Sunday Mailbag

February 21st, 2010 | Posted in MAD Magazine

Q: Love reading the blog and getting a little insight into how caricature and MAD Magazine works. One thing I’ve always wondered: when you’re working on a MAD movie or TV show parody, what do you get from the writer? Is it a script, with just words? Does it include sketches? Are you responsible for all the sight gags, or are some of them laid out for you? Who decides the panel layout and what happens in each panel?

A: Everything starts with the writer, but there are a lot of hands involved in a MAD parody before the final results are printed in the magazine. The editors and art directors at MAD act as the filter and and conduit between the artists and writers of a given movie or TV parody (or as the MAD staff calls them “continuity pieces”). I have zero direct interaction with the writer of a MAD piece… everything goes through the staff. If I have a question or need clarification over some point or intention of the script, I call Sam Viviano or Ryan Flanders in the MAD art department and if necessary they go back to the writer.

What I receive from MAD is a copy of the writer’s script that has been edited by the staff and the entire piece laid out into complete pages with every panel, word box and text in place. I get the writer’s script because it will describe a given panel’s needs in some way. Sometimes it’s no more than the names of the character speaking and what they say. Sometimes it’s a short sentence or two just describing the scene. Sometimes the writer might get more specific about some gags they want thrown in.

The splash page of a parody is where the most detail is usually described by the writer, and it’s where the editors and art staff at MAD will do the most work and specifics as far as the visuals go. This is simply because splash pages are complex animals that need a lot of problem solving to make work. There is usually a lot of dialogue, spoken by a lot of different characters. The dialogue usually needs to go in a certain order to make sense, and that means the characters need to appear across the splash in specific places and can’t be moved about. Within these limitations the splash “scene” must be worked out to include all the action and environment needed, must “read” and move the eye well, and must also include plenty of gags and (hopefully) be funny… that’s a lot of problem solving.

When I first got started working for MAD I usually got a Sam Viviano “doodle” on the splash layout, which demonstrated what he and the editors where envisioning when they placed the text and laid out the splash as they did. After a few years Sam stopped doing that because they had confidence I would come up with my own solutions that would be effective. Today it is rare but very occasionally Sam will do a rough sketch on the splash if it makes it easier for him to show me than to tell me what he is thinking on a particularly complex layout.

The writer seldom includes visual gag directions. I would say 99% of all the gags you see in a MAD parody that do not have anything to do with the written text will be ones put in solely by the artist. I can really only think of a handful of visual gags that I was specifically asked to include in a MAD piece, although I get “suggestions” a bit more often. Some writers more than others will suggest visual gags… Desmond Devlin usually has a couple of suggestions in his scripts, whereas Dick DeBartolo or Arnie Kogen only occasionally get specific with the sight gags.

Here’s some examples of what is typical in a MAD continuity piece. This is “Botchmen” from about this time last year, written by Desmond. Here are the first few pages of the script:

Printed copyright text was added by me for this post.

As you can see, Desmond described the splash scene in a general sort of way, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. He also specified two visual gags: the “World’s Worst Dad” coffee mug and the 60’s Batman and Robin cameo. In the first two panels of page two he briefly describes just the scene itself.

Here is the layout as sent to me by MAD:

Click for a closer look…

The splash is pretty complex and Des’s description of showing both a man being tossed out of a high window on a skyscraper AND having a recognizable figure talking at ground level is obviously impossible. This was one of the rare recent instances where Sam also sent along a rough idea of the visuals for the splash. Sam always tells me to feel free to ignore his suggestions and explore my own solutions, but he is a real genius when it comes to layouts and I seldom can come up with anything that is better than his roughs:

Click for a closer look…

I didn’t stray far from Sam’s layout. I included the two gags that Des asked for and included a bunch of my own. Here’s my pencil rough, drawn at print size right on the printed out layout:

Click for a closer look…

And the final:

Click for a closer look…

Here is how the first two panels described in the script above turned out:

I added a few visual gags to these… nothing very elaborate… the gag clothing in Funnyman’ closet, some feathers on Dan’s coat, the scribbles on Wackjob’s mask and the homage to the Rorschach’s weird sounds from the graphic novel.

The movie and TV parodies in MAD are a truly collaborative effort between the writer, the editorial and art staff and the artist. They are by far my favorite thing to work on for the magazine.

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


  1. Funny, looks like a legal brief
    Good insight T.R.

  2. gustavo says:

    Thank you very much Tom for the disclosed information!!!

  3. Shaun kenny says:

    Thanks Tom. Reading the process I was just wondering how you get your reference material if the movie is not yet released on DVD, do the studios provide you with an advanced copy or do you have to sit sketching in the cinema?


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

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: