My first full-byline article in MAD was a “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime”-Update in issue #223 (Jun 1981). It was a set of modern lyrics, about modern “offenders,” to be sung (or so I thought!) to the well-known tune of the same name from Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera, “The Mikado.”
Since this was my very first “go-ahead” to write up a full piece for them, I used every single spare moment for the following 5 or 6 weeks, determined to make it perfect. After submitting a first draft, they asked me for rewrites on a couple of the stanzas and then very shortly thereafter, I had a release form to sign, and an actual check!
A few months later, I finally stood at the local magazine rack with “my” issue in hand, reading my piece in print. My elation, however, quickly transformed into puzzlement, dismay, then outrage. The MAD editors had changed not one, not two, not just a handful…but literally 75-80% of my painstakingly crafted lines! What was worse: their changes didn’t even make sense – my lyrics that had previously fit quite nicely “to the tune of” a particular melody…now didn’t. Not even remotely.
So I did what any self-respecting writer (novice or not) would do upon seeing his “baby” hacked to shreds by editors: I wrote a long, flaming, insult-filled letter to them. The only difference: I actually mailed mine!
By the time editor Nick Meglin called me back, I was ready for anything up to and including The Big F.U.…“Get Lost”…”Who the hell do you think you are, pipsqueak Novice Writer?!!” Much to my surprise, and relief, Nick patiently explained why they had made all the changes and apologized for not having told me about them before publication (“Ya’ think?!!”). Turns out that the editors had decided, after all of my work, that the lyrical meter of the original “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” was so irregular (which is true) that only readers who actually knew the tune would be able to “get it.” And then they concluded that MAD-reading kids of the 1980s were far less likely to be familiar with Gilbert & Sullivan than, say, those of the 50s or 60s (also probably true). So, the editors themselves proceeded to rewrite the entire thing in regular, standard verse, as if it were just any old poem that never even met Gilbert & Sullivan…except that the article’s title itself (along with the great Jack Davis “Mikado”-artwork) would naturally lead everyone who did know the tune to try and sing these new “lyrics” to them — to their utter confusion and frustration!
(BTW: If you actually were one of those readers who tried to sing it, and wondered, “WTF?!!” — there! Now you know, only 27 years late!)
So, what does this episode demonstrate? Looking back now, a lot more than I previously thought:
1. Despite what everyone thinks, there was already a realization at MAD, at least as far back as 1981, that their readers were changing more than the magazine itself was! And they were trying to do something about that.
2. But what they did about it, in this case, perfectly illustrates another enduring feature of writing for MAD: how things like “logic” and “consistency” sometimes take long vacations from the editorial offices! I’m sure that every contributor has their own stories of dealings with “Rube Goldberg, the MAD Editor.” (Of course, being paid among the highest page-rates in the magazine business went a long way toward helping us view these quirks in an amusing, endearing light – rather than as something less benign.)
3. When you’re being run by a Bill Gaines; putting out a leisurely 8 issues per year and selling over a million of each of them…you have the luxury of being patient & understanding with a freelancer and his tantrums. When you’re a division of a division of a division of TIME-WARNER with double the workload and less than 1/5 the circulation…eh, I wouldn’t count on it.
Congratulate me. I will go down in history as the person who finally located THE most indisputably pointless and trivial Thing on the Internet: it’s a lengthy Wikipedia article keeping meticulous track of every single woman who has ever stood next to one of those numbered-cases on the TV game show “DEAL or NO DEAL.” (I’m not making this up, as the saying goes when you’re not making something up; here’s the link, check it out yourself.)
Can you imagine a more useless “body of knowledge”? Even the people involved — the “Deal or No Deal”-models themselves, their agents, their families — couldn’t possibly care which of the numbered cases they’ve stood by, on what date, or whether they were the “regular case stander-byer” that week or a “substitute” (?!). Yet, here are people with access to modern computers who do care — in fact, according to the Revision History of this article, at least 10 people who have cared enough to actually edit or update previous versions of it. (Because, God forbid the world should have inaccurate information about who Marisa Petroro was substituting for when she stood next to Case #5 on the Oct. 10, 2007 episode! [If you're curious about the answer to that, it's in there!])
What sort of people care that much about…nothing? Well, thanks to President Bush’s expanded FISA legislation, I was able to intercept one of their emails, with just a simple call to the NSA, claiming that they’re an Al Qaeda sleeper cell:
TO: Stacey Gardner@Case#2.deal-or-no-deal.nbc.com
Dear Stacey -
It’s me again! Things going smoothly here at the “Wikipedia ‘Deal or No Deal’ Models”-page Updater Collective. Don’t worry: last night’s episode is now fully cataloged. (Although I must say, the substitution of Laura for Jenelle at Case #19 threw us all for quite a loop! They do look so much alike, don’t they? Luckily, our recording secretary, Geoff, figured it out, or we’d be pulling another all-nighter re-playing the video over and over to make sure we get things right! Whew.)
Let me say that I think your performance last night standing next to Case #2 was truly inspired! Never before have I seen such a masterful look of “mock-surprise” when Howie and the contestant called on you! I actually believed, for a moment, that you really weren’t going to open the case! That, Stacey, is a testament to your supreme skills as an actress/model!
Say, how is Leyla doing? When we tuned in 2 weeks ago, only to find her missing…we were, quite naturally, concerned – since, as you know, the last time she had been been absent from an episode was 9/26/07! Tell her we say, “Get well soon! Case #13 won’t be the same without you, girl!”
BTW: We were all out in L.A. this past week, but owing to a bureacratic foul-up and a studio guard with an attitude, we were unable to make contact with you backstage at the taping, as we told you we would. (Once again, security never got our names for their list! For the third time.)
George Carlin died yesterday. Pay tribute to him by remembering your favorite joke or routine of his, and laughing at it all over again. You know you have one; George was the Bob Hope of the last few generations of Americans, he was always there. My favorite bit of his was “Baseball and Football” – which, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, is yours for the clicking right here:
I saw George perform live 4 times over the years; he “killed” at all 4 of them.
I got to meet him, one-on-one, when I was a freshman in college. I had written a short comedy routine (which slavishly, even painfully, aped the style of the late comedian Lenny Bruce…but had some good jokes in it); and I decided that, since George would be performing at a local nightclub anyway, he would be the perfect person to: a) read my routine; b) swoon; and c) recommend me to all his big comedian buddies who didn’t already have material of their own (?!!). Anyway, George couldn’t have been nicer: after the show, he invited me in the dressing room, chatted with me at length about comedy, and read my entire routine — really reading it, not just politely scanning, because the first thing he said was, “Hmm. Kind of like Lenny Bruce’s stuff.“
For most its life so far, MAD accepted no advertising. Founder and publisher Bill Gaines decided early on (after a brief experience with ads in the magazine) that it wasn’t worth even the appearance of bias — having readers think you’re going easy on would-be targets just because they’re advertisers, or conversely, that you’re going out of your way to give them “the MAD treatment” they otherwise wouldn’t merit, to prove that you’re not going easy on them. The No-Ads policy became something of a badge of honor, to MAD staffers, freelance contributors like me, and even many of the readers themselves.
All that changed in 2001 when MAD — the corporate MAD now run by a division of a division of soul-less media behemoth TIME-WARNER — started putting ads in the magazine, big time. This event is the one usually cited by long-time MAD fans as the thing that “Bill Gaines’ body is spinning in its grave” over. (I never liked the “Bill spinning in his grave”-meme. Not only is it over-the-top and a cliche — I think it’s impossible since I’m pretty sure he was cremated!) But Bill’s problem wasn’t with advertising per se…after all, he willingly accepted ads at first. The way I understood it, Bill’s problem was what advertising would, could, or did do to the rest of your magazine. Especially a magazine like MAD.
So, I don’t think it’s the mere presence of ads now that would set Bill spinning. No, I think if anything were capable of doing that, it would be what they’ve done beyond just accepting ads in the 7 years since. Apparently someone at MAD (most likely the corporate suits rather than the editors, who seem more like hostages now) has decided that, not only are they crossing the Rubicon of “allowing advertisers to affect content”…hell, they’re building a modern 12-lane suspension toll bridge over it!
Exhibit A: something called “Go Fetch!” – 2-3 pages per issue of little ads for new toys, games, DVDs, etc., which were semi-disguised as ‘things we the MAD editors just happened to stumble upon and thought you might like to know about.’ Yeah, right. They ended every quasi-mini-ad with a joke or a “slam” about the product, as if that excused them. (Funny thing, though: the “slams” were never harsh or pointed enough to risk actually offending the paying advertisers themselves.) “Go Fetch!” ran for only a year, then stopped abruptly. Maybe they had a sudden attack of conscience; maybe there were too many reader complaints about it; maybe the ads didn’t work or they couldn’t sell any more of them.
Then, there’s Exhibit B. (THIS is the one that has “potential Bill-spinner” written all over it!) In MAD#486 (Feb 2008), starting on p. 25, there’s an very odd 8-page spread that opens with the big splash title, “MAD Presents ‘The Whitest Kids U’Know’” [they're a young comedy troupe with a show on IFC] — and then in much smaller type, “Special Advertising Section.” Ah, well, you say — if they’re going to accept ads, good for them on finding a single advertiser to cough up for 8 contiguous pages. But wait – flipping over to the following pages, you see that this is no regular “ad”…it looks exactly like a series of regular MAD articles, in fact it has the regular bylines, and work, of MAD artists Herman Meija, Tom Bunk, Drew Friedman, Jack Syracuse, and Tom Richmond; and MAD writer Dick DeBartolo (not to pick on any of them; they do their usual fine job on this “assignment”). It dawns on you that what you’re looking at are “pseudo-MAD-articles” written and/or drawn, to order, AS IF this comedy troupe were well-known enough for MAD to decide to “do” them. Which, of course, they aren’t. Otherwise MAD would have done them on their own, without being paid to, and without having to put “Special Advertising Section” on it.
There was an old line around the editorial offices – whenever people asked how they could get MAD to make fun of them, the answer was: “Simple: become famous and do something stupid.” Now, I guess that recipe has become, “Make us a cash offer; we’ll devote up to 20% of the magazine to you or your product; and we’ll even make it look exactly like our regular content!”
Sounds to me like the new MAD is turning into exactly the thing that the old MAD mercilessly ridiculed, mocked, and sneered at. But, what do I know?
Instructions: Upon receipt of Nigerian scam email, click on “REPLY”; copy & paste the entire letter below into top of email field; then click “SEND.”
Dear Friend and Fellow Nigerian:
Allow me to introduce myself: I am attorney & special consultant for the late Internet-Scam billionaire, the Honorable Mr. J. Goedaddi Ngadget III. As you no doubt know, Mr. Ngadget became fabulously wealthy over the past two decades by originating, developing, and employing the very same so-called “419″-scams that you yourself may be using right now (whilst keeping an extremely low profile — his name being known, even today, by only the most knowledgeable insiders of the Internet-Scam sector, such as myself and, of course, you!)
Since Mr. Ngadget was childless, his fondest dying wish was only to “give back” to the industry that made him stupendously rich. As per the terms of his Last Will and Testament, I have been scouring the entire Internet – posing as a gullible American email user – looking for talented, unrecognized future Superstars of the Online Scam to reward and encourage. When I received your extremely clever “bait letter” below, I knew I had found my FIRST deserving beneficiary!
Therefore, I am pleased to inform you that at my behest, the Estate of Mr. Ngadget has prepared a cashier’s check in the amount of 750,000,000 Nigerian Naira (or US $6,408,777.46) — which will be sent to you by certified armed courier immediately upon our receipt of the shipping and handling fee in the amount of $5,000.00 — which Mr. Ngadget insisted we assess on every beneficiary, not only as the customary show of “good faith” but, more importantly, so we may ascertain and verify your true identity as the 419 Genius who sent the email below, and know what name to write on the check.
Please remit your $5,000.00 as soon as possible, pay to the order of the same Alias-Name I was using when your brilliant scam-email was received by me – and addressed to “General Delivery” at the same U.S. city and state as my Alias-Name. (I apologize for the secrecy, but Mr. Ngadget gave strict orders to keep things quiet, out of fear that general knowledge of his immense giveaway would wreak havoc upon the day-to-day operation of our vital industry. After all: how many people would continue the daily grind of trying to con foreigners out of their money over the Internet…if they thought there was a huge pile of cash out there, waiting just for them?
Lastly, should you decide to decline Mr. Ngadget’s generous bequeath, for whatever reason, rest assured that your share of his Estate will be equally distributed among the other handful of recipients. So, don’t even worry about that.
Let me personally welcome you to The Good Life!
Joseph Q. Mwahtetubu, Esq.
One of my all-time favorite big, weird movie laughs – I mean audience reactions, not just the jokes themselves – is from the 1983 comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (the first one, where they travel cross-country to the “Walleyworld” theme park). The scene I’m referring to is when the Griswolds stop off to visit long-lost relative Randy Quaid and his trailer-trash family in Kansas. While the adults are drinking & shmoozing, a very young Jane Krakowski is out back on the seesaw with her same-age cousin Audrey when she suddenly announces proudly that she knows how to French Kiss. Audrey shoots back, “So! Everybody does that!”
Then Jane delivers the Line that Launched a Thousand Squirms:
“Yeah, but Daddy says I’m the best at it!”
Half of the audience gets the joke immediately — the male half. As the females gradually catch on, each at her own speed, a rolling cascade of disgusted “EEWWW“s punctuates the uproarious laughter. Soon, a second wave of male laughter erupts in response to the general female reaction to the joke — followed by yelps of pain from the men as feminine elbows jab into their rib cages. And so on, until it subsides enough to let us move on to the important business of strapping dead Aunt Edna to the roof of the Griswold’s “Family Truckster” and driving to Phoenix to dump her body in a lawn chair.
Some versions of the film, like the one I just saw showing on the Country Music Television channel, replace the word “Daddy” with “my science teacher.” (Not dubbed in, mind you – a separately shot version of the scene in which you can plainly see her lips sync to “my science teacher”). I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for the studio meeting back in the 1980s where that decision was made:
Studio Exec: She can’t say she’s French-kissing her own Dad, for Christ sake! Not in the Bible Belt anyway — they’ll lynch the theater owners!
Filmmaker: Well…what if we made it someone else?
Studio Exec: Like her boyfriend?
Filmmaker: (in disgust): NO, not her boyfriend!!!
Studio Exec: Why not?
Filmmaker: Because it’s not funny!
Studio Exec: Oh. Right.
Filmmaker (with sneaky glint in his eye): I’ll tell you what: We’ll shoot a second version of the scene and have her say it’s…her SCIENCE TEACHER who said she’s the best at it!
Studio Exec: Huh?
Filmmaker: Sure! It’s perfect! Look, she’s a kid in a movie, who’s learning something from her teachers. People will love it because it’s a PRO-Education message!
Studio Exec: (liking it) Hmm. (then) But, waitaminute: a 13-year old girl Frenching with her science teacher isn’t much better than doing it with her Dad!
Filmmaker: (thinking fast) Who said she’s Frenching the science teacher? Could be, uhh, a lab assignment…like, boy and girls French-kissing there in the classroom…and the science teacher is going around, y’know, grading them on it! And, what do you know: she gets the best grade!
Studio Exec (who greenlighted “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” earlier that day): That sounds plausible!
My very first submission to MAD was around 1973, when I was just out of high school. It was a script full of more “Horrifying Cliches” – my favorite recurring feature at the time. A couple months after sending it, I received a handwritten rejection letter from editor Nick Meglin saying, ‘Sorry, but we’re stocked up on all the Horrifying Cliches we’ll ever need. Keep trying! MAD-ly, Nick.’
I was crushed and defeated; I didn’t even try writing MAD stuff for 2 or 3 years after this. I was also a complete idiot! Any of you who are freelance writers; have tried to become freelance writers; or are even slightly less dense than my 18-year-old self will have already spotted one particular word from the previous paragraph practically jumping off the page, flashing and setting off bells & whistles. I’m referring, of course, to…“handwritten!” HANDWRITTEN! HANDWRITTEN! As I eventually figured out, handwritten notes from editors of big national magazines, besides being fairly rare, are “code” for “We think enough of your material to actually put pen to paper, rather than reaching for the pad of pre-printed form rejection slips we use for those 90% of submissions that, for one reason or another, aren’t even in the ballpark.”
The way I learned this bit of not-so-secret Editor Code was by compiling my own impressive collection of form rejection slips from other magazines (under the clever guise of “someone actually trying to get them to buy my material”). My Impressive Collection was lost in a house fire in the 1980s, along with my high school letter sweater (for Journalism) and a personal 1973 letter from Woody Allen. (BTW: If you yourself are a writer keeping a rejection slip collection…I strongly urge you to burn yours, too. You don’t have to burn the house along with it, but definitely lose the “Reminders of My Freelance Failures”-scrapbook! It’s pointless, it’s masochistic, and in the publishing industry, those annoying little slips are as ubiquitous, and have the same value, as toilet paper. Burn the suckers.)
My first actual sale to MAD was a UPC-barcode cover-gag. See, there was an age, long ago, when this stupid little doohickey at the left wasn’t plastered on every single thing in the world. In the late 1970s, MAD finally had to submit to the dictates of Modern Commerce and start defiling their covers with this monstrosity, so for them, mocking it was their little way of thumbing their nose at “the Man.” (How times have changed: today, not only is the magazine 20-25% ad pages, but they’re even selling “advert-articles” — about which more later, for sure.)
So, here is The Gag, as it appeared on the cover of MAD #203, next to the UPC-barcode: “Exclusive: scientists release first computer-written joke” (Thank you, thank you very much. I’ll be here all week. Be sure and tip your waitress!). For that I received a check for $25 — which isn’t a lot of money today…who are we kidding, it wasn’t a lot of money back then! But, as you can guess, it was huge deal to me! I spent an inordinate amount of time doing stuff like: calculating out how much that was per word (@$3.57, unless you count the hyphenated words as one, then it zooms up to @$4.17/wd); or figuring out the hourly wage based on how long it took to write ($400/hr); or coming up with ways to drop my new writing credit into casual conversation (“…well, speaking as the author of ‘‘Exclusive: Scientists release first computer-written joke,’ I think that…”).
Over the next few years, I sold MAD a couple more gags…got my first “Idea by” credit in the magazine…and, oh yeah, nearly committed career suicide by dashing off a blistering 5-page “nastygram” to the editors. (Everything worked out fine in the end — I’ll explain in a later post; it’ll make perfect sense. But I still don’t recommend anyone else trying it.)