The Equalizer: Interview with 'MAD' Editor John Ficarra and Exclusive Preview of "MAD #522"
Exclusive artwork from MAD #522 lights up an exclusive interview with the legendary MAD Editor John Ficarra.
How did we get to talking about that '80s TV show, the Equalizer? John's question to me, voiced in exactly the same phrasing, echoes in my mind. There must have been some turn somewhere in the conversation that took us to one of the hardest shows of the '80s, with one of the toughest gentlemen (honestly folks, the Equalizer himself was a real gent) on TV. How did we get here?
For the last ten minutes or so John and I have been returning time and again to the show as a kind of metaphor for everything we've been discussing about MAD #522. We've discussed "the Slobbit", this issue's MAD movie parody, we've discussed this month's "Celebrity Cause-of-Death Betting Odds". But this next turn in the conversation is a genuinely important one, and the metaphor that we've both milked for so long now, by some weird, internal magic, seems to finally hit the right note.
Interrupting John just as I turn to page three, I comment on the obit for MAD veteran Bob Clarke. Just beneath a Jimmy Fallon quote in Esquire, there appears "Remembering Bob Clarke, 1926-2013". Bob Clarke was with MAD almost from the very beginning, the obit tells my next to a self-portrait ink of Bob looking equal parts maniacal and whimsical and just pure fun. But when John starts to talk, it's in a heavy tone that in every sense signals that the joke's over now. This is as much a moment of personal loss, as it is the diminishing of MAD as an institution.
"Well he certainly precedes me, but he was a very, very early MAD artist. And Bob was primarily an advertising man. But he had a terrific ability to do two very strong things. He was a great designer, and he also was a terrific mimic of other people's styles. Be it cartoons, or cartoon strips, or animated books and things like that…" John's voice trails off and when he picks up again, its in a whisper. "Actually he had more than two, I shouldn't have said two," and then, back to full volume. Without either of us needing to reference it, we both find ourselves stand in the presence of raw emotion.
John finds his volume again, "He could also paint for us. He did several covers. So he brought a lot of different tools to the table, that primarily fell under Felstein's years. I mean I used him too, but by then Bob was getting up in age. And if there was a problem you could give it to Bob, and he could usually solve it for you."
If there was a problem you could usually give it to Bob, and he could usually solve it for you. Just like one a TV show where you leave your problems on an anonymous answering machine, and a sharply-dressed man shows up to equalize the situation. But neither of us make the obvious segue into The Metaphor for this interview. Clever doesn't feel right in this situation. But in truth, "clever" never really MAD's move -- humor as a defense against the inevitable collapse of structure was. And now, in this last exchange, John and I have gotten to a place even beyond that. No humor needed, it's just time to feel a little raw, to acknowledge the loss.
It gets lighter, of course.
A little lighter when we begin to talk about the cover, and when I offer John some full disclosure--what happens on the cover, happened to me, I confess. "Oh really," he says nonchalant, "You were Alfred, or one of the kids next to Alfred?" I chuckle and let him know the "Alfred" in that scenario was the kid on the slide next to me. But I leave out the part where this played out Sunway Park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on the last summer before the Millennium, on the same day that I saw my first tiger ever (he was caged, he was caged), and how broken and guilty the kid looked when we landed in the pool. This is what happens in these interviews, it's the multiplication of memories, and not only John's.
But John pulls me back and normalizes the situation. He goes on to tell me the history of the cover. That it was an idea for cover that Mike Gallagher came up with way, way back in 1994. And that for whatever reason, it had never been used. And that one of the truly strangest phone calls he's ever had to make, John tells, is calling up Mike Gallagher and having to tell him, "Remember that idea you had for a cover way, way back in 1994? We're sending you check now, 19 years on."
Is John himself the Equalizer, maybe? I can't help but parody the metaphor of the interview when I hear that anecdote. Nineteen years is a long time, but somehow, no matter how long, he'll find your ideas, and equalize the situation. I can almost see a Cognitive Media style whiteboard animation play out to advertise the upcoming movie that will never be.
Another turn in the conversation and we're finally at the substance of our exclusive, Frank Jacobs' and Ward Sutton's "The Debt", a cripplingly beautiful parody of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells", and the legendary Al Jaffee's latest fold-in, which is also heavily themed with the country's financial fate. This is really personal territory. When we began to take a serious look at MAD (well, there's a zinger), back in 2009, it was too look at the 20 Dumbest for that year. And in at number two was the mass corporate bailout that followed on the heels of the financial crisis. "Keeping Bad Companies," as the incredibly gifted Hermann Mejia called it in his parody of Iwo Jima, where President Obama and Bernanke and Geithner and Paulson raised a flag spangled with corporate logos rather than stars.
"Frank had been wanting to do a piece for a while," John begins, "I want to say I called him up with this, but I'm not sure how this came up. I can't remember if he approached me or I approached him. But it certainly came out beautiful. And Ward Sutton did a fabulous look." There's a pause, and then John picks up in a wistful tone, "Yeah that's only something MAD does these days. There's no real marketplace for these great poem takeoffs like there was years ago. You would see them in other places. But in MAD, in MAD Frank has done all of them, very, very well over the years. I mean he's probably the best of the century. I mean, I don't know anybody who has consistently done them… and not only gotten the meter right, but the scanning and the humor… he really brings it all to the table when he comes.
"This was a very collaborative process. Once we decided we were going to do it, I sent him an email with things I liked him to cover. He came back with other things that he thought he would cover. Then he did a first draft of some of the stanzas. And then we had a look at it and thought this is working/this isn't working. It was a back and forth process, over a couple of weeks to get it to where we wanted to get it. And the problem with verse is, if you don't like one thing, then the whole stanza can unravel. So it's not an easy thing to do. But Frank is a real pro with this stuff. I mean with the rhyming and everything, he's just fabulous."
There's a slight pause as we turn to discussing Ward Sutton's beautifully vivid artwork, then, something thunderous. "Ward Sutton," John exclaims, "and Frank Jacobs have never met! They've never met at all. That's where we come in. We're the comedy interlockers! Frank will sometimes suggest what he likes, how he envisions the piece, that wasn't the case with this. That wasn't the case with this. I think Ryan Flanders my Associate Art Director came up with the design, and then working with Sam (Viviano, MAD Art Director), they did it and they brought it in to me and I liked what they did. And then it went to Ward. And Ward added his own things too, a lot of the background jokes in the big oval in the center. He brought in the Dollar signs in the eyes, that was all Ward. We sent him the basic concept that we wanted it to look like money, and then he came up with that. Ward's a very, very smart, politically astute cartoonist. In fact, that's what originally attracted me to him, some of his stuff from the New York Times Op Ed pages."
Just then I hit John with MAD's invariable and invariably reluctant wading into the fray of political satire. MAD's always been there, a kind of good citizenship disguised as "humor, in a jugular vein". And what John says will provoke me, some 10 minutes after the interview ends, into the very last parody of the Equalizer metaphor that has been haunting this interview almost from the very beginning. What John says next is the most eloquent response to a problem he hasn't articulated yet, a problem he himself articulates in his very last use of the Equalizer metaphor.
Shortly before the interview ends, we wend our way into speaking about the internet, about the MAD Magazine blog (to be found, suspiciously, at madmagazine.com). The blog is a great outlet to get ideas out quickly, but the problem with the blog is, how do you cut through the noise and build a solid readership base? It's a problem that no one has solved as yet. Even a blogger as dedicated and as incisive as Andrew Sullivan struggles with this, NPR has reminded us as late as March of this year. John speaks of the internet as being the great equalizer, that in its worse effect, it can almost obliterate the notion of inherent quality. That anything presented on the internet is really without cultural coordinates and things of great quality appear side-by-side with, and conceptually the equal of, things of no particular worth.
I sigh, because it's true. The soul of the internet is something to struggle for. And we're still years away from something viable. And I sigh because, as we did earlier, when we spoke about Bob Clarke, we get to a place where the undaunted formula of MAD to laugh away the pain, no longer works as well, and is daunted, just that little bit. I sigh because I don't have the answer, but in just about ten minutes from now I will. And it will be John's own words shot back at him. It will be what John said just after discussing Ward's phenomenal art style.
"I must say, I should read to you something that Bill Gaines once said," John begins innocuously enough, summoning up the spirit of the legendary MAD Editor who confronted Congress during the McCarthyist Juvenile Delinquency Hearings. "And I just revisited it, because I'm going to close my San Diego ComicCon presentation with this. We have a big picture of Bill at this desk, looking all frumpled. And he was a complete slob, so the office was a giant mess. So we put a giant word balloon with it. And it is this,'We reject the insinuation that anything we print is moral, nutritious or good for you in any way, shape or form. We live in a corrupt society, and intend making the best of it.'"
I'll make the connection in a little while, but you can make it right now. If the problem is the internet "equalizes" everything in a kind of communist sense where it strips away individuality, then maybe the way to equalize that is a kind of cultural disownership of any high-mindedness. Because with that kind of disownership, comes a different kind of freedom, the freedom to endure the collapse of the infrastructure that nurtured our higher ideals. Think of it as almost a counter-insurgency against cultural collapse, by dropping out, rather than dropping in. That's exactly what Hunter S. Thompson wrote about with a great sense of pride in his first article for Rolling Stone--the idea that American culture might yet flourish, specifically because we're not all "joiners." And John will tell you the same thing, this year in San Diego.
But before he does John's memory kicks in again. "You know he died a few year ago, Edward Woodward, the Equalizer? De Bartolo did that spoof of him a while back and right after that, he ran into him. He was a great guy, he had a sense of humor about it. In fact he posed for a picture, holding Dick in a headlock, holding a magazine in the one hand and holding Dick in a headlock in the other. It's an actual photo, he posed for it. You know I should I have a scan of that. I could probably get that for you, let me see what I can do."
But things are never certain. As cool as it sounds to have a picture of the Equalizer putting MAD staffers in headlocks, we'll see if we can get the artwork. We'll see.
John came through for us! Although the Edward Woodward image does not appear in MAD #522, it's included here as a special treat for readers of PopMatters. Please enjoy this rare MAD image as well as our exclusive preview from the summer issue of the magazine.