MAD MAGAZINE’s rich history brims with the names of cartoonists who profoundly influenced comedy for generations. Al Jaffee. Mort Drucker. Sergio Aragones. Dick DeBartolo. Those are just some of the living legends who became so well-known to fans of magazine satire — the MAD men who helped pave a cultural path for “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” the Onion and “The Daily Show.”
And often leading this so-called “Usual Gang of Idiots” for nearly a half-century was a man who seldom received a byline himself.
Nick Meglin was a sharp-witted editor who helped shape the fledging publication once he joined MAD in 1956, the year that Al Feldstein became the magazine’s top editor.
Meglin — who died Saturday of a heart attack at age 82, according to MAD magazine — was for so long the soul of the gifted staff. Bill Gaines, the late founder and publisher of MAD, called Meglin “the heart of the magazine” — a man who was crucial in building and nurturing the magazine’s stable of all-stars.
“Feldstein was not humorous. He appreciated humor, but he didn’t inspire humor,” Jaffee tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “Nick inspired humor.
“He was a bit zany. . . . He had a great appreciation for the satirical viewpoint — he was gifted with that kind of natural understanding.”
Meglin also helped MAD grow from being “a satire of other comic books” to spoofing politics and pop culture at large. At its circulation peak during President Richard Nixon’s administration, MAD had more than 2 million readers.
“Nick’s sense of humor was a defining part of MAD magazine,” says Tom Richmond, a Reuben Award-winning caricature artist at MAD. “No other single person had as much to do with creating and perpetuating the MAD ‘voice’ as he did. Both as a humorist and as a person, he was without peer.”
“Nick was amazing — he was a poet, a good editor, a good writer and artist,” Aragones says. “He could do everything pretty well, and he would crack jokes.” And what made Meglin especially vital to the magazine, Aragones says, was that the big-hearted editor was “a unifier.”
Even the way in which Meglin hired new talent was often done with impish wit. In the early 1960s, DeBartolo recalls, he took a shot at mailing a satirical work into MAD. His work was purchased, but the mailed reply also included a practical joke that initially disguised the acceptance note as a rejection slip. The note was signed by Nick Meglin himself.
Meglin would rise to become MAD’s co-editor, with John Ficarra, in the 1980s, during which time he also published “The Art of Humorous Illustration” — a look at a dozen top artists that I personally found inspiring.
Meglin, who was born in 1935 in Brooklyn, also taught at the School of Visual Arts, and it was a joy to sit around a table and listen to his warm, engaging style of lecturing on humor and the arts.
A decade ago, Meglin co-authored “Drawing From Within: Unleashing Your Creative Potential” with his daughter, Diane Meglin, who is on the faculty at the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University. Nick Meglin, who retired from MAD in 2004, had lived in North Carolina for years.
Meglin forever remained an ambassador for MAD, as well as a source of humor for the magazine’s cartoonists.
“He was universally beloved. He was just a joy,” Jaffee says. “My memories of Nick are indestructible.”