I believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I edit the quarterly newsletter, called “The Speculator,” for the writers’ group Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. I like to include an interview in each issue. For the September issue, I had the opportunity to interview Dick DeBartolo — one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent writers and a childhood hero of mine. (For more about my life-long fandom of Mad, read here.) Needless to say, I was thrilled. Here’s the story that ran in the newsletter. Since The Speculator is for and about writers, much of the emphasis is on the craft and business of writing. But even if you’re not a writer, I hope you’ll find it interesting. And I’d like to thank my good friend Doug for helping make contact with Dick. Doug, give me a shout if you ever need a kidney.
“Mad’s Maddest Writer” Dick DeBartolo on Writing Parody
By Tom Joyce
As you might guess from my membership in this group, and my editorship of this newsletter, I’m a big fan of speculative fiction. So don’t take the following statement as a dis.
Speculative fiction lends itself to parody.
Think of the works of speculative fiction that simultaneously serve as genre parodies and great stories in themselves. The writing of Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett immediately come to mind. For further examples, you could go as far back as Fritz Leiber’s classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, or head to your local multiplex and watch “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
So I thought it might be helpful for us as writers to get some insights from a parody writer. As luck would have it, I got to speak to one of the all-time greats.
Dick DeBartolo is one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent and prolific writers, having contributed to the magazine since the early 1960s. He specialized in the magazine’s movie and TV satires, which were always my favorite part of the magazine.
Dick also hosts a wonderful netcast about gadgets and technology called Giz Wiz, which is available on TWIT.tv. He’s a regular guest on segment on ABC News Now, and was recently interviewed on the public radio program Studio 360 (which is available online). He is also the author of “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”
Dick asked that the interview take the form of a phone conversation, rather than responding to e-mailed questions. So I’ll have to do some paraphrasing, as I wasn’t able to write down everything verbatim. But it’s worth it, because I’ve been a fan of Mad since I was a kid, and being able to talk to Dick made my week, month and year. As an added bonus, Dick turned out to be every bit as funny, charming and flat-out cool as I could have hoped.
So here’s the gist of what Dick and I talked about:
Dick said that he naturally gravitated toward movie and TV satires. And the bad movies were a lot easier to satirize.
“The more serious the movie was and the more pretentious it was, the more fun it was to make fun of it,” he said.
TV satires were more difficult, because they were more of a time commitment. He’d have to watch five or six episodes to get a feel for the show’s approach and its characters.
Unlike the movie satires, which would follow the plot of the source material, he would have to construct his own plots for the TV satires. That could yield some interesting results. When he wrote the satire for the campy science fiction TV series “Lost in Space,” he placed the characters on a planet with giant vegetation. Not long after, he encountered series star June Lockhart on the set of the game show Match Game, where he was also a writer. She jokingly asked him if the magazine had spies on its staff, because the plot of his parody mirrored one of an upcoming episode.
His propensity for making fun of movies meant that he was rarely invited to previews, but that was fine by him. He preferred seeing movies with audiences so he could take note of the scenes that got the biggest reactions from the crowd, and be sure to reference them in the satires.
He was apparently doing something right. No less a luminary than Roger Ebert once told Dick that he learned how to criticize movies through Mad’s dissection of them.
Here are Dick’s insights on:
TECHNIQUES FOR PARODY
— Your intended audience should be familiar with the source material. When you’re riffing off something, it helps if they get the references.
— Dick is a big fan of what he calls “The Rule of Three” for satire. You have two references to something normal to establish a pattern and set up the punchline, then deliver that punchline on the third reference.
For example: “Is this rocket going to make it to the moon?”
“Yes. We’re using the highest octane fuel, the most powerful engine, and a big bottle of Mentos and Coke.”
— Running gags can be very effective. Try to find a hook within the context of the story, and keep non-sequiturs to a minimum. For example, in his parody of “The Poseiden Adventure” about a capsized ocean liner, Dick made a running gag out of the characters’ linguistic confusion over “up” vs. “down,” which got more absurd and funny as the story progressed. (“I’m seasick. I think I’m gonna throw down.”)
The magazine was initially very male-oriented, for boys in the 10-through-15-year-old range. Initially, the magazine only satirized G-rated movies. Now its approach is more inclusive. He also describes it as “rougher” than it used to be, with edgier humor.
“When it came out, it was the only thing like it,” Dick said. “Now that’s all changed. Mad is like a mirror of society.”
SELF-PROMOTION FOR WRITERS
“The Web is where it’s at,” Dick said “You can do so much with no money.”
Where social media is concerned, Google Plus users tend to be more interested in serious, straightforward information. Facebook and Twitter users gravitate toward the “silly stuff.”
“Make yourself a valuable information source on the Internet,” Dick advises. “You get followers. Follow your followers.”