"People ask me what it's like to work at MAD," said John Ficarra, current editor-in-chief of MAD Magazine, the long-running satirical publication which taught generations of skeptical teens to question false idols, push back at deceptive advertising, and mock authority figures. "It is a job. We come in every morning and we sit and there's blood on the walls trying to come up with an idea that we can agree on as funny."
The image is appropriately potrzebie, but there was no actual blood on the walls when Gothamist visited MAD Magazine headquarters last month to take a tour of the place (we also spent some time speaking with 95-year-old journeyman cartoonist Al Jaffee). The place was a little barren, if anything: MAD had recently relocated offices in Midtown Manhattan, and pieces from the MADtropolitan Museum Of Art (giant parody paintings featuring the likes of Donald "Birther King" Trump, Bill Clinton, and Alfred E. Neuman as Mona Lisa) were still spread out on the floor along the walls.
Although the company has over 150 current freelance writers and artists at this point, including a core of 50 regulars (some of whom, like Jaffee, have been there since the magazine's inception in the 1950s), there were only a few key staff members onsite when we visited. It was a far cry from the zany Veeblefetzer that many MAD readers may have imagined in their youth—it would have been a disappointment to Bart Simpson, who stared in awe when he got a peek behind the MAD curtain in the classic season nine The Simpsons episode, "The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson." (You can watch that whole episode here, or you can see a Spanish-dubbed version of the scene below.)
But that doesn't mean it isn't still a magical, weird place where coincidences and inspiration abound: "The weird thing is, I gave a tour to the guy who wrote that episode when he was a kid," Ficarra told us. "I didn’t know at the time, but he totally got it. Even the raspiness of the secretary’s voice, that was Gloria Orlando, who was our secretary at that point. And I didn’t even know, but on the DVD [bonus commentary] disc, he mentions, 'John Ficarra gave me a tour of the office!'"
"Overall, this certainly beats most jobs out there. I don't want to work for Uber. I don't want to be a Walmart greeter. I would take this job above all of that. Of course as I like to point out, we are doing God's work."
Ficarra, who has been in charge of the magazine for the last 12 years, started out at MAD in 1980. But his love for the magazine, as with so many readers, was sparked in elementary school—he submitted his first piece to the magazine when he was still in second grade. Not that he remembers what he submitted: "Don't remember now, but it was rejected, surprisingly," he said. "They didn't know genius. Over the years I kept trying and it was [editor Nick Meglin] who fished me out of what we call the slush pile, which is the unsolicited manuscript file, and started sending me encouraging notes."
He described himself as a class clown drawn to the subversiveness of MAD. Thumbing a nose at authority figures and idiots—be they presidents ("We have an end of the year issue, 'The 20 Dumbest Of The Year,' and [President George W. Bush] was in it so often that we retired him—we gave him a medal and he will no longer be in it"), bad movies and television ("Those are just perennial things that they just can't seem to get it right, thank God"), or cartoonish public figures ("Trump now is certainly a gift that keeps on giving. Sarah Palin was a gift that keeps on givin.")—resonates with him to this day: "I liked the fact that it was telling you that people are lying to you," Ficarra said. "That just because they were older doesn't mean they know more. Just because they're in power doesn't mean they know more, and chances are they're probably lying to you."
Getting to work with his idols was another plus—especially since those people tended to stick around a long time: "Oh my God, yeah. In fact, the current issue of AARP magazine has an article and I think it's seven or eight of our freelancers who have been with the magazine for over 50 years." Many members of the team, aka "The Usual Gang of Idiots," have enjoyed decades-long associations with MAD, which has given it the rare reputation, among the 850+ contributors who have received bylines in its pages, of providing stability in the otherwise volatile magazine industry.
Ficarra credits founder Bill Gaines for instilling the tightknit culture that has made the magazine such a welcoming environment for freelancers: there were the all-expenses-paid annual staff trips to different cities around the world (which ended in 1993 with Gaines' death), a strict commitment to artistic freedom for writers and artists ("We don't micromanage them...We want them to have fun on the page"), and a dedication to paying contributors fairly AND immediately for their work ("That, when you're freelancing, is a huge thing").
"People just love to work for MAD." Or maybe they just can't get any other work: "A lot of people who work for us stay forever and that's primarily because no one else will hire them. We offer a unique showcase for their talents, and I use the word talent very, very liberally."
For most fans, MAD Magazine was at its best whenever you first started reading it. Thanks to the lack of turnover among the staff, there has been a philosophical consistency to the magazine's perspective on life and humor ("Everyone is lying to you, including magazines. Think for yourself. Question authority," as it was once put). MAD hasn't shifted its satirical mission much in the last 60 years, which is either a sign of a great or foolish consistency, mostly depending on how much patience you have for whimsy and furshlugginer language.
It also means there are new young fans still discovering the magazine every year all around the globe. Ficarra saw a child reading the magazine on a remote island in Bermuda on his honeymoon. His predecessor, longtime editor Al Feldstein, was recognized while checking into a hotel in Africa. Celebrities and politicians including Jon Stewart, Neil Patrick Harris, Robert De Niro, Simon Cowell, Dan Quayle, Bill & Hillary Clinton, Slash and thousands more send in photos of themselves holding their caricatures from the latest issue without fail (and they all end up on the wall of photos above).
Dan Rather once complained about the haircut of his likeness. Another time, Ficarra got a call that an Admiral William H. McRaven wanted to stop by the offices: "I was like ‘Okay, who the heck is Admiral McRaven?’ And then I Googled the guy, and this is the guy that planned the Bin Laden raid. Like SEAL Team Six guy, he was the one who got on the phone with Obama and was like, ‘Yeah, we got him.’ He was extremely impressive in person."
And then there was a letter he received just the other day regarding Jaffee's autobiography: "Someone read his autobiography and brought it to Lithuania, and the people there were stunned by how much Al remembered about Lithuania, and there's very little record of it because of the Nazis—they came in and did what Nazis do," Ficarra recounted. "They want to set up a permanent museum exhibit of Jaffee's work. That's something brand new that we're just starting now to talk about."
Of course, not everyone was enamored with MAD. Especially not famed songwriter Irving Berlin. Ficarra explained:
Back in the early '60s, MAD did a songbook where we took famous songs and printed alternate lyrics. One of them was to a song called "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin and we did it to "Blue Cross." Irving Berlin, who was notoriously litigious, sued us. He got a lot of the other songwriters whose works were in the issue to also sue, but he was the main litigant. In the lower courts the ruling was that well, most of the songs were okay, but a few of them did veer too close to the original song, so it was like a split verdict. Bill Gaines was publisher at the time, he was pretty happy with that and was just willing to walk away from it.
Berlin was not. He appealed the case to the New York appeals court. A judge named Irving Kaufman. He came down resoundingly in MAD's favor and he said to Irving Berlin, "You do not own iambic pentameter, and if I rule in your favor, every time somebody wobbles one of your songs in the shower, they're going to have to get out of the shower and send you a quarter of royalty."
Slam dunk for MAD. Berlin appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, so the lower court held. That basically laid the way for song parody that everyone does today. The morning zoos and things like that.
Two interesting things about the case: Irving Kaufman then went on to kill the Rosenbergs. He was the guy who sentenced the Rosenbergs to death. That is a claim to fame.
Years later, a book came out about Irving Berlin and his life, and how do you think he started out? As a saloon piano player doing song parodies. It's that kind of hypocrisy that keeps us in business.
Ficarra got back to work on the latest issue as we were leaving (he was headed to California later that week to consult on MadTV's just-announced television revival for the CW). He noted that cartoonist John Caldwell, whose work appeared in over 150 issues of the magazine, had recently passed away, and they planned on having a little tribute to him by including one of his favorite articles, "What If Chickens Could Time Travel?"
"It's probably the only magazine in the world that would publish that article," he added. "We're doing God's work here. I don't know if you're aware."