Interview: John Ficarra
In conjunction with our tribute to MAD magazine’s movie parodies in the new March/April issue, here are interviews with two leading members of the publication’s self-proclaimed usual gang of idiots. In 1980, John Ficarra took on the position of MAD’s associate editor—the first new hire the magazine made in over 20 years. In 1984, he and Nick Meglin became co-editors, and in 2004 Ficarra was promoted to editor-in-chief, a position he enjoys to this day.
The Yellow Mile
What’s changed in the parodies over the years?
MAD always reflects what’s going on, and as the movies change, the parodies change. I remember for The Sound of Music we did The Sound of Money. But I don’t know if in this day and age that we’re revealing any great truth in saying that sequels are being made to make money. Well, of course. Back then, that sort of had some currency to it, no pun intended, but now I think we have to move on. Frequently we’ll spoof a movie, but we’ll also use that movie as a vehicle to make fun of other things. A classic example—one I’ve cited many times and will cite again because I like it—is when we were doing the Rocky movie where he fought Mr. T, I guess that was Rocky III, and there’s two people talking and one says: “In this movie Rocky fights someone who hates America and everything it stands for.” And the other responds: “My God, he’s fighting Louis Farrakhan.” It had nothing to do with the movie but it was a great potshot to take.
Do studios ever cooperate with you guys, providing materials in advance of a movie’s opening?
It’s funny, to this day no studio will ever cooperate with us. That’s because the people we’re dealing with are the lowest-rung publicists, and they’re fearful for their jobs. But what happens then is a movie will come out and the Spielbergs and the Lucases will write us letters and say, “Oh my God, I love that, I want to buy that.” And, in fact, Spielberg and Lucas have always bought the original artwork of all the covers, and in some instances the interior artwork, when they’re in them. In addition, J.J. Abrams is a very big MAD fan. So we never really have trouble with the high-end celebrities, it’s usually just the studio people themselves who are afraid of pissing off their major stars.
Do they ever ask you to do a parody for the PR value?
Every once in a while we’ll get a call from some publicist who’ll say, “We really want you to parody this movie,” and nine times out of 10 it’s an absolute dog of a movie that they’re seeking any publicity for because they know it’ll be over in a weekend. But we get very little cooperation normally, though things are a lot easier now thanks to the Internet. When I was first hired, part of my job was to maintain what we called the swipe file, which contained photos of all the working actors and actresses for reference. And I’d often have to call up a studio and try to charm a publicist into sending me a press kit. Those were like gold. Sometimes I’d have to go to Jerry Ohlinger’s to buy stills, other times I’d have a friend working at another magazine request a press kit and pass it along to me.
Nowadays, we don’t have to do that. With the trailers posted online, Tom Richmond can go and really take a look at the scenes, and get exactly the shot they’re looking for. It’s immensely helpful. Poor Mort Drucker. For years, he’d say he only needed one profile and one dead-on shot. The genius of Drucker is that he’d be able to take those two shots and draw that person maybe 18 times for a five-page spoof. And, by the way, the guy would be laughing or crying in one panel and reacting in horror in another—but he never lost the likeness. He just had this genius ability to take those very basic shots and turn them into great caricatures.
Is there anything that’s changed in the production process?
I think if you go back you’ll see that we used to do a lot more making fun of a movie in the visuals, and that has unfortunately fallen victim to the timing of the work process. It’s just that we’re putting out more product and the staff has less time. When I first started, Mort Drucker would send in his pencils and Nick Meglin, who was a notoriously visual guy, would go through and add jokes in the background, visual as well as verbal. When we did the third Star Wars movie, we got Drucker’s pencils and saw that in the opening splash page, besides the Ewoks, he had drawn in the Seven Dwarves just as a little throwaway gag to fill up the page. Meglin got ahold of it and wrote: “May the dwarves be with you.” Then, in the last panel, when they’re getting married, he penciled in: “May divorce be with you.” If you go through that parody there are about 12 horrendous puns of “May the force be with you,” and they have this wonderful mounting quality to them. That’s the type of thing we love to do, but we just don’t have as much time to pore over scripts anymore. We’re doing a blog now, we’re doing an app, we’re doing more books, so we don’t have time to build in things like that. Hopefully this conversation will boost me to goose the staff to do more of that because it has been a casualty of late.
What’s the production process like?
It’s very collaborative. Generally the staff and I will decide which movies we’re going to do. Occasionally a writer will come to me and say, “Here’s one I want to do, and here’s the hook for it.” But generally we’ll pick a movie and we’ll pick a writer who we think will play to that movie’s strengths. For example, Desmond Devlin is very into comics so we’ll give him the Batman movies and others like that. We’ll sometimes see a movie together, and sometimes separately, but afterward we’ll talk about it—what direction we want it to go in, plot holes we saw in it that we want to make sure we cover, pivotal scenes that we want to make sure are in there because everyone will remember them. The writer will go home and write a script, he’ll send in a draft, and hopefully it’s perfect. Usually it’s not, so we’ll write in some jokes or point out some areas we think he missed, then we’ll send it back for a rewrite. Generally by the second rewrite we have it and I’ll give it to my art director, Sam Viviano, who will lay it out over five to six pages and show it to me to make sure it’s flowing. Sometimes it’ll be a panel over, and we’ll have to ask, “Okay, what are we going to cut to make this fit?” Then it’ll go to whoever the artist is, they will do pencils and send them in. We’ll go over them, make sure the storytelling works, make sure a gag hasn’t been misinterpreted, see if anything’s been added that we can work with, then we’ll add onto it—though as I said, that’s not happening too much lately—then it’ll go back to the artist for finish touches and then hopefully it’s off to press.
How much does a script describe a gag?
At the very minimum the script will contain the basic elements of the action in each panel: “This is the scene where Batman and Bane are going at it.” If there’s a visual joke in there, the writer will provide a description of the joke. Sometimes the writer will suggest background gags, but it varies from script to script, there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes we’ll throw in stuff we think of. Like if the writer has a bystander saying a line, if we’re doing The Avengers, we’ll give the line to somebody from Firefly or one of Joss Whedon’s other shows just to add another level to it.
The Toilet Saga
Do you have any particular favorite parodies?
I probably have my favorites, but the thing about MAD is that people will always tell you the best era is when they first started reading the magazine. Everyone has that initial discovery period when they first start reading and think, “This is the greatest!” I remember in the Eighties when we were doing the Godfather movies, and the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, and even Hannah and Her Sisters, and Mort Drucker was at the top of his game, and Jack Davis had that great style, and, to me, that was as good as it gets. Those were some great parodies written by some of the greatest MAD writers we’ve ever had. But by the same token, Desmond Devlin has come along with a Twilight script that is just terrific, and Arnie Kogen is writing Batman for us and the script is very funny, and Tom Richmond is going to draw it and he’s going to bring his own unique take to it, and it’s going to be in color, which adds a vibrancy that we didn’t have in the old parodies. So hope springs eternal that the one I’m working on now is going to be the greatest movie parody yet.
Will there ever come a point where MAD abandons the movie parodies?
I think they’ll always be part of MAD, but they’re changing. The way we go after movies is changing. And I’ve shortened them. Generally they’re about five pages now, occasionally six. That said, Batman may go seven, but it is a three-hour movie. I think five is about the right length now with the short-attention span of most Americans. Also it can be a real slog for an artist to have to draw more than that over the not very much time they usually have. We’re always saying to our artists, “You don’t need to sleep over the next week, do you?”