Within two minutes of the interview opening, we’re already talking about cultural trends. John Ficarra is humorous, witty, and deeply incisive, all the best qualities you look for in a satirist. But over the course of his career at MAD Magazine, John has also, always been pushing the envelope—not only in terms of satire, but in terms of the cultural modes that access satire also. John Ficarra, as I point out to him, has developed pic-tagging long before it was popularized by Facebook. I’m referring to the famous, long-running snap a pic with yourself, a celeb and MAD.
“if you ever get to the MAD offices, you’ll see we have three bulletin boards just chock-full of that. They’re fun to look at”, John enthuses. “And it’s only because they really run the gamut of everybody from Nobel Prize winners to celebrities, to actually celebrities who’ve dropped by the office. JJ Abrams stopped by, and Robert De Niro stopped by. And you’ll also get pictures of Presidents, and sometimes… and Dan Rather sent in his own photo. He complained about the way we drew his hair. So y’know, you just never know where MAD will show up. MAD has a very odd reach. We always said we appeal to the lunatic fringe. And y’know… politicians and newscasters…”. There’s a deep humor in John’s voice, the practiced craft of always finding the ridiculous in even the most banal of things.
Talking with him now (and even listening to this conversation weeks later as I write), it’s hard to miss how much this is like interview an Olympic athlete. There’s a training and a dedication and a focus here. And strangely, it’s a focus and a discipline that John himself is almost wholly dismissive of. Like the marginalia in MAD itself (the marginalia that more often than not leaves you roaring with laughter), John marginalizes his genius by diminishing its scope in the world. There’s something deeply redemptive about John on a personal level. And something deeply rewarding about him on an intellectual level. He enters the world as a secret giant. Cloaked in the most part in an anonymity, John works tirelessly not only to produce cogent, incisive satire, but also to provide the context for the Usual Gang of Idiots that produce MAD. “We stand on each others’ shoulders”, John says to me much later in the interview, after we’ve both lowered our defenses. It’s a tone you’d imagine is saved for intimate conversations in the Confessional. It’s a beautiful, compassionate reversal of the mock-heroic sentiment once issued by Isaac Newton. “We stand on each others’ shoulders” And then, John’s genius, “or maybe I should say, ‘We stand on each others’ backs’”. John it seems, could undermine everything, including the fact that he undermines everything.
And yet, less that five minutes into the interview, John’s already shown a side of himself that care deeply about the world. Somewhere in the glib of MAD, somewhere in that deeply-entrenched cultural criticism, are there some deeply-held values, is there something that’s broken about the world that MAD is commenting on. Is MAD a shield against the hyper-prevalent paparazzo-culture?
There’s a slow windup, and then the pitch. “Y’know… every year I kinda hoped that this was the year that was the tipping point and that we’ll stop being so fascinated by celebrities, as a culture. And every year my hope dies on January 1st”, there’s a strange chuckle as John says that last part. There’s an open, large-hearted laugh at something crazy in the world. But underneath, ever so slightly, there’s a pain of realization. Perhaps it’s a secret realization that we’ll never have what we deserve. That maybe we’ll never free ourselves from the consequence of our own stupidities. That for every Facebook user unity millions against the kidnapping industry in Latin America, there’s about ten dozen bloggers who’ll spam you with lolcats. Just at the edges of the spotlight my question shines on the inner workings of producing satire, John is at his most honest emotionally. There’s a never-ending-ness that might never be fully defended against. And ironically, MAD is on the side of sanity. It’s what TS Eliot said right at the end of The Waste Land: “These fragments have I shored against my ruin”, and that overwhelming sense, that “these fragments” might not be enough.
It’s a slow windup, and then the pitch. “Y’know… every year I kinda hoped that this was the year that was the tipping point and that we’ll stop being so fascinated by celebrities, as a culture. And every year my hope dies on January 1st”, then I recognize a strange sadness right under John’s tone, and then he’s back. “…because there are people that just think, ‘I’m a celebrity and everything I do is of interest to the world’. Now as a humorist, it’s great for me to make fun of them. But at the same time I feel as I’m not getting paid, to write the jokes about these people, I’m being paid to keep up with all their nonsense. Because the Kardashians, it’s one after the other… Tori Spelling has her own show now. I saw a promo for this show last night and she’s in bed with her husband and she presents him with an EPT test that shows that she’s pregnant, and… are you kidding, me?”
It’s at this point I begin to fall in the regularized pattern of John’s thinking. There’s the commentary, then there’s the flash of genius. The thunderbolt about paparazzo-culture, is what John points out next. “But what’s happened as well with this paparazzi-culture is we’ve begun to treat politics the same way. Politicians are now celebrities in their own right. They’re on The Tonight Show. And they’re tweeting, and we’re following them, their rise and fall just like we do movie stars. And, they’re not only aware of this, but they’re using a lot of the tropes of movie stars, like humor and things like that to try to defuse situations, like Rick Perry put out a lot of funny commercials about him forgetting the three departments he wanted to abolish when he becomes President. So he’s trying to position us into thinking that he can laugh at himself, and sorta take some of the sting out of it”.
It’s not like John or the Usual Gang pull any of their punches in the most recent issue of MAD either. Issue #513, “The 20 Dumbest of 2011”, is captioned, “The Year We Ran Out of Money”. Number one on that list? The political crisis that resulted in ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor, downgrading the US from a Triple A rating. But MAD isn’t the New York Times, so facts don’t appear in a logical argument, presented as an Op. Ed. Instead, we encounter the deeply emotive pairing of a newsworthy piece, wedded to an instantly recognizable hit from popculture. In this instant, the parody is “The Walking Debt”, a sendup for AMC’s zombie TV show The Walking Dead. Obama, Pelosi and Boehner parade as zombies in front of the Capitol.
In our interview, John continues to comment, “I think the punchline to that was ‘Brains! We need brains!’. And I think it’s true of just about our entire political culture right now. We seem to be a rudderless culture with just pandering, pandering, pandering to whatever group they’re talking to. But nothing’s getting done, and the polarization exists, and… It’s not a great time for the country right now”. Again, just below the humor, there’s that sadness. That MAD is really contending against the inevitable.
Although it never comes up during the interview. It’s hard to set aside the feelings that surfaced while reading Lawrence Lessig’s excellent Republic, Lost. In it, Professor Lessig discusses the deep-seated mechanics of divisiveness that causes an unprecedented breakdown of the functioning of Congress and the Senate. In its pages, Republic, Lost suggests the revolutionary idea that Congress and the Senate don’t breakdown because of bad people, but because the system as it now stands is tilted towards division rather than agreement.
Republic, Lost is deeply moving. Not so much a Battle-Hymn, but almost nearly a dirge. It is an unerring reminder of why John Ficarra’s work at MAD matters as much as it does. But John himself, simply plows ahead with his answer. “many have accused MAD of being overly-liberal. But that isn’t the case at all. MAD is trying to be the funny conscience of the country. And just say, ‘Look what’s going on here. Isn’t it’ stupid? Shouldn’t you be doing something about it? Shouldn’t somebody be doing something about it’. And certainly with Number One, that’s where we were trying to go”.
Before the next answer, it’s time to take a breath. The interview is far from over.