As my bio points out, I am a contributing writer for MAD Magazine. I sometimes worry about admitting that in public, but I have discovered that people are very interested in that part of my background. Nobody ever says, "Oh, you were an MBA? Can you explain conjoint analysis?" In contrast, I have been frequently asked, "MAD Magazine? Really? What's that like?" I'll try to shed some light on what goes into creating an article for MAD by using an article I wrote as an example (including some of the gags that made it into print and some of the jokes that got cut along the way.)
Since Pixar just released The Incredibles on Blu-Ray, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at an article written in anticipation of the film's original theatrical release. Before we get to the (hopefully) funny stuff, it may be helpful to note that the process of comedy writing has strong similarities to the traditional product development cycle: You have to select a general concept, evaluate whether it's worth exploring, identify the constraints that will limit your options, generate a large number of ideas, and prototype them as you settle in on a final version.
That's how my article on The Incredibles happened. I began with the simple notion of "I wonder if I should write something about that upcoming Pixar movie..." I reject most of my general concepts during a quick evaluation process, but I could see that the topic was a good match MAD's market, so it was worth exploring further.
What are the constraints of writing about The Incredibles? First, if an article was going to appear in an issue that would be on the stands when the movie came out, I would have to start writing jokes based on nothing but rumors to accommodate MAD's long lead time. To add another big constraint, I would be competing against a team of wickedly funny writers at Pixar - I couldn't make jokes about superheroes since Pixar may have been putting similar joke into the movie. The solution to working within these constraints was to make jokes about the development of the film. Instead of writing a parody of the film, I came up with the concept of taking a peek behind the scenes of Pixar:
Pixar could make jokes about superheroes, but I knew they wouldn't be making jokes about themselves and their competitors. I got John Lasseter to sign my copy before he made a speech at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their Pixar exhibition. (Yes, I'm a huge fanboy.)
That's the wonderful Sarah Vowell on the left. She was the voice of Violet Parr. Closer to the opening of the film, Pixar would release tons of promotional information (including small details like Violet's height and weight), but when I started writing the article, Vowell's participation was just an internet rumor.
In product development, you go though a process of rejecting and refining ideas until you've narrowed down a wide range of concepts to one final product. The same is true of the editorial process. Here's one of the jokes about Vowell that got cut early on:
Tom Hanks: I don't know, John. For Shark Tale, Dreamworks has Will Smith, Robert Dinero, and Renee Zellweger...
John Lasseter: Big deal! For The Incredibles, Pixar has Holly Hunter, the guy from Coach, and a woman who does commentary on National Public Radio!
Tom Hanks: Smells like a hit to me!
To emphasize how many gags can get cut for every one that makes it into print, here's another rejected Vowell bit:
Sound Engineer: We've got to get these lines for Violet Parr recorded. Why do you keep pausing for so long in between lines? You should be good at working a microphone after working at National Public radio for so many years.
Sarah Vowell: I think that's the problem--I'm used to being interrupted by pledge breaks!
Memo to everybody in cable news: When your job is to comment on the facts, it can be dangerous to speculate about what the facts actually are. Look what happens when you assume:
Now that you've seen the film, you know that Mr. Incredible can't fly. Oops. (Memo to Pixar: If you want to send me advanced screeners, I could totally avoid making mistakes like that in the future.)
That's Brad Bird and Steve Jobs (circa 2004.) Since Jobs' involvement with Pixar was common knowledge, I ran with it:
On the whole, the gags I wrote with the business references faired better than the jokes I wrote about the technical aspects of computer animation. (All of the bits I had about wire frame models, render farms, the lighting department, and virtual cameras never saw the light of day.) Here's a business joke that was rejected:
Pixar Employee: Why do we have to have Mr. Incredible change costumes part way through the movie? Is that really necessary?
Product Development Guy: Of course it is! This way, we can just paint half of the Mr. Incredible toys a different color and we can sell every kid in America twice as many!
In some drafts, I experimented with using characters from the film even though the article was set in the real world. Here's an extremely geeky example:
The Original Elasti-Girl: Listen "Elastigirl," I went by the name "Elasti-Girl" in the old DC Comic's Doom Patrol series!
The New Elastigirl (AKA Mrs. Incredible): Tough! It's my name now!
The Original Elasti-Girl: I'd better call Lillian Laserson for back-up!
The New Elastigirl (AKA Mrs. Incredible): : Who's she? Another hero from The Doom Patrol?
The Original Elasti-Girl: No, she's my lawyer!
Lillian Laserson was the SVP and General Counsel at DC Comics. I loved that her name really did sound like a DC superhero. Speaking of real people, In my scripts, I tried to cast the scenes with actual Pixar employees even when they weren't mentioned by name. When I saw the finished art, I was pleased to see that MAD artist Jack Syracuse filled the entire article with real people:
That's Andreas Deja in the green coat (he animated Gaston, Scar, and Jafar!) Even if you don't recognize the faces, an obsession with details has always been one of the best parts of the illustrations in MAD. Plus, I really wanted to feature the faces of the people who make these movies because, well... because of this:
Excerpts from "A MAD Peek Behind the Scenes at The Incredibles Studio" are copyright E.C. Publications, Inc. Illustrations by Jack Syracuse. You can view the complete article in the book MAD About Super Heroes Vol. 2.