When I was a kid, chuckling my head off at Mad magazine's irreverent take on pop culture, I always thought, "They should make this into a TV show?" A-hem, just a few years since then Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network have answered that request, which is one many kids have had over the years.
The studio commissioned Robot Chicken writer/producer Kevin Shinick to tackle the task of turning the iconic mag into an animated series. The Emmy-nominated writer/actor/director has experience in irreverent animation on Chicken, as well as Ugly Americans. His writing credits also include the stage show Spider-Man Live!, as well as other comic book, games and TV productions.
Fans of Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? might remember him as the host of the Emmy-winning series.
Rick DeMott: So how do you go about putting together an episode of Mad?
Kevin Shinick: I'm the head writer and I have a staff of three or four other writers. I'm fortunate to have the team that I do, because we all want this to be the best show for Mad, because we grew up reading it and we all loved it. So what we try to do is mirror the feel of the magazine. When you read the magazine it always started with a movie parody and ended with a TV parody. It would have fake commercials, fake promos in between Spy vs. Spy and whatever. So from that level we try to stack a show like that. We're always going to start with a movie and end with a TV and have anything else I mentioned in between.
From an animation standpoint, I'm always trying to make sure that every episode is a mini animated film festival. Usually… we break this rule from time to time… the movie parody is photo collage, the TV parody might be a Mort Drucker type look. I make sure we get Flash in there. I make sure we get stop-motion in every episode. Even within those categories we try and mix it up a bit. We have a couple different stop-motion companies we use, so they have different looks. We have a number of animators who have a really great style in their Flash. The company we use called Bunko does a lot of the photo collage stuff, but we also do a lot of the photo collage stuff in-house as well. So at the end of the day I'm looking up at my board and I'm making sure that one level I'm hitting all the things I'd want to see as a Mad magazine reader and now viewer and as an animation lover I want to see how many different styles I can put into one episode.
RD: Are most of the companies based in the United States or is it a mix between U.S. and foreign firms?
KS: It's a mix. A majority of them are here in the United States. One is in Korea. The majority are here either in Los Angeles or New York and varying places.
KS: Well, it's funny they're similar in their format, but to me they're really different in their content, because at Robot Chicken I'll do a Strawberry Shortcake sketch or a He-Man sketch, but our goal for this show was to parody more stuff that is going on right now. We have all discovered Mad magazine somewhere between the ages of eight and 15. So that was what our target audience was. But I want this show to be enjoyable and funny to everybody. So I think we have jokes in there for everyone. You can watch this with your family. But our target demographic is eight to 15.
Both Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network wanted to make it a policy that most of the stuff you can point to on television now. Whether it be iCarly or the movies that are out this year and things like that, so it's a much more current show. We'll do topical things from time to time. That for me is the biggest difference. One is very retro and one is very current. Like we haven't done a Star Wars bit, but we've done a Clone Wars bit. And although we have stop-motion we run the gamut of styles as apposed to Robot Chicken where we pride ourselves on how well we do our stop-motion, but here it's like a hub of all types of animation.
RD: What's the difference between doing a show for a target audience of eight to 15 and doing a show that airs on Adult Swim?
KS: When we decided that we were going to do a Mad magazine type show we wanted it to appeal to a large audience. Also just like Mad magazine did, we wanted to give you the impression that you're watching something you probably shouldn't be allowed to watch. Now with Robot Chicken I could see a lot of parents saying you're definitely not allowed to watch that. We really don't have any parameters on Robot Chicken. If it's funny, we do it and we put it on the air and there you have it. Here because we're in a primetime time slot we have a larger audience for our demographic and we have much more hoops to jump through in terms of what can be said at 8:30 pm and done or seen. Now that being said the idea was they wanted to extend the hours of Adult Swim from 10 to 9 o'clock and use Mad to bridge the gap, which is why we're on at 8:30. The appearance of the evening starts to turn into "hmmm, I'm not sure if I should be watching this or not" has a great appeal.
RD: Mad magazine has been around along time and it seemed destined for animation, but do you think this is the right time to get away with it where as before you couldn't?
KS: I agree with that on so many levels, because on one hand our society has gotten so pop culture referential that I can't think of a better time to bring to life the mother of all comedy mags, which pretty much did that no matter what was on. Since we're in a society that [pokes fun at pop culture] on a regular basis, I thought this was a prime time to have this show come to life.
But also there has been huge advances in animation. There has been huge advances in acceptance of animation as a prime form. Cartoon Network, we have a network for cartoons and even Cartoon Network has advanced over the past x amount of years. So now it's not like "What? You want to do it as a cartoon?" The Simpsons broke down boundaries as a primetime show and everything sort of falls in line. I look at shows that we're up against or others on our network and it's such a different world than just 10 years ago in terms of variety.
Also, in this day and age, and I felt this on Robot Chicken too, we're not just competing with other shows, but we're competing with the Internet, we're competing with the guy at home who is doing his own animation style and popping it on a website. It's a great time to do it because it's so ripe, but it's also a challenging time.
KS: As I said earlier about how we put together an episode that's how we stake a show. We have a writer's room and when we're writing it, we just sit and try to come up with whatever we can find funny. After looking through the magazine and seeing what worked for the magazine and what can translate to television well and what is better staying with the magazine, at the end of the day you realize that if it's funny it will work. There is a category it can be put into. There are so many things that make us laugh in the room that we're going to make it Mad. We're going to make it Mad like. But that's probably because it was very funny. So it's not very difficult to make it like the magazine, because we're just sitting around trying to make ourselves laugh.
Some of the challenges have been good for us. At Robot Chicken I can do a kick to the groin or we could throw in bleeps or curse and stuff and say, "hey, that will be funny." But here I know that I can't do that, but in a good way it made me go back and think that I don't have to do that to be funny. I can make stuff funny on its own. I don't need to be crass. We just had a blast doing that. And as I said before this world it ripe for pickin' in terms of things to make fun of. We haven't had any trouble with that.
RD: You transitioned from acting to writing to directing. What was your first break into writing?
KS: As an actor I started writing some theater pieces in New York and doing one man shows. Those shows got people into the room. After that I wanted to do a one man show off-Broadway and I was meeting with these producers and on the way out, completely as a side note, they said, "You don't know anything about Spider-Man, do you?" And I was like "Actually I do." I was a big fan of the comics. They had the world theatrical rights to do the first stage version of Spider-Man and they hadn't seen any treatments they liked, so they let me take a crack at it. One of the great things about this, as a performer and as a lover of theater, I sat down and wrote a treatment knowing that this is Spider-Man and this is going to be the first theater experience for a lot of kids. And I just wanted to offer everything the theater has to offer. I wanted it to be funny. I wanted it to be a big extravaganza. I wanted it to be a spectacle. So I went and wrote this Spider-Man Live! show and it toured the country to 40 cities. It played at Radio City Music Hall. It was a really great experience.
On one hand it legitimized myself as a writer, but also writing more of my own stuff and coming to Los Angeles and getting hooked up with Robot Chicken and Seth [Green] and all them that was my big break into television.
KS: My career has always gone with the door that opened. I wasn't always sure where I was going. I never went to a door and thought, "That's definitely not something I'm interested in." If you look at my resume, it's all over the place in terms of comic books and TV and film and theater, because whatever was in front of me, I was like, "let me take a look at this."
That being said I got a job ages ago as the voice of Nickelodeon. I was the guy who was like — Coming up next it's SpongeBob! They asked me if I wanted to become a writer and I said yes. It's funny that animation has become a huge part of my career, but I wouldn't say I went out and sought it. I've always enjoyed it. I've always appreciated it. I'm amazed at what you can achieve with animation. But to be honest it was very serendipitous. The animation world has embraced me, and my career, and I can't complain.
RD: What is the difference between writing for TV versus games versus comics?
KS: No matter what I'm doing I'm seeing it through the eyes of myself as an audience member. If it's a TV show then I know where I'm going to be watching it and what it's going to look like and what format it's going to be in. If I'm reading a comic or if I'm doing a theater piece, it's the same way. So I always write, it doesn't matter the medium, as if it's something I would want to read or see.
RD: My last question is — how many times have people asked you where in the world in Carmen Sandiego?
KS: (laughs) Very frequently. For Halloween, here at Warner Bros., someone went as Carmen Sandiego so they had the running gag whenever she was around saying, "hey Kev, there she is."
That was a great show that I enjoyed doing. It's so funny how it stays with me and how people continually bring it up. It stays with people and I'm very happy about that.
Rick DeMott is the director of content for Animation World Network, VFXWorld and AWNtv. Additionally, he's the creator of the movie review site, Rick's Flicks Picks, which was named one of the 100 best movie blogs by The Daily Reviewer. He has written for TV series, such as Discovery Kids' Growing Up Creepie and Cartoon Network's Pet Alien, the animation history book Animation Art, and the humor, absurdist and surrealist website Unloosen. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry.