Because life has, for the moment, scorned them, they return the favor, and for a couple of generations, Mad was both a tutor and a tool of their anarchy. Its cartooned pages confirmed their suspicions that parents are hypocrites, that heroes have clay feet, that popular culture is a ripoff and that a guy might as well laugh at existence because existence is already laughing at him. “What, me worry?” asked mascot Alfred E. Neuman, eternally hapless, perpetually 13.
In its day, Mad would have rolled its googly eyes at the corporate doublespeak of its own death notice. Mad will no longer publish new content, we were informed, but will continue into the uncertain future by repackaging old material between new covers. Television used to do a version of that. It was called “The Love Boat.” Each week, another washed-up celebrity took a cruise to nowhere. Mad ran a parody in 1978.
No doubt my interest in the subject is partly nostalgic. My own middle-school years in the early 1970s coincided with the peak of Mad’s influence and circulation. Two million people bought the magazine in those days, and even on a 50-cent weekly allowance, it was worth 40 cents. The “usual gang of idiots” (as Mad referred to its stable of contributors) included a number of supremely talented caricaturists and gag writers alongside a few authentic geniuses.
Chief among them was Don Martin, dubbed “Mad’s maddest artist.” He rendered a world full of ridiculous-looking adults with goofy faces, flabby guts and weirdly hinged oversize feet. These characters went blundering through familiar situations oblivious to their own pathos, accompanied by Martin’s inimitable written sound effects. “GISHKLURK,” for example, was the sound of Moses parting his soup, while “doop” was the sound of food falling from the mouth of someone choking and “SPLITCH” was the sound of a tomato in the face. (Martin’s vanity license plate read SHTOINK, which of course is what you hear when a nurse jabs your finger with a syringe.)
Mad’s April 1974 cover boiled the entire sensibility down into a single outrageous image: an upraised middle finger. The blowback was sufficiently intense that publisher William Gaines never went there again. But it wasn’t the readers who objected; it was our moms, dads, ministers, librarians. Our oppressors.
To be subversive, however, requires a dominant culture to subvert. Mad was the smart-aleck spawn of the age of mass media, when everyone watched the same networks, flocked to the same movies and saluted the same flag. Without established authorities, it had no reason for being. Like the kid in the back of the classroom tossing spitballs and making fart sounds, a journal of subversive humor is funny only if there’s someone up front attempting to maintain order.
We now live in a time when everyone’s a spitballer, from the president of the United States on down. America elected the world’s oldest seventh-grader in 2016; we knew what we were getting from the earliest days of his campaign. Asked about one opponent, the successful business executive Carly Fiorina, Trump replied, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” He bullied the rest of the field with stupid nicknames. The hijinks continue to this day. Recently, Trump play-scolded Vladimir Putin as the Russian president smirked in reply. “Don’t meddle in the election, please,” said Trump — as if the two of them had been caught giving wedgies and were forced to apologize. What, us worry?
Today, whether we’re doing history or current events, commerce or religion, we’re awash in iconoclasm but nearly bereft of icons. Everyone’s a court jester now, eager to expose the foibles of kings and queens. But the joke’s on us, because we no longer have authority figures to keep in check. We’re needling balloons that have already gone limp.
Some say Mad lost its edge to its offspring, from Bart Simpson to Stephen Colbert. Yet I wonder how long its influence could have continued after the extinction of the adult establishment. Not just a magazine, but a world, has ended — not with a SPLITCH but a doop.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.