‘Mad’ Producer Kevin Shinick Celebrates 100 Episodes of the Animated Series [Interview]
It’s hard to work out how Robot Chicken creative director and increasingly busy comic book writer Kevin Shinick found the time to complete 100 episodes of Mad for Warner Bros. Animation, but he did it, and it’s an accomplishment he and the studio are celebrating with a double-sized anniversary show tonight on Cartoon Network. Perhaps most enticingly for ComicsAlliance readers, the episode’s centerpiece is what’s surely to be a biting Man of Steel parody starring “Weird Al” Yankovic as Superman and Henry Winkler as Jor-El.
Devised and written by (and usually starring) Shinick, the Mad cartoon is, in his words, the magazine brought to life in animation. It’s a bold statement but honestly Shinick isn’t wrong. Besides just being very funny, Mad translates the venerable humor magazine’s signature irreverence, silliness and other naughtiness for television, segueing from one sketch to another with animated page tears and everything. The series actually employs some of the cartoonists who continue to define the voice of Mad, including Sergio Aragonés, who contributes all-new in-the-margins strips that find their way into every episode, as do topical film and television parodies, fake commercials and, of course, Spy vs. Spy. In every case, sketches are presented in visual styles reminiscent of Mad masters like Don Martin, Mort Drucker and Al Jaffee, and by way of different animation techniques such as Flash, stop-motion and puppets, to further honor the stylistic diversity of the magazine. But the series updates the magazine’s scope for the extremely memetic world of today, going all-in on mashups (the ThunderLOLcats comes immediately to mind) and other highly bloggable jokes.
That any contemporary animated series makes it to 100 episodes is remarkable, but Mad has the additional distinction of being explicitly based on a comics magazine — and with the help of that comics magazine’s current contributors like Aragones and Tom Richmond — makes the Emmy-nominated series that much more interesting. It’s obvious from talking to Shinick (who’s also writing Superior Carnage for Marvel) that the mantle of Mad is hugely important to him. In the following interview you’ll find out why that is, as well as an inside look at Mad’s impressive production workflow, Shinick’s philosophy about comedic content for children, and what else to expect from tonight’s 100th episode.
ComicsAlliance: Kevin, tell us about how Mad began. Who were the major people involved and how did you come into it?
Kevin Shinick: It was twofold, really. One, Adult Swim wanted a show like Robot Chicken that you could show in primetime; a show that wasn’t as obscene or blue, that could hit a larger family audience. At the same time, MADtv had just ended and Warner Bros. was interested in reviving the Mad brand. Somehow my name got thrown into the mix because they thought Robot Chicken was a good model [for what Mad could be]. I met with [WB Animation executives] Peter Girardi and Sam Register and it was really a match made in Heaven right out of the gate. I kind of walked in and told them how much I loved Mad magazine and we just clicked. All of a sudden this song… I don’t know how old you are, but Mad used to come with ’45s in the magazine you’d play on the record player. Those songs are embedded in my memory. I hadn’t sung them in probably 30 years, but all of a sudden I I found myself singing these songs and [Girardi and Register] were like, “Wow, we think your’e the guy for this.”
CA: What were the early discussions about the animation and creative direction?
KS: As we set out to bring this to life, I had some personal objectives. One of them was, I wanted you to feel like you were watching the magazine brought to life on television. Like I said, MADtv existed but it wasn’t really like the magazine, it was more of an SNL-type of show. There had really been no cartoon of Mad that had been successful or caught on — although there had been some specials in the ’70s. But Mad has been around since 1952. It’s the mother of all comedy magazines. Everyone you talk to who’s somebody in the comedy world — from The Simpsons to the Monty Python people to stand-ups to “Weird Al” — they all refer to Mad magazine as their inspiration. Of course, as half a century will do to you, the magazine got surpassed a little bit [by the people who were inspired by it]. So my intention was to bring the attention back to Mad magazine and reintroduce it to a whole new generation. If I did that, I would feel that I did my job here. That was really the big marching order.
If you want to get more specific in terms of the actual episodes, we want every episode to be like a mini animation film festival. Content-wise, I want you to see in one episode stop motion, Flash, “photo-heads” and puppets and live action stuff in an animated format. Editorially, I wanted there to be everything you loved from the magazine. A movie parody, a TV parody, a commercial, a promo, and everything in between. I tell my writers, if you find something funny we will find a way to put in the show.
CA: To what extent are Mad magazine contributors involved with the series?
KT: Well, wanting this to be an extension of the magazine, the great thing was that I now had the greats from the actual magazine on staff working with me. Sergio Aragonés, who has been working with the magazine since the ’60s, who has such an iconic look, is still doing the drawngs for us that he is known for.
CA: And adapting specific format ideas from the magazine?
KT: I tried to find a look that captured the magazine. Unlike Robot Chicken, where we do channel flips and there’s static between each scene, I really want Mad to act like we’r ere reading a magazine. We do paper rips. Sergio had that iconic bit where he drew in the margins. What we do, we have part of the screen tear away and in only a section do you see his animation. That was my nod to that. We’ve got [homages to] Don Martin, we’ve got [homages to] Al Jaffee, we’ve got all these guys. The only other thing that everybody talks about is the fold-in at the end [of every issue of Mad magazine]. I love that fold-in, but for my show — which is a fifteen-minute, fast and furious comedy show — the fold-in was never really funny. It was cool, it was interesting. So I opted instead to do a kind of homage in the sense that all my sketches kind of fold in on themselves and fold out again.
CA: The show does have its own distinct voice, though.
KS: On one hand you’ve got all those things I mentioned as an homage to the magazine, but our target audience is actually younger than that of the magazine. What that means to me is the things that I’m going to reference are things that kids ages 8-15 know. But I want the show to be funny for everybody. To keep my sanity, I want to make myself laugh. So I think what we’ve done well here at the show is to really ride that line. I almost feel like I’m writing two shows in every episode. A lot of people have come to me — and it is such a treat when i’m told this — so many parents say, “I love watching the show with my kid. They’re laughing at stuff that I don’t get and they get to share with me what I’m missing, and i’m laughing at stuff that they don’t get and we get to have this dialogue about what the inside joke is.” If I’m writing something where the dialog is for kids, I’m going to make sure the visuals are something for the adults. If the dialog is a little funnier or more risqué for the adults, then I’m going to make sure that what they’re looking at is something that they recognize or enjoy. We want to give kids the feeling that they’re watching something they technically shouldn’t be watching, although they are allowed to watch it. That’s why we’ve aired so close to Adult Swim.
CA: So Mad’s like Johnny Carson and Adult Swim is like Letterman.
KT: Exactly! I also write comic books, and I did an Avenging Spider-Man arc a year ago. It was teaming up Spider-Man and Deadpool. And it was really the perfect blend of my day job. I was doing Mad and I was doing Robot Chicken. Deadpool is that risqué, breaking-the-fourth-wall, kind of obscene character, and Spider-Man is the family oriented humor. It was funny bringing those two characters together because it felt like an extension of what I was doing during the day. I’d be working on Mad and then I’d go over to Robot Chicken where we’d do those DC Comics specials. A lot of my world was aligned with itself.
CA: I noticed the show had homages to Aragonés and Don Martin but I didn’t realize Mad people were actually working on the show. I thought those were all just mimics.
KT: I’d love to have them all working on it! But Don Martin has passed. Al Jaffee is 98 but we still take his work and animate it. Tom Richmond is doing the iconic Mort Drucker look to the movie parodies that the magazine has. So we swap him in and out from time to time to get that unique look.
I really wanted to showcase all those talents in this 100th episode, which is a double-sized episode. So I had the room to do it. We’ve got Mort Drucker, we’ve got Don Martin, we’ve got Tom Richmond, we’ve got Sergio Aragonés, we’ve got Al Jaffee. Everyone is represented from the magazine.
CA: The show is very much a showcase of different cartooning styles. What’s the decision process for how to present a sketch in Flash or in stop motion or in an art style reminiscent of the classic Mad illustrators and so forth?
KT: It really just comes down to my personal opinion, sometimes, and that of my fellow producer Mark Marek, who’s my head animator. Once I write something, or the writers pitch something, I’ll say to him, This can’t be stop-motion because it’s not going to be as funny because the visuals need to be more realistic, or, This should be in puppets. It’s really a case by case basis. We kind of got into the groove of our movie parodies being mostly “photo-heads.” That works because the movies we’re parodying are currently out right now, and it’s easy to get a head of the guy who plays Thor or Tony Stark so the kids recognize exactly what we’re doing.
CA: What’s the workflow like on Mad? Many of the sketches seem remarkably current considering what I presume is a long lead time. I assume you guys don’t work on the South Park six-day schedule.
KT: We’re not South Park but i would say we’re probably second in line in terms of fastness. We’re not doing it in six days but I’d say we’re doing it in six weeks. The longest sketch we have takes six-to-eight weeks, and that’s our movie parodies. And I don’t really work in terms of episodes, anyway. Editorially, I want every episode to have a movie parody, a TV parody, a commercial, a promo, two “Mad moments,” one rotating sketch… I make the writers hit a quota of ideas, maybe three each of those categories. Once they do, I’ll take it — or maybe they’ll write a first draft and I’ll take it from there — and I keep filling up the wells of sketches. When I sit with the editor to piece an episode together, I will go to my well and pull out a movie parody, a TV parody, etc.. But we don’t have much lead time. I just came from a record just now for an episode that will air in the first week of December.
KS: When we first started, there were so many people who said it couldn’t be done — people I was working with! Legal people that we work with. They said, “You can’t get away with all these parodies!” And we had to kind of teach them, “You can! This is what Mad magazine is known for!” Production people were like, “You’ll never get away with it!” The only reason we can is because we’re a small crew, we do many things, and we do it mostly in house — all in North America. There’s one company in Canada. Other than that, everyone’s in the United States, the majority of them in this office [at Warner Bros. Animation in Burbank]. As soon as something’s written, I then lay down the scratch track for every line of dialog in every sketch. That way the animators can jump in immediately. Then it goes to the animatic, I give notes, and it becomes animation. All the while, I’m hiring a cast to replace my voice or do other roles. That essentially becomes ADR [dubbing] because they’re the last major element we add before it gets mixed and sent on its way. That’s what enables us to do this fast turnaround.
CA: There isn’t a narrative for each episode — what you do is more like making a mixtape — but a 100th episode is a special occasion. Did you devise content specifically for the 100th episode?
KT: For the most part our series is what you said, kind of like a mixtape. Occasionally we’ll focus and do a couple specials. We did one which we called the “ape-isode” which is all monkey-themed. Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out so we did that as a movie parody. We did Celebrity Ape-prentice. Every sketch int he show was ape involved, so we had to have some sort of foresight. And we always do a Halloween sketch and we always do a Christmas episode and a Thanksgiving episode.
Knowing we were going into the 100th episode and knowing it was going to be double-sized, I wanted it two be two things: I wanted it to feel like all that you loved about a regular episode was represented, because sometimes I’ll watch a special [of other shows] and I’ll say, “Oh, they went so far from what I like about a regular episode that I don’t like this as much.” And in a funny way, I also wanted to focus on the great moments of the past 100 episodes. I didn’t want to do a clip show but I wanted to find a fun and unique and funny way to introduce some great moments [from the past. We do a memorial of characters who didn’t make it to the 100th episode. We’ve got One Direction coming in — they have a song called “Best Song Ever” that we turned it into a sketch called “Worst Show Ever.” [The 100th episode] has the best of both worlds. It has a whole bunch of stuff you love about Mad and we have a whole bunch of lookbacks.
CA: I understand a centerpiece of the episode is a Man of Steel parody.
KS: I wanted that to look like a Mad magazine parody which is why Tom Richmond did the designs for that. You know, Man of Steel was one of the bigger movies of this year and it’s great [for our show] because it’s superhero-related. I really wanted to go out and see who we could bring in — I mentioned before how many people have always wanted to work with Mad — so we got “Weird Al “to come in and voice Superman. It’s Superman so it could really be voiced by anybody, so I thought how great would it be if “Weird Al” came in and did it? And just as a fluke, just because I love him so much, we got Henry Winkler in to play Jor-El. It really just found its way and it just makes me happy. All we do here is poke fun. I’ve lost the ability to go to the movies and enjoy a movie on its own level. I’m always looking for the parody or the thing I don’t like about a movie so I can poke fun at it, and that’s what we did. Man of Steel was provocative to a lot of people. Some people loved it, some people weren’t so crazy about it. I think in a respectufl way we take the wind out of it. It is DC so I think a lot of the people around us got a kick out of it.
CA: Do you ever get any pushback from your sister companies DC and Warner Bros. about having a go at their sacred cows like Superman?
KS: No! And I’ll be honest with you, when we first started this series I was very excited to get our first Cease and Desist letter. But we never got one and I was a little bummed out by that. I thought we must be doing something wrong. But in fact the opposite is true. I’ll get emails from showrunners on other networks that say, “We caught ourselves on Mad; we love it, we love the show.” It’s kind of like SNL. If they’re being parodied, people enjoy being in the limelight in that regard.
When we started showing clips of our shows [to advertisers and the public] , there were rumblings at other studios about us not being able to get away with things. But being here and at Robot Chicken, I’ve perfected the craft of parodying. As random as it may seem, you cant just throw stuff together on television. You can’t just do parodies and you can’t just do mashups. You have to be able to defend them legally. You have to justify the parody. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer and I didn’t, but now I know so much about the law, at least parody law, I’m meeting him halfway.
Those mashups are another example of the show being an homage but striking out on its own. We haven’t created this genre of the mashup, but you know, before us there were straight parodies… like, if I do a Dark Knight parody, that’s great but in a couple of years it’s going to be dated. But if I do Dark Knight at the Museum, that’s two movies that are being parodied. Because it’s its own entity, that parody doesn’t really get dated. It’s its own thing and we can always refer back to this movie, Dark Knight at the Museum, which deosn’t exist anywhere but on Mad.
CA: I suspect you can’t choose a favorite parody or mashup, but maybe you could tell me what you’re most proud of, what do you thing stung the worst?
KT: There are different reasons I like different parodies. I loved the “ape-isode” because I thought it was unique and I found it was really funny. I had a guy come in here, Chris Cox — that’s another reason this show is so great, I’ve tapped into a lot of really great voice talent — he was doing Winnie the Pooh for us but in between takes he started doing Denzel Washington. It blew my mind how much he sounded like him, so we wrote Thomas the Unstoppable Train Engine, which is a mashup of Thomas and that Denzel Washington movie Unstoppable, which is still one of my all-time favorite movie parodies because it makes me laugh so hard. But I also have a Broadway background [Shinick created the Spider-Man Live! production which performed in 2002] so I really enjoy when i’m able to write a musical parody. One of the great things i was able to do for me as a fanboy was do a whole musical about the Super Friends and calling them out as “super friends” in name only, since they’re not really friends. Instead of Smash we did Hulk Smash. The musicals really make me happy.
The 100th episode of Mad transmits Monday night on Cartoon Network.