[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10/25/02 ]

MAD IS 50 -- Still ticking after all these years

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 call themselves.

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 Husni.

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," says Gilford.

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 anymore.

"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.