Keeping MAD Alive: A Look at Claptrap

All art throughout by Tom Richmond. Writing by Desmond Devlin.

"Dirty Larry." "Flashdunce." "Appalling 13." Those are just some of the slightly-altered titles that graced movie spoofs for nearly seven decades of MAD magazine.

But in 2019, after 67 years of gags, MAD all but ceased releasing new material. It still goes to comic shops and subscribers’ mailboxes, but apart from a new cover and a few scattered pages of new humor, MAD is now made up of recycled articles from its storied past. That means those silly titles, and their accompanying spoofs, are all but gone too.

Desmond Devlin started writing for MAD in the early 1980s at the age of 19, and eventually became one of the magazine’s most frequent spoof writers. Even with his connection to the genre, he rarely enjoyed those imbecilic titles. As he puts it, “When you come up with a really good one, it’s worth doing, and then you have to do it the rest of the time.”

In spite of his distaste, when he was told that he wouldn’t have a forum in which to make those jokes anymore, he was unhappy. Tom Richmond, who drew a substantial chunk of MAD parodies after 2001’s TV spoof "Malcontent in the Muddle," felt the same.

The two decided in the wake of MAD’s not-quite-cancellation that they wanted to keep the tradition alive. Now they are. It won’t be under the MAD banner, but in November the two are releasing Claptrap, a crowdfunded collection of 12 MAD-style movie parodies.

Opening splash from the Psycho parody.

The movie that started the whole project continues a grand MAD tradition. “The first one we had to do was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” Richmond says, “because MAD had done a spoof of every Star Wars movie but they stopped doing them just before that one came out.”

After that, Devlin’s and Richmond’s original plan was to do half classic films that, for whatever reason, MAD had missed when they first came out, and half new movies to make the book feel more relevant. But then, Richmond points out, “Something else happened in the winter of 2020.” COVID turned the movie industry into a desert, and new movies to parody wouldn’t be coming out, so they pivoted to all classics.

The pair picked seven of the movies (Rise of Skywalker, The Shawshank Redemption, The Big Lebowski, Goodfellas, Unforgiven, Blade Runner and Die Hard), and left the rest up to their Indiegogo backers. Three were picked by a backer vote (The Blues Brothers, The Princess Bride and Citizen Kane), while the remaining two were individual choices given to supporters who shelled out for the $6,000 "Megalomaniac" tier (Psycho and Toy Story 4, the latter of which was chosen by its own director, Josh Cooley).

Practiced readers of MAD spoofs will mostly find familiarity in the pages of Claptrap. Alfred E. Neuman can’t appear, the clever department titles won’t be in the top left corner, and don't expect Sergio Aragonés' marginal cartoons, but otherwise it will feel like MAD.

There will be splash pages with characters introducing themselves, and the spoof titles will still be asinine. For instance, The Shawshank Redemption will now be "The Surestank Religion." (“Those are the ones you end up accepting, rather than being enthusiastic about,” Devlin says of that title.)

A panel from the Blade Runner parody.
In making a book of 12 parodies (plus 20 pages of extra material in the form of things like movie poster spoofs), the two worried their approach would quickly turn stale. “If I wrote 12 parodies for MAD, it would be almost two years before you got from the first to the twelfth,” Devlin explains. “And now it’s going to be a book, and they could read it in a day if they wanted to, probably a lot less.”

This means many of the spoofs are longer than the usual five to seven pages, and will play with the comics form more than before. In the Blade Runner parody, the splash page will come later, while Citizen Kane will be done in the style of MAD’s early Harvey Kurtzman-era spoofs. The Princess Bride, already a meta parody of fairy tale stories, will be adapted into a musical, as MAD was known to do over the years, with new lyrics set to familiar tunes.

Also different for Richmond and Devlin was the process of making a book. At the magazine, writers wrote their scripts and then communicated with editors until the piece was ready to go. Then, the finished script was passed along to the art department, who completed the layouts before passing it along to the artist to draw.

“Now, it’s all us,” says Richmond. “So I send [Devlin] my pencil roughs and he comes back with some script changes, so it’s a much more fluid process, and I’ll suggest changing some jokes and he’ll suggest doing the art this way.”

With “The Usual Gang of Idiots” reduced to two, they aren’t just responsible for those spoofs; they are also in charge of book design, communicating with the printers, and marketing the book themselves. It’s rewarding, in that they have a stronger say in the final product, but it’s also frightening. As Richmond puts it, “Flop or fly, it’s all us.”

A big part of why MAD struggled to stay relevant, and eventually limited the amount of new material it put out, was that it couldn’t keep up with the rest of the comedy world.

“In the age of the internet with instantaneous commentary on events that happened five minutes ago,” Richmond explains, “having the time it takes to produce a magazine, you couldn’t be timely enough anymore.”

“It’s just a shame,” he continues, “that people prefer memes that somebody puts together in three minutes as opposed to a Jack Davis two-page spread that he spent four days doing.”

Fully aware of this limitation, and the fact that the book was going to take them even longer to produce, Devlin says the pair left time-sensitive humor “as close to zero” as they could get. So jokes they might have made about the fly on Mike Pence’s head or Kanye West’s anti-Semitism aren’t going to be in the book.

This brings about mixed emotions for Devlin, who, like other MAD readers, found the out-of-date jokes he read as a kid to be educational. Readers who didn’t understand a joke could use context to figure out something they were too young to know, or store the reference away for when they encountered it elsewhere in life.

A bonus The Godfather gag from the book's supplementary materials.

It’s this intellectual encouragement that causes so many influential people to cite MAD as an inspiration. In the 2013 hardcover collection Inside MAD, there are essays by Judd Apatow, Tony Hawk and Ken Burns, among others, all about how important MAD was in teaching them how to view the world. But the two are under no illusions that this book will reach those young readers and influence the next generation of geniuses as easily as an issue of MAD could.

“That would be very nice, I haven’t really thought about that because I’m not sure how this hypothetical young reader is going to know about our book,” says Devlin. The backers of the book are longtime MAD readers who are excited about the prospect of getting new material after getting so little of it in the past few years.

Still, the duo was surprised that the book was as popular on Indiegogo as it was, and still remain surprised that people come across it as they near the publication date.

Their initial print run is 2,000 copies, so if the book's popularity continues to grow, they have some to sell online and bring to conventions. “If we sold all those and had a second printing, I’d say that’s pretty successful,” says Richmond. Though, he adds, “In the grand world of publishing, that’s awful.”

When the book was first announced, the publishing date was listed as November 2021. Two years later, Claptrap is finally ready. That delay is due, in large part, to the fact that in 2022 Richmond and Devlin actually got to team up for another MAD spoof.

For the magazine’s 70th anniversary issue, they produced a parody of The Batman. It was the 37th parody the two teamed up on for the magazine, and the first new spoof the magazine had printed in two and a half years. “So our book of movie parodies, which was created because MAD had ceased doing movie parodies, was delayed because MAD assigned us a movie parody,” Devlin explains.

It was called "The Bathroom."

It would be a shame if that was last time fans got to read a title that inane. Luckily, Claptrap and its 12 spoofs are here to fill the void.