May 30, 2012 | by Lary Wallace
Dick DeBartolo’s first piece for Mad was published in 1962, when he was still in high school, and his work has appeared in every single issue since June 1966. He has written for sections throughout the magazine, but his greatest claim is as a satirist of movies and TV shows—that is, as a writer of the kind of elaborate pop-culture parodies that have, arguably, been the magazine’s signature brand of humor ever since they began running them regularly, about a dozen issues into their existence.
The influence of these satires—as written by DeBartolo as well as Harvey Kurtzman, Larry Siegel, Frank Jacobs, Arnie Kogen, Stan Hart, Lou Silverstone, Desmond Devlin, and others—has ranged well beyond the realm of illustrated humor, or even comedy generally; it’s entered the cultural water supply, enriching the work of filmmakers, politicians, authors, actors, and advertisers. Once you’ve acknowledged this, you’re only one short step away from acknowledging DeBartolo’s particular influence on culture at large.
DeBartolo is most famous for Mad, but it isn’t the only thing he’s done. He saved The Match Game from impending cancellation in the sixties by suggesting the playful style of questioning that made the show a hit; he’s reviewed consumer gadgets—currently for ABC World News and The Weekly Daily Giz Wiz podcast—since the seventies; and in 1995, he penned a memoir, Good Days and Mad: A Historical Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at MAD Magazine.
It’s hard to be curious about the nature of pop culture without also being curious about how Mad has gone about satirizing it. I recently asked DeBartolo to elaborate on his precise methodology.
One of my favorite pieces is your parody of 2001, which you called 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy. Did you dislike the movie as much as your satire suggests?
I thought it was okay. But for the satire to work, you have to take apart things you even think are good. When I worked on The Match Game, Alan Alda was one of the guests on the show, and backstage he said, “You work for Mad, right? You know, Mad was really unfair in their takeoff on M*A*S*H. They were putting down things that really didn’t deserve to be put down.”
And I said, “Alan, first of all, the fact that Mad did it means you have a big hit, because satire is only funny if people know what the original is.” I said, “There’s nothing personal here. We have to invent flaws if there are no flaws we can find.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, okay. I’m glad I mentioned it. Now I feel better.” So, I like the look of Space Odyssey, but I do think it was kind of ponderous here and there.
I was recently telling artist Tom Richmond how funny I thought it was that in his Batman Begins parody, in the very last panel—and I don’t know how much input he had into this, because it was written by Desmond Devlin—the movie is chastised for capitalizing on people who buy up all the Batman merchandise. And Tom actually collects Batman merchandise. He just posted on his blog a picture of his Batman shrine.
The reality of the situation is that the only ones who really know what’s going on everywhere are John Ficarra and Sam Viviano [Mad’s longtime editor and art director, respectively]. I never see other writers’ work at all. And often, I don’t see the finished work for my stuff until it’s about to be printed.
Part of that is because I don’t go to the office anymore every day. I just go in to answer fan mail a couple times a week. If I happen to be there when the blue-line proofs come in, they’ll ask me to review it, to see if the continuity matches the panels, and see if anything is out of skew. But these days, the first time I see the artwork for my article is after the magazine is printed.
In your memoir, you relate a story about telling Don Martin you want an illustration of fifty dancing girls, and he responds, “How ‘bout three?” And you said, “Why three?” And he said, “Because I’d have to draw fifty.”
That was a different situation, because I was writing a book for Don Martin, and we were on a Mad-sponsored trip, which is the only time the writers and artists really meet. Otherwise, the Mad staff lives all over the country.
Do you typically make suggestions for the minute visual jokes that appear in the backgrounds? In your Fugitive parody, there are multiple references in the background to previous movies that Harrison Ford had done—mostly Star Wars. Is that your handiwork, or is that the artist at work there?
A lot of the time it’s the artist. When you write the movie takeoffs, you really write them panel by panel, and at the top of the panel you write, This scene takes place in the office, and we see so-and-so standing in the background. We see that-and-that. So sometimes, if I think of a joke, I’ll put it in at that point.
As you watch a movie, are you keeping count of the gags and writing ideas down?
Yeah, and after I see the movie, I write a whole outline of it, and then I go through it again and I mark up the panels—the must-have panels. Those either carry the story, or the audience had a big reaction to that scene, which means you really have to include it because people are going to remember that particular scene. And then I'll tell the editor, I can do a nice five pages on this because I have thirty good panels.
And how long does it take to complete?
I usually write them in about a week.
Do you see a movie more than once?
Really? That surprises me.
To tell you the truth, I usually take a tape recorder to the movies—an audio-tape recorder—because sometimes, especially in a James Bond movie for instance, it’s very hard to remember the sequence in which things happen. We also realize that sometimes other people can’t remember that, either. So occasionally, for speed, we’ll rearrange the movie or leave out a couple of key scenes and just cover it with dialogue.
When do you decide is the proper time to do a TV show? It seems you’d want to do it while the show is at the peak of its popularity.
Exactly. We used to get the Nielsen ratings and see which shows were popular. But you certainly would not do them in the first ten weeks—you wanted to make sure they were gonna stay popular. TV shows are not nearly as much fun as doing takeoffs on movies—they’re a lot more work. You have to watch at least five episodes to learn all the characters, what the characters do, and how they react to one another. And with a movie, you satirize the movie. With the TV show, you have to make up a whole new plot. So it takes two weeks, or two-and-a-half weeks to do a takeoff on a TV show.
With a movie you’re parodying the plot, but with a TV show you can’t parody only a single episode—it would be too obscure.
Right, you have to invent a new plot that is very similar to something that’s aired. When June Lockhart, from Lost In Space, was on Match Game, I said, “You know, Mad just came out this week, and I just did a takeoff on your show Lost in Space, and I knew you were gonna be on the show today. So I brought you a copy.” And after lunch she said, “Do you know one of the writers on the show? The plot you came up with is so close to something we’re doing in three weeks.” I was so flattered—I knew I had captured the kind of thing they would do.
According to at least one online Mad resource, you’re the author of the Family Feud parody, and yet the piece has the byline “Dick Bic.” Is that your pseudonym?
Yes. Family Feud was owned by Goodson-Toddman, and all through my career working for Mad, I also had a second career writing for Mark Goodson-Bill Toddman—working on The Match Game and on To Tell the Truth. And I worked on Family Feud. So I made up a pen name, Bic being a pen.
You’re famous for having the longest publication streak in Mad history—412 consecutive issues—and before your streak started at no. 103, you’d been close to establishing the streak for twenty issues. Did you decide at no. 103 that you were going to do it?
It was very funny. It was a time when the magazine was going to press on a Monday. They called me in and said, “Somebody else did a satire, and it really needs jokes. Is there any chance you could just go through this piece and add jokes?” It was Friday, and the piece was due Monday. I said, “Well, I have no big plans for the weekend. I’ll do it.” So I did, and they were happy with it, and Gaines said, “That was just great. We owe you a big one. What do you want? You need a favor?” And I said, “Bill, I just want to be in every issue.” He said, “Well, just keep writing stuff. You’ll be in every issue. We’d be thrilled if you’d write stuff.” It just started a streak, and I kept it going, and I keep writing stuff, and here I am.
You talk about your streak in terms of momentum, as if it just happened, but obviously something has sustained you.
It’s the Mad fans. [Mad founder] Bill [Gaines] and I became really fast friends. We had really bizarre adventures together. He knew I liked trains, he rented a train. And when Bill died, I thought, This might just be a good time to leave Mad. But it was before the San Diego Comic Convention, and I was booked as a guest, so I went. And I was amazed by the number of people who came by and said, “Please don’t let Mad die.” Not that I could do anything single-handedly about it, but I thought, My God, Mad fans are really amazing. Let me just keep writing as long as I can.
There’s little in your memoir about your comedic influences. Who are some of them?
Sid Caesar’s movie parodies—I absolutely loved them. I went to the Village—oh, twenty years ago—when he was appearing at some dinky club, and I gave the stage manager a card and asked could I please meet him and thank him. And I did get to meet him. He was my major influence, on wanting to write that kind of satire.
There’s a point at which you just start thinking in terms of satire. Sometimes I go to the movies and I have to sit in the back of the theater, because everybody in the theater could be crying and I’ll be breaking myself up, thinking, He really would be saying this. So after a while, things just write themselves. If it’s a bad movie, you can’t wait to write it. And you’ll not only make fun of the movie, you’ll get paid for it.