What, Them Worry?

As Mad celebrates its 400th issue, its editors wonder how to stay funny in a world gone mad.

Silo the Huskie performs on Thursday, October 19, at Blind Lemon.
Let's get this out of the way right now, because so many of you will find this hard to believe: Yes, Mad magazine still exists. It is still being published 48 years after it was created by Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines, neither of whom lived long enough to see their child reach its 400th issue, which will arrive on November 14. And it looks very much like the Mad you (or your father, or your grandfather) read forever ago: It still contains its movie parodies, its advertisement send-ups, its familiar features (say, "The Lighter Side of...," the "Mad Fold-In," and "Spy vs. Spy"), its black-and-white pages and slightly off-color jokes. In fact, if you didn't know better, you might swear a new issue of Mad was filled with nothing but reprints from old issues. If you read it in 1959 or 1963 or 1978 or 1982, you know what you will find inside its pages. Reading it today is like walking through a museum, its exhibits encased in amber.

Mad also still employs old men who worked there in the 1950s and '60s; the so-called Usual Gang of Idiots has changed little in decades and does so really only when one of the idiots drops dead. Oh, there are the occasional new guys or the random appearances by well-known hipsters (among them Drew Friedman and Peter Kuper, the latter of whom now draws and writes "Spy vs. Spy"), and the magazine's internship program infuses a little new blood into the aging body. But most of the children draw and write like the parents who came before them. The world outside changes--Frank Sinatra jokes have given way to Backstreet Boys parodies, Lolita has been kicked out by Harry Potter, and Batman rides shotgun with Pikachu--but the pages inside have not. Nor has the cover: Each issue still features a grinning, gap-toothed man-child on its cover.

Yes, Mad is very much alive, kept going in the year 2000 by so many of the very men who were around when Alfred E. Neuman was still in diapers.

Al Jaffee, the creator and keeper of the fold-in 37 years after its inception, recalls when Time referred to Mad as a fad that would soon enough disappear. "Well, we're still around," Jaffee says, without mentioning that Time Warner, Time's parent company, owns Mad. At this very moment, he is finishing the fold-in for the 402nd issue; someone forgot to tell Jaffee, who began working in the comic-book industry in early 1940s, that he could have retired long ago. Sergio Aragones, who has drawn the tiny wordless cartoons that appear in the margins, the so-called "Drawn-Out Dramas," since coming to the United States from Mexico in 1962, is not surprised Mad is still around, only that he continues to work for it, contributing more than he did in the 1970s. "I am surprised only that so many of us are still around," he says, his English still drenched in his native accent.

One of the two men charged with running Mad, coeditor Nick Meglin, has been a Madman almost since its inception, joining the staff shortly after it transformed from comic book to magazine with the July 1955 issue. Hardly a week goes by that someone tells him they can't believe he's still plugging away at it, overseeing parodies of Dawson's Creek and Pokémon and the WB Network. At times, he too finds it unfathomable, if only because he joined the staff thinking it would be a short-term gig, a way of killing time till his career illustrating magazines and writing children's books took off after he got out of the Army. That was more than 40 years ago, when Bill Gaines still ran the magazine like daddy and dictator, taking his staff on annual overseas trips but only if they made quota, meaning they turned in a certain amount of pages a year. Alfred E. Neuman might have been the magazine's public face, but Gaines--a corpulent, hirsute, rumpled man whose body gave out in June 1992, when he was 70--was its private inspiration.

"Mad went through its greatest growth during the 1950s and '60s, and Bill Gaines created such an atmosphere of fun working for him that I never stopped to think I could be making more elsewhere," Meglin says, sharing a conference call with the his much younger counterpart John Ficarra, who considers himself "second-generation Mad." The two have been coeditors since 1985, when longtime editor Al Feldstein retired to the wide open space of Wyoming and, later, Montana. "Bill was taking us on trips all around the world, going to great restaurants, having fun with the freelancers who all became my friends, and I don't know of anyone who had a better time. And the attraction has not changed. To this day, when Al Jaffee brings in a fold-in, you go, 'Holy Christ, how did he do that?'"

Like most things once written off as a fad, Mad has thrived long enough to survive the lean years: Meglin and Ficarra say that circulation hovers around 500,000 copies each month, which is way off from its heyday of the 1970s, when it sold an average of 1.8 to 2.5 million copies every month. (The best-selling issue was September 1973, which featured a Poseidon Adventure spoof. The cover, featuring a sinking luxury liner and the floating red high tops of Alfred Neuman, was reprised in 1998 for a Titanic parody. Mad never ripped off anyone so much as itself.) For a while, Mad was the second-best-selling magazine on newsstands, topped only by TV Guide, but newsstands have gone the way of the Edsel and Eisenhower. Meglin insists that subscriptions have increased in recent years only because it has become harder and harder to find Mad on the magazine racks. "It's frustrating knowing the work is good and fewer people are reading it," Meglin says.

If it's surprising that Mad is still around, it's only because it was long ago supplanted by the very things it helped create: Without Mad, there would have been no National Lampoon, without which there would have been no Second City, without which there would have been no Saturday Night Live, without which there would have been no David Letterman...and on the list goes, until Mad disappears into a tiny speck in comedy's rearview mirror. For years, it had no competition; it was class clown in a room filled with bores, but now it's one of dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of jokers in the deck. We live in a culture of parody--a culture in which most Americans get their news from David Letterman and The Daily Show, in which new advertisements parody the very product they're pushing, in which The Onion and Modern Humorist offer fake news stories easily mistaken for real. As such, Mad is no longer required reading. The aberration has become the norm; the clown has been co-opted and rendered straight man.

"The culture has become hard to top," Meglin says. "That has become our greatest barrier, the fact we could have never created Monica Lewinsky. How do you top that? Well, you can't. In the past, it was easy, because everything was taken so seriously, and now, less is taken seriously. But Mad doesn't create, and that's wonderful. People believe we have done all these wonderful things through the years, when all we've done is reflect what's going on. John and I like to use the analogy of a funhouse mirror: We just hold up the mirror to the society, the politics, the culture, whatever is happening, and it's a distorted, exaggerated image for humor's sake, but it's really reflecting an image and not creating one."

"We can still do things no one else can because of their medium," Ficarra adds. "In the 400th issue, we have a takeoff of the children's book Goodnight Moon called 'Goodnight Room,' and it's a dead-on parody of the book, but it's Bill Clinton getting prepared to leave the Oval Office, and it follows the exact same cadence of the book; it's drawn in the same style, but it recounts his eight years in office. Saturday Night Live is a great show, and Mad TV is a great show, but they can't do that on television. We are still print, and when we do print-to-print satire, we're still very strong. I don't know of anyone else doing it."

Harvey Kurtzman started Mad in 1952 "out of desperation," he wrote in his 1991 oversized book From Aargh! to Zapp!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics. During the late 1940s and early '50s, Kurtzman has been editing and writing EC Comics' war books (among them such titles as Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat), but he had grown tired of researching his stories; it took him weeks to write a single story. "I needed a less demanding, more lucrative format," he wrote, "and I found it in satirical humor." Kurtzman had become infatuated with college humor magazines; he became enamored of the "sledge-hammer" style of humor, the irreverence and rage that gave way to a little thoughtfulness beneath the rowdy and silly surface. Artists and writers such as Will Elder, Wally Wood, and Jack Davis came on board and turned out such stories as "Superduperman," "Flesh Garden," "Mickey Rodent," "The Lone Stranger," and "Melvin of the Apes," all of which read like comic-book tales as written by the Marx Brothers.

The story has long been told that when the Senate began cracking down on comics--after psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, in which he suggested that comics promoted violence and sexual deviancy among children--Mad switched to its current magazine format to skirt the limitations of the new, government-approved Comics Code. The Code disallowed violence and sexual content, even when only hinted at; it introduced a new era of Puritanism that nearly killed the industry until the 1960s.

But the truth is, Mad switched to its current format only because Gaines wanted to keep Kurtzman, who wanted to move away from "the crumminess of the traditional comic-book format--the cheap paper, the poor printing, the low price, and all the rest." He wanted to create a grown-up magazine, a "real" magazine, and Gaines agreed to the switch in 1955. It was not enough: Kurtzman ended up leaving Mad in 1956 even after Gaines offered him 50 percent ownership. Kurtzman was too ambitious and too restless to remain with his old friend, and he went on to start up a number of ill-fated humor magazines, among them Trump (funded by Hugh Hefner), Humbug, and Help!, the latter of which employed such young nobodies as Woody Allen and Robert Crumb. Had he remained with Mad, Kurtzman, who died in 1993 at 68, after struggling with liver cancer and Parkinson's disease, would have been a wealthy, famous man. Instead, he's merely a legend.

"The only track Harvey was ever on was upgrade, upgrade, upgrade," says Jaffee, who attended the High School of Music and Art in New York with Kurtzman in the 1940s and worked at Trump and Humbug before rejoining Mad full-time in 1956. "Upgrade means spend more money, and Bill was the bankroll, and Harvey was the genius, and Harvey's genius was in saying, 'I want to get Norman Rockwell to do our covers,' and Bill was saying, 'No, no, no, let so-and-so do it, he works cheap.' Harvey got tired of doing a comic book when he saw that he could be successful with satire, so Bill had to go along with upgrading the magazine. What he couldn't go along with was upgrading Harvey's share, although he went pretty far. Hefner appealed to Harvey's sensibilities, because Hefner was willing to plow back the profits and build an empire, and Harvey wanted to build an empire of good magazines, and he felt Hefner would go along with that, where Bill would fight him every inch of the way. That's one of the reasons why, no matter what Bill offered Harvey financially, he was still going to go with the dream of Hefner helping him get to Mt. Olympus."

For years now, Kurtzman's child has felt like a vestige--an antique always covered in dust, no matter how much Pledge you use. With its black-and-white illustrations and cache of familiar names who've lingered in the magazine since the 1950s and '60s--among them such icons as Aragones, Jaffee, and Mort Drucker (most identified as the artist responsible for the movie and TV parodies)--Mad looks, on the surface, little changed since its heyday. Even its parodies of South Park, Tom Green, Britney Spears, and Behind the Music seem one step behind the times; they look like something lifted from an issue printed in 1972, despite the up-to-the-minute subject matter. Reading Mad today is little different than watching MTV in black-and-white; it makes today seem a little bit like yesterday. The editors will admit that has certainly led to its decline in readership: Its once-faithful readers have grown up, even if Mad cannot and will not.

"We're black-and-white in a color world," Meglin says. "It feels like we're coming from the days of black-and-white television, and on top of that, it's drawn in the narrative format that comic books and comic strips are still part of, so people think it's less adult than text, so they move on before they should. Their sensibility may still very well be wrapped in Mad's material and Mad's approach, but they're at the age where they don't want to appear in a subway car or a bus reading an issue of Mad and not a grown-up magazine, if you will. That has a negative effect on readership."

Mad has struggled to remain relevant in the age of Howard Stern and Eric Cartman; long-gone are the West Side Story and Ladies' Home Journal parodies, replaced instead by such features as "Monroe," featuring a troublemaking kid, his porn-obsessed dad, and a mother who's always falling out of her teeny bikini. And the magazine has become obsessed with sex and shit jokes; Mad, which once refused to work blue, is working brown. And while Aragones insists he loves the evolution--"Hey, I laugh at a lot of fart jokes," he says, chuckling--Meglin has struggled with the inevitable change, which began in April 1997, when Alfred E. Neuman appeared on the cover of the magazine Xeroxing his ass.

"This culture has become coarser, because of South Park, which could thrive because of Howard Stern, which could thrive because of something else prior to him that pushed the envelope," Meglin says. "Because we reflect all those changes, Mad has become coarser, so I see an evolution, and this is hard for me to convince people of, but in some cases, I see us doing work that is superior to what we used to do. My frustration comes in that our readership was so much larger then; our exposure was greater then than now. I want to say, 'Hey, people, remember us? We're better now. Take a look!' Aside from the coarse things, which I personally don't like, there's always been a place for all these voices. Personally, I am not comfortable with this."

"If Nick did not work here," Ficarra says, "he would not be an audience we're writing for. At all. Although, Nick, one of your favorite features is 'Monroe,' which is very funny but one of the edgier things we do. I think everybody has different lines in the sand about what they find objectionable. Someone may find doggy-doo jokes objectionable; someone else may be really put off by death humor. But all of these things are in Mad, and everyone will be turned off by one particular thing, and hopefully, we balance it out so if you don't like one thing, you can turn the page and get something else coming at ya. For every doggy-doo gag, there's a Shakespeare takeoff."

"Yeah," says Meglin, "like Hamlet walking in dog shit."

Ficarra doesn't waste the set-up line. "Feces or not feces," he says, giggling. "That is the question."

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