When We Went Mad! examines the 60+-year history of Mad, the best-known humor magazine in American publishing. This doc — which you can help support — illustrates the pub’s rise, as well as the skillful writers, editors, and illustrators who fueled its iconic status.
The film project was conceived by Alan Bernstein, a writer/director with over 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry. In the course of his career, he’s worked on a number of television series, documentaries and films, including Thank You for Not Smoking, One Half Gone, and Judicial Consent.
Flower Street Docs — headed by our own Adam Carolla, Nate Adams, and Mike August — will be managing and helping to fund the doc.
Here, we talk with Alan Bernstein about the lasting legacy of Mad, and its impact on the culture:
RON: How did you come about creating this doc?
ALAN: I’ve been a Mad fan, reader and collector since I was six. That makes it 44 years. My background is in film production, and, quite honestly, I kept waiting for someone else to make the documentary. At the same time, we started losing some of the [Mad] artists and writers. I thought, if someone doesn’t do this now, we won’t have the opportunity. So I started it on my own.
RON: I guess many people would be surprised to learn that Mad magazine is still actually publishing.
ALAN: It’s still in publication, but it’s no different from any other story: there are so many different avenues of humor [in the digital age]. What took [Mad] two months to put into an issue would take The Daily Show one night. It’s hard to compete with that, but they still put it out. It’s still published. And I think that’s a great thing.
DC Comics took the reins of Mad, and they moved everybody from New York to L.A. a little over a year ago. And as a result, they pretty much brought in a whole new staff. So it’s a truly new generation.
They started renumbering it, so they’re up to Issue #8. It seems that at least in every issue, there is a direct reference to the old Mad. I don’t mean in terms of articles, but photos of the original publisher. They’re paying reverence to the original, but they’re making it their own as well, which I think is the right thing to do.
RON: I guess there are a lot of people like us, who fondly remember the original Mad.
ALAN: I truly believe that. Even if they can’t name off the top of their heads a specific moment, I run into people who say, “I read that when I was six,” or “my older brother read that when he was six, or twelve.” It left enough of an impression that they have a fond memory of it.
RON: To what do you owe Mad‘s success?
ALAN: It didn’t pander. If you want to “get” Mad, you had to step up your game. That’s when things last — if they challenge you.
RON: What was this filmmaking experience like for you?
ALAN: It is the true definition of “labor of love.” These writers, artists and editors were my true heroes growing up. Growing up, it never occurred to me that I could meet them, that I could approach them. I put them on such a pedestal. They were kind of untouchable. When I set out to interview, there was only one person who turned me down, and that was because of a health issue. Everyone was excited to be interviewed and have their story told. Every moment was a “pinch yourself” moment. I got to meet these people!
One of the great things about the Mad story is Bill Gaines, the publisher, who was such an eccentric and held his staff in such high regard that they had nothing but the best memories. A good handful of the earliest writers, who were there during Mad’s heyday, moved out to California and wrote for Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family. These guys were winning Emmys left and right, and yet they were always called back to Mad for an article. They changed the mindset of several generations of writers.
RON: Being lampooned in Mad is a badge of honor. Was that always the case?
ALAN: At first, it seemed like an insult: why would I want to be associated with this subversive, anti-American rag? Over time, it became “look at me, I’m on the cover of Mad! I’ve made it!”
RON: What to you is Mad’s lasting significance?
ALAN: Every issue of Mad is a physical piece that is documenting the moment. It has a place; it has an importance to it.
Like the kind of comedy that makes you laugh? Be sure to check out our own Adam Carolla in concert. Not Taco Bell Material is Adam’s first stand-up special, which is based on his New York Times bestselling autobiography. It’s a chock-full of tales from Adam’s youth, which prove to be both hilarious and inspiring.
Get ready to uncover the usually secret, largely unknown world of meme creators. Flower Street Docs, headed by Adam Carolla, is funding the production of Meme Gods, directed by Sean Flax and Bryan Black along with executive producer Cedric the Entertainer. The doc drills down into the creative and technical process of memes, and explores their culture significance.
Visit microventures.com/Adam to become an investor today!
Hard to believe that memes have been around for about two decades. They’ve evolved from a humorous Internet throwaway to a vital marketing tool. The term was coined in 1976, by Richard Dawkins, to mean “any shareable cultural artifact that spreads through a culture like wildfire.” That sounds about right. With the digital age, memes are so commonly shared that Google Trends calls “memes” a more popular search term than “Jesus.” (Although we would never pull a John Lennon and claim that memes are more popular than Jesus).
Millennials are believed to spend over 200 minutes online every day, which gives brands a good chance to reach them and engage with them through memes. The trick, of course, is to not make a meme look like an ad. Meme creators must be more subtle than that. This doc shows how it’s done, and why.
Co-director Sean Flax is an award-winning journalist and director/producer who has worked for major media corporations including the BBC, Eurovision, NHK, and Time Warner Cable (Spectrum). Since leaving traditional journalism, his independent work has appeared on CBS, NBC Sports, USA Today, New York Magazine, Sports Illustrated and many other distribution platforms.
Sean currently has a slate of TV, digital, and film projects in development through his company, Endless Roots. He is based in New York City, where he was born, and graduated from the University of Michigan.
Co-director Bryan Black is a writer and creative director with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling and innovative campaigns for both traditional and new media. Bryan produced some of his most acclaimed work at 4-time agency-of-the-year Deutsch Inc. where he spent nearly 10 years of his career leading the development of creative campaigns for a wide range of national and global brands. Bryan creates content every day on his influential instagram page @black_humorist where he has earned 125,000 followers.
Here, Sean and Bryan help us turn over the rock to witness the meme-making that often makes our day — and can also make careers.
RON: How did the idea of explaining and exploring meme creators come about?
BRYAN: We run an advertising agency, but we all have individual meme accounts. And through those accounts, we’ve all connected. It’s a real community. And some of us wound up meeting — as they say — in “real life.” The ones we’ve connected to are the actual creators, the ones who actually make the memes. Not re-posters.
Adam Padilla, my business partner, who goes by the name Adam the Creator, said, “Let’s make a documentary about memes.” And we did it. We did a few days of shooting in New York and LA, and interviewed about 25 big [meme] accounts.
RON: I never realized that memes were “a thing.” I think most people just figure that memes are the result of random acts of inspiration by random people. I didn’t know that it’s an actual industry.
BRYAN: A great majority of the memes are people making a one-off joke on Twitter or wherever. They may tweet it on their little account, and it blows up. Then there are the actual “creators.” They have larger audiences, and they post every day. Their accounts blow up as a result of their diligence and work ethic. That’s combined with having some aptitude for it — a sense of humor and an awareness of popular culture.
SEAN: The creators that Brian is talking about have not been introduced to anyone until this film. They build followings and they build their own brands. As a result of that, they become their own social media influencers. By building large followings and creating content that people want to see every day, memers have begun to earn a living. Brands are starting to wake up to the value of humor in advertising and exposing the brands to Millennials. Their content is very engaging. People are sharing it and talking about it. If you post something that is timely and can get a laugh, you are going to get a lot of engagement around that.
RON: Meme creation is serious work. Some of these creators are actually moving up to big careers.
SEAN: Some of these memers are rising beyond just making memes. It’s almost like memes are a “jumping off” point to larger careers in media. I think it’s going to become more commonplace as memes continue to grow in popularity.
RON: What makes a successful meme?
BRYAN: Timeliness is at the heart of it. Memes are created in real time. It’s completely about what’s happening at that moment. A lot of memes are evergreen, but many of them are about responding to what’s going on.
SEAN: I think it’s become a mode of communication. There is that general decrease in attention span; memes are not necessarily helping that, but people are very busy and it’s a great way to communicate with somebody quicker. It’s become an efficient and enjoyable way for people to communicate with each other. I think that’s another reason why it exploded. There is a feeling of being in an inner circle.
RON: What is the difference between a meme and a GIF?
BRYAN: A GIF becomes a meme when you add more context to it. You turn it into something that was previously only an image. At its heart, a meme is taking something that exists and building on it.
RON: What makes a meme go viral?
SEAN: It evolves as it’s shared, and it becomes viral because of other people. At the end of the day, a meme is going to become successful because of everybody else, not you — how they share it and how they spin off of it.
RON: Is creating a super-successful meme uiltimately a numbers game? It’s about throwing enough against the wall to see what sticks?
BRYAN: [Meme creators] like to take credit for it, but ultimately, it is a numbers game. And it shifts wildly. Ultimately, a lot of our satisfaction comes from external validation. We are stuck with those numbers and beholden to them.
RON: Is there one social media platform that seems more meme-friendly than others?
BRYAN: People are just loyal to different platforms, but we operate within Instagram. Twitter is huge; it is probably the ground zero of memes. The most popular meme accounts are on Instagram, but so much of this stuff originates on Twitter. The Reddit people would say, “we’re the place where everything starts.” Reddit is sort of a repository for everything. I would say that the kings are Twitter and Instagram; the more formal meme accounts are on Instagram.
Click here to find out how to help crowdfund Meme Gods.
In the meantime, check out Not Taco Bell Material, Adam’s first-ever standup special. It’s based on his New York Times bestselling autobiography. Hilarious! Click here to find out more.
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