Sunday Mailbag

November 23rd, 2008 | Posted in MAD Magazine

Q: I notice in the “Ironic, Man” Mad movie parody that there are caricatures of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden as well as a guy with an egg frying on his head. My question is: How much artistic licence do you have when it comes to producing the parodies? Do the ideas of putting Bush and Bin Laden in the picture stem from you or does the writer determine those sight gags?

A: I have a great deal of artistic license when it comes to adding sight gags within the art of a parody or any MAD piece. In fact, the editors greatly encourage the artists to add such things as much as possible. In most cases any visual gags, like the examples you cited above in the “Ironic, Man” splash that do not relate in any way to any of the word balloon text will be “artist written” gags. In rare cases the writer will add an “art note” where he/she envisions an unrelated sight gag in a given panel… for example in the parody I did of “X-Men 2”, writer Desmond Devlin suggested in a panel where Prof. X and Magneto were playing chess I instead have them playing “Hungry, Hungry Hippos”.

Very funny that one, and I did it. However this is very rare… usually the artist is free to add the visual gags on their own and the writer leaves them to it, just as the artist does not suggest different written gags… we sort of stay off each other’s turf.

MAD art director and longtime MAD artist Sam Viviano always likens doing a movie or TV parody (or “continuity piece” as the MAD editors call such jobs) to juggling… in order to do it well you must keep many balls in the air at the same time. The artist on a continuity piece needs to:

  1. Design the layout using strong comic book (visual) storytelling
  2. Work within the restrictions dictated by the word box placements (character order, etc)
  3. “Sell the gag” i.e. reinforce the written gag with the art, either via appropriate visual setting or through character interaction, expression and action
  4. Draw convincing caricatures of the actors in various angle, expressions, action, etc.
  5. Add visual gags and other humorous elements in the art

That last one is where the artist becomes more than just an illustrator and contributes to the humor in a combination artist/writer capacity. Don’t get me wrong, even without adding visual gags the artist on any MAD article contributes a lot to the humor of the piece. Just plain funny drawings can add a lot, and properly “selling the gag” will make the written jokes funnier or at least more clear. Still, it’s the addition of humor from another direction that I feel adds the extra layers to any MAD piece. That is Will Elder‘s “Chicken Fat” technique in action. It’s that part I spend a lot of time and thought on whenever I do a continuity piece for MAD.

I break visual gags into four categories: parallels, peripherals, cameos and running gags. Three can be seen in that splash page you referred to earlier from “Ironic, Man”:

Click for a closer look

  1. Parallels– these are gags that relate in a fundamental way to the subject matter. For example if I am drawing a parody of “The Sopranos” any visual gags I might add that has to do with the mob, New Jersey, McMasions, etc would be “parallel” gags. In the “Ironic, Man” splash the gags dealing with military stuff are parallels. Also the bra coming out of Stark’s pocket and the “product placement” label on the cell phone refer to elements from the movie.
  2. Peripherals– These are gags that are coming from “outside the box”… mostly related to only superficial elements of the scene or subject. Making the round targeting “eye” of the missile cluster on the right into the “Death Star” is an example of that kind of thing. They are added gags that sometimes seem a bit like non sequiturs, but are really referencing less prevalent elements of a subject.
  3. Cameos– These can be of both a parallel or peripheral nature. In the above example, Bush, Bin Laden and Lynddie England are cameos of a peripheral nature… relating not directly to the story but to the war on terror and the military. Other examples might be when I throw cartoon characters into panels based on their having some correlation with the scene. The Monster Cereal characters in “Van Helsing” or Popeye on the naval ship in “Behind Enemy Lines” are examples of that.
  4. Running gags these are gags that show up continuously throughout the pages of a parody. Part of the humor is just that they are there so many times. These can be any of the previous three types as well. An example of that might be in my “30 Rock” parody when I drew Rachel Dratch cameos in multiple panels as she often shows up playing different roles on the show. Another might be the ever-changing t-shirt slogans I did on “Dog the Bounty Hunter’s” well endowed wife in that parody.

Adding visual gags is a big part of the fun for me. You can tell how much I am “into” a piece by how many visual gags I add in. The MAD editors do edit those gags as well, sometimes asking me to remove or alter them at need… but that is also rare.

Thanks to Daniel Moir from Australia 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. Keelan says:

    How funny. I was just telling you this in Jamaica last week! How I loved all of the “chicken fat” you put into your MAD stuff. Did you already have this post written then?
    Strange synchronicity!

  2. Keelan says:

    Of COURSE that MIGHT have been the night at the outside “burger” place that we seem to have a hard time remembering….


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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