BILL MORRISON began having a delightfully Mad time of things one year ago this month, when he officially began his tenure at the legendary magazine. And since early this year, Morrison has begun to deploy his own sensibility to guide the comedy institution, as its first new top editor since the ’80s.
For roughly half of the six-decade-plus life span of Mad magazine, John Ficarra steered the ship manned by the “Usual Gang of Idiots,” including such rock-star artists as Al Jaffee, Sergio Aragones and Mort Drucker. But as Mad recently moved to California from its longtime New York home, Morrison — who co-founded Bongo Comics in Southern California with three fellow executives, including “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening — took over amid the larger range of changes.
Even in new digs, Morrison, who is also president of the National Cartoonists Society, appreciates the historic magazine’s irreverent sense of itself, honed over nearly seven decades.
“Mad’s mission has always been to shove our culture in front of a funhouse mirror and say, ‘Hey, everyone, take a look at how ridiculous this is!’ ” Morrison tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “We don’t feel a need to change that.
“We look at what’s going on in the world, from politics to entertainment to fads,” he says, “and when we see something that deserves ridicule, we go to work.”
For the bimonthly magazine’s third issue under Morrison, Mad wanted to hit a target-rich environment on its cover, gathering recent headline names that Morrison thinks particularly deserve ridicule.
In a preview of the cover exclusive to Comic Riffs — the issue will hit digital and physical shelves in August — a spoof of the Whac-A-Mole arcade game includes the heads of Roseanne Barr, Bill Cosby, President Trump and Harvey Weinstein.
“We wanted to come up with a ‘summer fun’ cover and looked to things like beach parties, county fairs and amusement arcades for inspiration,” Morrison says of the cover illustrated by Mark Fredrickson. “Art director Suzy Hutchinson thought an image of [Mad mascot] Alfred playing Whac-A-Mole would be fun, and mocked up a surreal cover of Alfred whacking mini-versions of himself.
“Then,” the editor says, “we turned on the news and decided that taking a whack at some notorious celebrities would be not only fun, but therapeutic.”
Part of Morrison’s mandate is to expand the reach of the magazine, a onetime staple of baby boomer adolescence that reached a peak print circulation of more than 2 million during the Watergate era.
“Our main goal is to broaden the readership and reach age and gender groups that don’t currently read Mad,” Morrison says. “We’re making editorial choices designed to attract millennials and women, but without alienating our base readership.
“Also, our new ‘Usual Gang of Idiots’ have built careers in new media, and as we expand Mad’s presence in the digital space — with more original content on our blog, the launch of our official Mad Twitch channel and a Mad podcast — we’re carrying Mad’s voice beyond print,” the editor says. (Mad says it does not make current digital and print readership numbers available.)
A half-year into his editorship, Morrison is cheekily optimistic.
“To use another summer metaphor: Now that we’re finishing the third issue, I feel like we’re still in the deep end of the pool, but now we’re swimming along nicely,” he says. “True, we’re hanging on to big foam noodles, but only because they’re funny.”