Interview: Cartoon Network’s Mad Carries On a Legacy of Skewering Pop Culture

People Television

For 60 years, Mad has been part of America’s cultural landscape, mocking celebrities, politicians, advertisers, fads and fashions. (It’s true, go look; the first issue of Mad hit the stands in August of 1952, cover-dated October/November, as was the fashion of the time.) Though its fortunes have risen and fallen over the years, Mad has kept on going, and in 2010, it moved into a new format for a new generation; Cartoon Network is now in the third season of its Mad cartoon show.

During the San Diego Comic-Con, I had the opportunity to sit down with two of the creators of Mad, a 15-minute block of animated nonsense that is simultaneously entertaining for the young viewer and a bit of nostalgia for their parents. Producer-animator-animation supervisor Mark Marek and writer Marly Halpern-Graser answered questions and chatted about the history of Mad, the transition from page to screen, and the art of satire.

McQuarrie: Now, what are your positions with Mad?

Mark Marek: I’m animation supervisor and producer, so I kind of watch over all the animation, and Marly is on the writing team.

Marly Halpern-Glaser: Yes, I’m in the writer’s room, and then the producer-head writer, Kevin Shinick, supervises our room of “the usual gang of idiots.”

McQuarrie: So, tell me about Mad; my kids are in their teens and older now, so I haven’t had much opportunity to see the show.

Halpern-Glaser: We’re more low teens…

Marek: We’re sort of six to twelve….

Halpern-Glaser: We air at 8:45….

Marek: That’s this week, it moves around…

Halpern-Glaser: It’s gonna be 8:45 for a while, I think the block has settled.

Marek: On Cartoon Network.

Halpern-Glaser: Eleven-minute animated sketch comedy; we do movie parodies, TV parodies, commercial parodies…

Marek: Basically modeled after the magazine, which, you look younger than me, but….

McQuarrie: I’m a hundred and twelve. I’ve seen a couple of episodes, actually, because I’m friends with Sergio [Aragonés].

Marek: Oh, yeah? He’s going to be on our panel today.

Halpern-Glaser: One of the cool things we do, we take Sergio’s marginals that are supposed to go between the pages, and we animate them and put them between sketches on our show.

MacQuarrie: It’s fun to see his stuff animated.

Halpern-Glaser: His stuff animates really well.

Marek: I grew up on the magazine; the marginals, aside from Mort Drucker, were one of the things I loved about the magazine, so here I am working with Sergio; he comes in, we give each other hugs, it’s like a dream come true to have this job.

MacQuarrie: Are you adapting any other Mad features? There’s “Spy vs. Spy”….

Marek: We’ve done a lot of “Spy vs. Spy,” this season they are all stop-motion, which is really cool looking. We like to get a big variety into our show; stop-motion is one of these mediums that we really like; then there’s traditional animation, collage, found object animation, whatever we can get.

Halpern-Glaser: We adapt Don Martin, we’ve adapted a couple “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.”

MacQuarrie: Have you figured out how to do the fold-in?

Marek: We do that in the title sequence. We talked about it, we broke a few Sony monitors trying to do it, it is something that was so iconic – it wasn’t necessarily hilarious, but it is iconic – so we wanted to get that in there, and we got it in the beginning. This whole stop-motion set builds, and then it folds and unfolds to reveal Mad. We use it at the end too for credits.

Halpern-Glaser: So there is some folding involved.

MacQuarrie: Marly, you said you didn’t grow up on the magazine.

Halpern-Glaser: I didn’t. I feel bad telling people that.

Marek: You’re just young.

Halpern-Glaser: I read a few issues; one of the only jokes I remember from Mad was a Ben Affleck movie with a nuclear bomb, the bomb goes off and destroys the city, he’s playing a character that Harrison Ford had played in another movie, so someone is super-sad, holding these shoes, they’re crying, and somebody says “oh no, are those the shoes of somebody who died in the explosion?” and they say “no, they are Harrison Ford’s shoes, and Ben Affleck can’t fill them!” That’s the one Mad joke I remember, and I really like it.

Marek: I did grow up on the magazine.

MacQuarrie: Me too, during the high point, what I consider the high point, roughly 1968 to ’75.

Marek: It’s funny that you say that, because I do think there is, it’s sort of unspoken, but there is a classic era of Mad.

MacQuarrie: It was when they had Nixon to kick around.

Marek: Well, that too, but I think also, like nowadays it’s tough to publish. So this is the medium for Mad to carry over into, with all due respect to the magazine. It’s a great magazine.

Halpern-Glaser: They still do really funny stuff.

Marek: They do hilarious stuff. But I think this is the medium right now.

Halpern-Glaser: If I can just completely derail the interview, and start interviewing you guys….

MacQuarrie: Go for it.

Halpern-Glaser: As Mad fans, do you think Mad is sort of like Saturday Night Live, where everyone has their own high point in their head, what they think is the highest point?

Marek: You mean classic Mad?

Halpern-Glaser: Yeah, do you think Mad is like SNL, where everybody thinks they know the best five years, and everybody disagrees?

MacQuarrie: You could, among the older fans downstairs [on the convention floor], you could start a knife fight over whether the Kurtzman era was better….

Marek: Yeah, there’s the Kurtzman era, then the sixties….

MacQuarrie: The Feldstein era. And you can break that up; pre-Nixon; Nixon really was a defining element of Mad Magazine, to the point that they got letters saying “why don’t you go beat up somebody else once in a while? You’re letting everyone else off the hook!”

Cover of Mad #30Cover of Mad #30

Alfred E. Neuman’s first run for president in 1956, on the cover of MAD #30.

Halpern-Glaser: That brings up a point we haven’t mentioned; Alfred E. Neuman is running for president.

MacQuarrie: Cool. Again?

Marek: Yeah, he’s going to try again. I like one of the stickers we’re going to be signing later on; campaign stickers. The one I like is “We Need a Neu Man in the White House.”

Halpern-Glaser: We have runners in every episode through the election. All the way until the election, maybe even past the election, he won’t realize he’s lost and he’ll just keep running.

MacQuarrie: How political is the show?

Marek: You have to keep in mind we have a demographic, which we abide by, but obviously, 6- to 12-year-olds have about as much interest in politics as we did … but we do try to put in something that, whether a 6- to 12-year-old will get it or not, it will appeal to somebody, another demographic….

Halpern-Glaser: And also, you know, because you were a kid and then you grew up, one of the most rewarding things is going back and watching something you watched as a kid and seeing jokes you didn’t get as a kid; it makes you feel smart for having liked it back then even though you didn’t know why.

MacQuarrie: Mad always had kind of a, not necessarily political, but kind of a moralist sense; they were outraged at wrongs and mocked them mercilessly.

Marek: And I think that goes beyond politics; they were outraged by cultural phenomena, by what was being sold to you.

MacQuarrie: Commercialism was a big one, and still is. And I hope there’s some level of that in the show.

Halpern-Glaser: I think that the version of that that we are able to do, and that really speaks to our audience, is we present to the audience all of pop culture, and we say “all of this is stupid … especially us.”

Marek: That’s something I always liked about it, the usual gang of idiots. “We’re not taking ourselves too seriously; you can come down on us, that’s fine. Please do.”

MacQuarrie: I still remember all the lyrics to Frank Jacobs’ “Yecch, Mad.”

Marek: “Sung to the tune of….”

Halpern-Glaser: Yeah, “sung to the tune of” is one segment that is a little less legal on TV than it was in a magazine. It doesn’t really work. We can’t do it.

Marek: We’ve done a couple close to that. We have to use sound-alikes, change a few notes.

Halpern-Glaser: We did a parody of Katy Perry’s “Firework” called “Flammable,” it was just paper and clay characters catching on fire, but it had to not sound exactly like “Firework.” That “Flammable” song is going make an encore appearance in season three.

Marek: Oh, really? That’s news to me.

Halpern-Glaser: A certain movie this year used “Firework” very heavily, and we were like, we already have a parody of “Firework” in our archives, we should use our “Firework” parody in our parody of that movie.

MacQuarrie: Not having paid any attention, I’m not even sure what movie that might be.

Halpern-Glaser: Well, we’ll see if any astute readers can figure it out.

MacQuarrie: I met Al Jaffee last year, and I’m curious, aside from…. You’re working with Sergio, but the other Mad guys, have you heard from them? What do Frank Jacobs, Dick De Bartolo, and the rest of them think of your show?

Marek: We’ve done a few shared panels with them; this is the first panel that we haven’t shared. They love what we’re doing. They’re in touch with us all the time, with ideas. We use Tom Richmond for parodies, Sergio we work with directly, we’ve used Herman Mejia; Mort Drucker we haven’t used, but Herman Mejia is like an amazing caricaturist, as is Tom Richmond, and we’ve used both of them because their artwork is just beautiful….

Halpern-Glaser: It’s fun when our parodies can look like a Mad parody that’s been animated.

Marek: We did a couple Al Jaffees….

Halpern-Glaser: That’s the Snappy Answers, which was one of his iconic bits, and we did it in his style. And I think we’ve done a couple of his two-panel comics.

Marek: We’ve done Don Martin. We do like to pollinate some of the old stuff, but quite honestly, we just want to make sure we have that attitude going, because the 6- to 12-year-olds have no allegiance to any of that stuff.

MacQuarrie: You want to capture the flavor.

Marek: I personally feel that Sergio’s style, and this is just me being in awe of him, is timeless. He has a drawing style that just carries over, and a hundred years from now it’ll be beautiful art.

Halpern-Glaser: The most important thing is to just capture the tone of the magazine, because that’s being more true to the magazine than it would be to just copy old stuff.

MacQuarrie: I think you’re successful in that.

Marek: Part of my job is to feel like I’m bringing in a new look. We’ll get all these great scripts, but I don’t want to feel like when we look at the line-up in editing that the look is getting too homogenous. We want to make sure we’re getting stop-motion or whatever new kind of animation, sort of like a festival.

MacQuarrie: I think it’s probably a little bit like the problem Walt Disney Studios had for years, where they went “what would Walt do?” and that’s the kiss of death. You can’t sit there and think, “what would Al Feldstein do?” It’s “what do I want to do?”

Marek: I think we’ve got the right group of people; animators and writers, and what makes us laugh.

Halpern-Glaser: You want to do jokes that kids will get but that you laugh at. Then everybody laughs.

Marek: I think we’re kids anyway; my guiding light is what makes me laugh; that’s all it can be. And I love fart jokes.

MacQuarrie: Who doesn’t love a fart joke? Have you gotten any complaints? Has anything been controversial?

Marek: Not at all, and you’d think on a parody show they would.

Halpern-Glaser: I think there was a Facebook group of five people that were offended for a few minutes, and then I think they forgot about it.

MacQuarrie: What was it that offended them?

Halpern-Glaser: Just generally. They were offended that they owned a television.

Marek: I think we went into this thinking that we would hear from people, but I think we’re fair enough and funny enough that it sails really well.

Halpern-Glaser: I think one good thing is that because we have a Mad pedigree, everyone knows it’s an honor to be parodied by Mad; even if you take a jab at someone, they’re just excited that you noticed them.

Marek: It’s an honor.

Halpern-Glaser: For me, one of the things that’s most fun, we’ll parody something like Scott Pilgrim, something that didn’t get parodied that much, and then you’ll see on the internet the writer of the Scott Pilgrim comic book is excited that we did a parody and is sending it out. Parodies are most effective when you have some affection for it; that’s why people like Star Wars parodies so much, because people like Star Wars. You point out what’s stupid about something that you like, and that’s how you get the best parodies.

MacQuarrie: There’s this wide gulf between “this is great” and “I like this.” This might be utter crap, but I like it. Phantom of the Paradise is a terrible movie that I love dearly.

Marek: We’ll never do anything that mean, because it’s not funny. You’ll have some humor magazines or parodies that are about that.

MacQuarrie: I think we’re getting the signal that our time is up. Thank you very much.

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