Imagine that you're given the opportunity to turn a legendary humor magazine, something that you grew up reading, into a television show. Then imagine that you're asked to develop the show for prime time on a television network that caters to a rather young audience. This is the case with Mad, the new eleven-minute animated program based on the magazine that has pushed the limits of parody for over half a century. Mad will make its Cartoon Network debut on September 6 at 8:30 p.m.
Recently, we paid a visit to Warner Bros. to talk to Kevin Shinick, producer/story editor, and Peter Girardi, Senior Vice President, Series & Alternative Animation, Warner Bros. Animation, about the series.
“In many ways, a lot of the shows that are on now take their cue from Mad, they're inspired by Mad or in some way they pay homage to Mad,” said Shinick, citing The Simpsons as an example. “It's just so funny that considering that it is the inspiration for so much that there is no show on the air that really represents it.”
The first and most obvious challenge is how do you turn a magazine into a television show? With one medium, you can flip through it at your leisure. The other has a set number of minutes to grab your attention. With a magazine, particularly Mad, you have not just multiple stories in single issue, but a wide variety of visual styles represented. Your typical TV show does not.
In order to represent the diversity within the magazine, Mad will feature animation ranging from photo collage to stop-motion to Flash. In addition to the in-house team at Warner Bros., the show will be utilizing numerous animators and studios, including Devin Flynn, who will be tackling the classic “Spy vs. Spy,” and Titmouse, whose work you might recognize from Metalocalypse.
“It was like curating a show almost,” said Girardi. “Like, I would love to see this artist's take on 'Spy vs. Spy.' I would love to see this artist's take on 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.' It's great, between Mark Marek, who is the animation director on Mad, and myself and other people in the studio, we're able to go out to a wide variety of animation studios and artists and illustrators and get their takes on these classic Mad bits.”
Some of Mad's famous gags, though, aren't so easy to translate onto the small screen.
“The fold-in is a great example,” said Girardi. “It works great in print because it's part physical and it's part conceptual. On television, it's completely conceptual because there's no physicality to it. So we tried a lot of different versions and it was never as satisfying as just folding a piece of paper. We came up with another homage to the fold-in.”
Structurally, the team found a way to tackle the magazine's format. Each eleven-minute episode is broken down into ten to twelve segments, some as short as five seconds in length.
“Like with the magazine, you're going to start with a movie parody, end with a TV parody,” Shinick explained. “You're going to have a commercial parody, you're going to have a fake promo and you're going to use that as your structure and your anchors. You know in between there are going to be short little bits…'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions' or just little short sketches. Once you put your anchors in, it's just a matter of time before you fill the gap with all the other sketches, fake news reels and other gags we came up with.”
Although the short is part of animation's history (e.g., Popeye, Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, etc.), in recent years, it's become a staple of Adult Swim, the not-for-kids programming that replaces Cartoon Network every night. Both Girardi and Shinick have put in time with Adult Swim. The former previously worked on Minoriteam and Saul of the Mole Men, while the latter worked on Robot Chicken as both a writer and voice actor. Mark Marek also worked on Saul of the Mole Men as well as Young Person's Guide to History.
There are similarities to Adult Swim fare throughout the show with its frenetic pacing, ample use of parody and willingness to experiment with animation techniques. However, there is one core difference. Mad is running in prime time, not in the middle of the night, and it's target audience is comprised of eight to fifteen-year-old kids. When you're working on a show with that young of an audience, there's a lot that you can't say or do on the air.
“Considering Mad is such a skewering parody generator, at first it was like, 'What can we do?'” said Shinick. “In a sense, that's been the challenge and also why it's been so rewarding.”
He continued, “In a way, it was good to challenge ourselves and say, no, we can still be funny without cursing or having to do something that can only be done around midnight. I think that's the balance that we've found in doing this show.”
Mad is walking a fine line between children's and adult programming. However, if you've ever watched shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Ren and Stimpy or The Simpsons as an adult and understood it on a completely different level then you did as a child, then you know that this is how animation frequently works.
“We are pushing the envelope as much as we can and I think that when they tested this show, the kids felt it gives you the sense, just like Mad did, that you're reading or watching something that you probably shouldn't be allowed to watch,” said Shinick.
“Technically, we know as the producers that we had to jump through eighty hoops to get this approval, but I don't think there's one day that goes by where we say, alright we won't do that,” he said. “We push it as much as we can to get the adults who are watching the show, something for them, as well as something for the kids.”