201 Minutes of Space Idiocy
For many of us, the first exposure to classic films wasn’t on film at all, it was in print. It was in black and white even if the films were in color, it was printed on cheap paper, and it was full of some of the worst puns known to man. We thrilled to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Oddfather, Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western Little Dull Man, the sophisticated sex comedy Shampooped, and Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy. For us, Casablanca was cast with professional wrestlers, My Fair Lady featured women’s libbers trying to reform a male chauvinist Burt Reynolds, and The Exorcist ended with Satan demanding a six-film deal.
Rude, irreverent, and with 58 years of history now behind them, MAD magazine’s movie satires gave some of us our first encounters with the modern cinematic canon. Always happy to aim over the heads of its target audience of teenaged boys (issue 28 featured a guide to IRS form 1040), MAD was parodying movies like Barry Lyndon (Borey Lyndon) and Blow-Up (Throw Up) to a readership with little awareness of these movies beyond their newspaper ads. Long before most kids were old enough to see R- and X-rated movies like Dressed to Kill, Altered States, and Midnight Cowboy, they were familiar with Undressed to Kill, Assaulted State, and Midnight Wowboy. While film studies majors gasp over the deconstruction of genre in the works of David Lynch and the meta-movies of Charlie Kaufman, “the usual gang of idiots” over at MAD have been deconstructing, meta-narrativing, and postmodernizing motion pictures since the very first movie parody (Hah! Noon!) appeared in 1954.
Undressed to Kill
My Fair Laddie
The Empire Strikes Out
Mutiny on the Bouncy
Four hundred and eighty-two parodies later, the MAD movie send-up has become an institution. Filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg buy the original cover art featuring parodies of their films, and back in 1973 Jack Davis, one of the kings of the MAD movie parody, was hired by United Artists to design a poster for Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye done in the exact same style as MAD’s trademark splash page, complete with word balloons. The MAD movie satires drew the blueprint for all motion picture parodies to come.
Before MAD, audiences looking for movie parodies had to be content with Britain’s relatively toothless Carry On films, Bob Hope’s gentle genre ribbing, or Abbott & Costello’s goofy send-ups. But MAD was out for blood. Deeply meta and full of in-jokes, it constantly conflated characters with the actors playing them (lancing Brando’s foppish accent in Mutiny on the Bounty aka Mutiny on the Bouncy one character says, “Don’t worry, Trevar! He pulled a stupid Southern accent on me in Sayonara and I still won an Oscar!”) and gleefully pointed out plot holes. When Roy Scheider is fatally stabbed in Marathon Man he manages to make it back to his brother’s apartment, over 60 blocks away. “Good Lord! What happened to you?” Dustin Hoffman gasps in Marathon Mess. “I was stabbed in Lincoln Center, so I dragged myself to Broadway, caught an uptown bus to 72nd Street and got a crosstown bus to Riverside Drive, grabbed a No. 4 bus to 116th street…walked up the hill…and here I am…” Scheider replies.
Prior to the Seventies and the advent of Monty Python, Mel Brooks’s film send-ups, and the team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, MAD were the only people parodying Hollywood sanctimony on a regular basis. Jack Clayton’s glossy version of The Great Gatsby might have been a profitable vehicle for Robert Redford, and it might have won two Academy Awards, but MAD saw right through it. Calling it The Great Gasbag, they lambasted its lacquered artificiality (“Gasbag thought of everything!” Nick Carrawayseed remarks at a supposedly wild party. “He even had the dancing choreographed!!”), bemoaned its monotony (“Why…? Why?!?” screams Nick after Myrtle is run over by a car. “Why didn’t they FILM the only scene with any action in this entire movie?!”), and revealed that Gatsby’s mysterious absences were due to the fact that Robert Redford is having secret meetings with his agent, begging to get out of the picture before it ruins his box-office clout.
But when MAD switched from black and white to color and began running ads in 2001, it coincided with the decline of the movie-satire golden age. In the 18 years between 1984 and 2002 they published 180 of them, but between 2002 and 2012 there were only 40. The spoofs used to average seven pages each, now they average five, and sometimes even four. But this decline has more to do with movie industry practices than the quality of the satires themselves, and the parodies are too much a part of the magazine’s DNA to disappear completely. They’ve also shown a remarkable continuity. Over the past 50 years, four editors (Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Nick Meglin, and John Ficarra), and the same five writers (Dick DeBartolo, Stan Hart, Arnie Kogen, Larry Siegel, and Desmond Devlin) and five artists (Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Jack Davis, Tom Richmond, and Hermann Mejia) have been responsible for 87 percent of them, and the format has remained remarkably consistent.
Since the Sixties, the parodies always opened with a two-page (or occasionally one-page) splash in which the characters introduce themselves to the reader (“I’m Appalled Neuman! In my new movie, The Color of Monotony, I take the corn I usually pop and put it on screen!”). After the chaos of the opening spread, the borderless panels are laid out in simple grids and the dialogue is “copy cast,” which means that all of the distinctively rectangular word balloons start at the same height to ensure ease of reading. Each row of panels can fit 108 characters across and word balloons are never allowed to run more than eight lines deep in order to leave some real estate for the artist, although that’s loosened up in the last 20 years with the advent of digital technology. As visually chaotic as the panels get, this layout ensures that they scan quickly from left to right, flowing from joke to joke.
A familiarity with the films is assumed and the parodies play like greatest hits albums, leaping from highlight to highlight. In Midnight Wowboy Joe Buck is seen getting turned down for a date by a dowager in one panel and having pillow talk in bed with a woman in the next, leaving all that narrative connective tissue on the drafting-room floor. There’s also a talking-back-to-the-screen quality, as in The Empire Strikes Out when Ham Yoyo says to Princess Laidup, “Princess, sometimes I think you forgot how to be a woman!” “Oh? What makes you say that?” she replies. “Well… for openers you have your bra on backwards!” he says, sounding like a movie theater smartass.
Ever since the second satire (From Eternity to Here), sending up the marketing was also part of the program. In 1989’s Battyman a bystander asks why Battyman needs exotic planes and cars to fight crime. “Actually, he doesn’t!” someone explains. “Toy manufacturers do.” In Home A-Groan they skewer product placement when Kelvin says, “The producers realize that audiences do not like to watch commercials on the screen before the movie starts. So they solved the problem by putting the commercials right into the movie itself!” MAD’s send-up of Ghostbusters II justifies the sequel by applying “the Sly Stallone philosophy: If at first you DO succeed, do it over and over and over again!”
Even though the format became fixed in the late Sixties, it took a long time to get there. When MAD debuted in 1952, it was a far cry from the MAD magazine of today. It wasn’t even a magazine. A comic book for its first 23 issues, MAD started off parodying the same crime, war, science fiction, and horror comics its parent company, EC Comics, published. But as early as issue 2, it ventured into movie parodies, sending up Tarzan and jungle films as a genre (at the time there were 24 Tarzan movies to eviscerate). Issue 3 saw the first skewering of what would become a favorite target, television, kicking then-popular series Dragnet in the seat of the pants, while also poking fun at The Lone Ranger, another television mainstay.
Issue 9’s first specific movie parody, Hah! Noon!, was MAD’s fourth send-up of the Western genre and it was published under the auspices of the “Western Dept.” Soon after, in issue 12 the first non-Western movie parody appeared under the “Movie Dept.” rubric: From Eternity Back to Here by comics master Bernie Krigstein. This was the first parody to caricature the actors as well as their roles, portraying a Montgomery Clift who stutters and stammers through his part, taking five word balloons to deliver a single line. It was more meta than a Tarantino film with everyone referring to the kissing-in-the-surf scene as constantly as the studio’s marketing department pushed it in ads—and, thanks to Krigstein’s innovative touch, it was graphically experimental. The beach kiss is represented by a photo cut-out of the characters taken from a still of the movie, locked in their sandy clinch, and it’s repeated in one panel per page for five pages as the waves slowly engulf and drown them.
While it was still feeling around for a format, these early parodies unleashed a wave of visual innovation at MAD. A send-up of The Wild One (issue 15) starts with one-and-a-half pages repeating the same panel of an empty highway that slowly fills up with the sound effects of approaching motorcycles. They were also spoofing movie techniques like 3-D (issue 12) with a strip drawn entirely in red/blue anaglyph style, that ended with the artist and writer creating a voluptuous 3-D dame so realistic that they tore the panels to shreds trying to get at her, leaving the entire last page a blank white void.
In July 1955, with issue 24, MAD abandoned the comic-book format and become the black-and-white magazine we know today, complete with a parody of Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz. Totally free of word balloons, it played out its satire in captioned pictures, more like illustrations in a magazine than cartooning. This remained the format for several years. Gradually, this captioned illustration approach was supplanted by true cartooning from Wood, a brilliant, hard-drinking draftsman and a Southerner named Jack Davis who went on to design one-sheet posters for films like The Bad News Bears, Woody Allen’s Bananas, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Both men were aided and abetted by the founding editor, Harvey Kurtzman, who sometimes even dictated figure composition and panel layout.
But the arrival of Mort Drucker in 1957 changed everything. Initially no one saw Drucker’s talent. Then in 1959 he drew the television parody The Night Perry Masonite Lost a Case and the basic movie parody format for the next 44 years was born. Opening with a splash panel that took up two-thirds of the page, it was all cartooning, used square word balloons, and the dialogue was copy cast. Playing to Drucker’s strengths, The Night Perry Masonite Lost a Case opted for an extremely tame design, mandated by art directors John Putnam and Leonard Brenner, who gave Drucker his panel layouts. The panels were mostly two-shots and medium shots, usually showing the characters from the waist up. The comedy came from Drucker’s uncanny ability to capture the likeness of an actor and then blow it up to the point where it started to deform but didn’t quite tip over into caricature. The cartoonist’s equivalent of an actor’s director, Drucker was a master of drawing hands, faces, and body language, and his approach (he wound up creating 238 movie satires) became the house style. The layout innovations of Davis and Wallace Wood were things of the past, replaced by Drucker’s less spectacular gifts. In recent years, artists like Tom Richmond and art director Sam Viviano have brought more visual flair to their parodies—for instance, Richmond’s Traffic send-up (Traff-eccch!) echoed the movie’s shifting color palette (a joke only possible after MAD’s return to color printing in 2001), but for the most part it’s Drucker’s straightforward, actor-based style that carries the day.
The format is bulletproof, and it still works. Today’s decline has less to do with the parodies themselves and more to do with changing film distribution patterns. When Star Wars came out in May 1977, MAD’s editors waited a few weeks to ensure it would be a hit before sending the writers to see it, and although the issue hit newsstands in January 1978, the movie was still playing eight months after its release. These days, movies are in theaters for three weeks or less. Since it takes up to three months to commission and draw a parody, the magazine is now in a constant race against time.
MAD’s editors are now obliged to go after the biggest blockbusters that have the most expensive ad campaigns and splashiest home video releases to ensure that the source material for their parodies remains in the public consciousness. Back in the day, they did send-ups of everything from Bunny Lake Is Missing (Bubba Lake Missed by a Mile) to Is Paris Burning? (Is Paris Boring?). In 2011, the only movie parodies they published were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Green Lantern, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Early access to set photos and plot synopses would alleviate this problem, but studios have never cooperated with MAD, even going so far as to deny them press kits. Even Warner Bros., MAD’s parent company, refuses to give them advance access to movie materials. To get their Harry Potter parodies out on time, writer Desmond Devlin based his scripts on the books, not the movies, trusting that the filmmakers wouldn’t deviate too far from J.K. Rowling’s original stories.
There’s also the issue of the magazine’s own success. With over 60 years of history, it’s hard for MAD to avoid re-peating itself, especially when they’ve been so merciless from day one. In its first decade, MAD skewered everything from 3-D (1954) to celebrity magazines (“Anyone for Wrist Slashing?” in 1955) to bloated running times (1961’s on-set visit of John Wayne’s The Alamo depicts the extras murdering the star for making a three-and-a-half-hour-long movie)—and they even parodied their own parodies. In issue 17 their takedown of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar featured a guide to the short cuts and cheap tricks the artists and writers were using for comic effect.
But their satire still seems to sting, even though it’s usually publicists and studio drones who get angry, not filmmakers. MAD has never been successfully sued, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. The magazine once received a letter from Lucasfilm’s legal department after their Empire Strikes Back parody, demanding that they recall all printed copies of the issue and destroy them. MAD replied by sending a copy of another letter they had received the previous month—from George Lucas, offering to buy the original artwork for the Empire parody and comparing Mort Drucker to Leonardo Da Vinci and the parody’s writer, Dick De Bartolo, to Mark Twain. They never heard from Lucasfilm’s legal department again.