Sunday Mailbag: Background Gags Added When?

January 5th, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: When you are putting together panels for a tv or movie spoof, do you cement the basics first and add the “chicken fat” in the background later, or do you do everything at once? Do the background gags come to you on the spot?

A: Certainly I am concerned with the basic layouts, storytelling, caricatures and the scripted gags first, and the “chicken fat” comes second. For those who don’t know what the term “chicken fat” refers to, it was coined by MAD great Will Elder and meant all the background gags he crammed into his panels.

From my post after Elder’s passing away:

(Elder) crammed his panels with multiple background gags and visual humor, some related to the story and some total non-sequiturs, that required readers to reread a story several times to make sure they didn’t miss any gags. That technique, coined the “Chicken Fat School of Art” (apparently so named because in the depression era chicken fat was added to many a dish to make it more filling) became a staple for MAD.

I have never sat down to “write” background gags prior to doing the art. Most of the “chicken fat” gags come to me as I am working on the roughs. I’ll be working on a panel and some gag will occur to me to either add to that panel or to try and work in somewhere. I’d say 95% of the chicken fat gags I will add to a parody will be in the sketches I send to MAD for approval, either all drawn out or indicated with notes. Once or twice I’ll think of something when working on the finishes. Depending on the subject matter I may run it by the MAD guys first, but usually if I add something that late it will be innocuous enough that I just throw it in.

I’ll tell you one thing I don’t usually do when doing chicken fat gags… word balloons. I prefer to come up with either purely visual gags or only use signs or buttons for any text needed to cement the gag. I add a lot of post-it notes with one or two word gags, but very seldom fall back on word balloons. The gag has to be complex for that to be necessary, and those kinds of gags are the writer’s territory.

I can think of one fairly recent example of needing a word balloon to explain a gag, and that was for my splash page for “The Dork Knight Reprises”. My buddy Ed Steckley, who lives in New York, pointed out to me one of the most absurd things about that film: if a city the size of Gotham had been cut off from the rest of the world like it was in the movie, after just a matter of days the streets would be filled with garbage as there would be no where for it to go and no public services to get rid of it. After several months it would be a mountain of trash. I made this a central gag in the splash, but needed some onlookers to explain the gag as it would not be apparent to most people:

Clicky to embiggen…


Thanks to Adam for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Isaiah Shipp says:

    The ” chicken fat” is one of my favorite things about MAD’s parodies. Especially in your work. Like the useless flap no 62 gag in the Dork knight reprises. It’s one of my favorite parodies!


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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