This interview with former co-editor Nick Meglin focused on how the famed humor magazine would be changing with the times. Several years later, they went beyond what we discussed here: first, a switch to better paper stock and color ink (not a tragedy in itself, but there was something about that pulp paper and the black & white graphics that gave MAD an underground feel); second, and more devastating, the inclusion of paid advertising. Original publisher/godfather William M. Gaines was proud of the fact that his satiric rag was beholden to no one, and even after being absorbed by the Time-Warner empire through a chain of acquisitions, he zealously defended MAD’s ad-free format. Truly, that was a radical move in publishing, but it was worth the freedom to mock anything. The magazine that so fervently skewered modern marketing for 50 years now must print the same hype-ridden ads as every other rag. Pity. But at least we still have its satiric voice whispering in the ears of impressionable 12-year-olds, questioning the establishment (if no longer on a monthly basis).
First published Oct. 10, 1996
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To hell with Dick & Jane.
Sure, the cuddly twosome have seen a resurgence of interest lately, with museum exhibits and scholarly books detailing their influence on young minds over several generations. But how much meaning can you really extract from “See Dick Run.” And do we all truly have those pithy messages imprinted on our cerebellums?
On the other hand, there’s another publication celebrating an important milestone, one that also served as a primer for life’s lessons. This particular periodical is still alive and well after 40 years, with issue #350 on your local newsstand right now. And there can be little doubt as to its influence on the lives of its readers; it has irreversibly warped the sensibilities of millions upon millions of minds, young and old.
The answer, of course, is MAD. Magazine, that is.
It has been the oracle of all knowledge for most males in the 12-14 age bracket, faithfully toted from class to class, shared among only the most trusted friends, studied and memorized. Upon its pages are emblazoned the secret dreams of every smartass adolescent: to make fun of everything. Movies, television shows, politicians, advertising, celebrities–all the authority figures of modern life are laid bare, hoisted on their own petards. If Dick & Jane indeed gave children the basics of courteous co-existence, then MAD presented the hard facts of adult life: beware of what people are trying to sell you. Cynical, maybe, but MAD‘s satirical message resonates throughout our adult lives.
As MAD marks its 350th issue with a special edition CD-ROM collection, it’s still as vital as ever–perhaps even more so as kids today are being constantly bombarded with media come-ons, even in their schools. As one of the few magazines left that doesn’t accept advertising, it might also be one of the few still unafraid to squeak in some truth.
But will its black-and-white newsprint pages be left behind in a high-tech wave, with video games and computers stealing the allegiance of today’s kids? Not if co-editor Nick Meglin and his usual gang of idiots can help it.
“The very fact that we’ve lasted over 40 years means that we’re doing something right,” says Meglin from his New York office. “And what we’ve done right is that we’ve never pandered, we’ve never condescended, we’ve never shot for a target audience. That’s because we don’t even know who they are.”
Which, in the world of publishing, is absolutely mad. But, according to Meglin, by this time next year, MAD Magazine will be a much different publication. The times are changing, and so too is MAD.
THE IDES OF MAD
In the beginning, there was William M. Gaines.
In the early ’50s, he published what are considered to be the finest comics ever printed, including Tales From the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science, and MAD. Gathering some of the greatest comic artists ever (Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Davis, among others), he gave them sophisticated (if sometimes lurid) tales to illustrate and allowed them a creative freedom that was unheard of in the comics industry. What resulted were comics that pushed the boundaries of the medium–and got the attention of Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver and the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in 1954.
Comics–particularly those involving horror–were the scapegoats for juvenile delinquency at that time (soon to be replaced by rock ‘n’ roll, then by long hair, then by drugs, then by video games, then by…). Gaines testified at the subcommittee’s hearings, bravely defending the value of his comics–and got his butt stomped. A “Comics Code Authority” was soon formed to allay the public outcry against comics. Rather than censor his creations, Gaines stopped publishing them. But what could he do now? How could he beat the Code? The answer was to turn the MAD comic book into MAD Magazine.
“Gaines epitomized what MAD was all about,” says Meglin. “He was a man with a great deal of natural intelligence, business sense, and was able to be totally supportive. Whenever he was asked why he was such a success, he would always say, ‘My only contribution is creating the ambiance, creating the context for these brilliant people I work with to do their jobs. I supply the room they work in.”
While Gaines himself did become synonymous with the magazine–his portly, shaggy visage often appears on its pages, even after his death four years ago–the true visionaries behind MAD‘s humor were its editors. Founding editor Harvey Kurtzman created the tone of the publication, blazing new trails by daring to parody other comics (“Superduperman!” and “Starchie”), utilizing mainstream humorists like Ernie Kovacs, and throwing in photographs and fine art. In 1956, Kurtzman left MAD in a money dispute with Gaines, joining Hugh Hefner (eventually creating “Little Annie Fanny”).
Editor Al Feldstein picked up the reigns, fully transforming MAD into a magazine and putting in place the basic format you see today: Spy vs. Spy, The Lighter Side of…, the Al Jaffee fold-in, etc. Feldstein brought MAD to new heights of popularity, establishing 13 foreign-language editions and raising circulation to a height of 2.5 million copies per issue. He retired in 1984.
Now, under the editorship of Meglin and John Ficarra, MAD hopes to adapt to new times and new readers.
THE MAD READER
“Every generation seems to be growing up at a younger age,” says Meglin. “The younger people today are much more advanced and sophisticated–they know much more. So we can’t get away with mild snickers anymore; we have to go a little further in order to keep our audience interested.
“MAD is starting to be grosser as things get grosser.”
But what is MAD humor to begin with? The formula is a simple one: take a satirical bent on some part of modern life, throw in some absurdity, and add plenty of visual gags. But it’s a difficult formula to crack.
“We get about 100 submissions a week through the mail; 99 percent really fail at being MAD scripts,” says Meglin. “That doesn’t mean that they’re not funny or don’t come from talented people, it just means that MAD humor is totally enigmatic; we cannot train someone to do it. It’s either there or it’s not.
“We have some very successful authors sending us 32-page short stories which they think are very funny and that MAD should run. We’d like to say, ‘You’re a professional, you’ve been published, you know what the situation is–don’t you read MAD?’ Because they are MAD readers, and when they read a MAD article, we can’t conceive of the fact that they don’t realize that this is not a short story that has suddenly been illustrated by someone. That’s not what we do. That’s not what we’ve ever done.”
There are very few things that MAD hasn’t done over the years. Pick up this month’s issue and you’ll find “It’s a Blunderful Life,” starring a suicidal Bill Clinton who’s shown by his guardian angel–Richard Nixon–how the world would change if he hadn’t lived (Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones wouldn’t have gotten book deals); a handy guide to determine whether you’re a stalker; “A MAD Look at Body Piercing;” and “A MAD Guide to Corporate Thinking” (“Lambaste celebrities who use their names to plug any old garbage…while selling your name to the Fox Network for their latest SNL rip-off!”) Nearly everything in our culture is a worthy target, including MAD itself.
But there are some things MAD just won’t touch. The editors won’t mock religions, for instance, though they aren’t above knocking certain practitioners like Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggert. (“We’re not going after them or their religion, we’re going after what it is they’ve done.”) And they won’t use four-letter words. (“We don’t have to do that to be funny.”) However, MAD‘s biggest taboo subject is, simply, victims.
“People will say, ‘Hey, you’ve done some brilliant satires–I can’t wait to see what you do with Schindler’s List or Philadelphia.’ And we say, ‘What we’re going to do with those is nothing.’ What’s funny about AIDS in Philadelphia? What’s funny about the Holocaust in Schindler’s List? Why would we want to do that? We like to stick a pin in the balloons of pretentiousness, but what’s pretentious about something like that?”
Nevertheless, MAD has always upset people with its content over the years, and will perhaps do even moreso as it institutes changes to keep up with its readers’ tastes.
MAD STRIKES BACK!
MAD humor is of a strong anti-authority stripe, whether it’s about the medical establishment or about MTV’s dominant idiocy. And such humor is always bound to rub some the wrong way. (“Authority that is vulnerable doesn’t want anti-authority thinking,” says Meglin. “We’re not against the police force, we are against the police state.”) In particular, MAD‘s politics often come into question.
“We go after issues,” says Meglin. “We have knocked Clinton, we have knocked Kennedy, we have knocked Johnson. The Republicans will suddenly forget that when they see us knock Reagan, Bush, or Dole. Nobody wants to see what they believe in knocked, and that’s where you get people thinking we have an agenda. We don’t. We’ve always kicked the man in office, and always will. That’s our job. Personally, some of us are Democrats, and just as many are Republicans. Bill Gaines himself was politically conservative. But never once in all those years did he say, ‘Hey guys, I’m for this candidate, I’d like to go easy on him.’ He never interfered or suggested anything that took sides on any issue.”
Parents, too, have voiced their ire over MAD‘s content. Meglin believes the biggest reason for that is because since MAD is in print, it therefore provides them with more opportunities to get upset–even if what MAD is parodying is much worse.
“Parents will let a kid watch a TV show, and get very angry at MAD for some gag or some visual that we have that is so mild compared to the original. But you see, it stays there, it lays there forever in print–they can open it up and look at it three months later and still be offended by the same image, whereas television has long since evaporated into the ether.”
You would think such public irritation might dismay MAD‘s corporate overlords. However, such is not the case, according to Meglin. In fact, Time-Warner would like to see MAD become even more daring–a challenge which the editors are in the process of planning in time for their April 1 edition.
“They’re asking us to be a lot more daring, a lot more risky,” says Meglin. “I think MAD is going to go through changes that some people will think, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I want to take this magazine home to my 12-year-old, or have my 12-year-old subscribe to it anymore.’ In which case, we’ll have to say we’re not going after the 12-year-old, we’re going after the high school, college people and up. If a 12-year-old wants to pick it up, fine, but I think there’s going to be stuff in there that would not have appeared in MAD five, six years ago.
“But we’re not throwing out the old MAD and making it a new MAD–there’ll still be our famous movie and TV satires. But on the inside pages there will be a lot more risks being taken, a lot more envelopes being pushed than people are used to. And we’re hoping that creates an excitement where people will then rediscover us and not think of us as just a mild echo of something that was much more powerful in the past.”
Whatever Meglin’s usual gang of idiots come up with, though, you can be sure it will carry on the MAD sense of humor.
“I think if MAD does have a philosophy, it’s ‘What, Me Worry?'” says Meglin. “If you really took life and every aspect of it seriously, you’re in bad shape. But if you can maintain a certain sense of humor, it equips you–it arms you with something that at least for a moment helps you see a different perspective. I think humor is our salvation.”