In 1952, Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines changed the face of topical humor, if not the entire American cultural landscape, with the publication of MAD magazine (even if it was originally a comic book). Billed as “humor in a jugular vein,” its subversive tone and gleeful harpooning of the illogical, hypocritical, or self-important/self-serving figures of the time was pioneering, with figure as diverse as Terry Gilliam, Joyce Carol Oates, Roger Ebert, Patti Smith, Art Spiegelman, and nearly the entire crew behind The Simpsons citing the magazine as a seminal influence. The usual gang of idiots is now making the jump from the printed page to the screen on Cartoon Network’s new series MAD, and Toonzone News got a chance to speak with producers Kevin Shinick and Mark Marek about their work on the show.
MAD Producer and Story Editor Kevin Shinick’s best-known work is as the creative director of Robot Chicken (for which he just won an Emmy), although he also has writing and/or directing credits on the animated comedy series Ugly Americans, the Off-Broadway hit McBeth—Over 2 Million Slain, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man Live! at Radio City Music Hall, and DC Comics’ The Joker’s Asylum: Clayface comic book. As an actor, he also spent two seasons as the host for Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? and also provides numerous voices for Robot Chicken as well.
MAD Producer and Animation Director Mark Marek began his career as an illustrator and cartoonist, with his work appearing in National Lampoon, High Times, and Rolling Stone, as well as on album covers for Cyndi Lauper and the Rolling Stones. As an animator, Marek’s work appeared in music videos of Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop” and They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and in numerous TV ads and animated sequences for Bloomberg TV and ESPN.com, and even in the opening credits to Batman: The Brave and the Bold. He was the lead animator for MTV2’s Crank Yankers and Adult Swim’s Saul of the Mole Men, and also served as animation director and lead animator for the MTV series DJ and the FRO.
TOONZONE NEWS: By the way, Kevin, congratulations on the Emmy Award.
KEVIN SHINICK: Thank you. Thank you very much.
MARK MAREK: Oh, that’s just great. Yeah. (laughter) You just inflate his ego a little more, Ed.
KEVIN SHINICK: You know what I do, I bring it to work and I don’t mention it. I just gesture a lot with it. (laughter) But thank you, Ed.
TZN: So, how did you guys end up working on the MAD TV show?
MARK MAREK: Well, I grew up on the magazine, so it was always on my mind, but my connection was with Pete Girardi over here at Warner Brothers when he mentioned the project. It was, “Yeah, let me in, let me in!”
KEVIN SHINICK: I was over at Robot Chicken, and one of my friends and writers there, Hugh (Davidson), had left to come to Warner Brothers. He told me that Pete was interviewing to head up this MAD magazine show, and I was thinking, “Oh my God, I’d be perfect for that.” Mark, you talked about this earlier at one point, MAD used to have those floppy disc records inside the magazine. Well, when they called me to interview me, I knew I was in the right room when I sat down and they said, “How well do you know MAD?” And one song from a record happened to be in my head since I was about eight, so I just started singing it, and then a couple of the people in the room joined in. I was just amazed that they knew the lyrics as well, so we figured, “You know what? I think we’re on to something here.”
MARK MAREK: I wasn’t.
KEVIN SHINICK: For the pilot, Mark was in New York, and I was here in Los Angeles at Warner Brothers with Pete Girardi. For the pilot, we were putting stuff together, and when I started seeing stuff come back and it was just looking great, I thought, “You know, there might be some hope for this show.” (laughter) And we took it from there. When it got off the ground and got greenlit is when Mark came out.
TZN: So Mark came on after the pilot was completed?
KEVIN SHINICK: Well, I wrote it, and Mark helped animate it, and once it got picked up and we knew this was a gig, then he packed his bags and came out here. Right, Mark? Or is that just when your parole ended?
MARK MAREK: That’s right. That’s exactly right. (laughing) They took the ankle bracelet off and I was ready to go.
KEVIN SHINICK: Right. The court order was lifted, and you were allowed back.
TZN: You guys have both said you’re fans of the magazine. Do you have favorite artists or features?
MARK MAREK: Well, certainly, Sergio Aragones was always a hero of mine. Probably one of the biggest. There was Mort Drucker, but Sergio’s drawings sort of are akin to my own drawing style, so I always tapped into his little border pieces he did for MAD magazine. He’s probably one of my biggest heroes, and then of course it was Mort Drucker and Jack Davis and the rest. But those are probably the top 3…Don Martin would make it the top 4.
KEVIN SHINICK: There used to be this border drawing that Sergio did ages ago of a mailman. He would go and put the mail under the door, and he’d go to the next house and put it under the door, and again, and we got to this one particular house and he knocked on the door becuase he knew that this woman came out half-dressed in a nightie, and he’d always deliver the mail right to her. When I met my wife, I said, “One of the reasons I married you is because (laughing) you reminded me of a Sergio Aragones cartoon.” But then I have to say that you have to explain which one, because his characters range from very sexy to (laughing) very weird. So when I met Sergio, I told him that and he started laughing. But Sergio was definitely an influence, and because I was such a huge fan of the movie parodies, Mort Drucker is a close second. And then you can’t help but love Don Martin and “Spy vs. Spy.” They all just kind of blend in togehter as iconic imagery of MAD.
KEVIN SHINICK: Sergio is very involved. One of the things I’ve always said, and I think Mark agrees, is that not only has it been a lifelong dream to work with someone like Sergio specifically, but having him draw and be a part of this project to the extent that he is is such a blessing. It kind of feels like its the Godfather of MAD who has given us his blessing and helped legitimize this. It really feels MAD, and he’s very much a part of this. He draws a lot of his bits of MAD. He used to draw in the border of the magazine, and we have a way to try and incorporate that with the screen as well. He’s very well represented.
MARK MAREK: Kevin’s absolutely right, though. It’s vital to have some connection to the old MAD, if you can call it that, and he’s definitely that connection, so it’s great to have him working on this.
KEVIN SHINICK: Yeah, and he’s a great guy, too.
TZN: But it’s mostly been Sergio? Not Mort Drucker or any of the other guys still alive?
KEVIN SHINICK: Well, you know what it is? Don Martin is passed, but we’re using some Al Jaffee. Sergio is the most…um…”energetic” at this point, I’ll say? (laughs) So he comes in and he contributes. Tom Richmond writes and draws for the magazine now. He was kind of the follow-up to Mort Drucker, and Tom Richmond is a big part of our show. He’s contributing a lot of his designs. So, if they’re up and anxious for it, and willing, then by all means, yes, we’ve used them.
TZN: When did the pilot get finished, and when did you get greenlit for the full series?
KEVIN SHINICK: I started in Novemer of last year, so I think it was November of 2009. I honestly can’t remember exactly when. I think it was the beginning of this year, because I think we only kicked into high gear at around March.
MARK MAREK: Yeah, March is when I came out.
KEVIN SHINICK: Which is kind of a crazy schedule, because we’re premiering on Labor Day and we’ve got an order for 26 episodes, so we kind of hit the ground running. But in a sense, that’s kind of the tone the show has as well: a very fast-paced, hit-the-ground-running type of show that is quite a roller-coaster. It’s the kind of thing where you laugh a lot and when you’re finished, you think, “Whoa! (laughing) What did I just watch? I gotta go back and look at that again!”
MARK MAREK: There’s a lot compressed into the 11 minutes that each episode runs. It’s a ton of stuff we’re going through.
KEVIN SHINICK: It’s fast-paced and it’s a wide-variety. Here in the office, we keep saying it’s like a film festival of animation. In one episode, we tried very hard to make so many different styles of animation. You’ve got photo-collage, you’ve got Flash, you’ve got stop-motion, and then you’ve got so many different styles of each of the ones I mentioned. It’s the same thing with the humor. We’re shooting for a particular target audience, but at the same token, we want this to be enjoyable for everyone. So there’s highbrow humor, there’s lowbrow, there’s everything in between.
KEVIN SHINICK: Well, you know, it’s such an undertaking that we have our own team of about…what, 15 animators here in house? Right, Mark?
MARK MAREK: Yeah, something like that.
KEVIN SHINICK: Mark has set up that team, and we go to Sergio and he draws stuff, we use Bunko and Mortella (?) in New York. We’ve got a lot of these great designers. You said it best when you said we were trying to ape the magazine. Not only are we trying to capture the flavor of the magazine, but we’re trying to copy its style. MAD was a palette for all these great artists, and we’re trying to continue that tradition with the artists that you know from MAD—the ones we’ve mentioned already—but also give way to a whole new slew of artists for this generation. A lot of these guys are established already, and a lot of them are going to be noted, I think, for their work on our show.
MARK MAREK: And it’s not only a variety of artists, but we’re trying to get a variety of media in there, so we do have, like, at least 3 stop-motion vendors that we use.
KEVIN SHINICK: Yeah. It’s true. I mean, we’ve got SO many people. Even just one style of animation will have 3 different companies or artists working on that. Like, Mark just mentioned, we have stop-motion, so we’ve got Buddy System, we’ve got Screen Novelties. And every time we look at them, too, the look of it is very chaotic on purpose, but there’s also a rhyme and a reason to things. Like the magazine, every episode will start with a movie parody and end with a TV parody. In between, there’ll be commercial parodies, fake TV promos, random segments that you might remember from the magazine, news segments that we’re trying to get off the ground, and all sorts of stuff.
TZN: How long does it take to turn around an episode, then?
MARK MAREK: That’s a hard one to button down. If you were going to look at our schedule, I think we eventually want to get one out every two weeks, but the ramp-up time of finding the artists and the aniamtors and finding how we want each piece to look took a little bit of time, so at the end of the gate, we’ll probably be churning them out at one every two weeks.
KEVIN SHINICK: Yeah, it is a tough question, because like I said, there are so many segments within one episode and unlike other shows that are all Flash or all stop-motion, we’ve got a mix of things, so some segments may get done quicker than others. When everything is done and we have enough to choose from, we pick them and put them togehter. So it is tough. But I know we also want to do topical things, and we told Cartoon Network that if we could, we would need a two-week turnaround. If something happened today, we could probably get it in an episode in 2 weeks from now.
MARK MAREK: Or even sooner, really.
KEVIN SHINICK: Yeah. Exactly.
TZN: Then the way you structure this, do you come up with a bunch of different skits or segments, turn them loose on your animation teams, and then assemble whichever ones come back first to form an episode?
MARK MAREK: Well, we sort of have a big war room up here. Basically, every episode has some inventory. Of course, the back-episodes like 25 and 26 have a very small amount of inventory, but the front 10’s have a lot of inventory. It gets shuffled around as Kevin looks at the edit. We don’t want 2 or 3 stop-motions in a row. When they start to compile it and edit it, it gets shuffled around…”Some pieces are getting too long, so they’ll go into episode 15.” So it’s a moving target of construction.
KEVIN SHINICK: But you are right, though. The first part of my job is to just come up with as many different gags as I can. If certain things inspire me, maybe I’ll go on a run of certain types of sketches. But I have the writer’s room come up with as much different stuff as we can, and we throw it out there to the animators. Then, the second half of my job is when that stuff comes back, like Mark said, it’s to try and figure out, “OK, well this is all the stuff that came back. Where should this go, where should that go, how will this be represented in the episodes,” and what-not. So I think Mark said it best when he said it is a moving target.
MARK MAREK: The most predictable part is obviously the movie parodies and the TV parodies. Everything sort of dances around those.
KEVIN SHINICK: Those are the anchors of every episode.
TZN: There are a good number of animated comedies that are going for current events and pop-culture jokes. There’s Family Guy and South Park and that other show. On Adult Swim, I think, I forget what it’s called…Robot something or other?
KEVIN SHINICK: (laughter) Yeah, I’ve heard of it!
KEVIN SHINICK: Well, this is the way I look at it, which is becoming more evident as we work here. It’s two different things. All those shows, no matter what show it is out there, they’ve each tried to create a style and be known for that particular style. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and they can hope for the best. The way I look at it, our show has kind of become this hub of animation. This is kind of reiterating stuff we said, but we’re not just the stop-motion show, we’re not just the Flash show, we’re not just the photo-collage show. We’ve got so much variety in our animation styles and also in our humor styles that I think it will be different because it’s kind of the mother lode of all. Just like MAD was the mother-ship of comedy magazines, with all different styles and all different humor, I think we’re trying to do the exact same thing.
MARK MAREK: It’s sort of like if we got all the writers and the artists in a row, Sergio could tell the same joke different from Jack Davis and different from Mort Drucker, so we’ve got all these different approaches as opposed to one sort of “Simpsons approach” or “Family Guy approach.”
KEVIN SHINICK: The second thing is…you know, you mentioned before that over at Robot Chicken, what we do well is parody a very specific era. We can be very retro, you know? We do a lot of He-Man, we do a lot of 80’s, which we’ve had great success with and we enjoy doing. We don’t just do that, but I’d say because we’re working with toys and because we’re working with action figures that became popular in the 80’s, that’s what that show is known for. Family Guy is the same way. They do a lot of callbacks to things that we knew growing up. On MAD, we’re trying to keep very topical. Kids that are watching iCarly or shows on today don’t have a comedy venue where those shows are being lampooned. Maybe 20 years from now, a Family Guy or Robot Chicken would do an iCarly joke. Right now, no one’s doing that. So we try to put our finger on the pulse right now…
MARK MAREK: Justin Bieber.
KEVIN SHINICK: Yeah, Justin Bieber. iCarly. Hannah Montana. All these things, plus the current movies coming out this year. If it’s on television right now, we’re taking aim at it. So you’re not going to find us doing a sketch about Rainbow Brite or He-Man, but we will do Justin Bieber. We will do a Clone Wars, because that’s on right now.
Unfortunately, at that, our time ran out and we had to cut our interview short without the usual wrap-ups. Toonzone News would like to thank Kevin Shinick and Mark Marek for taking the time to speak with us, as well as Tom McAlister at Warner Bros. Television for setting up the opportunity. MAD premieres Monday, September 6, 2010, at 8:30 PM (Eastern/Pacific). You can also visit Mark Marek’s website, or Kevin Shinick’s weblog or Facebook page for news and updates on each of them.