Mad marks 50 years of snide humor
By Peter Carlson
Happy Birthday, Mad!
Does this mean that Alfred E. Neuman is now eligible for membership in AARP?
Like many 50-year-olds and I speak from personal experience here Mad is a bit creaky, a tad cranky, a little set in its ways. But at its best it can still lampoon the ludicrous with a hilarious, dead-on parody.
In the anniversary issue, for example, there's a delightfully funny piece mocking the countless American magazines that are falling all over themselves trying to copy Maxim's successful sex, beer and babes formula. Mad shows what magazine covers will look like if this ludicrous trend continues. On the cover of Scientific American, a randy-looking scientist in a white coat gropes two identical blond bimbos as the cover line reads, "Cloning: New Opportunities for 3-Ways!" The Atlantic features an article called "Like a Hog Riding a Sow: James Joyce's Red-Hot Sex Letters!" Best of all is the cover of Modern Maturity, the AARP mag, which features a truly unforgettable image of what "Sexy, Saucy Angela Lansbury" might look like in a bikini.
The brainchild of an eccentric genius named William M. Gaines, Mad debuted in October 1952, as a comic book that satirized other comic books with parodies called "Mickey Rodent" and "Superduperman." Soon it started satirizing other aspects of American culture movies, TV, advertising and politics. Published by a handful of New Yorkers, it packaged the snotty attitude and snide humor of the wiseguy New Yorker and sold it to America's youth.
At this date when cable TV provides snotty humor 24 hours a day it's hard to realize what Mad meant to kids in the bland days of the '50s and early '60s. "Mad was a revelation," underground cartoonist R. Crumb once said. "Nothing I read anywhere else suggested there was any absurdity in the culture; Mad was like a shock, breaking you out."
But for every kid who felt liberated, there was an adult who was mad at Mad. This month's Harper's magazine prints a handful of letters from the FBI's files on Mad. The letters were written to J. Edgar Hoover by people who were convinced that Mad was commie propaganda: "This magazine attacks every phase of our American way of life, such as Churches, Police Departments, Armed Forces, Television, Radio, Doctors, Professional Men, Politics, etc., etc."
And Hoover himself. As the FBI files reveal, whenever Mad mocked Hoover, the bureau sent an agent to "firmly and severely admonish them." But Mad refused to stop.
Mad's irreverence was so influential that it became the reigning attitude of American pop culture. Today, echoes of Mad are heard in the snotty one-liners of many movies, TV sitcoms and even ads.
But by the 1990s, Mad seemed stale, predictable, formulaic. Circulation, which peaked at 2.4 million in 1973, dwindled to about a quarter million. In 1997, the editors retooled the magazine, hoping to make it "edgier." In 2001, Mad began accepting advertising for the first time and used the money to add color.
The result of all this tinkering is a better, funnier, less predictable Mad. There's still a lot of stuff in Mad that seems kind of dumb to a man of my sophisticated sensibilities. But in nearly every issue of Mad, there's something that hits the bull's-eye. In the last few months, Mad has mocked rapper Eminem, shot a few spitballs at President Bush and parodied the utter predictability of Leno and Letterman in a feature called "Mad Deconstructs TV Talk Shows." (That's right, even Mad editors use the word "deconstruct" these days.)
And last September, Mad published a parody of the Conference of Catholic Bishops' edict on pedophile priests that was as bitter and biting as anything by Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain:
"Many parishioners have asked how religious leaders could have turned a blind eye to such widespread abuse, how we could have shuttled known perverts from parish to parish to molest again and again and why our official statements tended to 'blame the victim.' The answer is simplicity itself: 'The Lord moves in mysterious ways.' That's been our stock answer to every inconvenient question of the past 2,000 years and we ain't about to stop now!"