If you’re a longtime MAD reader who’s been wondering, “What’s the deal with all these ‘Foto-Funnies’ pieces they keep running the last decade or so?” — then this is the blog post for you.
“Foto-Funnies” [Official Comedy-Writer Terminology] — the adding of new captions/titles to existing photographs or images — is probably the world’s oldest form of humor. Archeologists have actually found 2,000-year-old Roman frescoes with 1,900-year-old gag-captions scribbled on them. I think I speak for most modern comedy writers when I say we have a Love/Hate relationship with “Foto-Funnies”: they’re quick and easy and kind of fun to do…but afterwards, there’s the hangover of guilt and shame over the utter non-creativity and unoriginality of the whole enterprise. Yet, still: we happily cash the checks.
For their first 3 decades or so, MAD did a few infrequent Foto-Funnies pieces using photographs (for which they usually had to pay photographers or wire services like AP or World Wide Photo). But it wasn’t until around 1990 that they started doing them more often — some would say “overdoing” them, but not ME, speaking as monetary beneficiary of a few dozen pages worth of them, at 150% normal page-rate (see below)! As I see it, there were 3 interrelated reasons for the increase in “Foto-Funnies” pieces: technological, legal, and budgetary. With the advent of video (by which I mean, CHEAP home-VCR type video), suddenly any would-be Foto-Funnies-publishing magazine could not only get still-captures from movies & TV shows, but…you didn’t have to PAY for the stills. Or, to put it in strictly legal terms: “You could probably get away with not paying for them under the theory that still-captures from video are analogous to excerpts from books or magazines and are therefore “Fair Use” of copyrighted material…at least until someone successfully sues you!”
My most memorable (for lots of reasons) Foto-Funnies piece was the one on Arnold Schwarzenegger after he was elected governor of California (MAD #438, Feb. 2004). The first noteworthy thing was how quickly it went from idea into print: about a month before the election, when it looked like he had a shot of winning, I sent the MAD editors a batch of gag-captions tied to descriptions of Arnold-scenes from my own memory. They put me “on hold” until he actually won, then gave me a go-ahead and it was “off to the races.” Over the next 2 weeks I rented 20+ of Arnold’s movies (quick: name them all!) and spent hours upon hours with a VCR-remote in hand, hitting the pause-button and triggering my video-capture device until I’d accumulated…are you ready?…2,300 still-capture images! (BTW: I still have them. If anyone’s in the market…I am the #1 Repository of still-captures from ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER-movies in the World!) Next came the Writing of the Gag-Captions, the easiest, fastest, and most fun part of the job, by far. And then, finally, the Pretending-I’m-A-Graphic-Artist phase of producing a mock-up layout in Quark Xpress or Adobe InDesign (see graphic). Finally, double the time for the last 2 steps because I had to do a second batch — owing to the Editors’ usual habit of rejecting the best gags in every first batch! — and what I wound up earning for all my work on this particular piece was…just over minimum wage! (Only a slight exaggeration!) I hope that future Historians of California Political Humor appreciate me for that!
During the 90s, MAD had to go “outside” to procure video still-captures – to “some lab,” or “some tech guy” they knew with expensive equipment capable of doing it. (This was the case with Desmond Devlin’s series of “Pop-Up Video” take-offs and MTV Music Video foto-funnies) But then, the March of Inexpensive Technology continued on, and it was actually I myself who chanced upon a new, cheap video capture device called the “Snappy” which cost @$150; was the size of a pack of cigarettes; and plugged into any PC’s parallel port (Ha! Remember “parallel ports?!”) The quality-level on the Snappy’s still-captures was pretty erratic but if you kept “snapping” different video frames, you could usually come up with something reasonably good. Or at least “usable.” The first foto-funnies piece where I both wrote the gags and provided the “Snappy”-generated video-stills was “Girls Gone Wild” (MAD #422, Oct. 2002 – look back at it now and you’ll see what I mean by “erratic quality!”). This piece presented the Editors with a dilemma: I provided all the visuals, but obviously, they couldn’t pay me the same “Art” fee that they paid to Mort Drucker, Bob Clarke, George Woodbridge, et al. So in a 1-minute masterpiece of negotiation over the phone, I struck a deal with them: “Look, it’s definitely not the same class of work as regular MAD Art…but it’s also not worth NOTHING, right? I’ll tell you what, let’s split the difference between 100% and 0%, okay?” Thereafter, I got 100% of my usual Writer’s fee plus 50% of the Artist fee, for every Foto-Funnies piece like this I did.
I don’t know this for a certainty, but I’d bet the ranch that word of this “deal” quickly got back to some of the DC Comics overlords in charge of MAD and, as a result, their eyes lit up like cartoon characters with dollar-signs flashing and 2 signs-on-springs sproinged out of their skull saying “25% OFF!’ “Savings Per Page!” And they “encouraged” the Editors to have me do nothing but these foto-funnies pieces. Because for the next couple years, that’s ALL they had me doing!
Unfortunately, I found out that, technologically speaking, I was only about 1.7 years ahead of the MAD Offices, because they discovered that some new software media players like WinDVD also had video still-capture capability. My jig was up! And, to the immense pleasure of DC Executives, MAD could now do Foto-Funnies pieces themselves — staff-written AND staff-video-captured…at a 100% Discount, in other words, $0.00 over and above regular staff salaries! Which is why you’ve been seeing more and more Foto-Funnies pieces. (Along with “The Darker Side of The Lighter Side,” “What’s the Difference? (between 2 old MAD covers),” and whatever other crap they can dream up to avoid paying freelancers for new material!)