MAD Magazine Taught Us to Laugh but Now We Laugh At It

Had the venerable satirical magazine never existed, there might have been no SNL, no Letterman, no Stewart. But as its apt pupils went mainstream, MAD itself became redundant.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast


Okay, maybe not quite. Physically and editorially speaking, the self-proclaimed “Number One Ecch Magazine” still exists. And yes, rumors of MAD’s demise have been buzzing about for years (if not decades). But at this moment MAD’s gap-toothed idiot mascot Alfred E. Neuman, who famously shrugs and asks “What—me worry?” is surely worrying aplenty.

That’s because MAD #550, scheduled to be unleashed on February 20, is the last number of the 66-year-old gagmag to have been churned out in New York. Late in December, MAD’s Manhattan office closed. The manic nerve center has shifted to the sunny headquarters of its parent company, DC Entertainment, in Burbank, California. “It marks the end of an era,” said former MAD co-editor Nick Meglin.

The move west isn’t just a matter of geography. For MAD, it’s the culmination of a major institutional, demographic, and cultural shift. At its peak, in 1972, the famously “cheap” periodical’s circulation was 2.7 million. Currently, the figure is about 10 percent of that. Once upon an in-your-face time (remember the cover that sported a giant upraised middle finger?), MAD defined cutting-edge irreverence.

Today, MAD is a tiny appendix of the era that spawned it, a victim of its own subversive success.

Hatched in 1952 as “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein,” MAD was originally a comic book that spoofed other comics. In issue #4, “Superduperman” flew around joyously punching innocent bystanders, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval emblazoned on his chest.

Soon enough, though, MAD became a riotous journal that tackled the entirety of Cold War America in all its paranoid, conformist, consumerist glory. When duck-and-cover ruled and organization men in gray flannel suits loomed as ominously as the Red Menace, MAD’s idiosyncratic publisher William M. Gaines and his “Usual Gang of Idiots” sent forth the word: Don’t trust anyone—including us.

A certain generation of pimply atomic-age readers (almost all boys, as I recall, and yes, I was one of them), simultaneously jittery and jaded, glommed onto MAD’s warped message. We lapped up the “Spicy Abridged Book Club,” with its highlighted editions of God’s Little Acre and Heidi alike. We roared upon learning that Beetle Bailey wore his Ridgeway cap over his eyes to conceal GET OUT OF VIET NAM! scrawled on his forehead. We chortled over “Some Really Dangerous Jobs for George Plimpton,” e.g., swimming Lake Erie, his body smothered not with grease but penicillin.  

The material wasn’t entirely ripped from the headlines. Such MAD staples as Don Martin’s flap-footed, decibel-laden doofuses (“FEEOOP!” “SKREEK!” “GAGGAK-THOOF!”) were just plain kooky.

Nonetheless, MAD at its base was an antiestablishment cri de coeur against our postwar nation’s myriad malaises. The magazine may have peaked with its December 1974 cover, a take-off of the famous Richard Amsel poster art of The Sting. Standing in for Redford and Newman (Paul, not Alfred), Agnew and Nixon chuckled as they brandished burning subpoenas, wads of cash, an envelope marked “Payoffs” and stolen tapes. The tagline? “MAD SALUTES THE BIG CON.”

Yet right around that time, MAD began to lose its monopoly on topical zaniness. Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and “That Was the Week That Was” had already laid the groundwork. Then, as ’70s stagflation and Watergate fallout took hold, the National Lampoon (long defunct) and Saturday Night Live (life support, anyone?) exploded in anarchic response. There followed The Onion, SPY, The Simpsons, and the more or less daily onslaught of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and—heaven help us—Andy Borowitz.

In a world where Donald Trump as president and Oprah Winfrey as his corrective successor can be yukked about and Photoshopped within minutes online, what’s the point of MAD?

Thanks in large part to MAD, irony was finally everywhere practically 24/7. Its pubescent audience was now shaving its way into cynical adulthood. And, irony of ironies, MAD itself was redundant. My friend R.J. Matson, who drew for MAD during much of the ’90s, recently told me, “The thinking in those days was that David Letterman was Alfred E. Neuman, and that his sensibility had permeated all of comedy.”

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MAD wasn’t exactly blind to the threat. Mad TV debuted in 1995. The cover of MAD #364 (December 1997) depicted Jerry Seinfeld reluctantly welcoming Alfred with the trademark sneer of “Helloooooooo Neuman!” that invariably greeted Wayne Knight’s mailman character in Seinfeld’s eponymous, MADish sitcom.

Within the MAD universe, too, times were changing. New artists and writers arrived. But the Old Bolsheviks who didn’t retire or pass away struggled to connect with the youthful zeitgeist. More than 20 years ago, MAD briefly and disastrously tried to inject an urban hip-hop attitude into its pages. The veteran cartoonist Bob Clarke responded by adding a backwards baseball cap to his signature character of a walrus-mustached, ascotted elderly gentleman.

And, fulfilling MAD’s worst fears, the octopus of commercial America strangled the magazine as DC Comics was folded into the Warner Communications empire. Or was it the Warner Entertainment empire? Or was it the Time Warner empire? Or was it the AOL Time Warner empire? For that matter, when did DC Comics morph into DC Entertainment? Who owned whom and when? Wasn’t this precisely the sort of money-grubbing capitalist insanity upon which MAD once feasted?

In any event, beginning in 2001, against Bill Gaines’ longtime directive, MAD began accepting advertising. The editors abandoned their vaguely pulpy, tabloidish black-and-white stock for eye-friendly color. When monthly MAD went quarterly in 2009, co-editor John Ficarra put up a brave front: “The feedback we’ve gotten from readers is that only every third issue of MAD is funny—so we decided to just publish those.”

When I asked Ficarra recently for further insight, he explained that MAD’s publicity department “must arrange Corp. [sic] clearances for all my interviews.” A MAD spokeswoman subsequently emailed me, “Can you tell us a little bit more about the story you are working on, including the timing?” Later, she asked, “Who have you spoken with for this piece? I’m concerned the appropriate people from MAD aren’t included.”

This wasn’t exactly the response I’d expected from the wacky outfit whose old offices, deliberately situated on the unlucky 13th floor of 485 MADison [sic] Avenue, sported a mail slot labeled “Plastic Man Entry” and a four-foot visage of King Kong peering into Bill Gaines’ window.  

On a post-New Year’s weekend, from various corners of my house, I retrieved a crushed stash of 50-odd MADs and a score of similarly battered paperback anthologies. Oh, the rediscovered joys! Like an Antonio Prohias “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon with the black spy tossing a torpedo into a swimming pool while the unsuspecting white spy did the Australian crawl. And George Woodbridge and Tom Koch’s illustrated rules for the impossible-to-play field game of “43-Man Squamish.” Not to mention the Mort Drucker/Larry Siegel satire of The Godfather (“The Odd Father”), with “Don Minestrone” threatening a Hollywood producer by dumping a horse’s rump (as opposed to its head) in his bed.

Alas, it was lightning in a bottle. In a world where Donald Trump as president and Oprah Winfrey as his corrective successor can be yukked about and Photoshopped within minutes online, what’s the point of MAD?  

Adieu, MAD. Pretty much singlehandedly, you established the absurd reality in which we all now dwell. Certainly you taught quasi-literate smartasses how to conduct themselves in waking life. To Frank Jacobs’ song parodies, to Dave Berg’s “Lighter Side,” to Al Jaffee’s Fold-Ins and of course to Alfred E. Neuman himself, I bid a guffawing farewell. But may the snark you spawned continue to inform and infect. GERSHPLAT!