An Interview with William M. Gaines, Part One of Three

Posted by on October 12th, 2010 at 12:01 AM



DECKER: Do you feel you might have been isolated in New York, putting out the comic books, that you couldn’t really judge the reactions of the people in Oshkosh?

GAINES: Definitely. And this is still true with Mad. We put out an issue, oh, maybe 89 years ago now, which is what we called “the finger issue,” which was, “Mad is number one,” [giving the finger] and holy Moses! The guys called me into a cover conference to look at the thing, and I said, “That’s OK. It’s not too funny, but all right.” And we put it out and the roof fell in. And I was sitting here sending out apology letters by the hundreds and hundreds to people all over the country — from Oshkosh. And I didn’t say it to them because it wouldn’t mean anything to them, but my kids, when they were 6, 7, 8 years old, would come home from school and do this to me [flips the bird]. Didn’t mean a thing in New York. But it meant a hell of a lot in Oshkosh, and I’m sure the same thing was true in the horror books.

DECKER: A friend of mine just told me the other day — he lives in Connecticut — he hasn’t read an issue of Mad since that issue.

GAINES: That issue so offended him?


GAINES: Incredible. To me it’s incredible but there’s no question that a lot of people felt that way.

GROTH: How do you feel about so misjudging the public acceptance of certain things?

GAINES: It’s part of the game. I have a theory about publishing, which is not a good theory, it’s not a businesslike theory, heaven knows, and it results in things like this, but we’ve always published here for ourselves. We’ve always published things that we liked to publish. And we publish stories we enjoy publishing, the kind of magazines we enjoy publishing — that is, since 1950. I told you that before 1950 I put out love books because I thought everybody was doing it — of course today I would not put out a love book, but I publish stories in Mad that I enjoy. And I used to call it “publishing by the seat of your pants,” like the old flyers that would fly by the seat of their pants and not use instruments, and just do crazy things, and sometimes they got away with it and sometimes they cracked up [laughter]. But it was a certain freewheeling way to fly that must have been a lot more fun than the pilots have today where they have an instrument panel with 500 instruments and they’ve got to be college graduates and everything else to fly a goddamn plane. It’s a different way of life. It’s a lot safer to be the other kind of publisher, but it’s not as much fun. But sometimes we goof.



GROTH: I assume you don’t take accusations of indecency and immorality very seriously.

GAINES: Yeah, we take them seriously if we get enough of them. Like, we took that finger thing very seriously. I took it seriously enough to personally apologize. The second time we did it was when we got involved with that dreadful film, Up the Academy. First we eliminated a letters page and did our own two-page lampoon warning everybody not to see it [laughter] and I personally wrote letters to everybody that wrote in and said — and when I say personally, I mean by hand — apologizing and explaining what happened and agreeing that it was every bit as bad as they said it was, which it was. You know, you goof. Every once in a while you goof, and that was certainly two of the goofs. That movie and that finger. [Laughter.]

WHITE: To what extent were Mad staffers involved with the movie?

GAINES: No extent at all. What happened is that we have a contract with Warner Brothers to put out a Mad movie. It’s like four years old now. They came up with a script that we didn’t like and then they came up with a script using our script writers that they didn’t like, but meanwhile they threw this script on our desk, and we all read the script. It was called, I think, The… I don’t know, The Somethings of Weinberg — it was The Military Academy of Weinberg — and although there were many things in it that I thought were offensive and should be removed, generally I liked the script. And I thought, “Well, in addition to a Mad movie, there’s nothing wrong with having something like Lampoon did with Animal House.” Animal House was “Lampoon Presents” and really had nothing to do with the magazine, it just was using their name, and it was a good movie, and it was very successful, and it made Lampoon a lot of money. I guess. So we were going to do the same thing. “Mad Magazine Completely Disassociates Itself from Up the Academy.” But that was too long for them, they can’t think in that many words. They put the damn thing out without all the deletions they had promised me to make, which means they’re liars. I’m talking about one of my sister companies [laughter], Mad is owned by Warner and Warner Brothers is owned by Warner, but these people are a bunch of liars out there…

WHITE: It’s the industry.

GAINES: It is the industry, I guess. They put some coked-up guy — literally, he was on drugs — as the director of this thing. He used to do some interesting work, I think he did Putney Swope, but by the time he got to this picture, boy, he was gone. And the result was a dreadful, very bad taste movie. It was badly done, and it was dirty, and it was…

GROTH: Boring.

GAINES: Boring, and it was just a horrible thing. And there we were connected with it, and there wasn’t much we could do about it. I paid Warner Brothers 30 grand to take Mad‘s name off for television. So for $30,000 we got out of being associated with it on Home Box. It won’t say “Mad Magazine Presents” and Alfred E. Neuman won’t be in it, and it was well worth $30,000 [laughter]. But these things happen. The Mad staff had nothing to do with it, except we all liked the script as it was originally. This is a strange picture. You won’t find Ron Leibman’s name anywhere in the credits, and he’s the star. The writers, when they saw it, almost died, because we called them and talked to them, commiserating with each other. We didn’t want to be associated with it. I think the producer didn’t want to be associated with it…

DECKER: The real Mad movie still hasn’t been made.

GAINES: This one left such a bad taste in everybody’s mouths that they probably never will make the real movie, which is the real catastrophe.


Next: Life in the EC Comics offices, the Senate investigates comic books, and more.


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