About TV Parodies in MAD

June 14th, 2012 | Posted in General

A couple of days ago I mentioned here on Tom’s MAD Blog that I did the art for a parody of the TV show “Breaking Bad” in the latest issue of MAD. Reader Anthony wrote in the comments:

Breaking Bad satire?? YAAAAY! Best show, cannot wait to see this. Hey with the satires of big drama serials, do you watch the whole series so far or just the most recent season? The cast and locations change a bit over the course of the four seasons.

That’s a good question, and really begs a little examination of how I approach a TV or movie parody in MAD.

There is a pretty big difference between MAD‘s¬¨‚Ć TV and movie parodies, not so much from the art sense but from the writing sense. A movie parody is an examination and skewering of a relatively small source material. Most films are between 2 and 3 hours long, and the parody makes fun of that specific, self-contained story and all that is involved with it (plot, actor performance, direction, etc). From a research standpoint, film parodies are pretty easy for both the writer and artist . . . we just watch the movie a couple of times and we know everything we need to know about what we are trying to lampoon. The parody moves along, scene after scene, in the same timeline as the film.

TV shows are different. Since a TV series is one long narrative that spans many dozens of hours of storyline, and sometimes spans years even from season to season, the writer has to parody the series as a whole, and not just one episode, or even a short story arc. I have seen two different approaches to the writing of a TV parody: a general overview of an entire season(s) with key plot moments serving as the “scenes” of the larger narrative, or writing the parody as a “mock” episode from the series with its own plot using the conventions and formulas inherent in the show. The former is more like a movie parody approach, but just over a very long time and arc of story. The latter incorporates the show’s “devices” in a way that makes fun of them by using them and pointing them out.

From an artist’s standpoint, there are pros and cons to each type of parody. For movies, I only have to watch the film once or twice, paying attention to key scenes and absorbing things like the color palette, camera angles, etc to get the visuals in my head. I also only have 3 hours or so of research to do on the characters themselves . . . there is no information about them outside the film that needs attention, so I can pick up on any idiosyncrasies and mannerisms that I might want to make fun of in the art. The downside to movies parodies in terms of the art is that I only have trailers and released movie stills for specific reference for characters, environments, etc. Also, films can be set anywhere and the characters are often made to look very specific and different from the actors playing them, making it tough to capture those settings and looks without specific reference to help.

TV shows are much easier in some ways than movies. Most shows are set in only a few locations, making it easy to get a handle on and draw those environments. They also have smaller casts in general, so fewer people to have to caricature. There is also no limit to the reference material I can get, and that reference is directly from the show itself. Between DVDs of previous season, iTunes/Netflix and Hulu I can get as much reference as I want. The downside comes from the research end, especially if the show in question has been on for multiple seasons. If I really want to be able to add visual gags that capture and make fun of the little things that are integral parts of the show, I have to be very familiar with the show an all its characters.

For example, when I was assigned the show “Mad Men” last year, I had never watched the show before… and it was in its fourth season. The parody was essentially set in the fourth season, so I didn’t necessarily have to watch the other three seasons to get the visuals right . . . however in order to get the characters themselves right, I really did have to watch all those other episodes, so I could really understand how big of a bitch January Jones‘ character is (I drew her scowling in every panel), get who was really a drunk (Roger), see how Burt Hooper is always in his stocking feet in the office, etc. Many of the little touches that really make it for fans of the show I might have missed had I not done that research.

With “Breaking Bad”, I had an even harder task. Not only was the show in its fourth season, the parody itself spanned all four season and the look of the characters change dramatically as the seasons go. Bryan Cranston‘s “Walter White” starts out a little doughy, with a bad mustache and a full head of hair. By degrees he loses his hair, sheds a lot of weight, gets a wicked mustache-goatee and in general turns into a bad-ass. That was all part of his character having cancer then just becoming a hard ass. His wife Skylar (played by Anna Gunn), on the other hand, started out in season one very thin (even though she was supposed to be pregnant) and suddenly in season four she had inexplicably gained a considerable amount of weight . . . so much so that she really looked very different with this round, puffy face and much more curvy figure. At first I thought maybe she’d had some plastic surgery or something, but it was just the weight gain, which was not addressed int he show at all. Since the parody covered scenes from all seasons, was I supposed to draw her thin in the first few panels and bigger in the last few? I thought about squeezing in a shot of her skinny-self eating a bucket of KFC and then in the next panel she’s 60 lbs heavier, but I saw no opportunity to do that, so I just went with a kind of “between” look for her. I would have never known about that issue had I not watched all the episodes. When I did “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” back in 2004, I made extensive fun of Vincent D’Onofrio‘s penchant to lean over and tilt his head oddly when he talked to people. I might not have noticed that had I not watched many back episodes to get familiar with the characters.

Sometimes I recruit friends and neighbors to help me with the little details of a show. For example, several years ago I had to do a parody of¬¨‚Ć the TLC show “Trading Spaces”, and I could not bring myself to watch more than a few episodes it. One of my neighbors was addicted to it, so I asked her if there was any weird or oddball things about the show or characters I should make fun of. She pointed out that one of the interior decorators that appear on the show, Genevieve, was always barefoot when she was doing her work on camera. So, I drew her with big, stinky feet throughout the parody.

The internet is an amazing tool for finding reference. I can’t imagine how the old school guys did it back in the day. Actually I know how they did it, but it was so restrictive it’s amazing they were able to do the brilliant work they did. Movies used to have these kits they sent out to theaters that included not just movie posters, but many 8 x 10 stills from the film, actors head shots, etc. About 12 years ago I was working on a piece that included a caricature of Matthew Broderick, and an internet search for him resulted in a link to an eBay auction for a vintage one of these theater kits from the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. I was looking through the various uploaded scans of the photos from the kit, and they looked very familiar to me. I pulled out my boxes of old MAD Magazines and found the parody of Ferris Bueller, drawn by Mort Drucker. I compared the photos from the movie kit to Mort’s panels. Every single photo was obviously used as reference by Mort for the parody, right down to the poses and in some cases the backgrounds. It was very cool to see the actual reference he was working from. Movie studios used to send MAD their press kits in hopes the magazine would parody their film, since that was great publicity. Maybe that’s where Mort got it, or maybe he was friends with a local theater owner. Anyway, they had the same problems I do today, but I have the internet!

So, that is a little peek behind the scenes of doing movie and TV parodies for MAD. Please do not use this knowledge for evil. Thank you.


  1. Steve says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this essay about how parodies are constructed. After many years of reading Mad, I finally have a lot of my questions answered about the process.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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