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

Posted by on October 14th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


From “Murder the Story!” in Mad #11; written by Harvey Kurtzman. art by Jack Davis, colors by Marie Severin. ©1954 Educational Comics, Inc.


DECKER: You’re generally liberal politically and socially.

GAINES: No. No, I’m conservative, but the magazine is… we like to say that Mad has no politics and that we take no point of view, which is basically true. I think the magazine is more liberal than not liberal, it certainly is not left like the Lampoon, but it’s certainly not as tight as my political views. So we really don’t put our own views into it. For example, I’ll tell you something that will curl your hair: I think Reagan is a good president. But nobody else on the staff does and I wouldn’t stop them from kidding him if they want to. And they will, I’m sure. I think they’re starting to do it. Mad should not be political and I certainly shouldn’t impose my political beliefs on the magazine.

GROTH: So you have a real hands-off policy toward the staff.

GAINES: Strictly, yeah. Unless they just go too far in some way which I think is going to get us in trouble. But Al and I have great rapport. He knows how far he can go with me and he’s usually right. Most of the time I’m not offended by anything he does.

GROTH: Were you as conservative in the ’50s?

GAINES: No. No, no. In the ’50s I was an extreme liberal.

GROTH: So you followed the normal route from liberal to conservative.

GAINES: Well, yes, although I prefer not to think of it as though I followed the normal route. I like to think that I changed from a liberal to a conservative because I was wrong initially. Maybe right within the framework of the times but those times have left us and we have other times now and now I feel differently about certain things than I did then. Of course, I’m no — for example, I’m not against abortion, I’m not against pornography, I’m not against living together without getting married because I’ve been doing it with my dear young lady here for 10 years, and the last thing in the world I would do is get married because I’m convinced that will wreck it. It’s my own neurotic thing, but people who get married are looking for trouble. So 10 years ago, I said to my sweet Annie, “Look, don’t make me marry you. Let’s have a nice relationship.”

And it’s been the most beautiful 10 years of my life. Just one of those wonderful things that worked out. So in a lot of the senses I’m liberal. Where I’m conservative is in foreign policy, labor relations, in so many ways that I think we just went overboard. I was a great lover of Roosevelt, and Roosevelt’s policies were my policies for many, many years, but I like to think that if Roosevelt had lived, he wouldn’t have expected what he started to go this far [laughter], for people just took what he started and ran with it.

GROTH: By this far, what do you mean? Certain domestic policies?

GAINES: Well, now the Social Security system is on the verge of bankruptcy because when he started it you had a few old people and all these young people were supporting them, which is fine. But now you’ve got a whole bunch of old people and the people that are working can’t possibly support all these old people any more. It’s just a craziness.

GROTH: We could just blow up Florida. That would solve it.

GAINES: [Laughter.] Yeah. But just as one example. Sooner or later you just have to quit and say, “What are we doing here?”


From Shock SuspenStories #5; written by Al Feldstein, art by Joe Orlando. ©1952 Educational Comics, Inc.


GROTH: Are you still proud of the socially relevant stories that you did in the Shocks?

GAINES: Oh, sure. And I still feel the same way about that stuff. My conservatism is mostly foreign policy and finances. On other things I’m extremely liberal. So I’m really… nothing. Most of us are really nothing. Most of us have things we believe in on all sides of the fence, and that’s the way it should be.

GROTH: I wanted to ask you about the history of Mad being sold to numerous concerns. My understanding is that you sold Mad to Premier in 1960…

GAINES: Yeah, I sold Mad to Premier, Premier sold it in 1964 to National Periodicals, DC Comics, in about ’67 or ’68 DC merged with Kinney, which at that time was a company that had parking lots, car rentals…

GROTH: Funeral parlors.

GAINES: Funeral parlors, and I don’t know what else. They became Kinney National, or National Kinney, or whatever the hell they called themselves. Then somewhere along the line they acquired Warner Brothers movies. Now when they acquired Warner Brothers they realized that Warner was a better name than Kinney, so they simply changed the name of the company from Kinney to Warner. This does not mean that Warner Brothers owns them, they still own Warner Brothers, but they took their name. Warner Communications owns many, many things. The biggest thing and the hottest thing they own at the time is Atari.

GROTH: So Warner did not buy National/Kinney, Kinney bought Warner.

GAINES: Kinney bought Warner Brothers and then changed their name to Warner. Today Warner Brothers is one of their properties. Warner Brothers movies, Warner Brothers television…

GROTH: What led to your selling Mad to Premier, and what was Premier?

GAINES: Premier was a holding company, and they were a holding company with a tremendous tax-loss carryover. Now the reason I sold it was because the taxes in those days were unbelievably high. Let me explain to you. First of all, you had a corporation tax of 52 percent. Then, if it was a family-owned business, which we were, the rest of the money was in the 97 percent income tax bracket. There’s no such thing any more, but we had a 97 percent income tax bracket. So say we made a million dollars, and I take a nice, round sum like that because it’s easy to work with. First of all you give the government $520,000 for being a corporation. And I’m just talking federal, I’m not even getting into state and local. Then my mother and I, who own the business, the remaining $480,000, had we made it, which we didn’t, we would have had to pay 97 percent of it to the goddamn government. That left us 3 percent of 50 perecent of what the company made. So it really wasn’t worth it to have a company. So what you did was you put the company up and sold it and then you took it as a capital gain. We sold it to Premier who had this tremendous tax-loss carryover, so that they could own something that was making money and not pay it all out in taxes because they had all this tax loss from something else that they had. And that’s how it works.

GROTH: I see. Did the eventual sale to DC and your Warners affiliation affect your independence?

GAINES: No. I had a contract until I was paid up, which took seven years. In 1967, whatever they had agreed to pay me was paid, and at that point I no longer had a contract, and I didn’t want a contract, because I want to be free. It’s the same reason I don’t want to get married; I don’t want to have a contract. I don’t like contracts. I want to be free to quit, to do what I want to do. And I was able to get away with this, which most people aren’t. So I refused a contract and just stayed here on a month-to-month basis. They can fire me any time, but on the other hand I can quit any time. So they’re happy and I’m happy.

DECKER: Where are you going on your next trip with the staff?

GAINES: I haven’t decided. We went last year to Miami Beach, which is a very poor trip compared to the ones we used to take, because our profits are down. This year I don’t know where we go. Maybe Brooklyn. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Come to Stamford. We’ll make dinner and…

GAINES: Is that where you guys are from?

GROTH: Yeah.

GAINES: I may take you up on it. [Laughter.]

WHITE: Where would you say is the most fun place you’ve been to out of all your trips?

GAINES: Well, there were so many trips and we had so much fun in different ways, but I guess the most fun trip was Italy, because we got a bus and I loaded the bus with cheese, salami, and wine, and we just went from Venice to Florence to Rome…

GROTH: On a drunken, careening bus.

GAINES: A drunken, careening bus. That’s exactly right. It really was. But where’s that little book? This was Jack Davis’s depiction of it, and it wasn’t far off. Without the copy, which was put in later, but he gave me this as part of one of the original books. And that’s what it looked like. The whole goddamn bus was loaded with food and wine and it was such a good time.

GROTH: And drugs and women.

GAINES: We didn’t even have any drugs and women. This is an older generation. We get our kicks out of eatin’ and drinkin’.


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