JUDD APATOW was in the middle of making his new “Anchorman” sequel when the call came. The question: Would he be interested in contributing an essay to the latest MAD magazine anthology?
Apatow no doubt was a fan — “especially in the years they tried to make it funny,” he jokes. But the king of screen comedy had a (funny) bone to pick: MAD had never parodied any of the filmmaker’s many works: from TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” to “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) up through the recent “This Is 40.”
“ ‘You never spoofed any of my movies,’ “ MAD Editor John Ficarra recalls Apatow as replying, noting the light tone of their back-and-forth banter. Ficarra’s retort: “That’s because you do comedies that are so out there to begin with.”
“ ‘I was thinking: What if there’s my intro ... and then a two-page spread of my characters,’ “ Ficarra says of Apatow’s brainstorm. “I said: ‘That’s great. ... Who’s going to write it? Have you ever written jokes before?’ “
Naturally, Ficarra says tongue in cheek to Comic Riffs, the offer “ended up making more work for us.” But the result is a beautiful, genuinely hilarious spread of Apatow characters, expertly caricatured by Tom Richmond and mouthing the punch lines of Desmond Devlin and Paul Rust. The two-pager includes nods to “Knocked Up,” “Bridesmaids,” “Superbad,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” — and arrives just ahead of December’s “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”
The sweeping parody fittingly kicks off the high-flying “Inside MAD” (Time Home Entertainment), a generous anthology that comes out Tuesday and that follows up last year’s bestselling six-decade hardcover roundup, “Totally MAD.”
For Apatow — as with several generations of comedy pros — reading MAD while a kid was a formative experience. “My young mind was shaped by MAD Magazine, Bill Cosby records and Steve Martin ‘SNL’ appearances,” writes Apatow in his introduction, before noting that as a boy, he and a friend talked their way into a tour of the home studio of neighbor and legendary MAD caricaturist Mort Drucker.
“Mort taught me that it is important to always be kind to your fans, even when they invade your privacy,” Apatow writes in his intro — in which nearly every complimentary word is undercut by a parenthetical joke. (Yes, seriously.)
And Apatow is just the opening act. Ficarra lined up more than a dozen additional celebrities who, as MAD fans, write brief tributes and/or cite some of their favorite works.
“It’s really heartening and surprising that they would take time out to write these things,” Ficarra says of the participating celebrities, who range from the expected (Todd McFarlane, Pendleton Ward and Paul Feig) to the logical contingent of comedians (Whoopi Goldberg, George Lopez and Dane Cook) to the somewhat surprising (Jeff Probst, David Lynch and Ice-T). And though Jon Hamm is an Apatow veteran, it’s two other “Mad Men” principals — John Slattery and show creator Matt Weiner — who get some space here.
“I was looking for a bunch of different people,” Ficarra tells Comic Riffs.”I was hoping for a Nobel Prize winner — that could be such a great thing!”
Ficarra already knew that Roseanne Barr and Penn Jillette were fans. But as he sought other contributors, he focused on variety. “Some of them worked out [so] well,” Ficarra says. “For Ken Burns, we had a Civil War cartoon by Don Martin.” Similarly, for Tony Hawk’s note of tribute, a Don Martin skateboard cartoon from 1977 fits nicely.
And then there’s Weiner’s wonderful essay, which contains his eye-catching reveal: “MAD was a big influence on ‘Mad Men.’ “
“I was struck by that line, too,” Ficarra tells us.
Another wonderfully “inside baseball” aspect to the anthology is seeing MAD contributors — names from the “Usual Gang of Idiots” — pick their own favorites from the magazine’s sweeping 60-year history.
Ficarra, for instance, picks a great 1994 Al Jaffee riff titled, “Airport Maps Reveal What Cities Are Really Famous For.” And Devlin, the writer, picks a Jaffee work titled “An Architectural Triumph,” from 1974. (Writes Devlin: “Al Jaffee is the man.”)
Elsewhere, Sergio Aragones provides a stellar fold-in schematic of the MAD offices that Ficarra says is packed with true-life detail.
The comments, too, go behind the scenes: Illuminating remarks come from film parodists like Drucker (who spotlights his virtuosic satire of “Patton,” titled “Put-On”) and Angelo Torres (focusing on his “Papillon” spoof, “Popicorn), who says of Drucker: “Like James Bond, nobody did it better.”
Antonio Prohias. Paul Coker. Frank Jacobs. Larry Siegel and Wally Wood. In terms of “killing ‘em” with comedy, it’s a murderer’s row of all-time talents. (And the hits just keep on comin’ for more than 250 pages.)
And perhaps one of the best behind-the-scenes stories comes from Annie Gaines. She was a Penn State student in the late ‘60s when she
needed a reprint of a MAD piece for a class project. The captioned-snapshot article, titled “America, the Beautiful — Revisited,” took the nation to task for its pitiful ecological politics; it was humorously conceived by Jacobs and produced by Max Brandel. (”Brandel was one of the unsung heroes of MAD,” Ficarra says, “the way he was juxtaposing photos and content.”)
So the Penn State student wrote MAD Publisher William M. Gaines for a reprint (which he sent), an ongoing correspondence began and, within a few years later — from that satiric root of polluted-Earth humor — their love bloomed. Annie became Bill’s third wife, as they embarked for decades, she writes, upon “a long whirlwind adventure... .”
Gratefully, those four words also describe “Inside MAD.”
[‘TOTALLY MAD’: Anthology celebrates 60 years of satire.]