I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!
MAD Magazine is gone – or at least it will be soon. The magazine announced on July 3 that it will phase out its newsstand issues this summer, before finally suspending publication of new material in October. In effect, the patient will be in palliative care until its inevitable demise. It’s all over but for the waiting.
I have been here before; we all have. It is, perhaps, a defining experience of popular culture to see much-loved bands, television programs, superheroes, even magazines pull up stakes, fold the tent, draw the curtain, roll up… well, you get the picture. I have a faint memory of people murmuring sadly about the Beatles when I was five years old. I remember the Death of Captain Marvel. I thought Firefly would go on for at least another season. I’m sure someone was really broken up when Playboy stopped publishing its signature creepy, airbrushed erotica in the paper edition. Although, now that I think about it, I can’t really think who that someone might be.
Invariably, there’s a reunion tour, or a reboot, or a feature film that ties up all the loose ends (and kills off Wash – what the f**k was that about?!). Sometimes it works; sometimes, you’re standing in the audience at Irving Plaza wondering why you ever liked that band in the first place. But it’s never the same. At best it’s different, but more often it’s like that time you buried your cat in Pet Sematary.
MAD was surely immune from that iron law of cultural obsolescence, senescence, and death. Surely it would continue on, reinventing itself as Saturday Night Live has done with a lot less to work with. In January 2016 – a moment simultaneously in the distant and recent past, go figure – I pinned the cover of “The 20 Dumbest People, Events and Things of 2015” on my office wall. There, under the text “MAKE AMERICA DUMB AGAIN,” were Alfred E. Neuman and Donald Trump. MAD Magazine spoke truth! It was relevant! It knew dumb when it saw it. I had no doubt that it would outlive Trump.
And I wasn’t alone, either. “I started buying it again after Trump’s election,” recalls Richard Steigmann-Gall, a history professor at Kent State University (and presumably a smart guy). “It’s a puzzle, honestly.”
Despite its heroic celebration of the stupid and shallow, MAD Magazine was a publication of enormous depth and breadth. You could read a surprisingly insightful and trenchant social commentary on one page, and then turn it over to something utterly silly. When I was a kid, growing up in the suburban ‘70s, lying in deep shag carpeting, and flipping through a “Super Special,” I gravitated to the silly – Don Martin’s panels, and Sergio Aragonès’ “drawn-out dramas.”
Toronto-area musician Bruce Armstrong was a particular fan of Martin’s work, drawing forgeries of that cartoonist’s floppy-footed, slack-jawed characters on his grade-school notebooks. (It’s a wonder he was never sued, in fact.) “MAD was the doorway to satire and humor for pre-teens,” Armstrong says. “Don Martin’s sound effects still tickle my childish funny bone, however like Bugs Bunny, Mad was full of ‘adult’ humor as well.”
Really. For a 12-year old, it was all about the sound effects – “SPITZ SPOPPLE SPATZ” for Spiderman’s web, “GRUNCH GRUNCH GASHLIKT!” for a sculptor pressing his thumbs into a human head. One Martin strip that I remember fondly follows his droopy hero as he sees a sign announcing “Stamp Club Meeting” and enters the meeting room, only to find a crowd of bigfooted cretins stamping their feet. The sound effect is “STAMP!” I still snicker when I think of it.
“HAR HAR YUKKLE YUK HEE-DE-HEE-HEE SNIKKER CHUCKLE HEH HEH HO HA YAHHAH”
There was always something ineffably Jewish in MAD Magazine when I read it regularly. Its roots reached deep into the soil of Catskills schtick and The Wise Men of Chelm, and its pages were populated with the fools and smartasses of Jewish literature. Superduperman – whose story I read in one of those reprint comics from the ‘50s tucked under the cover of a “Super Special” compilation in the ‘70s – was the kind of insufferable Goy-god hero we reedy Jewish kids always wanted to laugh at. And MAD gave us the opportunity to do that without getting wedgied and stuffed into a school locker.
Is it any wonder? More than half the contributors had names like Harvey Kurtzman, Mort Drucker, Al Feldstein, and Dave Berg. The humor seemed to come in spontaneous jets from deep within a Hebraic Id. Like Philip Roth’s best work, it was the return of the repressed restrained by the thin veneer of polite (read: Goyische) society. It is the humor of the outsider who has to hold his tongue, but can’t resist uncharitable thoughts.
Al Jaffee, whose “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” was a kind of handbook of nerdy sass, could easily have been that slightly disreputable uncle you only ever saw at Passover, who you listened to with rapt attention. Jaffee taught whole generations how to deal with dumbasses. Picture the scene – a man in a swimsuit runs onto the beach, carrying a surfboard over his head:
“Are you going surfing?”
“No, I’m a delivery man for an ironing board company.”
“No, this is just a new style hat that I’ve created”
“No, I once had a dreadful experience with a flight of Canadian Geese, and I’m taking to chances on that ever happening again.”
(In the interests of full disclosure, my partner really, really, really hates it when I channel Snappy Answers. But she isn’t Jewish, and I just can’t help myself.)
The movie and TV parodies reconfigured the monuments of popular culture through the absurd distortions of a fun-house mirror and, in the process, produced something funnier, better, even more memorable than the original. As I sat in a movie theater last year, watching Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper paint-by-numbers their way through A Star is Born, I couldn’t help falling into a reverie of recollection. I remembered every panel of A Star is Bomb, the parody of the Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson version of the film. In MAD Magazine, Streisand’s Esther Hoffman is “Oyster Hockfleish” and Kristofferson’s James Norman Howard is “Jim Normie Howie.”
If you don’t get the joke, you need more Jewish friends.
For a Jewish teenager, reading MAD Magazine could be like coming home. So much of the best of it was a kind of Jewish in-joke, often at the expense of the more socially-assured WASPs “I sometimes wonder how people outside that bubble perceived it,” says New Yorker Gary Babad. “Kind of like Woody Allen movies, they had wide appeal but you didn’t get the full impact unless you were from NYC, or knew it well.”
Admittedly, the humor could often be juvenile, and it sometimes fell flat, particularly in the fallow period of the mid-1990s, when MAD Magazine, like many print publications, faced the first tremors of the digital revolution that would transform the publishing industry with a combination of confusion and diffidence. Montreal actor and comedian Terence Bowman remembers picking up an issue at the time.
“They did a parody of the Roseanne TV show,” he says. “And I remember reading it and being really disappointed because all they did with it were a bunch of fat jokes. They didn’t really parody her show in any way other than to just make a bunch of gratuitous bad fat jokes… That was probably the last time that I read it.”
At its best, however, MAD Magazine served up its humor on multiple levels. “As a young kid, it seemed like just silly fun,” Babad says. “But the social satire became more obvious as I got into my teens, and looking back I realize that it influenced me from way earlier than I’d realized, especially my rather quirky sense of humor.”
For example, Antonio Prohías’s long-running “Spy vs. Spy” strip – it began in 1960, shortly after Prohías emigrated from Cuba to the United States, and continues, drawn by Peter Kuper today – is both slapstick comedy and trenchant satire. For almost six decades, a pair of pointy-nosed spies in big hats, one white and one black, have been locked in comic combat in the pages of MAD Magazine. Sometimes the White Spy wins and sometimes it’s the Black Spy.
The genius of Prohías’s strip was just this: there are no “good guys.” The White and Black Spies were equally deceitful and opportunistic; although each installment inevitably ended with one, or the other, succumbing to poison, or some other violent death, neither achieved a final victory. During the Cold War, “Spy vs. Spy” served up pointless, hilarious, slapstick mayhem that was, simultaneously, utterly profound and often bitter satire. These were spies without flags at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were playing the “Great Game” of superpower brinksmanship. Prohías invited us to laugh along with the pointlessness of it all. There was no one to root for; nothing really mattered.
It was all absurd.
MAD Magazine was both detached from and embedded in reality from its very earliest issues in the 1950s. It was the very soul of postmodernism long before it was cool. It articulated the notion – and it might have been the first time that many readers encountered it – that everything we know is contingent. MAD Magazine took the piss out of shibboleths and sacred cows, suggesting that they are no more than an infinitesimally-thin layer of representation with no more necessary correspondence to reality than anything else.
“I loved the mockery of social convention,” Steigmann-Gall says. “Their ability to ventriloquize what you were thinking. They had some segments – regular features – that I would go back to over and over. They also had that fold at the end which inevitably spoke to some social issue while also being consistently funny.”
And nowhere was this truer than in the movie and television parodies. MAD Magazine took acclaimed (and often less-acclaimed) cultural artifacts – M*A*S*H, Star Wars, The Godfather – carefully stripped-off the layer of representation, and draped it over often-bitter satire. It gave readers M*U*S*H, Star Roars, and the Oddfather (parts one, two, and three).
The parodies reveled in the uncanny; they were satirical fever-dreams in which familiar faces, in familiar settings, following similar narrative arcs spoke – and often sang – dialogue uncoupled from their source and content. Babad even remembers spotting his father’s friend, who had a small part in Goodbye Columbus, in a panel of Hoo-Boy, Columbus! in the April 1969 issue.
You would think that a publication that could so deftly and self-reflexively deploy the codes and tropes of popular culture in the service of satire and social commentary would thrive today. These are times, after all, that cry-out for satire. Indeed, MAD Magazine pioneered the Internet age’s quintessential forms of expression – the mashup, the meme, remixes, and Drunk History, to name but a few. Surely, there would always be a place for Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side of…” and “What if Superman Were Raised by Jewish Parents?”
MAD Magazine’s demise can be attributed, in part, to a technological revolution that has left print publications, particularly magazines printed on cheap newsprint, behind. Like the comic book industry from whence it spawned, MAD found itself increasingly marginalized by flashier, faster, more interactive media, better able to capitalize on digital distribution. Brøderbund Software brought out a CD-ROM boxed set in 1999 containing every issue from 1952 to 1998. I still own it, though I have no way to play it. Other CD-ROM and DVD-ROM packages followed.
The often-funny sketch comedy series MAD TV ran from 1995 to 2009, and was revived for one season in 2016. Despite the fact that the show had only a tenuous connection to the magazine, things certainly looked promising; MAD Magazine was cool again. Or, if not itself cool (that was never going to happen), the nerdiness at the core of MAD Magazine was cool.
But it wasn’t enough. MAD Magazine was always such a cheap and plentiful commodity: the ink smudged, the pages tore, and virtually everyone folded the “Fold-In.” Consequently, it has mostly escaped the collectors market that turned Marvel and DC superheroes into bankable media properties. (Having said that, a mint issue no. 11, from 1954, with Basil Wolverton’s art on the cover will set you back $4,000 on eBay.) There has never been a MAD blockbuster movie, or a MAD Cinematic Universe to gain traction in our digital culture.
… Although I, for one, would be so down for the MAD Cinematic Universe!
Significantly, the magazine’s personality seemed to change drastically after it relocated its editorial offices to Los Angeles in 2017, leaving most of its old-school New York contributors and their New York schtick behind. For the last year and a half, it has been hard not to get the feeling that MAD was trying too hard, like the nebbishy class clown who straightened out his Jew-fro, and got a tan and a new wardrobe during summer break. He can still be funny, I guess, but not in Dockers and deck shoes… with those highlights!
Ultimately, what doomed MAD Magazine was just what should have made it relevant in the age of Trump, Boris Johnson, and the great Battle for the Airports in the American Revolution. Not even the era of Richard Nixon and Watergate – at the magazine’s peak – furnished such material for satire. If anything, MAD should have much, much more to say.
But, like the late-night talk show hosts and comedians who have made satirizing the worst excesses of our troubled times their stock-in-trade, MAD Magazine has struggled to find something to say. “It’s sort of like The Onion these days,” Steigmann-Gall says, referring to the satire site whose posts can often be mistaken for the news. “It’s an inversion of Marx: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.”
MAD Magazine has come to the end of its 67-year run because absurdity isn’t really funny in an absurd world. Its humor relied on incongruity – like the famous cover showing a gap-toothed ape removing an Alfred E. Neuman mask. The absurd joke needs a reasonable, concrete, foil to make a punchline. Absurdity is only a laughing matter when it is a reductio ad absurdum. But in 2019, it is not; reality itself is absurd.
And we’re not laughing.