What, Them Worry?

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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky