Nick Meglin worked at MAD Magazine for 48 years, working his way up from contributing writer to editor in chief, a position he held for 20 years before retiring in 2004. Meglin led MAD in the post-William Gaines years as it became more enmeshed in the Time-Warner publishing corporation, and he was able to sustain MAD’s editorial independence and quality. Along the way, he helped mold generations of sarcastic kids, honing their skepticism for a world that’s become ever more marketing driven. In this interview from 1996, he explains in detail how MAD was edited and produced under his watch.
Describe a typical day at MAD.
Well, without coffee there is no particular day. But what happens is we generally get together, John Ficarra and myself, for a quick “let’s go over what insanity today is scheduled to bring.” We can never predict the unscheduled insanity that happens, as it happens, as it unfolds; very often we don’t know when an artist is passing by, coming in, showing up. But we always try to make every freelancer feel like this is a home away from home, in a way, so that they are free to drop by even if they are just in the neighborhood running errands. And those are the unscheduled stops. But the scheduled stops you try and organize as best we can in some kind of structure. But John Ficarra is really terrific at doing that–he’s much more structured than I am–and we try and get some semblance of order. But it doesn’t always work, as you can guess.
Then we go through the mail and stack scripts that are coming in. Ninety-nine percent of the stuff has to do with people’s individual sense of humor, what they think is funny and what they think we do. But it’s really not what we do and they have no understanding of that. But we put them aside because everything gets read, because we have never had a staff writer in our history, or a staff artist. Everyone is freelance, no commitment, no arrangement, no contracts, just total freelancers. We’ve bought great ideas from a 14-year-old boy who’s sold us about 10-12 ideas through the years and never could write them, flesh them out, and make it a professional piece for MAD because he wasn’t a professional, not experienced or sophisticated enough to carry it to that level. But we paid him for the idea and gave him an idea by credit, and he sold us about 10-12 through the years…total stranger…kid in Pennsylvania…grew up…in college…still sending us ideas…maybe 20 ideas between his 14th and 22nd birthday. And then we’ve had six-figure writers from the west coast who make a fortune doing sitcoms–why they’d even want to write for MAD is beyond me–but they’re sending us the wrong stuff and getting aggravated because we’re rejecting it. They’re like “Hey, don’t you know who I am? Don’t you realize what an important writer I am and how successful I am and you’re telling me my work isn’t good enough for MAD?” It’s not that at all, it’s just not right for MAD; a 14-year-old kid knows what’s right for MAD and you don’t. So, with that in mind, that’s the way it goes.
Then comes the reading part and then the meeting part because we go over every script we use. We see the potential if the premise is there and the execution. There’s a lot of discussion about scripts, and then the rewriting part comes in when a script has come in and is fully executed and scheduled for a particular issue, and now has to be laid out and designed for the illustrator to pick up. Then comes the editing and rewriting and designing what the five-page feature will look like, so that everything falls into place and we get the best of each script. All five of us get involved in this. Every script that we use is read by John Ficarra, myself, and our three associates, Charlie Kadau, Joe Raiola, and David Shayne. And everyone puts their comments and notes, then votes–and very often they contradict each other. We run a democratic kind of thing, but usually there’s a ground swell of feeling for something. If you get four checks, and one X or one 0 (which means comme ci comme ca), you know it’s in. But if you get one check and four absolute X’s or double X’s on a gag or idea or whatever, then that’s not going in. While somebody may think it’s funny, we just can’t be all things to all people–there has to be a general consensus on whether something works or not.
What makes a certain piece of writing MAD material?
What happens is, it’s probably the same wavelength, the same perception of the absurdity of life, the satirical look. For instance, you can get somebody who can write the most wonderful, caustic, witty, cynical, clever, wry, droll, one-liners that a Dave Letterman can say or a Jay Leno can say or a standup can say–but not in a MAD article. It’s not a MAD idea, it’s not even a MAD line, it may not even have a place in MAD anywhere because that’s not what we do. And it’s hard for us to communicate what makes a MAD idea because what makes a MAD idea is something we say “Ah, that’s a MAD idea.” It’s inherently MAD, and since we are the caretakers, if you will, of what MAD is, or the MAD sensibility, then it is we who judge what is a MAD idea. And it’s very arbitrary in that respect. I can’t tell you–if I could tell you what makes a MAD idea then I could teach it to someone. I could tell someone, “Here, come up with this.”
It’s really a look at life, a look at the absurdity from a graphically visual point of view. If you illustrate some one-liners, it destroys them because that one-liner works better in the mind’s eye–you hear it and form a picture in your mind of what’s happening. But then when you actually see somebody draw that and make it graphic, then it doesn’t work anymore. For instance, Woody Allen in one of his early stand-up act lines said, “And I came home and there was my mother in a corner knitting a chicken.” Now everyone has always broken up at that line–there’s an insanity, an absurdity, that’s wonderful. It just sounds right. But if we did a drawing of a woman sitting on a couch knitting a chicken, it destroys it. Because once you graphically see it, once it’s in print, it’s no more a mind’s-eye absurdity; it becomes a graphic reality. And not every graphic reality is funny. So a MAD idea really translates well into a graphic reality–it’s not a mind’s-eye image.
Do most of your usable ideas come from freelancers, or do you assign stuff?
Well, it works both ways–we do expect the ideas to come from our freelancers because we don’t assign ideas. Sometimes we do if something’s in the news–like if we’re planning an issue on Star Wars, and we might read an article about George Lucas putting back some cut footage to expand it, so here’s MAD’s outtakes of stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor. Now that’s an idea that might have come from here, from the editors talking about it. So in that respect, we might talk to a writer and see what their response would be, if they think they can do something with it. Then comes the editing stage after it’s written… a gag might be strengthened here, or maybe replaced, or whatever. We just keep trying to expand it until we’ve absolutely choked the life out of every good idea. That’s why MAD is a failure.
Would you say there’s a unifying MAD philosophy behind the material?
It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about. There is a MAD philosophy–not that we adhere to a policy, we have no policy. But the philosophy is really is that to be funny, it has to work on one of three levels. It has to be completely satiric, which means it really has to be like a funhouse mirror reflection; it’s not enough to do somebody as they exist because that’s already done. You have to distort the image so that everyone knows who it is, yet the distortion has to do with the humor we derive out of that image.
Then there’s humor for humor’s sake, which is so absurd, so whimsical–sometime Duck Edwing has things like that–that it just makes you laugh.
Then there’s a cross between–what makes it funny is not necessarily real, but it’s not necessarily absurd, like a middle ground that both are. And that’s where a lot of MAD articles fall, because it’s really MAD’s spin. When we do a satire of a movie, a lot is happening in our satire that never happened in the movie. Because of that absurd MAD spin which is humor for humor’s sake, but it’s also very visual. [EX: Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! appearing as the Joker.] It makes references satirically to something else, to something we all know of, something that’s part of the American consciousness. So that’s what I mean by in between–there’s an absurdity, plus a satirical bent, plus of course the visual gags.
As you can see we don’t really think about it, we just do it. But it has to score in one of those three accounts to be a MAD article.
Do you ever worry about pitching the material at a certain age group?
No. And that’s the absolute truth. We get letters from brilliant people who subscribe and have never missed an issue, just as we also get letters written on loose-leaf paper from kids in junior high school, sometimes very profound in their thoughts and feelings. We don’t have demographics, we don’t accept advertising. We never did. We don’t want to be beholden to any outside force like an advertiser. With that in mind, there’s no reason to take surveys or polls as to who our target readership is–we don’t have any. We just hope everybody reads it.
For instance, we did a Rocky take-off, of Rocky 4 or 5, the one where he fights the Russian. Now we began it as Rocky is in the ring fighting away, and there are people at ringside and one person is saying to the other, “In this story, Rocky fights someone who hates his country and everything about it.” and the other person says, “Who’s he fighting? Louie Farrakhan?” Now when we wrote that, one of our junior editors said, “You know, a lot of people aren’t going to know who Farrakhan is, maybe we shouldn’t do it.” But you see, that’s their problem, not ours–we’re not going to keep taking out a funny idea or a good point because we’re afraid someone’s not going to get it. We know there’s enough going on in that five-page satire that will obviously make a MAD reader laugh, and to knock out something we believe is a funny gag makes no sense. Why should we condescend? A lot of our readers are bright enough to just ask somebody, ask a teacher or a parent, or look it up, and find out and say, “Oh, that’s who Farrakhan is, now I get the joke.” So what’s wrong? I mean, we’re not educators, that’s not our purpose in including the gag, but if that is a residual benefit that somebody gets expanded a little bit, gets to know what’s happening in the world, hey, so be it. But we really just think it’s too good a gag not to do. So we don’t break down.
Do you ever upset people?
Constantly. The Republican camp loves it when we do takeoffs on Clinton, just as the Democrat camp loves any time we’ve done a takeoff on Newt Gingrich or Dole. It’s our time lapse between our conception and printing and being out there on the stands that prevents us from being more political, because we’re not timely. How can you really make gags now when by the time they come into print the election is over and we know who the winner is? So it hurts us–we’re not like a television show where a news item could break Tuesday or Wednesday and that Friday or Saturday night they can already be doing a takeoff, or better yet Letterman that night, who can have gags on what happened that morning. We come out with the same gags three months later, it doesn’t have the same effect.
Has anyone accused you of having a political agenda?
Always. Both sides. I think we’re conceived by most, I would say 60-70 percent, of being more on the liberal, progressive, Democratic left than the conservative, radical Right–just because a lot of the things we’ll make fun of are issues that are supported by the Right. Of course, being someone in the press, we want to maintain freedom of the press, maintain anything that will fight any sort of censorship. We don’t believe that there’s any morality out there that can decide what this country should be reading, or seeing on television or on film. So that would make us liberal, but in many ways… I mean, our anti-drug, alcohol and cigarette ad campaigns–we’ve run satires on famous ads for all of them… We were killing Joe Camel long before it became the rage, saying that this was an insidious, horrible thing. Of course, we did it funny, but we pointed out that a great way to start new young smokers was to get one of their animated cartoon characters to smoke. And we did that about seven years ago; as soon as Joe Camel came out we blasted the hell out of it. The point I’m making is that… I don’t know what point I’m making. We go after issues.
Has MAD become such a fixture that people don’t take much offense anymore? Does it still have teeth?
I think what you’re saying is entirely true, and it makes our job a lot more difficult. First of all, anything in print seems to have a lot more weight than anything that’s on the airwaves, so that a prime time television show with tremendous sexual innuendoes and overtones, and very graphic stuff, just floats by the eye. And parents don’t really seem to mind that their kids watch that program because they think, “Hey it’s on television, on prime time, it’s got to be OK.” But then we’ll do a satire of that TV show, and we won’t be half as bad. For instance, if we do movie satire of Sharon Stone, no matter how good our artist is, it’s still a drawing, a rendition–it’s never going to be as exciting or as enticing as the real thing. I mean, Sharon Stone in real life is one beautiful woman, but a drawing of her is still just a drawing. We don’t see it as being so inciteful–we don’t do photographs of her, and we certainly don’t do nude stuff. MAD has never gone for the easy laugh that way.
So those are some concerns we’re stuck with because we’re in print, and people think we’re accessible and, of course, we are–they can write a letter and kill a subscription to MAD, for example. What are they going to do–write NBC that they’re not going to watch Friends anymore? Knowing it’s a top-rated show and that whether they watch it or not, 40 million other people are going to watch it anyway–so they don’t do anything about it, they don’t care, they just let it ride. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
Is there any subject MAD won’t touch?
Yes, we don’t touch victims, we don’t hit sickness. We’ll go after doctors and their abuse with the bills or whatever, but we don’t do doctor jokes where somebody comes in and says, “I’ve got leukemia.”
We also don’t take off on religion, per se–we don’t go after somebody’s religion. We went after Bakker, Swaggert, and the so-called TV-evangelists who abused their power and abused their patrons. But we didn’t make create them, we didn’t make them up–to go after them is not the crime. How about the people themselves? They enabled us to go after them. What they did is what we go after. We’re not going after them or their religion, we’re going after what is they’ve done. Again, we don’t really have partisan politics, believe it or not. We’ll kick the man in office, and we’ll have fun with policies going on regardless of where they come from. But it’s not like, “Here’s our agenda–this time we’re going to get the Democrats. C’mon, boys, let’s go get ’em!” That we don’t do.
So those are just about the only subjects that are taboo–oh, of course we don’t go for the four-letter words because we’re in print, and again it sits there, and reduces us to that level. We don’t have to do that to be funny. We don’t take the cheap shot–so we don’t have gratuitous sex or gratuitous filth or gratuitous anything. The changes in MAD, though, are it’s starting to be grosser as things get grosser. With talk radio, people like Howard Stern and Don Imus, and what they have to say, and the things you get on [HBO’s] Comedy Jam and everything else, it’s pretty raunchy stuff. And you’d be surprised that people laugh at it in films like Dumb and Dumber, even scatological humor, and Ace Ventura with Jim Carrey talking out of his butt and stuff–we don’t even do that on the pages of MAD. There might be slight references here and there, but we don’t do an article about it. We don’t have to resort to that to be funny, we like to think.
Is that the major change you’ve seen?
The younger people today are much more advanced and sophisticated–they know much more. Every generation seems to be growing up at a younger age. And then you get things like The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead. When you think about just those two, you think about how things have changed through the years because in the past, anything that was animated represented Walt Disney. And what could be more conservative and more apple pie than Walt Disney, with funny, cute, little cuddly animals? And now, even the Disney films themselves–I mean there was something going on there with Pocahontas. Obviously there’s now a darker side or expansion of the moral perimeters that used to be a hallmark of the Disney film–because there are Simpsons out there, and they can say things and do things …
Is it still a fun job for you now?
Obviously, it’s a serious job, and obviously it’s hard work because of the deadlines–and just trying to be funny on demand is not an easy thing. But what has kept my interest and my excitement and my exuberance all these years is the people I’m dealing with. The freelancers are among the most talented, brilliant, fun people in the world. That’s been my saving grace–I love these people and of course my staff. My partner John Ficarra and I really do have a much better time than I think you would find in a room full of accountants arguing about whether you carry the three or debit the five. I think I’ve been blessed with that kind of situation–that’s what keeps it fun.
Do you ever pause to consider the impact you may have had on generations of kids for the past 30 years?
To be very honest, when you’re doing something, you’re not aware of your place in history. I had the honor of meeting Joe DiMaggio at a function of a very important arts and letters club that honors certain people who’ve contributed to culture. And they honored Joe DiMaggio, and my friend Stan Hart is a member there and he invited me ’cause I was a baseball fan. And even though I loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and hated the New York Yankees, there was something about Joe DiMaggio that made him very special. So when I got to meet and shake his hand it was quite an honor–I got from him what I thought I had read about in books like The Boys of Summer: these guys loved playing ball. I don’t think they stood on the ball field one day in their lives and said “Some day I’ll be in the hall of fame.” That’s not what they were playing for. And while that sounds like a pompous analogy, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in my office one day in my professional life and said “Wow, I’m doing something important,” or “Wow, what I’m doing now will have impact on the culture.” I really just worked on the job.
And going back to the accountants I just blasphemed by ridiculing them, it’s the same thing–you give a guy a column of numbers, his job is to add them up and make the solution mathematically correct. I don’t think for a minute he’s saying “Oh my God, this represents millions of dollars, and one error on my part will impact on some millionaire’s stock holding.” You just do your job and you don’t have an overview. And what has knocked out my partner and I when we’ve been asked to speak at certain places is when you walk out and all of a sudden 2-300 people stand up and applaud. I almost wanted to look around to see who stepped out on the stage behind me; what’s this all about? For me, why? Then the reverence and respect that you get from the questions from the people: “I remember that 28 years ago…” And then you get a sense–”My God–there has been some impact.” But you’re never aware of it while you’re doing it. You just hope somebody picks it up and reads it and laughs, then you consider yourself a success.
Did the passing of William Gaines affect how you do things?
Very much so. He epitomized what MAD was all about. He was a man with a great deal of natural intelligence, business sense, and was able to be totally supportive. When they asked him about how come he’s been so successful, he always said, “My only contribution is creating the ambiance, creating the context for these brilliant people that I work with to do their job. I supply the room that they can work in. And it’s a comfortable room, a supportive room, a very free room. I don’t sit there and edit or philosophize or dictate.” He just took credit for organizing the team. Now we’re part of a corporate conglomerate–we always were Time-Warner, but Bill Gaines was kind of like an intermediary. Now we’re more involved with them and more things are happening, which can only help MAD survive in an age when most people are now turning away from the greatest art of all: reading. The greatest educational device: reading. The greatest entertainment device: reading. It’s now a push-button culture we live in, where the computers supply all the answers for the mathematical problems, God forbid you should work it out and think about it. It supplies the entertainment, even the sex. And all magazines and books and newspapers are suffering because reading is getting to be a lost art. If a young person today can’t push a button on a VCR or CD or computer or this or that… So our competition isn’t another humor magazine, it never has been. The only magazine consistently funnier than us is The Congressional Record. We’re losing the impact we had in terms of numbers of readers because people don’t want to read as much today.
And now there’s a MAD TV show. While we have nothing to do with it, it’s based on the MAD sensibility, if you will. There are other things like that in our chutes–there are a lot books going out now, MAD About the ’60s, MAD About the ’70s, The Wit and Wisdom of Alfred E. Neuman, Al Jaffee’s Fold-Ins. A lot of our 40-plus years of history are now being anthologized and being collected. There was a book put out by Grant Geissman, who is a very successful jazz musician, composer, has like five or six platinum/gold records in the mellow jazz field, quite a name. But he was always a MAD reader and became a MAD collector, so much so that he became an expert and had the greatest MAD collection. He put out a whole book called Collectibly MAD, put out by Kitchen Sink Press, just on everything MAD has done through the ages. And now Christie’s and Sotheby’s are having yearly auctions of original MAD artwork, and the prices that they’re getting–million dollar auctions. Celebrities come down and buy stuff–George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, for instance, own every cover MAD has done satirizing one of their movies, they have 10 paintings between them. So we are now collectible, we are part of the culture, and that’s a phenomenon we ourselves are amazed at.
What kind of relationship does MAD have with Time-Warner?
It’s not a one-man operation now, where Bill Gaines was publisher and he kept us totally out of the business world, which was his job. Now that we’re part of the conglomerate, we’re more involved in the business world, trying to preserve MAD and make sure enough people see it, know it’s out there–distribution, for instance. But this year (1996) is the first year in MAD’s history that we’re coming out 12 times a year. It was always eight times a year, but half of our readers never noticed–they just thought we were monthly, and we never were. But now we are monthly, and of course that makes meeting deadlines at the same 48 pages a lot more work–same staff doing 50 percent more work. So that’s all part of trying to make a higher profile for MAD in an age when reading is becoming less important. And the corporate people know how to do that–to get it out there and make us much more visible, so we just don’t fade away in the sunset quietly.
So they haven’t tried to influence content?
Not to a great extent–I think they’d like us to reach more people and that would mean… see, a lot of people think that MAD was a lot more biting and powerful in the past, and that was because there were no voices in the late ’50s–very few people bucked McCarthy or the conservative trends of the country. We were a new voice and I think people gave us more credit for being political than we were–if you go back and read it, you realize that we never came after any issue with an ax, we always came after it with a feather. But time gives people another perception, their memory is distorted and they think we were a lot more powerful than we were, or said more powerful things. But nowadays, because of the instantaneous response of the electronic world on what’s happening, you can’t get away with just being cute and saying quick little asides, and making a point with that. Now you’ve really got to come out and hit hard, hit fast, hit heavy. In that way, I think they would like us to restore the image of being people that had something very special to say and must be listened to. But to get that feeling today when there’s so much out there, you really gotta pound away–you can’t get by with just a mild thing.