My New York Comic-Con 2016 whirlwind this past weekend ended with one of my favorite interviews (Shhh… don’t tell Guillermo del Toro and Steven Yeun aka “Glenn” from The Walking Dead!). Mad Magazine‘s Editor-in-Chief John Ficarra was on hand dispensing comedic wisdom in the midst of a bunch of comic book authors, but I only had eyes for him. I have been reading MAD on and off since the early 1980s, and am a huge fan. So now that everyone is aware of my high-class taste in literature…
Check out the interview below, as well as the cover for a different kind of “MAD” book.
Geeks Of Doom: So I’ve been reading Mad magazine since the early 80s. It had to be around that time, because I snuck my uncle’s and it was wildly inappropriate for my age.
John Ficarra: [Laughs] Inappropriate? No….
Geeks Of Doom: What were you doing before you became assistant editor back in 1980?
John Ficarra: I had tried writing for MAD since grammar school.
Geeks Of Doom: Oh yeah?
John Ficarra: Yeah. Sent some stuff in. They’d physically send it back to me. And while I was in college, and I was really learning how to submit to a magazine, and the associate editor at the time picked my stuff out of what we lovingly call the slush pile – unsolicited manuscripts. And he started writing me and encouraging me, which is very very encouraging when you’re a freelancer because normally you get back a rejection slip. This was when everything was going by mail. There was no email. I had been working through college for International Nickel, a mining company.
GoD: [I laugh – sorry!]
John Ficarra: I needed a job and they fell on very hard times. They laid me off and 4,000 others, and that really turned out to be a blessing because it gave me the freedom to really pursue writing. That, and very supportive parents who let me stay rent free in their house. So I started writing. I tried to write for Mad, I started to write for comedians, I was writing for radio at that point. I just really immersed myself in, “How do I get this done?” Because back then, there wasn’t the paths to comedy writing there are now. Kids now go to school to become comedy writers. You go to Harvard, then you go to The Simpsons, then you go to SNL, and then you get your 3-picture deal. Back when I was doing it, there wasn’t any of that. So I wanted to write for MAD, but I never really thought that would be a career in and of itself, because nobody left MAD. There wasn’t a hire in 24 years..
Geeks Of Doom: Wow.
John Ficarra: And I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time after I sold a couple of articles, and I was up dropping one off and Nick [the editor] said, “Have you ever considered working on other people?” I was like, “Yeah. I could start today.” A couple of weeks went by and I hadn’t heard anything. I called him up and he said, “No, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.” Ok there it is. And then he called me back about 2 weeks later and he says, “Guess what it is happening. Can you come up for an interview?” I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow.” Then he called me back an hour later and said, “Can you come today?” And that was, I remember the exact date, September 30th. I went up, and they said, “When can you start?” I said, “I can start now.” And I sat there the rest of the day in the NY offices. And I officially became a MAD employee October 1st.
Geeks Of Doom: Wow… [As you can see, I am quite clever].
John Ficarra: Yeah. It was very very surprising. It was a lot of luck, a lot of luck. And then to be here so many years later, because magazines traditionally have a high turnover rate, and MAD doesn’t. And the whole print business isn’t great to begin with these days, so I feel I’ve been very, very fortunate.
Geeks Of Doom: So I read the letters that the readers send. Do you ever answer them?
John Ficarra: For years, I did. For years, that was one of my jobs was to answer the letters. It was when I started answering them… this was after Feldstein left, because Feldstein was very rigid about the letters, was basically when we started insulting the readers. You know, very snarky. We started the “Make-A-Dumb-Wish” foundation, and we started the “Celebrity Snaps,” and all those things that are very popular. I don’t do it anymore. Dave Croatto and Jacob Lambert, my 2 associate editors do it, and then I read them. And I may put in a joke here or there, but I don’t do them as much, which is too bad because I really enjoyed doing it.
Geeks Of Doom: That’s my favorite part. I mean I read the parodies… I subscribe… in print.
John Ficarra: Thank you.
Geeks Of Doom: So my husband actually said to ask you this about getting material during this political time, but I said I that I think that it’s always been like this.
John Ficarra: Yeah. It’s always been like this. We’ve never run short of politicians doing stupid things for us to make fun of.
To get back to the letters for a second, I just got a letter from one of the lawyers, who asked, “Do you have any objection to this?” It was this guy who said, “I’m writing a letter to MAD every day for the next 2 months to try to get it published. I assume they are not going to publish them. Can I then use those letters as the basis for an article for another magazine?” First of all, he didn’t even have to ask us because the letters are his. But beyond that… what’s the first thing I did? I sent his letter to Dave and Jacob and said, “Print this letter” [we laugh]. And I was sitting at my desk a couple of weeks ago and a guy walks by. We share a floor with Extra and TMZ, and a guy in a suit walks by and does a double take, and comes running into my office. We were in a meeting, and says, “I’m sorry to interrupt you. You made my career.” At the time he was this 12-year-old kid who was a big MAD fan, who had come up to see me. I gave him a tour, and then I published one of his letters on the letter page. He wrote me something, and we took pictures in the office. He said at that moment he knew he wanted to work in journalism, and he still has in his office the framed picture of me and him and the letter in his office. And now, he was plugging a book. He’s a well-published author. He’s a professor at Princeton. So we had taken the photo in front of the giant Alfred statue, so we recreated the photo.
Geeks Of Doom: Oh wow…. [laughing] that’s so nice.
John Ficarra: Thirty-something years later in the exact same pose.
Geeks Of Doom: [Laughs] So… back to the politicians…
John Ficarra: Yeah.
GoD: So politicians always do stupid things, but this must be on another level. [He shows me this month’s cover with Trump on it.]
John Ficarra: Yeah. We almost have Trump fatigue at this point because… every day. We’re thinking to the next issue which is the MAD 20 dumbest and he is just…
Geeks Of Doom: You should dedicate it.
John Ficarra: We talked about doing the entire 20 dedicated to him, and we felt that wasn’t fair to other stupid people who do stupid things. But he will populate many of the numbers of the 20.
Geeks Of Doom: You must get a lot of hate mail from the people who find their way into your issues.
John Ficarra: We get the most hate mail when we parody a boy band.
Geeks Of Doom: From little girls?
John Ficarra: From pre-pubescent girls, whether it’s New Kids on the Block, One Direction… immediately we get this avalanche of mail – “How could you do this? You’re just jealous because they’re better than you, and they make more money than you.” Now the kids are right on all 3 points, but that doesn’t stop us from making fun of them.
Geeks Of Doom: And it makes those girls, who maybe normally wouldn’t read MAD magazine, read it, right?
John Ficarra: Hopefully! But it was funny, because we were looking back at old letters at one point for some reason, and it’s almost verbatim language the ones for New Kids on the Block and for One Direction, that were published about Elvis when we made fun of Elvis. So that just seems to be hardwired in the DNA of young girls. You can’t make fun of their boy bands. They’re gods.
Geeks Of Doom: I know, I know. Are there any other types of people that have written in?
John Ficarra: Not too much. I mean, I know for a fact that Trump didn’t like when we did the Rosie O’Donell cover. We heard that. But mostly, people are thrilled to be in the magazine.
Geeks Of Doom: Well, that’s your thing.
John Ficarra: Exactly. That’s what we do. We did Gordon Ramsey, and we didn’t even have the issue out yet and he got hold of it. And he put it on his website and said, “MAD‘s in the house.” And he got a huge amount of likes on his page which sent traffic to our page. Even politicians are good about it. Bill Clinton… I mean, we were merciless on Clinton. He posed for a picture and he told the person, “I remember pooling my money and going to the store and buying MAD. And then one of our greatest “Celebrity Snaps” ever was a picture of George W. Bush holding up a copy of the MAD 20, of which he was one of the 20th dumbest.
Geeks Of Doom: Ahahaha!
John Ficarra: You can’t make stuff like that up.
Geeks Of Doom: So I read MAD in the 80s, and then I think I skipped a decade. I don’t know… life.
John Ficarra: That’s very common among readers by the way. 16-20, we lose readers and then get them back.
Geeks Of Doom: In their 40s?
John Ficarra: Hopefully sooner. We want your money in your 20s, and then your 30s and then your 40s.
Geeks Of Doom: Are there any new “bits” that are coming up?
John Ficarra: Yes. The new bit that we’re doing which isn’t in the magazine, is we’re starting to do a series of new books. So it’s not just a collection of MAD material. This is the first of it. It’s obviously a parody of Goodnight Moon, it’s Goodnight Batcave. And it’s really a fun read because its a mash-up of an old classic children’s book with DC characters, but with MAD snark, MAD artists, and some MAD Easter Eggs. So this is going to be out October 25th, and it’s the first of many that we’re doing. There’s already 2 more written. I think that this is gonna be an interesting path for MAD to take, and there’s a couple of others that I can’t talk about yet, but will be a nice brand extension. So it’s not just the magazine, it’s opening up MAD to a slew of readers who might not normally pick it up. There’s a guy in digital I gave a copy to. He said he’s read it about 50 times to his 4-year old son. So it will be fun for the 4-year old, fun for the parent, and fun for the 35-year-old fan as well.
It is already preordered on Amazon. My 5-year-old will love it.