The editors of the most influential American magazine of the postwar era are huddled in collective cogitation.
"We need Clinton in a wheelchair," says Joe Raiola.
"How about Clinton racing FDR?" says David Shayne.
"Clinton in a wheelchair with a bimbo on his lap," says Raiola.
"How about the back of a wheelchair with a presidential seal and a bumper sticker that says I Break for Babes,' " says Shayne.
They are sprawled across chairs in John Ficarra's office at Mad magazine, brainstorming cartoon gags for the new yellow border that appears on the revamped cover of the reinvented, retooled, relaunched Mad, which debuted, appropriately enough, on April 1. The new Mad is far raunchier and more outrageous than the old one. On Ficarra's desk, hot off the press, is a copy of the April issue. On the back cover is a parody of those sophisticated ads for Absolut Vodka, where the telltale shape of the bottle appears in an unexpected locale. In the parody ad, the shape is being etched in virgin snow, by pee.
This new Mad is nastier. It is dirtier. It is riskier. It's way out there, poised on some kind of psychic edge -- or maybe it has already tumbled over.
It's a crapshoot, in several senses of the word. The gamble is that American adolescence is primed and ready to plumb jaundiced new vistas of joyful cynicism. The risk is discovering that it may be possible to carry subversiveness so far that you alienate your target audience -- the alienated.
From posters on the walls and a statue on the bookshelf, Alfred E. Neuman gazes down at the editors of the magazine that has warped the minds of several generations of American youth. As always, Alfred is wearing that moronic "What, me worry?" grin. But the editors aren't grinning. They're groaning, literally, under the burden of transforming a magazine that has become an American institution.
"Uhhhh," moans Raiola as the meeting drags on. "This is kind of frightening. We're working too hard."
For more than 40 years, Mad cruised effortlessly along as a half-dozen editors -- all of them men, most of them wise-ass New York Jews and Italians -- churned out eight issues a year under the paternalistic protection of publisher William M. Gaines, who was a big, eccentric, notoriously penurious, cantankerous, autocratic, big-hearted, white-bearded papa bear. Then, in 1992, Gaines died, leaving his staff of middle-aged bad boys to the tender mercies of Time Warner, the media conglomerate that owns Mad.
A few months later, the Time Warner honchos announced Gaines's replacement -- the president of DC Comics, a Harvard art history graduate named Jenette Kahn. Incredible! A woman running the bible of the adolescent male! It was a little scary for the bad boys. Would she grab them by the ears like a schoolmarm, rap their knuckles with a ruler, try to civilize them? Worse, would she rein in their more sophomoric satires?
No, she wouldn't. Just the opposite, in fact.
Kahn told the editors that Mad had become "too safe." She said she wanted a magazine that was "edgier." She demanded a Mad that kids would have to hide from their parents, reading it under the covers with a flashlight. Not only that, but she wanted Mad to come out every month -- 12 times a year instead of eight.
The bad boys obeyed. They produced a new Mad that is definitely edgier. And a lot more vulgar. And maybe funnier, too, if you like edgy, vulgar humor. The changes have been slowly creeping into the magazine for months, but they reach a crescendo in the April issue. The top editors, Ficarra and Nick Meglin, say they're thrilled with the new mag. But other staffers have their doubts. And at least one of the magazine's veteran artists -- Jack Davis, who had drawn for Mad since its first issue back in 1952 -- says he won't work for the magazine now.
"It got a little ugly," he says, "and that's why I don't contribute anymore."
Davis's comment saddens the editors -- they love the man and his art -- but they don't have much time to mourn. They're too busy cranking out issues at a record pace. Right now, here in Ficarra's office, they need another 10 cartoon gags for the border on the July cover and the ideas just aren't coming.
"Uhhhhh," groans Raiola. "Gentlemen, we're circling the drain."
He taps his bald head with a plastic water bottle, trying to dislodge the ideas he knows are in there somewhere. His bearded face looks pained. So do the other faces in the room. Only Alfred is grinning. What, him worry?
Ficarra scratches his salt-and-pepper beard and studies his yellow legal pad, counting the gags they've created so far. "We got 9, 10, 11, 12."
"Only about four good ones," Meglin complains.
Ficarra smiles. "Comedy isn't pretty," he says. Closer to the Edge
Joey Buttafuoco sits in his car, his eyes bulging with lust as he ogles an attractive woman approaching his window.
A question of etiquette is raised: "Is it appropriate to open the door for her?"
Joey's answer: "If ya paid her less than thirty bucks, sure, be a stand-up guy! But if she's charging Heidi Fleiss prices, hey, let the rich bitch get her own door!"
It's "Joey Buttafuoco's Guide to Chivalry" and it appears in the April Mad -- the first issue of the magazine's new incarnation. The cover shows Alfred E. Neuman with his pants pulled down and his naked butt perched on a Xerox machine, which is spewing forth copies of his grinning face.
Inside, there are several Absolut parodies, including one showing intravenous lines draining three upended Absolut bottles into a lifeless arm: "Absolut Kevorkian."
There's also a mock police manual written for the kind of cops who are "so corrupt they make Al D'Amato look like the Pope." It offers advice on how to shake down hookers and a new way to beat up suspects: "Try using the butt of your gun. It's thick, heavy and, when used properly, it can crack open a person's head like an eggshell!"
And there's a collection of fairy tales as told by famous people -- Clinton's version of Pinocchio, Farrakhan's Goldilocks, Howard Stern's Cinderella: "Take my word for it, Cinderella was sooo hot. Problem was, her life sucked. Her father, a real A-hole . . ."
Debuting in the new magazine are two features that Mad's editors hope will become regulars. One is "Monroe," named after its lead character, a goofy adolescent Everyboy with an earring and a dorky haircut. In his first adventure, Monroe is mortified when his mom sends him to the store to buy tampons. In his second adventure, to appear in May, Monroe is mortified when he catches his parents in flagrante delicto. The second feature, "Melvin & Jenkins," introduces Mad's first regular African American characters. It's a parody of "Goofus and Gallant," the Highlights magazine guide to good behavior: "Jenkins begins a new weight training regimen by taking it slowly to avoid injury. . . . Melvin still pees blood from the time his friend bet him he couldn't lift the washing machine."
There is also a full-page, one-panel cartoon that is sure to make Catholics squirm. It's called "One Sad Sunday at St. Sebastian's," and it shows a priest addressing a church packed with worshipers. "To date, the church has paid out over a million dollars for lawsuits against priests who have molested young boys," he says solemnly. "As a result there will be a second collection this week!"
The new Mad isn't all quite that "edgy." The editors keep stressing that Mad's most popular features are still alive -- the back-cover fold-in gag, "Spy vs. Spy," the tiny cartoons in the margins, Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side of . . ."comic strips.
But still, let's face it: This is not your father's Mad magazine. Sign of the Times
1. Is this stuff appropriate for our 13-year-old kids?
2. Just how old and out of it do you feel asking question No. 1?
Mad magazine has always said: Hey, look around you and be skeptical. Look at the revered icons of your parents' generation and mistrust them. Look at the products of Madison Avenue and doubt their honesty. Court cynicism. This was easy when the backdrop to life was "I Love Lucy" and "Ozzie and Harriet." It is harder now. Cynicism has gone mainstream. The edge has moved way to the left.
Has the new Mad gone too far? The editors don't think so. They think it is American culture that has gone too far, leaving the old Mad in the dust. They figure they're just playing catch-up.
"Mad is a fun-house mirror of society," Ficarra says, "and there's been a coarsening of society in the last 10 years."
He's got a point, of course. There has been a coarsening of American society in the last 10 years. Today, kids grow up watching steamy soap operas like "Melrose Place" and misanthropic sitcoms like "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children." They listen to gangsta rappers denouncing "bitches and hos." On the radio, Howard Stern talks about his penis and his fantasies about spanking lesbians, then he dresses in drag on the cover of his book, which becomes a huge bestseller. Dennis Rodman poses naked on the cover of his book, in which he recounts, in lurid detail, his night of delights with Madonna. Meanwhile, TV star Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy Playmate, does an ad for shoes, posing on a toilet with her pants down around her ankles. And on cable TV . . .
In that context, the old Mad does begin to seem a little staid and stale. By contrast, the new Mad is up to date -- in other words, coarse and crass and nasty. But, as they say, comedy isn't pretty. Satire is sublimated hostility and the best of it has always been vulgar and raunchy and antisocial.
"Humor is odd, grotesque and wild," wrote Jonathan Swift back in 1718.
The author of "Gulliver's Travels" knew what he was talking about. He once wrote a cute little piece called "A Modest Proposal." Its premise: Ireland's poverty and overpopulation could be alleviated if the babies of the poor were sold as delicacies to be eaten by the rich. It was quite hilarious. Today it's considered a classic.
The new Mad hasn't gone nearly that far. Not yet anyway. A Vehicle for Satire
Mom and Dad grimace in horror, their backs to the wall, their hair standing on end, their eyes bugging out as an ominous shadow approaches.
"That thing!" Dad screams. "That slithering blob coming toward us!"
"What is it?" Mom gasps.
The little tyke standing calmly at their feet knows the answer. "It's Melvin," he says. That was Mad's first cover. In an odd way, it was a declaration of intent: Mad magazine was approaching, terrifying parents, but not kids. It hit the streets in 1952, just as Ike was packing up for his move to the White House.
In those days, publisher Bill Gaines was making good money churning out gruesome horror comics -- "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror." Then in 1953, a wave of media-inspired hysteria over comic books, fueled by Senate hearings, ruined his business. After that, he concentrated on Mad, his only non-horror comic book, which specialized in devastating parodies of the bland, safe comics that had survived the hysteria -- parodies with names like "Mickey Rodent," "Superduperman," "Starchie."
In 1955, Mad grew from a comic book into a full-blown magazine and it began satirizing the larger culture -- TV, movies, advertising. Especially advertising. Gaines refused to accept ads in Mad -- he was an eccentric idealist, part of a long line of principled American cranks -- and the magazine gleefully published parody ads for "Bofforin" and "Crust" and "Carry on" cigarettes, the last being butts produced by idiots determined to "carry on" despite the surgeon general's report linking cigarettes and cancer.
Mad did for the '50s what H.L. Mencken did for the '20s -- satirizing the age with a rambunctious, intoxicating gusto. The magazine had the anarchic exuberance of a kid shooting spitballs at a pompous principal or a wise guy drawing a mustache on a subway poster of Miss Rheingold. Mad thumbed its nose at the bland "Father Knows Best" culture of the '50s. It packaged the up-yours attitude of the New York cabdriver and sold it to kids in the boondocks.
Mad managed to be mischievous without being mean. It knew where to draw the line. It revealed that the emperor had no clothes but did not enumerate the deficiencies of his private parts.
"Mad strongly influenced the baby boom generation," says Maria Reidelbach, author of "Completely Mad," a social history of the magazine. "For many of us, it was the only subversive literature we could get our hands on. It was very subversive and it taught us to question authority."
As history heated up in the '60s, Mad gleefully took on politics, religion and race. LBJ lifted his coat to show off his surgical scar and inadvertently exposed a map of Vietnam. And Carl Sandburg's classic poem "Chicago" was transformed into "Chicago Suburb":
"Hog Barbecuer for the World,
School Segregator, Mower of Lawns,
Player with Golf Clubs and the Nation's Wife Swapper . . ."
By then, this goofy, vulgar comic book had become the country's social conscience, grabbing Americans when they were young, encouraging them to pay close attention to the man behind the curtain because he wasn't the Great and Powerful Oz, he was a Kansas snake oil salesman.
"Editorially," said Gaines, "we're trying to teach them, Don't believe in ads. Don't believe in government. Watch yourself -- everybody is trying to screw you!' "
That message got through. How many baby boomers educated in the School of Mad ended up manning barricades in the '60s and '70s? A lot, says Al Feldstein, who was Mad's editor all through that era.
"I thought that I was performing a kind of service for young people in my own way as a liberal," Feldstein told Reidelbach. "I knew that I had helped to form some of the militant, liberal young people's minds in terms of the draft card burning, the Vietnam war and the brassiere burning -- at least I was part of it." Preparation X'
John Ficarra's feet are propped up on his desk, as usual, so that his bearded face is bordered by a pair of scuffed soles bearing the word "Rockport." He's 42 and he's been on the staff of Mad since 1980, when he was the first new hire in 24 years.
Right now, he's talking about how he and co-editor Nick Meglin felt back in 1993, when Jenette Kahn took over Mad and informed them that the magazine had gotten "too safe."
"Of course we thought it was an attack on us," he says, smiling. "We're New York neurotics -- we think everything is an attack on us."
They had many reasons to worry. Circulation, which peaked at 2.4 million in 1973, had dwindled to around 500,000. The renewal rate of Mad subscriptions was a wretched 19 percent, the worst in the business, Ficarra says. The artists and writers who had produced Mad for decades -- "the usual gang of idiots," as they're called in the masthead -- were aging, retiring and dying off. And when Kahn took a close look at the magazine she'd inherited, she wasn't thrilled with what she saw.
"It had become in many ways formulaic, which I guess is another way of saying stale," Kahn recalls. "It felt friendly, it felt comfortable, but it didn't feel edgy or controversial at all."
She wanted to bring back Mad's lost edginess, which meant, she says, "taking chances, doing the unpredictable, saying things that might insult a vast number of people but doing it anyway because the definition of Mad is punching holes in everything that needs holes punched in it."
Kahn is a tall, slender, 49-year-old woman who likes to wear dresses bearing cartoon characters, which is appropriate because she runs DC Comics, the home of Batman and Superman. She grew up reading Mad and remembers it fondly as the magazine that taught her "the joys of subversion." She went to Harvard, got a degree in art history, and then drifted into magazine publishing. At DC, she proved her willingness to shake things up by arranging for Superman to get killed in print and then, when he inevitably returned to life, giving him a new costume. The purists howled but Kahn didn't mind. "If we didn't do that, our readers would be locked in time," she says, "and a coat of dust would cover the Man of Steel."
When Kahn took over Mad, she started doing the kind of publisher-type stuff that Gaines had never bothered with, like taking reader surveys and holding focus groups. She learned what everybody had always suspected -- that Mad's core readership was 13-year-old boys -- but also that a fifth of the audience was female and a third were adults.
After that, Kahn took Meglin and Ficarra on a "creative retreat" in a Westchester County hotel, where she gave them their marching orders. "She told us we could do anything we want," Ficarra recalls, "but it's got to be edgier. It was just a general prodding."
Kahn called this reinvention "Project X." Meglin -- who has worked at Mad since he got out of college in 1956, and has come to embody the spirit of Alfred E. Neuman -- immediately dubbed it "Preparation X."
But he and Ficarra took their assignment seriously. They started beating the bushes for new talent, talking to comedians and comedy writers and underground comic book artists. After several years and countless meetings and dozens of new logos and redesigned covers, they emerged with the Mad that was relaunched this month.
Kahn is pleased with the product. She loves the new issue, she says, particularly the Absolut ads -- "the Absolut Kevorkian ad stands with the classic Mad parodies."
Reidelbach, who wrote the history of Mad, agrees. "I like it," she says. "I think it's a lot more interesting than a lot of the stuff they've been doing lately." Reidelbach didn't like everything in the issue -- the Joey Buttafuoco piece and the bad-cops manual seemed heavy-handed to her -- but she's thrilled with Mad's new direction. "It's not quite there yet but it's evolving," she says. "The world is changing fast and Mad's got to reflect that." On the Offensive
"I can't stand Monroe!" says Amy Vozeolas, Mad's editorial assistant. "I hate Monroe!"
The object of her animus is the cartoon character who debuted in the new Mad, the dorky teenager who suffers horrible mortification when his mom dispatches him to buy tampons.
"This is just alienating our female audience," says Vozeolas, who is 28 -- just the kind of hip young woman the new Mad hopes to attract. "To me, going out and buying your mom tampons -- I just don't find it humorous. Maybe that's because I'm a woman. I just don't think the subject is funny. I think it's very boy-driven. If that's what you want, okay, but then don't say, We only have 20 percent women.' "
She's not the only Mad staffer who hates Monroe. Tom Nozkowski, a highly regarded abstract painter who has done Mad's production work for 19 years, doesn't have much fondness for the geeky teenager either.
"It's hard for me to fathom the editorial decision to present a cartoon in which our core readership is presented as victims," he says. "I think that's stupid." Then he makes a larger point: "Mad is attractive because it's fighting the good fight against the hypocrisy of the world. It has a sort of noble edge. I don't think Monroe has that noble edge."
Monroe's creator, Anthony Barbieri, defends the strip. "It's the everyday hell of adolescence," he says. "It's kind of dark but it's not over the top."
But even Barbieri -- a 32-year-old stand-up comic who is one of the new Mad's hot rookie writers -- found some of stuff in the April issue a little . . . well, surprising.
"Picking up whores with Joey Butta- fuoco, that's pretty over the top," he says. And then there's that corrupt-cop manual: "It was funny but it was pretty intense -- hitting the guy with your gun butt and cracking his skull. That was definitely taking a chance. I hope they don't have a burglary at the office: Oh, you want us to protect you now, huh, smart guys?' "
That kind of criticism doesn't bother Mad's editors. They figure it's the inevitable result of getting more risque. Far more painful is Jack Davis's decision to stop drawing for the magazine.
"To me it got a little raunchy," Davis says. "They started coming out with the nasty stuff. I mean the sexual stuff. I don't think you have to be dirty to be funny. At the old Mad we were lampooning but we didn't get vicious." Davis is 71 now. He has illustrated hundreds of Mad articles, starting with the very first issue, but he says he'll never do another.
"I don't have to do it and I don't want to do it," he says, speaking in a slow drawl from his home in Georgia. "I'm not proud of it. I've got grandkids and I wouldn't want my grandkids to read it and they're right at the age where they would."
Davis hated the cover of this month's Mad, the one with Alfred's butt perched on the copy machine. "To me, that's ugly," he says.
The whole situation makes him sad, he says. "It kind of hurts not to be in Mad. I started with Mad. I grew up there. I'd love to be in there -- but not the way it's going."
"I feel badly too," says Ficarra, "because I love him personally. He's a real Southern gentleman." But Ficarra dismisses Davis's criticism. "I would guess that it's generational," he says. "I don't think the people who read Mad now would feel that way." Girls Will Be Boys
The border gags are done, they've shipped the parody of the movie "Private Parts" -- which is, of course, called "Private Putz" -- and now John Ficarra bounds into Mad's art department, all pumped up, excited about a great new piece they've got in production. It was written by a woman, which is terrific because Ficarra wants the new Mad to appeal to female readers. She's a 34-year-old underground cartoonist named Peggy Doody, whose work has previously appeared in tiny mags called Girl Talk and World War III Illustrated.
Her piece for Mad is called "A Day in the Life of a Single Career Girl in the Big City." It begins with the heroine lying in bed next to a guy with a spiked Mohawk hairdo: "7:30 a.m. Wake up, unclothed, with a killer hangover and a naked stranger in your bed."
In the next panel, she's scampering around the room: "7:45 a.m. While he's in the bathroom, tear the apartment apart looking for proof that you two used a condom last night. No luck." Ficarra loves it. It's just what the new Mad is all about, he says. He points out the seventh panel: "11:32 a.m. Experience a vague burning sensation while going to the bathroom."
"That's why it's great to have women writers," he says. "No male writer would ever have come up with that line."
Ficarra is smiling broadly. He is having the time of his life. He loves his new Mad.
"Isn't it great?" CAPTION: Madmen and women, from left, Associate Editor John Kadau, Managing Editor Annie Gaines, Editor John Ficarra, Editorial Assistant Amy Vozeolas, Art Director Jonathan Schneider, Production Assistant Maria Weisenborn, Associate Editor Joe Raiola, Assistant Editor David Shayne and Editor Nick Meglin. CAPTION: Jack Davis, one of four original illustrators who was still working for Mad magazine before the latest revamping. But the new version "got a little ugly," Davis says, "and that's why I don't contribute anymore." Top, Editor John Ficarra says he's thrilled with the new magazine. Right, Editor in Chief Jenette Kahn agrees: the old Mad "had become in many ways formulaic, which I guess is another way of saying stale." CAPTION: The cover of the first "new" Mad magazine, not just a copy. CAPTION: Absolut-ly edgier fake ads. CAPTION: Spy vs. Spy: Cloak and dagger gets new swagger. CAPTION: "Monroe," a new feature. Can Mad absorb the criticism? CAPTION: Meanwhile, back at the raunch . . .