As the “funny kid from Brooklyn,” Nick Meglin assumed humor and art would always be part of his life. Although he intended to become a book illustrator, Meglin found himself instead in the offices of Mad Magazine, where he was part of the editorial staff for almost 50 years. One of the most beloved and longest-running humor magazines in American history, Mad satirized politics and popular culture in ways that were both shocking and refreshing.
“Mad was not a magazine of creation, we were a magazine of reflection,” said Meglin, who joined the magazine in 1956. “We would hold up a fun-house mirror to the society so the image was distorted and exaggerated.”
When the magazine launched (as a comic) in 1952, young people were confronted, some for the first time, with adult hypocrisy and encouraged to mock it. It signaled a shift in the ways that children viewed and responded to their world. “A convention was coming to an end–one that compelled children to repress their natural hostilities, forced them to mutter under their breaths perhaps, but rarely to be openly abusive,” wrote Marie Winn wrote in Children Without Childhood. “Mad magazine was clearly influential in the move toward free expression among children.”
In this 2016 interview, Meglin—who lives in Durham–recalls his Brooklyn childhood, his career at Mad alongside figures such as publisher William Gaines, writers Dick DeBartolo and Arnie Kogen, and artists Don Martin, Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee and others. Meglin also discusses his work in theater and his experience as an educator.
Interviewee: Nick Meglin
Date: March 9, 2016
Location: Elmo’s Restaurant, Durham, North Carolina
Interviewer: Austin Pifani
Interview Length: 51 mins 5 secs
Transcribed by/date: Austin Pifani, March 17, 2016
Austin Pifani: I am Austin Pifani, interviewing Nick Meglin in Elmo’s Restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. Today is March 9, 2016.
Nick, I want to start by taking about your childhood. Could you tell me where you were born and where you grew up?
Nick Meglin: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.
AP: How do you think your childhood shaped your career as editor of one of the most beloved humor magazines?
NM: Obviously I didn’t know I was going to be an editor of Mad magazine. It’s nothing I aspired to be; I was dedicated to becoming a book illustrator. I was an artist and not aware that I had writing talents, as well.
Growing up in Brooklyn at that time was probably the best thing that could happen to any young person, because it was such an amalgamation of so many different ethnic groups and varieties of cultures. There was a great deal of sprit, aliveness and humor all around–a terrific place to be.
Most of us were fanatic Brooklyn Dodger Baseball fans. They gave us spirit, pride, and they broke the color line. In our neighborhood, we didn’t even realize there was a color line, another reason for my saying it was a wonderful place to grow up. We didn’t have those kinds of prejudices, racial or religious problems. People were, for the most part, living in harmony.
AP: Could tell me about your parents? Did they have a strong role in your childhood?
NM: No, not at all. I am the youngest of three kids. All three of us were fortunate to have both a built-in intellectual energy and creative talents. That came natural to us, and we weren’t aware of anything special. We had early successes in school–my brother in particular. He became a professional writer, but he didn’t study to be one. In those days you tried to have a profession, steady employment, not something freelance or speculative.
We grew up at the back end of the Depression. In those days a salaried position offered security–not knowing when the phone was going to ring for your next paycheck was frightening. A lot of people became teachers, as did my brother at first, or they worked for the post office or the city for a more secure income.
By the time it was my turn–I was the youngest of the three–I chose to go to an art school, much against the advice and wishes of my family. But that’s what I wanted. I made up for it by going to Brooklyn College at night, because the art school I went to [School of Visual Arts] didn’t have accreditation at the time. So I got a certificate from art school, which means absolutely nothing in the art world.
The Brooklyn College education was a terrific added learning experience, and even more important for me is that I got involved in the theatre department. It broadened my perspective on writing, which I had started to do professionally to help pay my art school tuition. Several cartooning students were already working in comic books, and I started writing for them and their comic book publishers. One of them worked with E.C. Publications, which had the most popular comic books at the time, the 1950s. Most notably was Mad comics, whose popularity was so enormous that over 80 imitations sprung up. Bill Gaines, E.C.’s maverick and brilliant publisher, decided to create his own imitation, called Panic, which used the same talented Mad artists. It ran for about 12 issues before the comic book industry collapsed, and Gaines wisely converted only Mad, his best-selling title, into a full-sized magazine format to escape the newly established comic book industry censorship program.
I had written four stories for Panic while a student in art school, and when I graduated Mad offered me a fulltime job as their “idea man.” Since my girlfriend and I were planning to be married at the end of the year, a salaried position would start us off on firmer financial footing. At the time, the US Army was drafting young men for two-year durations, so I thought Mad would be a temporary hiatus until I was drafted. I had no intention of returning there afterwards, believing my Army hitch would enable me to complete my portfolio of illustration samples that would help me fulfill my dream of becoming a freelance book illustrator.
It never worked out that way. My daughter was born while I was still in the Army making $72 a month as a private. I was fortunate to use my art and writing skills to secure a post in the Army Recruiting Publicity Office in downtown Manhattan, where I was stationed for the remaining 14 months of my Army tour of duty. To help stay afloat in New York City on a private’s salary, I started writing freelance for Mad. At that point, it had changed editors, and the editor I worked for from Panic had taken over. I returned to the magazine after my discharge for what I figured to be a two-year hiatus at most. Well, it didn’t work out that way, either. I ended up staying on as a Mad editor for the next 40-plus years.
AP: You mentioned E.C. Publications. I was wondering how Mad magazine was the target of a copyright lawsuit in 1964 over a special edition that included song parodies, which became a fixture in the magazine in the decades following. Can you tell me about Berlin vs. E.C. Publications?
NM: Absolutely. What happened was Mad had been sued maybe three or four major times through the years. We never lost a suit because nobody could ever bring a case to court that could prove there was damage done by any of our take-offs. For instance, when we did satires of cigarette ads they couldn’t claim much because we were making fair commentary about the growing research that linked cancer to smoking. It wasn’t libelous, we weren’t saying anything that wasn’t factually backed. But if we did a satire on a Coca-Cola ad, we never would say that by drinking it your stomach lining might disappear. We never did that. We made fun of their advertising campaign. We pointed out that people who drink diet Coke or diet Pepsi could drink it for the rest of their lives, but they were never going to look like the gorgeous models in the ad.
NM: They are just going to get fat and belch a lot. We always made fun of the ads themselves and didn’t really take off on the properties of the product itself. So the lawsuit you mentioned was the biggest one because it involved copyright and famous people, and it was going to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
What it was, was, we did parodies of famous songs. While I was in the Army, I wrote the first Mad parody of a musical when I did a takeoff on My Fair Lady. The satire was about a Jack Kerouac-type writer who gets coerced into becoming a Madison Avenue ad writer as a bet between two Madison Avenue executives. One says, “I can train him to become a copy writer,” even though he writes this beatnik sort of thing. Of course, the other guy says it can’t be done. So just like Eliza Doolittle, he goes though the motions and becomes transformed, like in the original Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw that was adapted into the famous musical. I satirized about four or five of the major songs from My Fair Lady and that started Mad on its way of doing musical parody of popular songs.
What happened was Irving Berlin took offense at the free bonus we included in a Mad anthology issue. It was a songbook with parodies about many different subjects and topics, written mostly by Frank Jacobs, our leading parody man, and Larry Siegel, who was also an excellent writer. We had parodies of all kinds of different songs, including three or four Irving Berlin songs, big standards, one of which was his famous “Blue Skies” song. We did a parody called “Blue Cross,” and it talked about the problems with Blue Cross medical health insurance. Irving Berlin took offense, but, first of all we didn’t print the music. He couldn’t prove damage; we were not in sales competition with his music sheets. We didn’t record it, so we weren’t in competition with his ASCAP royalties or record sales. The court upheld the First Amendment clause which accepts parody as a fair form of commentary. No different than a political cartoon that showed the president sitting and drinking a beer while signing a bill into law against alcohol, or some such gag. A political cartoonist has that freedom. He is making commentary on the current society and the politics of the country. It’s all under First Amendment protection, no censorship. So the case got thrown out.
The judge said to Irving Berlin in effect, “If you were to win this case, every time anybody sang ‘Easter Parade,’ or another one of your songs in the shower, they’d have to send you two or three cents royalty.” We didn’t print the music and suggest that it could be song to the tune of such and such song; it could also be sung to the tune of any other song. We never printed the music, so we were well within our rights. My boss was never worried, despite the fact that it was a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Everybody was gasping and fearful that this going to put Mad out of business, but Gaines never flinched, and of course, nothing came of it.
AP: That’s so interesting. How did you decide what topics to cover in Mad magazine? What makes something ripe for parody? Were any topics or treatments off limits?
NM: Yes, but that’s by design and by choice. Mad was not a magazine of creation; we were a magazine of reflection. We would hold up a funhouse mirror to society so that the image was distorted and exaggerated in a humorous context, and that told another side of the story about the society completely. For a broad audience, we had to hit the areas of society that were popular, and those areas were certainly movies, television, music, politics, Madison Avenue and anything and everything in between that was ripe for satire. What we would do is satires based on those subjects. The things we never did was make fun of the victims. When we attacked the medical profession, for instance, we made fun of doctors charging too much or doctors not caring, or doctors not knowing. Our satire was never about the patient. There is nothing funny about cancer. One of the off-limits was that.
Another was religion. We wouldn’t want to take part in any kind of war that would start from attacking anyone’s belief. I don’t mean military war, I mean a war of words that would start if you became anti-any religion, because that’s a judgment call. It’s like saying, “My religion is better than your religion.” We never did anything against any religion, but we did have some harmless fun when the pope made his famous visit to the US, because they had this special “pope mobile” and some other stuff. We had fun with the visit, but not the religion he represented or any of the philosophies of religion. Those were two things that we didn’t do.
We were famous for going to the movies as soon as they were released so we could do a satire and rush it into the print. But when Saving Private Ryan came out, we refused to do satire on it even though it was a very big, important picture. There was nothing funny about war to begin with, and in that respect to come up with sick jokes and stuff, well, that’s not what Mad was about.
NM: And the same thing with the movie Philadelphia. There is nothing funny about AIDS and those who suffer from it. Those were areas we restricted ourselves from doing. We felt that we were in good taste some of the time–for a bad-taste magazine, we were in good taste [laughs].
AP: Satire has provided an important way to talk about controversial subjects, but satirists have also been targeted for violence. In 2015, there was an attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in France, that left 12 people dead. Has the world become too chaotic for satire?
NM: No, in a free country what it did was unify. The National Cartoonist Society in this country, the British, French organizations, political cartoonists, committees and clubs all unified and said, “No, we’re not going to be intimidated by this. Everything is up for grabs–if we can make fun of our own presidents, or have fun with our own politicians and our own governments and our own laws, nobody is going to tell us we can’t make fun of your president if they deserve it, if there’s reason for satire.”
When you think about the heartless murderers that were involved and their response to any form of criticism you can see why their hypocrisy makes it an open house [laughs]. There is nothing sacred there that anyone would want to protect.
AP: That interests me in the offices of Mad magazine and how you guys conducted yourselves. Do you think you could describe the atmosphere?
NM: Sure. Needless to say it wasn’t your typical business office. You have to realize that Mad Magazine at the core is still a business venture, no different than any other magazine. The subject matter doesn’t determine the actual approach to the profession, because Better Homes and Gardens is also a magazine and they have the same problems we do: the cost of paper, printing, distribution, trying to get a wider reader base, meeting your deadline, et cetera. Everything involved is the same as any other magazine, only the subject matter is different.
But I don’t think you would find the kind of people sitting around in an Accounting Monthly magazine office that you’re going to find at Mad. Since almost everyone we’ve hired came to us by way of freelance writing, we already knew that they had a hard to define sensibility that makes that person a Mad writer. Our approach isn’t humor per se, it’s not typical print humor. It’s actually quite the opposite, in that the foundation for the humor is visual, and not the gag panel cartoon or daily comic strip variety. What might appear in a New Yorker cartoon would be hilarious, but in most cases a bad fit for Mad. A short story by Woody Allen or Marshall Brickman, both New Yorker writers, however hilarious, is prose and not visual narrative. Mad relies on the talents of artists like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Tom Richmond, Paul Coker, Herman Mejia, Peter Kuper and so many other brilliant talents that define Mad‘s look to deliver our humorous message. For example, we utilize people who can do marvelous caricature to tell our movie and TV satires as a panel-to-panel visual narrative. It’s a very difficult art form.
Another aspect of Mad that makes us different is that when we search for new ideas we’re really checking out the society, the culture, to see what’s hot, what everyone is aware of, because the basis of satire fails if you don’t know the subject being satirized. When people ask us why we never satirized a Fellini, Bergman or other famous art film in the past we admit that our choices are made from a broad spectrum, and 90 percent of our readership wouldn’t see those films. They’re not mass distributed all over the country, only in art houses. The reality is that we have a youthful readership. We don’t target it, it’s just what happens. We can’t control who buys the magazine or who likes what we do, it just turns out that we are a youth oriented magazine. Like Saturday Night Live, you would have to say it’s for the most part a young audience’s program.
AP: Do you think Mad influenced shows today like Saturday Night Live?
NM: Through the years, Mad begat most of them. Many famous writers, producers, and directors of both film and television shows are absolutely reverent in their praise for Mad as a driving force.
Maybe the best was the Zucker brothers, who produced the hilarious Airplane!. [Jerry and David Zucker] were on the Johnny Carson Show, and Johnny asked them how they come up with the idea of satirizing the successful airline/airport adventure films. They responded with appreciative praise for Mad magazine as their inspirational source. Frame for frame, Airplane! is like the panel-to-panel approach of a Mad satire. They said, “If it wasn’t for Mad, we couldn’t have done the movie.” They were very extravagant in their praise.
Some of our writers went on to create Laugh-In, and almost every writer on Saturday Night Live from the original gang on has mentioned Mad as a major influence. As a matter of fact, Chevy Chase sold an idea or two to Mad before he became one of the original SNL members. All of that is in the realm of satire, a certain type of humor. Comedy has, as I said, many different facets, from slapstick to silly to sophisticate to pantomime. Mad satire is just one of those various approaches.
AP: The magazine industry has declined significantly, in part because of the availability of similar content available online for free. How has digital technology affected the health and well-being of Mad?
NM: Well, that is Mad’s biggest problem. It has affected the magazine very negatively because as you said it’s free, and perhaps more important, it’s instant. Mad started suffering years ago. TV began assimilating a Mad approach to its comedy programming, and TV is instant. If something happened that was worth doing some sort of comedic commentary on, that same night David Letterman would have a “Top 10” routine based on it, that same night Jay Leno would include gags referring to it in his monologue, and that Saturday night there would be a sketch or a reference in the SNL comedy news segment. Instant turnaround.
By the time that same subject could appear in a Mad issue, that subject was dead and buried. Our ability to respond was atrocious. By the time we got the idea and had it written, given it to an artist to illustrate, had it shot for reproduction, allowed space for it in the upcoming issue, printed and distributed to align with a national on-sale date–we’re talking three months later. So something that is in the news today worth satirizing, unless it’s an ongoing story, remains in the “if only” file. No one wants to read something, no matter how well it is written and drawn, when it’s three months old. So timeliness hurt us then, and now with the instant response of the Internet, it’s a lot worse. People are sending out tweets on everything within minutes.
AP: How do you feel about the transition from magazine to TV with Mad TV? Was the magazine involved in the TV programing at all?
NM: We never were involved other than name only. Putting out a fresh issue of Mad every month at the highest possible level while trying to stay fresh, popular and topical–is a very difficult task. And TV is even more demanding. We could not have done it. But there is another side to that coin–they didn’t want us involved. There were two attempts at animated specials done through the years and neither was aired because money for TV is based on advertising revenue. Obviously, Mad was not the favorite place for advertisers to put their money. Madison Avenue had power and the last word. When ABC backed our first animated special with a segment on the foreign auto manufacturer of the year–a hilarious piece that ended with the owner of one of the big-three American automobile manufactures driving off in in a Volkswagen because it was cheaper and more reliable then his own company’s cars—well, the show was shelved. We never learned why, but we believe that Ford, who had spent millions on advertising their products on various ABC shows, were no fans of Mad and that segment especially.
So Mad has been inspiring television material all along, but it hasn’t come from Mad itself. Saturday Night Live is like Mad in some ways, and Laugh-In was like Mad in other ways when it first began. The only thing that lent itself well to TV was some of Mad’s animation, like the “Spy vs. Spy” series and some of Don Martin’s work.
So Mad has been inspiring television material all along, but it hasn’t come from Mad itself. Saturday Night Live is like Mad in some ways, and Laugh-In was like Mad in other ways when it first began. The only thing that lent itself well to TV was some of Mad’s animation, like the “Spy vs. Spy” series and some of Don Martin’s work.
Because [Time Warner] owns Mad magazine, they had the rights to create a show using the name. They went to people who had written successfully for television, who recognized that what we were doing was very different—what reads on the page of Mad doesn’t necessarily translate well to TV and vice versa. They said, in effect, “We don’t need you people down here advising us or guiding us, because it’s a different ballgame. We won’t tell you what to do in the magazine, and we don’t want you to tell us what to do on the TV show.” They used our name, our logo and some other features from the magazine. The show was obviously inspired by Mad, but it was just more a knockoff of Saturday Night Live.
AP: You mentioned advertising–Mad magazine was an ad-free publication for many years. What was the philosophy behind that decision?
NM: Bill Gaines always enjoyed the dubious distinction of the fact that we had no advertising, because very few magazines that can exist without it. Even news magazines have advertising. Many years ago, if you got a subscription to Time magazine they would send you a clock radio, for God’s sake. The magazine sold for five or ten cents a copy, but between the paper, the printing, the overhead and all the other costs involved, it probably cost them twenty cents an issue to publish. How can they give you Time magazine for ten cents an issue? It can’t be done.
Well, if Time has three million subscribers, then General Motors has to pay a certain price to place a full-color ad on the back cover, because it’s reaching three million people. If Time can double their subscription so that now six million people read it–because they are getting it for nothing and a clock radio to boot–then General Motors has to double what they’re paying for that back cover because it’s reaching more people.
What happened is that magazine advertising got so pricey, businesses realized by putting an advertisement on TV they could reach thirty million people for maybe double the price, but look at the exposure. That’s why the magazine industry failed. Some of the most popular magazines failed–Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Collier’s–they were a part of the American culture. Huge-named magazines folded when the advertising revenue went away.
The same thing happened to Mad. As I said, Bill Gaines would say “We would take ads, but nobody would want to advertise in Mad.” But the truth is, we wanted to keep our independence. How could we accept money for the back cover from Pepsi-Cola if we’re doing a takeoff on the Coke ads inside? We can’t do it with any kind of integrity.
NM: Bill Gaines had something that went out to advertisers that said, if you want to advertise in Mad, you can’t tell us what to do–you have no control over content–because you would have to know that within two or three issues that we run your ad, we’re going to do a takeoff on it. No one would agree to that. That’s why Mad now has the kind of advertising that is restricted to specialty groups, video games, etc. people like elected figures to help bring the bottom line down. It’s a tighter business now; it’s not the way it used to be.
AP: Why did you decide to retire from the magazine?
NM: [Laughs] You reach an age where you’ve got to retire!
But more than anything, I truly felt that during my last few years at Mad, I was struggling to contribute that which I had done so successfully through the years because I knew the subject. I wrote satire, so I know how to satirize. But people that are in the mainstream of the culture today–I didn’t know where they came from, what they do, and how they got there–people like the Kardashians are “celebrities for being celebrities.” The only thing they’ve done to earn their celebrity status is to be a celebrity. It’s not like they accomplished something or contributed something valuable to mankind. And the fickle youth idolize “artists” like … Justin Bieber. Well, it just goes without saying that Mad targets are becoming more limited by the hour. Hot today, gone tomorrow. And it may be even worse with politicians. How can you satirize what already exists as farce?
AP: Were there famous people that you loved covering? Or any of them you had a chance to actually meet and do parodies on?
NM: Almost all of them. I’ve been trying to put together a memoir of my Mad years. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it or if it will ever be published. But I started to get a little wheezy about it, because all the exciting things happened in a way that would make the book look like a celebrity kind of thing–“And then I met…” But I’ll give you just a few anecdotes of what actually happened through the years.
We did a takeoff on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and then about two weeks after the satire came out we got a document from a legal firm. The letter began, “We represent Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.” We thought, “Uh-oh, another lawsuit.” But instead their lawyer was trying to figure out whether they could buy the original Mort Drucker art because they loved it so much–they wanted to buy the art and frame it! You never know if a target has a sense of humor or not.
NM: One night, we were working late and there was a knock on the door. I was in the art department in the back working, and I was just about finished. I said “I’ll get it,” because the receptionist had long since gone. I opened the door and Robert De Niro was standing there with his son Raphael.
AP: No way.
NM: I said, yes? He said, “We were in the neighborhood, and my son’s a big Mad fan. I was hoping if somebody was here, they could show him around.” So of course I just looked at De Niro and said, “Screw you, Godfather!” [laughter] Like I’m going to say no to the Godfather, right? He came in and it was a wonderful time. The art department showed Raphael all the original work by the brilliant artists and he was in his glory. Robert was sitting around doing nothing, and we sat in my office and we talked about raising kids because I had a son and a daughter. You would never have known from the conversation in my office that this was the Robert De Niro. He was the most wonderful, soft spoken, modest and humble guy. It was just wonderful.
We did a satire on Thirtysomething. The writers of that went so crazy, they tried to get the art work to give as Christmas gifts to give to their producers. They called me from L.A., and I said I was coming out to L.A. the next month to see my sister and nephews who live out there. They asked if I’d like to come visit the set, and I said yes, I’d love to. Well, they gave me the address and they got me a pass. I went to the studio, and they were in the middle of something or other. When I got to the set [Timothy] Busfield and Ken Olin, the two main male stars of the show, were there. Next thing I hear, “Hey, the Mad guy is here!” Everybody stopped. The camera, the wardrobe, the lights and everything. Before I knew it, there were about twenty people around me, including the stars, asking me all about Mad and about the takeoff. They said, “How did you know this,” and so on. It was so much fun. I became very friendly with the two writers who had first called, Joe Dougherty and Anne Hamilton, Emmy award-winning writers for that show. We became friends. We stayed in touch, and I see them any time I’m in L.A.
About a year later, Anne said, “Nick, you look like you could be an art director, with the gray beard and the gray hair and all. How would you like to be in a show?” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” She said, “Let us know when you are coming out next, and we’ll write you into the show,” which they did.
There I was on the set, as an actor. They gave me a dressing room. My character’s name was Nick—it was not a big stretch for me. I played the part of “Nick the art director” on the show, one episode. In the show, I get fired by Ken Olin, and Timothy Busfield tries to make me feel better by giving me names of other people he knows, so that hopefully I can get a job at another agency. So I was on that show.
The same thing happened with Friends. I knew the head writer of Friends, a young man that I mentored in a way. He became a lawyer, but he wanted to become a comedy writer and he tossed out everything. He went to the west coast, had a successful career, and eventually got to be the head writer of Friends. When I was out there visiting him, he said, “You know, we’re shooting a scene tomorrow and we need an extra or two. Would you like to be in Friends?” I said, “Why not? I can add it to my “Big Hollywood star” résumé.
So there I am. I’m on the show, and I hit Matthew Perry in the chest with a sloppy hot dog while I’m buying it from a hot dog stand. If you blink you won’t see me; I’m on screen all of about ten seconds. But there I was on Friends.
These kind of things were personal, fun things, but happened all along.
Bill Clinton was a Mad reader. We found that out because I saw him in the theatre one time, and my daughter said to him, “Yeah, that’s the editor of Mad.” He turned around and gave me the thumbs up and said, “I love Mad!” You know, we did not treat him that well–we never do with politicians–but he still maintained his sense of humor.
AP: That is awesome. Wow, I’m shocked. I’m going to have to check out that episode of Friends [laughter].
In addition to your work at Mad, you’ve authored several books, many newspaper and magazine articles, and have written for musical theatre. You’ve also been a drawing and illustration teacher. Can you talk about how those projects came about?
NM: I’ve addressed colleges, youth groups, and have been interviewed many times on TV and radio as well as newspapers and magazines as a Mad editor, and privately since I’ve been retired. I’ve never prepared a script as I prefer to wing it and respond to the interviewer spontaneously. So my words and thoughts go all over the place, as you’ll notice when you and try to edit this damn interview. I don’t know if you will be able to draw a straight line between your questions and my answers, but I know you asked a question about retirement.
I looked forward to ending my career in North Carolina. I’d been coming here for twenty-five years, since my daughter became involved at Duke University, and our whole family moved down here. My son was an English teacher in Compton [Los Angeles County], and he and his wife and son now live here. One of my closest friends who, along with major TV shows, was a writer for National Lampoon–I was his best man and godfather to his three children–he moved down here with his wife and kids. So we have a whole conclave of turncoat New Yorkers and Californians who came down here. I knew I was going to retire here because I loved this area so much. The Triangle between Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham, and even Greensboro has everything that New York had for me. It has better prices, and you can always find a parking spot. There’s little to stress and bother about. Everything about it is wonderful. I think it is you people at the colleges that keep this place energetic and alive.
I thought it was time for me to leave, especially since not only didn’t I know what was happening in the entertainment world, in the music world, the YouTube world and everything else–I didn’t care. I don’t care about some of these people. They don’t hit me as somebody I should care about. I know that makes me sound like a dinosaur. But for example, I’m writing musical comedy now–my inspiration isn’t the popular songs of today. My inspiration is from the old days, and of course, Stephen Sondheim, who I think is the greatest talent the theatre has ever known. It’s all about quality and craft, and I don’t hear that in the music today. I don’t think they care.
I grew up with musical theatre–the standards, written and sung by great singers like Sinatra, Como, Crosby, and other great voices that couldn’t find a job today or get a record recorded if their life depended on it. There’s too much quality in it, and the lyrics they were singing meant something. That said—and it does make me sound like a dinosaur–my son, who grew up on rock music, said the trouble with the songs that I write—me, his father—is that you have to listen to the words. One day while he and his friends were listening to their favorite music, he said, “The music we all love–it’s the sound. We don’t care what they’re singing.” When we took apart some of their favorite songs at the time, they didn’t even know what they meant. I certainly didn’t, they were indiscernible. Did you ever hear groups like America and Yes? You’ve got to hear some of the lines that come from their songs. You don’t know what they’re saying, but the music is good. I know some of these guys were probably stoned out of their minds when they wrote that stuff, but since they also sing it, record it, and produce it, nobody is going to tell them, “Hey, that doesn’t make sense!”
AP: That makes sense to look deeper into the actual lyrics of the music today. I get caught up in focusing on the sound. When you listen to things today, is that what you’re really zoning in on, or do you ever find anything today that you really like?
NM: Musical theatre is still good, and classical music is still good because it’s endless. I know young people are hearing Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel for the first time in their lives, and are saying, “Wow!” Classical music has no time limit. It’s forever and always will be.
Same with theatre and films. Not every film is an Adam Sandler piece of crap. There are many very funny films out there, just as long as they don’t go for the lowest common denominator. If it’s a scatological line or something gross that gets a laugh, that’s when you know you’re in trouble. That’s what they’re based on, shock value, not wit. Films with substance and wit, art films, intelligent satires like the Coen brothers or crazy hilarious like Airplane! are so much more satisfying. Art films, of course. Unfortunately, not enough young people are exposed to it, because if they were, quality would win out. The cream does come to the top and people react favorably to it.
I was at an opera about three years ago and was shocked to see how many young people and college people were there. They don’t dress the same way as they did in the old days, where you got dressed up for the opera. They were wearing their open shirts and jeans, but they loved it. They cried at the right places and cheered at the right places and loved every minute of it. I think it is all about exposure. What’s great about your school and the other schools here is that students are being exposed to more quality than just today’s surface culture and go beyond the favorite-of-the week club. There’s plentiful art here–music, theater, museums. If quality in art is going to survive, it’s you young people who must keep it going. I have great optimism.
AP: Final question: If you could go back, would you change anything?
NM: My socks [laughter].
I don’t know what I could’ve changed personally or what Mad could have done that would have made the road easier, because it wasn’t lack of quality that doomed us. It was the same things that, as I said, put Life and Saturday Evening Post out of business. Mad‘s still in business thanks to John Ficarra, who was my co-editor for close to twenty years before I retired. He stayed on top of things and is very talented, a very good judge of material and the people who produced that material. We initiated an intern program about twenty-five years ago. We had summer interns and even winter interns, usually college students. They got the job as an intern by having to write two or three speculative Mad-style scripts to see what they could do. We chose the interns based on what they came up with. Whether they get the job or not, if we saw something we liked, we’d buy it. We never printed anything for free–we always paid for what we used.
In the last twenty-five years, I’d say four or five of our editors have come by way of writing—no, every editor, including John Ficarra and myself–were writers for Mad before we were editors. It’s the writers who keep the juice flowing for the artists to perform their magic, and the intern program is wonderful in that respect. Those people are in touch, college kids with a desire to become comedy writers, or writers in general. If I had to change anything, maybe we would have initiated that earlier.
AP: Well, thank you so much. I was wondering if you have any questions for me.
NM: Not a question, but a request. I’ve been talking in my typical Brooklynese–I go here and there with what I’m saying. I do much better with a written interview, because I have time to think about it and write and check and cross out things. I now assign you that job. You are going to be a mad editor of a Mad editor, and make my stuff “well English.” Or is it good English? Proper English. Acceptable English [laughter]. Make me sound like I am smarter than I am. That’s your job.
AP: [laughter] Thank you so much.
NM: Thank you.
AP: I appreciate it.[End of interview.]