The Storm: Exclusive with MAD Editor John Ficarra on "50 Worst Cartoons"
"Yeah, we're waiting for a blizzard this weekend," John Ficarra says, bending my ear in that way he usually does as a lead-in to saying something profound, "And it's going to be a big one…"
"Yeah, we're waiting for a blizzard this weekend," John Ficarra says, bending my ear in that way he usually does as a lead-in to saying something profound, "And it's going to be a big one…" Even the faintest suggestion of the memory of Sandy opens a far darker door in my mind. There are parts of the country, I'm reminded on the eve of what will come the first named blizzard (Storm Nemo), where weather is something to note, and something to hew your day around in the old sense that our ancestors hewed stone as a defense against the elements.
Ironically, John does go on to make that profound point. It's a point about the generational shift that's currently underway at MAD, the sister magazine to TIME, in that both were first published in the same month. Talking with John always underlines the very distinct difference between nostalgia and stewardship. Ficarra was appointed to the position of Editor in 1984, a position he shared with co-Editor Nick Meglin until Meglin's retirement in 2004. John has held the position of MAD's Editor for nearly 30 years now, nearly an entire generation. Speaking with him is also entering a world of knowing artists by name (artists even who pre-date his tenure as Editor), speaking intelligently to their styles, and locating them within the greater world outside of MAD.
John falls into exactly that pattern, he's talking about the current issue, the "50 Worst Things about Cartoons" issue (MAD #520). We can't help but talk about the very gifted Hermann Mejia, and about leading this "50 Worst" in with a humorous look, in a jugular vein of course, the Cartoon Network mainstay Adventure Time. And I'm feeling the rush of stepping into that magical world again. The world where John is a kind of guide to the world of MAD, a way to fortify the experience of reading this or any issue by having access to the "director's commentary".
But I'm only half listening this time. And even when I replay the interview, it's hard to pay full attention to that part of the conversation if I begin by listening from the start of the interview. It's something about talking about the storm that puts down a particular frame, a doorway opened to darker minded musings. The idea that there are places in the US where the winter of the new year is the worst of the winter. Where the romance and the magic ends with the last days of steaming, Xmas pudding, or that one special kiss at midnight, and the long, white cold isn't properly put aside until April. There are places in this country where the magic of winter and memory just runs out. Talking with John amid this realization is hard to do. There's no end to enthusiasm he still has for the legacy of MAD.
"Certainly when Nick and I took over, and when (erstwhile Editor Bill) Gaines was still alive, I think we had more of a caretaker outlook towards the magazine," John says, "Bill didn't want much change, and we still had (founding 1950s MAD artist Jack) Davis working for us and for a time we even had (founding 1950s MAD artist) Willie Elder working for us in the mid-'80s. But clearly these guys were slowing down and petering out. So over time we made a conscious decision to try to expand the stable of MAD artists slowly -- so people weren't shocked by what they saw if they picked up an issue. That it was in that tradition. It think, come the '90s, and I want to say '92/ '93/ '94, we sort of ramped that up. Because we saw that the world was changing so quickly and the magazine had to respond to that more quickly. And we started to create more things that I think you could argue now are the second generation of MAD. Whether it be things like 'Fundalini' and 'the Strip Club', 'Planet Tad' -- we brought in Peter Kuper to do the Spy ('Spy vs. Spy'), he gave it a different look. Also, we did a lot more photoshopping, and the use of photos became much more prevalent in the magazine. So now I think we still ay homage to those people, but at the same time, this isn't your father's MAD. This is an entirely different magazine, with a different mission, and a different way of looking at things."
There's maybe too much occurring to process events in real time. And building storm isn't the worst kind of metaphor for this. Even as we dive into talking about the history of the '50 Worst' feature in the magazine over the past few years, I can't quite put my finger on it. The storm as a metaphor for a great number of preconditions needing to come into the exactly right focus before a big shift can occur? Did John understand this, perhaps even subconsciously, and chose to exploit this metaphor? Or is John just as human as we all are, just as trapped in a Robert Frost poem as we all are, and is he just a guy worried about the weather?
"We develop this format of the '50 Worst' just because it gave us a chance to really explore issues. So we've done Movies, and we've done Television and we've done Comedy," John picks up again. "So this issue's 50 Worst about comics is just the latest installment of that. It's a chance for us to really drill down and to go do what we can't normally do because… I don't know if we'd make a joke about Aqua Team Hunger Force other than in a spoof of MAD… or to go after Mr. Magoo. It gives us a chance to really be a little crazy and to make some comments here and there along the way."
It's probably then as much as any time that a full-bore catharsis of the storm hits. John Ficarra is facing a world fraught with the same challenges that founding Dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Stephen B. Shepard speaks to in his recent memoir, Deadlines & Disruptions. It's a world where traditionalist outlooks on the magazine business are forced into contention with the emergence of digital distribution. It's a world that Ficarra himself has successfully mastered; not only in the sense of having taking MAD digital, not only built a new magazine from the ground up, one that can respond to this new world from its very cultural DNA, but also in the sense that he's ushered in an entirely new generation inspired but the magazine's past. It was the very fray that Stephen Shepard was prepared to enter into, as Editor of Businessweek, and would have entered into, had the magazine not folded in 2005. And if there's any catharsis to be had at all, it's that the real storms come, only after the magic of winter has already been spent. To face the future, you need to rekindle that magic somehow. For some, like Stephen Shepard, it's the work teaching the next generation, for others, like John Ficarra, it's the work rebuilding a brand. And for others still, it's the simple act of, for the very first time, naming a storm, and opening the door to living with the grand and furious pantomime that that entails.