It's MAD's world, but is there any room left for it anymore?
Judging from the signs on two doors in the warren of offices at MAD magazine headquarters—a small, memorabilia-filled space occupying part of a floor of Time Warner's DC Comics Group on Broadway just north of Times Square—The White Spy and The Black Spy, those nameless, wordless, stateless co-saboteurs of comic legend, each have an office, and they're side-by-side, as if those guys have been working together for the last 51 years.
The MADtropolitan Museum of Art, which occupies a short hallway that may be New York's smallest fine-arts museum, featuring works by MAD artists rendered in high style, like Edvard Munch's The Scream with Howard Dean and Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World reconceived around Hillary Clinton. You can get super close to the frames and no guards ask you not to take photos.
Alfred E. Neuman does not appear to have his own office despite being employed as a company mascot and cover model since 1957. His portrait, more ubiquitous than Mao's is in China, stares out from masks, statues, a rug, and countless framed images in the cramped space, but where, you have to wonder, does the guy get his mail?
Of all the strange things you will see, the strangest is nestled amid a wall of photos of many of the best known personalities of the Twentieth Century holding up copies of MAD. There you will find a a photo of Noam Chomsky pinned just beside one of Donald Rumsfeld, each with a copy of the magazine. What on earth, you may wonder, would fit in the slim center of a Venn diagram organizing the interests of the radical linguist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who tried to levitate the Pentagon in 1967 and the man who worked in it for decades? It really is a MAD world.
I can tell you all this because there was no secret handshake or bow tie-wearing lawyer with an N.D.A. for me to sign, and the big cheese editor, John Ficarra, with his outer-borough accent and close-cropped grey beard, is about as intimidating as your uncle in town for a matinee.
This nonchalance pervades despite the fact that this year, the usual gang of idiots who put out MAD are celebrating its 60th anniversary with a coffee table book called Totally MAD (with an introduction by Stephen Colbert) and a recent panel at New York Comic Con called Mad About MAD that featured Fold-In master Al Jaffee, illustrator Drew Friedman, and others. Mo Rocca just swung by with the crew from CBS Sunday Morning for a segment, and there will be articles in print and online over the next few weeks taking stock of the magazine and its legacy while employing an endless variety of "mad" headline puns.
It's safe to say that none of these tributes is likely to get at the real and lasting influence MAD has had on American culture since its debut as a comic called Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD in October-November 1952. Born out of William E. Gaines' E.C. Comics, which published horror titles like Tales From the Crypt that were loved by kids and despised by adults, MAD began as a series of comic book parodies written by eccentrics like Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, and others. They were New York guys—almost everyone in the early MAD team was from the Bronx and Brooklyn, many of of them educated at New York City's High School of Music and Art. From the Bronx's own Gaines on down, the magazine's uniquely New York-centric look and voice, from the frequent use of Yiddish to layouts so dense with visuals ("chicken fat," was Elder's preferred term for it), every page felt as crowded and weird as a ride on the IRT. As a point of contrast, it's worth noting that The New Yorker was founded by an arriviste from Colorado and New York was hatched by a native son of Missouri.
When the comic switched to a magazine format in 1955, everything was suddenly ripe for parody: TV shows, politicians, advertising, and every other rotten aspect of life in the Atomic age found itself skewered in MAD. No institution was above reproach, no power too big to be targeted by MAD's spitballs. The most subversive thing about it, of course, was that its humor was pitched to the literal little guy, the world's largest (and smallest) band of outsiders: Children.
"MAD was a view of the adult world for kids," said David Hajdu, author of The Ten-Cent Plague, a history of E.C. and the moral panic surrounding comics in the early 1950s. "It always felt like an inside look at the adult world."
That world, seen in the pages of MAD, was corrupt, stupid, driven by venality, and above all else, utterly ridiculous. Through MAD, even a ten-year-old could see the lies at the foundation of adult life and feel empowered to sneer at them. The only response to the mad world seen in MAD was sarcasm (as gleaned from Al Jaffee's recurring "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions") or playing dumb like the addled Neuman, an icon who represented "everything that parents prayed deep-down their kids wouldn't turn into—and feared they would," as Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis put it in The New York Times Magazine on the occasion of the magazine's 25th anniversary.
For people of a certain age, MAD was the decoder ring to the entire world. "Today the ten-year-old clutches his or her MAD… in the same way that the Russian beatnik treasures an old Presley tape obtained from G.I. broadcast," Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media in 1964. A decade later in New York Magazine, Richard Reeves wrote, "Mad may be the most influential magazine in the United States—if you assume teenagers and other children are worth influencing." The influence of the magazine is literally incalculable: A game of "Six Degrees of Alfred E. Neuman" would likely touch every thing from the Yippies to The Simpsons, to, apparently, Noam Chomsky and Donald Rumsfeld. MAD's sensibility has affected everything that followed it.
The funny thing? It worked. Maybe a little too well, to judge from the marginal place MAD occupies in the world today. A whole new gang of idiots at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, The Onion, Saturday Night Live, and (as of this writing) 4.2 trillion self-styled comedy tweeters are crowding out MAD's visual gags and stepping on its punchlines 24 hours a day, turning the magazine itself into just one more giblet of chicken fat in the comedy stew we all drown in now. The sad fact is, with Tina Brown's Newsweek still in print, MAD isn't even the most hilarious magazine on the newsstand. Is there even room for MAD anymore?
"MAD has always reflected society and society has changed," Ficarra, MAD's editor, told Capital. "If you don't believe me, it's changed since I just said that. We're constantly trying to mirror that in MAD."
Ficarra is a voluble, likable guy despite stealing this reporter's childhood dream job seven years ago after 25 years at the magazine as a writer and co-editor with Nick Meglin. Just behind Ficarra's desk is a small white board with a list of items for the MAD 20 Dumbest Things, a year-end rundown. (To reveal it would be unfair, but let's just say 2012 has been a very stupid year, and not just when Niall Ferguson was writing Newsweek cover stories.) His desk was piled with the usual detritus of the editor's profession, but it's unlikely that most editors were proofing the third installment of Drew Friedman's "Guide to Man Boobs.
He knows the world has changed, but Ficarra hopes that even if he and his staff can't define our time (it's hard enough defining man boobs), they can at least keep up with it. "I think kids on some level lose their innocence on the way out the nursery. A lot of the stuff they're exposed to earlier is both meta and ironic… MAD sort of had that domain to itself, but now it's a lot harder. But I think what MAD does is still pretty good."
Looking at the most recent issue of the magazine, there are some pretty good satires, like a spread that asks, in a text treatment that owes more than a little to Barbara Kruger's early work, "Are You an Activist or Slacktivist?" by Desmond Devlin. ("An activist… pounds the pavement and engages the public… A slacktivist… sends out Colbert Report video links every morning to all her friends…"). A back cover parody ad for American Sputum cigarettes ("Our cigarettes are no safer to smoke than any other brand, but somehow the whole Native American motif helps to discount that fact in your mind, doesn't it?") is spot-on and continues the magazine's long tradition of anti-smoking parodies, like the one from March 1969 that had Hitler endorsing smoking. But there are groaners as well, like the cover package devoted to The Twilight Saga (also written by Devlin) called (what else?) "The Toilet Saga." (Bella: "That car almost hit me! I'm almost dead!" Edward: "Yeah, get used to things that almost happen, but don't. It's what these movies are all about!") MAD's parodies of movies and television may have introduced generations to irony and offered young people the tools of cultural criticism (Star Trek became Star Blecch and thirttysomething became thirtysuffering, etc.), but, boy, do those jokes age poorly, as will the ones about Twilight once the stake is finally driven into the heart of the teen vampire series.
Twilight jokes aside, nostalgia pervades the most recent issue of MAD from the four page "MAD vault" spread from 1965 that shows a married couple in separate beds and and a photo on the letters page that shows a fleet of MAD illustrators and editors at the National Cartoonist Society's awards ceremony looking like the cast of a Cocoon remake. Yes, these are the guys who once gave America the middle finger (the April 1974 cover, which Colbert recalls hiding from is parents, features a stark one finger salute), but what can these altercockers tell kids today? Eat your vegetables? Floss? Besides, didn't MAD teach kids to question authority—even zany, comic authorities—rather than valorize it?
"It did something really important a long time ago, but should we expect them to continue to do that important thing now?" Ten-Cent Plague author Hajdu wonders. Hajdu said he sees his 9-year-old son "seeking an up-ending of [adult] moral codes" through musicians like Nicki Minaj, not magazines like MAD. "He'd be ripe for MAD to open up the world for him and change his worldview," Hajdu said. "But that's not going to happen now. MAD doesn't have that role anymore."
"One of the things that MAD did was instill cynicism for institutional authority," Hajdu continues. "It didn't just do that. It institutionalized cynicism, it became an institution of cynicism… We live in a world where cynicism is utterly institutionalized, thanks to MAD."
Which may explain that Rumsfeld photo—or the ones of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on the same wall. The ability to mock yourself, to wink even as you do wrong with seeming earnestness, has become a default mode. Look at the former president goofing around about hunting for the weapons of mass destruction like they were a lost remote control (haha!) at the Radio and Television Correspondents' dinner in 2004 even as the war that resulted from that erroneous pretext raged on in Iraq. Bush's willingness to play the fool lead to countless Alfred E. Neuman comparisons, like the November 13, 2000 cover of The Nation, but 43's knowing stupidity was a thin, and with historical hindsight, literally fatal fig leaf that helped hide his administration's many violations of the Constitution, global protocol, and basic human decency.
While an in-on-the-joke Commander-in-Chief might be seen as the ultimate triumph of the MAD sensibility, it's also its ultimate dissipation. Ficarra remembers very distinctly being told that Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer loved a MAD movie poster parody of the secondStar Wars preque lcalled Gulf Wars Episode II: Clone of the Attack, and had brought a copy of it to the Oval Office to show to the president. "They thought they would make me happy with that, but it was actually infuriating."
"That was a great, hard-hitting piece"—Gulf Wars was "produced" by "The Military Industrial Complex is association with Exxon, Texaco, Mobil, et. al."—"and they were just are laughing it off."
"Politicians, I think, have gotten very smart in the way they treat comedy, the way they try to embrace it," Ficarra said. "They're in on the joke! They're good guys! Well, no… A lot times I think it does take a little bit of a sting out of it."
Even if some of MAD's sting has been absorbed painlessly by its targets (like the Madison Avenue ad men interviewed this week by The Times' Stuart Elliott), Ficarra and his team continue to poke at any and every target they can. The magazine may only come out six times a year and have a circulation hovering in the 200,000 range (down from a high of 2.5 million in the 1970s), but they've got a website that occasionally creates viral hits like a recent parody of the Apple Maps fiasco that called back to Saul Steinberg's iconic New Yorker cover "View of the World From 9th Avenue," an interactive app, and a show on Cartoon Network. Sure, the view of the world from MAD's headquarters looks a lot like MAD itself, but Ficarra is far from ready pack up his Snappy Answers and go gentle in that good night.
"As long as there are politicians, there'll be meat for us to carve up," Ficarra said. "As long as there are studios making stupid, condescending movies, there will be film for us to carve up. As long as there are celebrities with inflated egos, there will be…" He trails off. "I'm looking to continue the metaphor, but I don't have it. Um, the thought of carving up Lindsay Lohan…" Now he's got it: "There'll be bones for us to chew on. Running out of things to say and people to make fun of has never been what keeps me awake at night. Restless leg syndrome does."