[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10/25/02 ] |
MAD IS 50 --
Still ticking after all these years
By PHIL KLOER
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
His circulation has
plummeted and his influence is a flickering shadow of what it once
was, but Alfred E. Neuman is still grinning like a freakin' idiot.
"Every pop culture subject that took place in the last 50 years
was covered in Mad," says Samir Husni, head of the magazine service
journalism program at the University of Mississippi (who happens to
have a small statue of Neuman in his office).
What, me 50? Yes, Mad magazine first came to life in October 1952
and has just published its Golden Anniversary Edition, created by
"the usual gang of idiots," as the writers and artists traditionally
Maybe Neuman is grinning because everywhere the gaptoothed Mad
mascot looks on the pop cultural landscape, he sees his children and
grandchildren molding a world where attacking the status quo is the
status quo, where sarcasm is the coin of the realm.
He scans the skewering of commercialism on "The Simpsons," the
sendups on "Saturday Night Live," the pith of David Letterman's Top
10 list, the wackiness of regular folks on the popular Web site the
Onion, and on and on, from the ''Austin Powers'' movies to Jon
Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Even the little comics
convention of using typographical symbols like *&$#!! to
indicate obscenity was popularized by Mad.
"All of them had their breeding ground in Mad magazine," says
Its circulation peaked in 1974 at 2.8 million and now averages
about 250,000 a month. As has nearly always been the case, Mad is a
magazine mainly for youngsters and adolescents getting their first
taste of the joys of seeing sacred cows turned into hamburger ---
its readership is 80 percent male, and their median age is 17.
And yet the magazine retains a grip on the imagination and
nostalgia of many grown-ups.
"I still have a pile of Mad magazines from when I was a kid here
in the office in a drawer," says Mike Luckovich, Pulitzer
Prize-winning cartoonist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I
think most editorial cartoonists can relate their stuff in some way
to Mad magazine's influence."
Steve McGarry, president of the National Cartoonists Society,
agrees. "I can't think of anyone of a certain age who doesn't cite
Mad as a career influence," he says. "It pioneered a vein of humor."
For kids who accept a world full of "South Park" and "Simpsons"
reruns as a given, it's hard to imagine how parody-free the 1950s
were. Occasionally an adult such as Lenny Bruce or Robert Benchley
would comment on the emperor's lack of clothes, but only for the
enjoyment of other adults.
"In the '50s you didn't have a lot of opportunity to criticize
the Norman Rockwell way of life," says Doug Gilford, a Mad
collector in Gresham, Ore., who owns all 423 issues and runs a Mad
Internet fan site.
In October 1952, William M. Gaines and E.C. Publishing brought
out a new comic book, priced at 10 cents ("Cheap!"), titled "Tales
Calculated to Drive You Mad," which at first just made fun of other
comic books. Soon other pop cultural landmarks were targeted --- the
TV show "Dragnet" became "Dragged Net." When Congress pressured the
comics industry to clean up its act in the mid-'50s (violent comic
books and rock 'n' roll went hand in hand at the time as a despoiler
of the nation's youth), Gaines converted Mad to a magazine in 1956.
"Upon its pages were emblazoned the secret dreams of every
smart-ass adolescent," Coury Turczyn writes on his Web site,
PopCultMag.com. "If Dick and Jane gave children the basics of
courteous coexistence, Mad presented the hard facts of adult life:
Beware of what people are trying to sell you."
"It was a little anti-everything, kind of like the beat
philosophy, but not so dangerous that it couldn't be marketable,"
In the '50s, Mad was considered subversive enough that the FBI
kept a running file on its content and some of its editors. Gaines,
the publisher, even wrote a letter of apology to FBI Director J.
Edgar Hoover after Mad published a 1958 game called "Draft Dodger,"
in which readers were supposed to write to Hoover to request
"full-fledged draft dodger" identification cards.
Mad parodied movies ("The Sound of Music" became "The Sound of
Money"), national leaders ("Goodnight Moon" set in the Clinton White
House included "Goodnight, stained dress"), television, the
educational system, pop music, sex, sports --- virtually everything.
The approach could be sophisticated or gross.
Advertising was, and is, a favorite target, particularly the
marketing of tobacco and alcohol. The magazine did not run any ads
for 49 years, letting them in only last year.
Co-editor John Ficarra says selling ads was necessary to keep up
with the times, to print the magazine in full color on better paper
stock. Before the switch, he says, "Mad looked like it was printed
in a Third World country in 1959. It's not a black-and-white
"A lot of people thought, 'Oh, there goes Mad's integrity,' "
Ficarra adds. "But we even take on our parent company, AOL Time
Warner." He points with pride to an AOL spoof in the current issue,
which says the new version of AOL will include an "anti-pedophile"
feature: Users have to click an "I am not a pedophile" button to
enter the chat rooms.
Ficarra must compete for readers' attention and affection in a
far different world from the one in which Gaines launched Mad. "We
really don't have any competition in print; we're competing for
people's time. Life has been sped up for everyone, and we compete
more with a David Letterman."
And it's a competition Mad can't win. If some celebrity does
something stupid today, Letterman will joke about it tonight, but
Mad can't reference it until its December issue.
It's an utterly different world from the one Mad was born into,
but it's a world that was made, in part, by Mad's attitude.
"I could argue that Mad had a lot to do with how advertising has
changed," says Ficarra. "There's a lot more humor and irony; they're
already giving viewers the wink-wink. Some advertisers even like to
be spoofed, which is really annoying."
Mad's waning influence --- a product of its own success --- can
even be seen in the paltry media coverage of the milestone of its
50th anniversary. And Ficarra even has a typically Mad
self-deprecating take on that.
"Mad has always thrived on neglect," he says.