Mad Gets Weird: Weird Al Yankovic Talks Taking Over Mad Magazine [Interview]
Tomorrow, April 21, Mad Magazine #533 goes on sale on newsstands and in comic shops nationwide, and it sets itself aside from the previous five hundred and thirty-two issues by being the first-ever issue of the magazine to feature a celebrity guest editor: the legendary (and famously funny) musician, Weird Al Yankovic. A couple of weeks ago, we got the chance to speak with Weird Al and Mad editor-in-chief John Ficarra about this special issue. Our conversation touched on Al's personal connection to the magazine, his comedic influences, and his plans for the future.
ComicsAlliance: How did this "guest editor" gig come to pass? Who came up with the initial idea, who approached whom, and how did you work out the details?
Weird Al: John approached me. He pitched it to me at a dinner at the Friars Club, in late September last year, and it didn't take a lot of arm-twisting. I'm a lifelong fan of Mad Magazine, I've been obsessed with it my whole life, so this is really a dream gig for me. It was a very quick dinner — I think he pitched it before the tiramisu even came, and it didn't take much arguing!
John Ficarra: We always said if we had a guest editor, Al would be the natural choice… I mean, over the years he's done things for us, book intros and other things, and the comic sensibilities are really aligned. If we were going to have a guest editor, we wanted someone who would really understand Mad and have fun with it, as opposed to — a lot of times, you'll see celebrity guest editors, and it's clear they were just phoning it in, or their publicist was doing it all, and they were just using the name. We actually wanted to make Al work!
CA: And Mad has a long-standing tradition of publishing work by top comic talent — not just the "Usual Gang Of Idiots", but great humorists like Ernie Kovacs, Tom Lehrer, Steve Allen, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Stan Freeberg, and many others have had material appear in Mad's pages.
JF: Most of those names that you mentioned, though, they didn't write specifically for Mad… When Mad was starting out, they had no Usual Gang Of Idiots, they were looking for comedy material, so basically, that material was already created and [editor] Al Feldstein went and approached them and said, "Can I take that material and restructure it and visualize it in the pages of Mad?"
CA: And that's not just something that was done in those early days, correct? I seem to recall a musician named Weird Al who had a song called Jurassic Park adapted in the pages of Mad in the '90s…
WAY: That's true! This is not my first contribution! Though that, like the other things you mentioned, was not specifically created for Mad, it was repurposed and I have a writing credit because of it.
JF: I think you did the visual too, right? I think you created the photo specifically for us, if I remember correctly.
WAY: I think so. We had a claymation Jurassic Park set that we used for the video, and I think we arranged the characters specifically for the Mad layout, yes.
JF: And it's a great video!
CA: But this time around, you're actually creating the material for this format. Did it feel daunting in any way to be doing this, not just working in a different medium, but doing so with such an iconic title?
WAY: Oh, absolutely. As a lifelong Mad fan, not only is it a dream come true, but it's also an incredible amount of pressure. You don't want to screw it up. Mad Magazine has such an enormous legacy and I'm the first guest editor in its sixty-three year history… Y'know, I'm inclined not to do something that I'll regret for the rest of my life...
JF: I think that ship sailed the moment you agreed to be associated with Mad! [laughs]
CA: So after more than three decades in the music business, the last year has been among your most successful. You won your fourth Grammy, you performed on the Emmys, you got your first-ever #1 album, and now you're editing an issue of Mad. What comes next?
WAY: I think it's a long, slow slide to obscurity after this...
JF: Oh, I think it'll go pretty quickly once the issue's out, More like "WHOOOO, there it goes!"
WAY: [laughing] There are so many things that happened in this last year that would blow the mind of the twelve-year-old version of myself. And I think guest editing Mad would certainly be the cherry on the cupcake — it's something that I never would have believed could happen, it's still hard for me to wrap my head around it.
JF: You know it's funny that you'd say that… Al also got a bunch of his friends to contribute to a front-of-the-book section that we're calling "The Weird Al-ini Pages," and one of them was Emo Philips. And after he finished writing his part, he wrote to me and said, "I wish I could go back and tell the twelve-year-old me what I'm going to be doing later in life." Because he, like Al, was a big fan of the magazine growing up… And they've used almost exactly the same phrase about it.
WAY: Well, I think something happens in your brain when you're twelve years old, where suddenly you appreciate this kind of humor. I know that's when I first got really into Mad, and I noticed when I started becoming popular, a large number of my fans were twelve-year-old kids. I think that perhaps at that age, you appreciate that kind of irreverent comedy more.
CA: So Al, in addition to Mad, were there other specific formative influences on your sense of humor?
WAY: Mad was the first, I have to say — that warped me in my early childhood, and then musically I was inspired by a lot of the people I heard on the Dr. Demento radio show like Spike Jones, Alan Sherman, Stan Freeberg, Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa, Shel Silverstein, people like that. Then I was influenced by Monty Python and by SCTV and other things… But I have to say, Mad was the first seminal influence.
CA: And in this role as guest editor, what exactly were your duties? Did you choose the contributors, did you assign topics, did you write features yourself, or did you just get to sit back and order people around?
WAY: Well, I'm not an editor in the traditional sense in that I don't carry enough weight to be able to hire or fire people — that's what John and the rest of the editorial staff do!
I certainly contributed, I wrote the intro page and a six-page article called "Pages From Weird Al's Notebook," I answered all the letters in the letters pages, I selected an article for "The Mad Vault," which was one of my favorite Mad articles of the '60s, I solicited help from several of my friends to contribute: Patton Oswalt, Tom Lennon, Chris Hardwick, Seth Green, John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal, Rich Blomquist, and we already mentioned Emo Philips…And the magazine has a lot of Weird Al-themed and Weird Al-inspired pieces beyond that. So even though it would be very generous to call me an editor, I think that my influence is pretty apparent.
JF: And given who Mad's editor is on a daily basis, Al had very small shoes to fill.
CA: So John, how has this worked out for you, as Mad's editor-in-chief? Is this "guest editor" idea something you'd like to do more of?
JF: Well, originally I thought this would be great, and I could take an issue off… But it immediately became clear that Al was much too good of an editor, and I could be putting my job in jeopardy. So I realized "no more guest editors, I'm here, this is my thing". Y'know, you give someone an inch and they're gonna take a mile! [laughs]
We resisted having celebrity editors for a long time because we wanted to be sure it was the right fit. So I can't rule out the possibility that we could do it again, but I'd have to be convinced that we could do as well as we did with Al with someone else, and I think those are very big shoes to fill.
CA: Your friend and fellow musician, drummer Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, has appeared on all your albums, all your tours, in your videos, in your film UHF – he's been alongside you for practically every project you've worked on. Will he be making any kind of cameo in the issue?
WAY: Well actually, yes! There's a spread that Tom Bunk did called, "Tom Bunk Visits A Weird Al Concert," which is a visual representation of the experience of going to a Weird Al concert, and the band is represented on stage, so there is a Bermuda cameo there.
CA: John, after a few decades of predicted demise for Mad and the magazine industry in general, it seems like the past few years have brought Mad back into the mainstream.
JF: We've been very fortunate the last few years. We have new management headed by Diane Nelson, who is a very big supporter of the Mad brand, and she immediately got the Cartoon Network show that ran for a couple years, and I think that brought in a whole new generation of young readers — otherwise, they may not have found Mad that easily because newsstands aren't really around much anymore.
And on top of that we've had a few very successful books, we had a 60th Anniversary book, and it's all just sort of snowballing. We have the app, we have a daily blog, and it's all played into and helped reinvigorate the brand… And now we have Al's guest editorship.
CA: Al, you've spoken a bit in interviews about how Mandatory Fun might be the last album you make — not that you're retiring, but as the industry moves away from that model of having albums as the standard, you could release your work as singles or EPs, and be more timely instead of waiting 'til you have a whole album's worth of material saved up…
WAY: Well, the nice thing about being finally done with my thirty-two-year record deal is that now, all the options are open to me. I could be releasing singles, I could be releasing EPs, I could be releasing a flexidisc in the newspaper, I could be going door-to-door selling things out of my trunk… There are a lot of ways I could get my material out there, and I'm open to everything!