The Ethics of Brand Extension: An Exclusive with MAD's John Ficarra

It's going to be an interview with John soon. Poor guy, he doesn't yet know it's going to be about the ziggurats. But he'll figure it out soon enough…

It's going to be an interview with John soon. Poor guy, he doesn't yet know it's going to be about the ziggurats. But he'll figure it out soon enough. Talking about Epic MAD, what else could it be? When we begin I'll dive right in with the ziggurats. Not the ancient Mayan ones. Not the pantomime of stonework and embedded shadows that appear once and once only for each solstice. But the shiny metallic ones that squat over the possibly one of the most beautiful films of all time--BladeRunner.

The BladeRunner connection is an easy one. In the future, director Ridley Scott informs us, all corporate ventures would effectively have been aggregated into a single, monolithic industry, that of the manufacture of artificial life. Moreover, according to BladeRunner (and as distinct from scifi author Philip K Dick's original, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), the Tyrell Corporation has come to dominate the proverbial horizon. Not only do they hold exclusive rights through patents and IP to produce the state-of-the-art Nexus 6 human replicant cyborgs, but they've de facto become the backbone for the entire economy. Whole industries would simply disappear should Alden Tyrell up stakes and leave.

Over the last few years we've come to terms, in a uniquely twenty-first century, non-scifi kind of way, with the too-big-too-fail problem that Scott originally hinted at in BladeRunner. Going in to it, MAD seemed exactly the cure for the kind of thinking that allowed the conditionality of too-big-too-fail to exist in the first place. MAD's always ushered in a great and secret age of the self-critical, of the painstaking reassessment, of the universal rethink. And in a strange and unexpected way, MAD has been a privileged space, protected by the very corporate interests it often forces us to reconsider.

So when I'm told that Epic MAD is a Wal-Mart-friendly version of MAD, especially produced for the megamart chain, how can I not lead with BladeRunner and its beautifully doomed ziggurats that belch fire and carbon into the already operatically bedraggled LA skyline? And the thing of it is (of course it would be this, it could play out no other way), John and I never really get to the ziggurats. We open with a back-and-forth about Wallace & Gromit, about cheese, and about Newt Gingrich and riding the subway, and privilege in a world after Bernie Madoff. Because that's the way we get into things, because that's how we get going. And because now, some time on after originally having spoken for the first time, we've fallen into an all-too-familiar rhythm. All-too-familiar sure, but still one that's elevated by John's keen intellect.

Each time we have these conversations I'm confronted by one thing about John. That in a way he's like latter day Houdini. A magician with a magician's eye for understanding the mechanics and the machinery of perception. And with just a few well-placed words, he can overturn expectations, allow you to see into the heart of infrastructural exploitation, have a good hard laugh at the innate stupid of the world. When we do get down to it, after the initial getting-going, we fall into talking about Epic MAD proper, it's about the MAD Proverbs.

It's brilliantly vivid artwork by MAD veteran Al Jaffee. A smart aleck kid (black leather jacket, giant skull-and-crossbones belt buckle, tee-shirt that reads "a proverb in the hand is worth two in the mouth", you know the kind…) holds forth while a crowd gags and gaggles its way through the confusion and outright distress this kid's proverbs present. "Let me tell you about Tom Koch," John begins.

"Tom Koch, is a…," and there's that pause, and the drama builds, "fabulous writer. He originally started writing for [comedy team] Bob & Ray. When MAD first started, they had very few writers. So Al approached Bob & Ray and said, 'Do you think I could adapt some of your material for the magazine?', and they said 'Sure.' And as they began to adapt more and more material they realized all of it was written by this time Tom Koch. So afterwards they just said, 'Can we just go to Koch directly and get him to write for the magazine?' And that began just about a 30-year relationship, Tom's retired now. But he was a wonderful writer. Very difficult to edit because he wrote, this piece notwithstanding, in these wonderful phrases that you just couldn't take out a joke and pop in another… it really had a character to it and a phrasing that really created one of the unique voices in MAD. Highly underrated I think, over the years. When people talk about MAD writers, the ones that always seem to get the credit are either Frank Jacobs for the poetry and songs or Stan for the TV shows and movie spoofs. But Tom was just a fabulous asset to MAD for so many years."

We begin to speak about how this piece in particular shines through history. It almost hasn't aged at all. John picks it up, "Yeah, I want to say this article first ran, 1985, 1986. And in fact that first line, 'You can't ride a wet horse into Germany', is one that we still repeat in the offices for some reason." And there's a chuckle as John ends that sentence. It's the kind of chuckle that gives the game away. We're on a phone call rather than in a live interview. So my mind is drawn into animating John's actions. Is there a slight nod of his head? Does he look up with the twinkle of the full weight of years, years of MAD in his eye? Or does he look down, to clean an unseen speck from his glasses, wholly transfixed in the action as a smile crosses his face? But why curb my imagination there? If we were genuinely running this interview in the real of far-flung make believe, would this be a Monty Python-style non sequitur jump-cut into John sitting by a fireside as the dead of winter draws in closer? Or sitting on a porch, a richly-lived life clearly in focus, playing out in the world that lifetime had built?

This is a singular moment. The emotional core of the interview, and the ziggurats fade from view. Why would MAD be co-opted into Wal-Mart, a company that may not respect that privileged critical space of the magazine in the same way MAD's parent company, Time Warner does? Why extend the brand into a media venue that might not be ready for the wilder, zanier MAD? Did I imagine a tear in that moment of introspection that John just engaged in? The answer to both musings is the same. It's a world freed from ziggurats. It's a brand extension into a differently-oriented media venue, because it's a brand that deserves to be extended. It's brand built with the care and the love and the unique insights of unique personalities, a brand built from this over decades. This isn't a cynical ploy to prolong the life of something long ago dead. This is the projection of the vital and the vibrant into the places where it can be found as easily as anything.

And it's the end of ziggurats in the strangest of ways. An end to the imposing and the monolithic, and the endless, fire-belching dark of too-big-too-fail, not by striking against and opposing it. But by the success of the personal relationships. This articles are the work of friends, the realization of a friendship, each joke a secret signature of a personal, lived history with John and the writer or the artist. What must it be like to read Epic MAD as John Ficarra? To have the memories flood in, and to see those memories become available to an entirely new generation, in a place no one would expect MAD to be? And if there's anything that can overwhelm that reign of the ziggurats, it's this. The things built by hand, as the result of friendship. Epic MAD is a deep, and infinitely open invitation to participate in that kind of fortitude. An invitation, even to the very ziggurat culture that threatens to overwhelm us.

It was Tom Waits referencing Charles Bukowski who said, "You can't really be too concerned with what people think of you. You're on your own adventure of growth and discovery. Like Charles Bukowski said, 'People think I'm down on Fifth and Main, at the Blarney Stone, throwing back shooters and smoking a cigar, but I'm really at the health club with a towel in my lap, watching Johnny Carson.' So it's not always good to be where people think you are, especially if you subscribe to it as well… which is easily done, because then you don't have to figure out who you are, you just ask somebody else." When I hold Epic MAD in my hands, it feels exactly like that. Like the idea of being able to defeat omnipresent, lasting availableness ziggurat culture seems to install in us.

That, and the other thing also; the idea that Epic MAD is a return to the original MADs which were available everywhere, and could be found by anyone. The idea that MAD itself, at whatever level, in whatever venue will always be MAD. And it will never fade. And it will never fail. And that the promise of the magazine, will be, not uncompromising, but uncompromised.

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