even if they’re not full time writers for the magazine.
One thing I wanted to mention, because I’ve had many people raise this issue over the years, is how, for a long time, “MAD” never hired women.
That was never by choice, but you’re absolutely right. There was a woman, who was never credited, who for 20-25 years wrote all the Alfred quotes — Lucille Goodyear. The Alfred quotes were, of course, attributed to Alfred, so we couldn’t attribute them to her, but she would send in each quote typed on an index card, and she did it for years. We also had May Sakami, who wrote for us. She was one of the first, maybe the first, to write “Horrifying Cliches,” which became very popular with Paul Coker’s artwork.
Over the years, we have really tried to reach and get more women, and we’ve had success. Theresa Burns Parkhurst is a very regular contributor now. Alison Grambs has been writing for us, and the great cartoonist Emily Flake. I wish we could get more work from her! All of our sculptures are done by women, Liz Lomax and Kira Shaimanova. And a former “MAD” art intern, Sarah Chalek, has been doing some really nice artwork for us.
We’ve had a couple of female editors and several women in the art department. You had Sara Friedman come in as an editor, Amy Vozeolas came in as an editor. On the art side, you had Patty Dwyer, Nadina Simon, Marla Wyche, and now we have Mallory Herman. Over the years, we have certainly tried to populate with more women. We’re constantly looking for women, because they bring a different sensibility to the magazine, but it’s tough to write for “MAD.” It’s tough to stay interested in “MAD” if you get a couple rejections, because you have to get on our wavelength. There are a lot of really talented people who can just never get on that wavelength.
Many people working in humor or satire or pop culture cite “MAD” as an influence. When you started out at the magazine, it stood in a way that it doesn’t today, when there are more outlets for that kind of humor and approach. What is the magazine’s place in the modern world?
Hopefully “MAD” will still continue to be a force that has people questioning authority. I think the first reason “MAD” existed was to question authority, that there are people with agendas who are lying to you everywhere you go. Years ago, society was less cynical, and like you said, there weren’t that many outlets. For a young kid reading “MAD” for the first time and realizing, “Oh, my God — advertisers are lying to me, and my parents may be lying to me, my teachers may be lying to me and just because they’re older than me doesn’t mean they necessarily know better!” To see that in print is a pretty powerful thing. I think “MAD’s” place continues to be going up against not just pop culture but politics and all authority and exposing a lot of the b.s. that goes on.
In the past decade especially, we’ve seen a number of books collecting the work of individual artists from “MAD.” Are we going to be seeing more of those?
We’d like to do more. I have a proposal now to do a new series. I don’t know if you saw “Mad’s Original Idiots,” where we did the collected works of Wally Wood, Jack Davis and Will Elder. They did real well for us. We’ve reprinted those early comics, #1-23, ad nauseam, but this was the first time we ever did it by artist, and there was something about that that really caught readers’ imaginations. What I’m proposing now is to start to highlight some of “MAD’s” newer idiots. People like Hermann Mejia and Tom Richmond, who are bringing “MAD” to a whole new generation of people and bringing their own unique talents. They deserve as much praise as some of the old guard does.
We’ve done two books of Peter Kuper’s “Spy vs. Spy,” so he’s pretty well taken care of, but somebody like Tom Bunk is just a wonderful artist and a very funny artist. In the next issue, we asked Tom to do a scene of someone riding a hoverboard down the street, and he brought in this two-page spread of just anarchy and lunacy. It’s worth the price of the magazine just for this artwork, and Tom does this every single time. Two years ago, he did a piece for us for — the Fundalini section up front about the Mayan calendar. It was only going to be a quarter of a page. We looked at the artwork and said, this cannot be a quarter of a page. It would be a criminal act to run this as a quarter page. We ended up running it as a two-page spread, because it was just so chock full of visual gags. Tom has been around for a long time. He did a lot of the Garbage Pail Kids at Topps, but he really found his home at “MAD.” He came to us from Stan Hart, a longtime “MAD” writer who was also involved with Topps. He saw his work and said, you have to talk to this guy. The minute we saw his stuff, we said, we’ve got to get him in. He’s been in virtually every issue since.
Also, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the bookazines that we do. We put out four a year with Time Inc. They’re on the newsstands, and they’re basically double issues of the magazine, but done on very high quality paper so the art looks just fabulous. It can’t help the writing much, but the art looks really good. [Laughs] You can put them on your book shelves and they’ll look good.
Satire is always hard and always bothers someone, and now, we live at a time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the Sony hack over the movie “The Interview.” “MAD” is very different from both, but you haven’t been afraid to tackle other touchy issues, like global warming, or the controversy over the Washington Redskins name.
One of the things “MAD” does is, we try not to do victim humor. I think that’s always kept us apart. In the ’80s, we never did a joke about AIDS, but we did go after Ronald Reagan for not saying the word AIDS and for not coming up with funding to find a cure. But you would never find us doing a joke about a person with AIDS. That’s still pretty much true to do this day. “Charlie Hebdo” really pushed the boundaries. You cannot let other cultures dictate what you write or print. “MAD” has always had the policy of, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we have to. I think that’s kept us out of trouble, to a large degree.
On the other hand, we were one of the very first to go after the Catholic Church on the altar boy scandal. The Catholic League issued a press release back then, personally denouncing me and defending the priests. They’ve since changed their tune, but that press release has hung on my bulletin board since as a point of honor. If there’s something that deserves going after, we have no trouble going after it. Sometimes, it’s hard to get our arms around it. Sometimes, people perceive a bias in the magazine, especially in politics. They say, you do all this stuff on Republicans and you don’t do anything on the Democrats. Well, we take what’s given to us and react to that. When Sarah Palin gets up and does that rant for Trump, we’re going to go after that. When Trump says all the stuff that he did, we’re going to go after that. Hillary Clinton didn’t make those kinds of remarks, but we’ve gone after her for Benghazi and the e-mail server. There’s a perception that “MAD” is liberal, but we just react to the events of the day.
Satire is hard, and it’s getting harder because it’s hard to go beyond real life. I only have to point you to the 2016 Presidential campaign for proof of that!
“MAD” #538 is on sale now.