Mad magazine still going strong at 60
By William Loeffler
Published: Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
It's not easy being a national disgrace for 60 years.
If you stacked all the issues of MAD magazine that grade-school teachers and high-school principals have confiscated from kids since its 1952 debut, you'd have enough paper to house train 20 million puppies.
To add insult to injury, the editors of MAD have issued “Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity” (Time Home Entertainment, $34.95, Cheap!). Readers can relive some of their Maddest moments: comic-strip movie parodies like “The Oddfather,” mock ads, political satire, the MAD “Fold-In,” “Spy Vs. Spy,” “The Lighter Side” and the cartoons of Don Martin, with their dementedly inventive sound effects like “Pshchlaff!”
The book also includes 12 removable classic MAD covers, “suitable for framing or wrapping fish,” as MAD's brain trust often said.
John Ficarra, editor-in-chief of MAD, also is to blame for editing “Totally MAD.”
“Everyone's favorite time of MAD is that time when they first picked up an issue and read it and said, ‘Oh my God, I never knew this existed,'” Ficarra says. “It's the first time you'd think the magazine is speaking just to you and saying that everything people say to you isn't necessarily true and that your parents and teachers aren't always right.”
Generations of American kids have grown up a lot smarter — or a lot more smart-alecky — thanks to the “The Usual Gang of Idiots,” as MAD's editors and staff call themselves. Between these covers, a kid might see a shampoo ad that seemed real until they looked more closely and saw that the golden-haired “Breck Girl” was actually Ringo Starr. Or the “Sesame Street” parody “Reality Street,” in which the Cookie Monster became ill from the chemicals in a cake mix. Or “Great Moments in History” with a mock oil painting of “Washington Cross-Dressing the Delaware.”
“MAD has always appealed to the smarter kid and the smarter reader,” Ficarra says. “We ask so much of them. To get satire, you have to have a pre-existing knowledge of something. If it's a Don Martin gag, you don't need too much knowledge for that. But our political things, you need to be informed.”
In the '50s, MAD satirized Elvis, suburbia and the mania for Frigidaires and Chevrolets. In the '60s, it made fun of the counterculture, Richard Nixon, conservatives, Richard Nixon, rock 'n' roll and Richard Nixon. It lampooned the energy crisis, Watergate and disco craze of the '70s, the Reagan years in the '80s, the Clinton scandals in the '90s.
More recently, MAD covers have included “The 50 Worst Things About Facebook,” a parody of “The Walking Dead” and a send-up of “Glee.”
No sports figure, celebrity, movie or rock star was spared — not even our own Fred Rogers. And however popular a movie or television show might be, it didn't truly make the grade until it was given the seal of approval with a parody in the pages of MAD. “Star Wars” became “Star Bores.” Harry Potter became “Harry Plodder.”
A Minneapolis schoolboy named Scott Dikkers fell under the pernicious influence of MAD around fourth grade. Along with his classmate, future musician and New Yorker cover artist Marcellus Hall, Dikkers learned to draw by copying Don Martin cartoons from MAD.
Years later, Dikkers became founding editor of The Onion, the news-parody media conglomerate that he helped launch at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Today, he's The Onion's general manager, an author and a filmmaker.
“MAD magazine taught me that it was OK to make fun of everything,” Dikkers says. “I grew up in a very conservative home and a very conservative culture. Humor was just not one of the things you did. ... I remember thinking it was not really that funny but I loved that they were doing it.”
MAD publisher William Gaines originally had published “Tales From the Crypt” and other gory horror and crime comics under the name Entertaining Comics. When moral scolds imposed a comics code, Gaines and editor Harvey Kurtzman created MAD. It was a comic book for the first 20 issues before switching to the magazine format.
Kurtzman, a Brooklyn-born cartoonist, helped give MAD its unique satirical voice. Terry Gilliam and Robert Crumb both cite Kurtzman as an inspiration. And without the magazine he helped create, it would be hard to imagine “Doonesbury,” “Spy” or “The Daily Show.” “Totally MAD” features a foreword by Stephen Colbert, a “Daily Show” alum and star of “The Colbert Report.”
MAD was more than just lowbrow humor, however. Under the guise of humor, it promoted environmentalism, denounced drug use and championed civil rights. One cartoon showed Tarzan putting a “For Sale” sign on his jungle tree house after he sees a black man swinging by on a vine.
“Totally MAD” includes five essays about MAD's cultural impact, the origin of grinning mascot Alfred E. Neuman and the magazine's history, including its landmark Supreme Court win against Irving Berlin, establishing the right to publish satirical lyrics.
To compete with cable television, the Internet and yes, The Onion, MAD now has its own website, www.madmagazine.com, and a daily blog, The Idiotical. It allows them to keep pace with the 24-hour news cycle, Ficarra says. They've also developed a new app.
“We were always very jealous of Letterman, ‘The Daily Show,' that something would happen and they would be on the air that night,” he says. “It's really helped us to fill that gap.”
But the biggest threat of all may be that reality is so weird that it sometimes defies parody.
“They're so far spun out there,” Ficarra says. “How do you make fun of Snooki? How do you make fun of Romney and the way that he flip-flops so much? It gets very difficult at times.”
William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7986.
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