Parody musical legend Weird Al Yankovic makes history this week by becoming the first guest editor in the long and storied history of MAD Magazine. It’s a match made in heaven—they share a very similar aesthetic, and when the 533rd edition of the magazine hits newsstands tomorrow, their powers will combine into a comedy super-force.
You probably have a lot of questions. So did we! Luckily, Weird Al—on the verge of embarking on a six-month, 100-city tour—and MAD editor-in-chief John Ficarra were kind enough to give us a few minutes of their time. They explained the origins of the collaboration, the nitty gritty details of the process, and how it finally earned Ficarra some respect.
Spoiler alert: These guys are funny.
Paste: First things first, how did this guest editor spot come about? Who called first?
Weird Al: Well John contacted me because I thought it would not be the appropriate thing to just say, “Hey I’m available for guest editing if you need me!”
Ficarra: We had talked about a guest editor for a while, but every time we saw another magazine do it, it always seemed so shoehorned and such a pure commercial move that we went, ‘ehhhh.’ MAD makes fun of that sort of thing. But we’ve known Al for a long time and always admired his work, and we felt that his comic sensibilities really lined up with ours. So we said, ‘gee, what about Weird Al?’ It just so happened that I was having dinner with him and his agent, Jay, back in September and I just gingerly floated the idea into the air. Al immediately jumped on it, and it all came together very, very quickly.
Weird Al: It didn’t take a lot of arm twisting. I think I said yes before John even finished asking the question.
John: When the subject of money came up, Al quickly said, ‘how much do I have to pay you?’ We knew we had him at that point.
Paste: Al, did you read MAD as a child?
Weird Al: I didn’t just read it, I was obsessed with it. I subscribed, of course, but I would wait by the newsstand even though I had a subscription. I would go around town to try to find the used bookstores that had back issues of the magazine. I would bug my friends and relatives to see if they had any issues in their attic. In fact, when I was 12 years old, I told my school guidance counselor that I wanted to be a writer for MAD Magazine when I grew up, and I got quickly got talked out of that.
But that was in fact a real goal and ambition of mine at the time. I wound up majoring in architecture instead, but slowly I kind of came around to not exactly my initial idea, but my own musical version of that. And the fact that now I get to guest edit an issue of MAD sort of completes a long cycle.
Paste: Was there anything particular you loved about MAD, any section or feature?
Weird Al: Well, there wasn’t one specific thing I liked. It was more the whole idea of the magazine, the whole sensibility when I was first exposed to it as a kid. It was very, very new to me, that kind of comedy, that kind of humor, that kind of subversive, irreverent style. And I think there’s something that happens to your brain at a certain age when you really appreciate that kind of comedy. I think I was at my most obsessive when I was maybe 12 years old, and I found that a lot of my fans today that are most obsessive are also 12 years old.
There’s something about being that age where you really appreciate that kind of humor. And I still obviously appreciate it, and my life revolves around that kind of humor, but I think when you’re that age, it really makes an indelible mark on your soul.
Paste: What were your other comedy influences as a kid?
Weird Al: Well, MAD was the first and biggest influence, but certainly when I started listening to the Dr. Demento radio show, that’s where I heard a lot of my musical heroes like Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa, Shel Silverstein, people like that. And then I watched a lot of Monty Python and SCTV, and there were a lot of other influences where I was able to hear and see people that were probably inspired by MAD Magazine themselves when they were growing up.
Paste: Question for both of you, what kinds of contributions did Al make as guest editor?
Ficarra: He worked much harder than I usually do on the issue, I will tell you that straight away. We threw out a lot of different ideas and they coalesced very quickly, and I think the biggest thing that Al wrote was a big six-page article that he can tell you about better than I can…
Weird Al: It’s called “Pages from Weird Al’s Notebook,” which is ostensibly ideas for things that were too stupid to record to put on an album, but were apparently good enough for MAD.
Ficarra: The bar is never too low for us.
Al: And I answered all the reader mail for the issue. I picked out one of my favorite old MAD articles for the ‘Mad Vault’ section. There’s a little brief pictorial of how I was conned into becoming the guest editor for the issue, and even a lot of the articles that I wasn’t directly involved with have a kind of Weird Al influence. Al Jaffe was nice enough to do a Weird Al edition of ‘Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,’ and there’s also a two-page spread showing what it’s like to be at Weird Al concerts.
I was also able to blackmail seven or eight of my friends to contribute pieces to the magazine, so there are little mini articles from Patton Oswalt, Tom Lennon, Chris Hardwick, Seth Green, John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal and Emo Philips. And none of them are talking to me anymore.
Paste: Do any of the letters you answered stick out to you?
Weird Al: Apparently there were thousands and thousands of letters, and John and his staff narrowed it down to a couple dozen that they thought would be the most profound. So the ones I answered were things like, ‘if you could only crazy glue one nostril would it be your left nostril or your right nostril?’ Stuff like that. The things people need to know the answer to.
Paste: John, let me ask you the same question I asked Al—have you always been a fan of his?
Ficarra: Oh, I mean I’ve always been a fan of Al’s going back to his very, very early work, and I just saw the level of detail that he put in. It reminded me of MAD, and it reminded me of the song parodies for years that Frank Jacobs would write for the magazine. I was jealous in that Al was able to give those ideas production values and singing talent, and I thought, ‘oh God, if we could do that with MAD parodies…’ But we are who we are. We’re a print magazine and Al is a performer. But we immediately knew…we sensed that Al was a MAD fan even before he announced it, just watching the way he worked and what he did. And at one point…Al when did you do “Jurassic Park”?
Weird Al: I want to say ‘93, probably?
Ficarra: And I forget how it came about, but Al did a special claymation scene for us, and we re-printed the lyrics to his song parody, and that was really the beginning of a great relationship. Then over the years Al wrote an introduction to our book MAD About TV, and then another introduction that hasn’t come out yet, but will be out next month for Frank Jacobs’ book. Frank Jacobs was MAD’s song parodist almost from the beginning, and so we’ve always had a great relationship with Al, and this issue has killed it.
Paste: What has the buzz been like so far? Are people excited?
Weird Al: Certainly my fans are really excited. I’ve been putting it out on social media and fans are extremely excited, almost as excited as me. I don’t think anyone’s more excited than me about this.
Ficarra: It’s funny, even around the MAD offices—and we share offices with DC Comics—so many people have come up to me in the hallways and said, ‘oh I heard about the Weird Al issue! That’s going to be so great!’ So there’s an internal buzz as well with people who normally never say anything to me about the magazine. Never anything good, let’s put it that way.
Paste: Al, did you visit the offices at any point, or was this all email?
Weird Al: The only time I saw John in person was the dinner where he asked me to do the gig, so it has been a long-distance relationship. But email seems to work just fine, and we’ve been able to put it together and collaborate digitally.
Paste: John, will this open the floodgates to other guest editors, or is this a one-off?
Ficarra: Are you applying for the job?
Paste: You wouldn’t want me.
Ficarra: Well, we don’t know, I won’t close the door on it completely, but I will say that Al made it very tough for anyone else to come in and do it, because it was such a great, natural fit. Someone would have to bring something extraordinary to the table for us to do it again. But Jon Stewart, if you’re listening, please contact me immediately!
Weird Al: I lowered the bar so much, it would be hard to limbo under it.