Iconic magazine still relevant as it makes fun of itself and sixty years of pop culture
My kids open up the packages in our mail, expecting it to be a gift from their grandparents. They’ve come to regard book-shaped packages with the same pessimism as I do. We were all delightfully surprised when the big book of Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity showed up. “This isn’t one of your boring books, Dad,” my six-year-old son said as he plopped on the couch with the book in his lap. I watched him for about 15 minutes as he made his way through all 250+ pages, then he said, “Meh, I don’t get it.”
Oh, yes, neither did I! I wanted to say. Instead I sat beside him and began to explain what still wasn’t funny to him, except for the little comics in the margin, which I loved too. It wasn’t long till I was alone on the couch with some massive MAD nostalgia and newfound appreciation for the smartest stupid in satire.
“No matter what level of sophistication you brought to MAD, there was always something dumb enough to keep your attention,” writes Eric Drysdale, in a tête-à-tête with Stephen Colbert, in the intro.
I came to MAD in the 80s as a pretween. Picking up the cover in the newsstand (oh, bygone days! ), I’d smile back at that lampooning Alfred E Nueman, sometimes getting the joke, then flipping to the back page for the MAD fold-in—a signature parody of the Playboy centerfold launched in 1964, I find out now—where you’d fold the illustration and the text to reveal the joke hidden in the full-size picture. You couldn’t fold it in the store, it’d ruin it for someone else, so I had to buy it to see the joke, even if I didn’t get it or half the contents between the covers. An obsession was born.
I didn’t know anyone else who knew about or cared for MAD so it was the first thing I can remember as being distinctly mine. My friends were into comic books and Transformers, Cabbage Patch Kids and Smurfs. It made me feel a kinship for the what-me-worry posterchild: in on the joke even though he’s the butt of it.
It was that gap-toothed icon of mischief and carelessness who told me—unarticulated then but obviously sensed—that the big scary world of adults soon to be mine could be reduced to something silly, something you could make fun of. What, Me Worry? was and is the best response to adulthood to date.
Alfred was no stranger to the problems of adults. “The grinning boy was a bastard orphan” adopted by MAD 1956 and used ever since, according to Frank Jacobs, a prolific lifetime contributor to MAD known for his song parodies. The recurring copyright lawsuits culminated in the 80s on Alfred’s side.
Jacobs’ essays illuminate the building blocks of what has become a cultural institution, and the paragon of parody. MAD’s legally aggrieved ranged from high school girls to the Music Publishers Protective Association, which the Supreme Court ruled against in favor of MAD, thereby making “the right to publish parody lyrics…the law of the land.” Just eat it, Weird Al.
Reading the retrospective, MAD fan or not, you’ve got to smile at how stupid our shared cultural history. That’s what made MAD so great, its ability to poke fun at our over-inflated American self, to pop the balloon of pop culture and see how stupid it all is. This is recapped with comics like Raiders of the Lost Art, Bored of the Rings, 30 Crock, and Monicagate. Making fun of things is easy; doing it with a big heart is MAD. It’s evident in the footer of cover pages throughout the book, a ticker tape of Alfred E. Neuman mockery.
MAD didn’t just make fun of pop culture—it contributed to it. “Spy vs Spy”, the textless black and white comic featuring a black and white spy hatching bizarre schemes to kill each other, was originally the product of Antonio Prohias, who fled Cuba in 1959 and ended up in MAD—and his strip has outlasted him today.
Spy vs Spy was one of my first comic loves, though not as much as Don Martin, illustrator of the Fonebone characters with their cinderblock chins and cucumber shaped bodies, who also started in ’59, not seven years after the magazine’s inception.
This is a wonderful retrospective on MAD and on pop culture for the past six decades, with regular beloved comics like “The Lighter Side of…” and “The Shadow Knows.” All in cartoons—what a great history lesson I can share with the boy (at some future date).
Founder Bill Gaines, a jolly and generous iconoclast who “detested merchandising gimmicks that soaked his readers” would not like that the price has jumped from $3.50 to $5.99 in the last decade, a huge jump when you consider it only increased $.75 in the inflationary 80s, but he has to be pleased with its legacy. I’ve seen my son flipping through it again, and asking about Alfred.