Mad Magazine, RIP

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Alfred E. Neuman

And so it ends, after 67 years. One of the great American institutions, Mad Magazine, is closing up shop. Gone but not forgotten will be the famous Mad mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, whose mysterious background is discussed here. So popular was he that he occasionally ran for president, with the slogan: “You could do worse… and always have!”

Along with my parents and my teachers, Mad played a major part in the formation of my young life. Its influence is with me still—and I hope it always will be.

My big brother bought Mad religiously, and thus I got the issues second hand. I learned about politics from Mad. I knew who Castro and Khrushchev were only because of the cartoon renditions within its pages.

In those years they had literate, educated satirists who were able to skewer sacred cows with a precise wit that appealed to adults, too. And the artists! Here I must call out two of my favorites—Mort Drucker, master caricaturist; and Don Martin, whose mind-bending cartoons blew right past the safe and predictable into uncharted realms of hilarity.

Of all the talent, though, my absolute favorite was the poet laureate of Mad, Frank Jacobs, who, at age 90, is still among us. Jacobs did the libretti for many of the Mad satires of famous movie musicals. I also have a first edition of his legendary collection, Mad For Better or Verse. The amazing thing about Jacobs is that his satirical songs always scanned perfectly along with the originals. He never hit a bad note.

Here’s an example. One of the first political pieces I remember from Mad is East Side Story, a send-up, of course, of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical. It was Jacobs at his best, along with the fantastic caricatures of Drucker (also still alive, also 90. Comedy is healthy!)

Remember how West Side Story begins with the “The Jet Song”?

When you’re a Jet
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last, dying day!

Well, East Side Story begins outside the U.N., with all the major Communists of the day, led by Nikita Khrushchev, snapping fingers and singing:

When you’re a Red
You’re a Red all the way
From your first Party purge
To your last power play!

When you’re a Red
You’ve got agents galore;
You give prizes for peace
While they stir up a war!

You set off a test,
And when you’re halfway through it–
You point at the West
And say they drove you to it!
That’s how you do it!

We are the Reds … With a punch in the face … Which we’re aiming today … At the whole human race … At the whole–! Ever–! Trusting–! Human–! Race!

That, my friends, is genius.

Some of the other satires I recall from Mad’s golden age include Who in Heck is Virginia Wolfe?, Voyage to See What’s on the Bottom, 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy, Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid, and my personal favorite, Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been or Whatever Happened to Good Taste? This was a combo satire of the films Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It featured the following cast: Olivia DeHackhand, Bette Devious, Joan Clawfoot, Joseph Cuttin, Agnes Gorehead … and Greer Garson as a headless torso.

I ask you, what child soaked in such material could fail to grow up into a happy and productive citizen?

And whenever Mad turned its gimlet eye upon social structures, it skewered them with unerring insight. As in their 1961 send-up of the suburbs, titled “A Child’s-Eye View of ‘The Affluent Society.’ ” Look at the chapter called “The Lessons” and tell me it’s not still timely:

Children in the suburbs are kept very busy.
They are forced to take many lessons.
Lessons on how to dance,
Lessons on how to play musical instruments.
What does the suburban child learn at these lessons?
He learns that he is pleasing his parents!
Too bad he cannot take lessons
On how to be a child!

Suburban children must be a credit to their parents.
They must not lie.
They must not cheat.
They must not steal.
Poor suburban children,
They are so unprepared for the adult world!

So goodbye old friend. I shall remember you fondly. And whenever the kultursmog becomes thick with putridity, and the zeitgeist attempts another brain heist, I will bring to mind Alfred E. Neuman’s immortal words to live by:

“What, me worry?”

So what periodical was your favorite as a kid? How did it influence you?

5+

41 thoughts on “Mad Magazine, RIP

  1. You nailed, Sir~ I “saw” more movies here than I was allowed as kid, and when I did finally see the originals as an “adult”, I would find myself laughing at the remembered send-up – and getting a few sidelong glances from those watching with me who must’ve though I was, well, mad.
    I learned some physiology – or physiological impossibilities – from Dan Martin’s flap-footed folks, lots of Yiddish, and how to doodle in the margins whilebtaking notes in college (hence my calculus grades).
    “The Lighter Side of _______” always had a skewering insight or two that may have (may have?) bent my perspective on many things even today.
    I read Cracked, which seemed to try too hard, and some National Lampoon, which seemed to take itself too seriously, but always seemed to be able to scrounge up the 25¢ (cheap) for Mad by polishing Pop’s shoes, and as an airline brat endured many a standby gate sitting with a paperback collection of the worst-of…
    I am proud to consider myself an honorary member of the Usual Gang of Idiots.

    • Thanks for mentioning some of the other delights, George. I agree with you about Cracked. I think I bought one issue but it was such an obvious ripoff of Mad I never did again.

  2. Along with general memories of enjoying Mad Magazine, what comes to mind if “Spy v. Spy” (that was Mad, wasn’t it?

    Thanks for the obit.

  3. What you, George and Eric said, and much more. “Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid” has remained with me all these years. Thanks for a great remembrance, Jim.

  4. The great thing about Mad is that they made fun of everyone and everything in a very evenhanded way, which of course, is the way it is – on some level we’re all numbskulls, and living is a numbskull experience. It’s also the most wonderful, spectacular, magnificent thing one could ever ask for. Good to remember. Thanks Jim, as always, for brightening up Sunday morning.

    Oh, favorite rags… Superman and Archie. Why? I don’t know. Archie was just silly. Superman, I think a little part of me bought into the “What if?” of him. Always thought if I had super powers I’d do my best to help mankind out, too.

  5. A friend of mine brought her brother’s Mad Magazines to Chemistry class which is probably why I almost blew up the lab and passed by the skin of my teeth. I heard the poor teacher finally gave up teaching in the future and became a chemical salesman. —- Suzanne

  6. I discovered Mad in a Delano, CA, burger joint my 8th grade year. I would bike there for lunch with my buddy Frank. On the floor in back were stacks of comics, and of course, Mad Magazine got us both rolling on the floor in our french fries. Didn’t miss an issue for many years after that.

    My favorite cartoonist was Harvey Kurtzman. He would puts tiny jokes in the corners that enriched the whole panel. I think Steve Allen was a contributing editor or writer. It was a fit for his zany humor..Stan Freberg was another, and of course his radio shows with “Zorch” everything.

    Thanks, Jim, for the trip down memory alley…a very large part of my life renewed. So sorry to see the mag go, but that’s the world we live in.

    • Giving credit where credit is due, wasn’t it Sergio Aragonés who did those margin cartoons? According to Wilipedia, Kurtzman seems to have left Mad in 1956.

      You are right on about the style being similar to Allen and Freberg, both of whom deserve to be remembered.

  7. A great tribute to an underappreciated publication. Like you, I learned much about pop culture and politics thanks to Mad. It will be missed.

  8. I loved MAD. When I was young, it was a break from the hum-drum of the ‘real’ world. I learned from MAD that at its core great satire contained an element of truth. That’s what put the sting in MAD’s humor. As a writer, I’ve discovered that that core of truth is what makes all fiction actually work. From there I discover the Science Fiction of the Golden Age. Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, James Blish, and Samuel DeLaney. Then Kurt Vonnegut. I suppose this explains my current mental condition. Core of Truth?

  9. Great memories. Thank you for this piece. Mutiny on the Bouncy and the one they did on Bonanza, can’t remember its title. Adam Cartwright was renamed Yves. Thanks to my cousin Tommy for introducing me to MAD!

  10. It learned two very important things from Mad Magazine.

    1.) It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.

    And

    2.) Any price you paid for the magazine could either be cheap, or highway robbery.

    I quote Gary Lewis: Sure gonna miss you.

    (My story about Mad Magazine. A guy who liked my wife before she and I got married tried to get her to stop dating me because I liked Mad Magazine. We celebrated our 56th Anniversary in February.)

  11. Thanks for the obit, Jim. I too mourn the passing of Mad Magazine and its contributions to the language — “potzrebie” and “ferschlugoner.” I’m sure I mangled the spellings, but I loved the magazine’s satires. It was my first magazine subscription and I couldn’t afford $11 a year, so I split the cost with another fan down the street.
    Mad warped a whole generation of baby boomers, and I’m proud to be one of them.

  12. You forgot one of the most memorable inserts to a Mad Magazine (I can’t remember month or year, suffice to say pre-1965) when they included a record. Yes, a record! It was embossed/imprinted on a less than thick cardboard square (approx. 5×5 inches) and a single hole to be played on a portable record player that was designed for those of us (and our big sisters) who had piles of 45rpm records. Anyway, “She Got A Nose Job” was/is hysterical (just googled and found a YouTube of it) and was a hit in our household. My parents loved it too.

  13. I read Mad Magazine, too.

    My father used to buy the lurid “True Detective” magazine, which I read when my parents weren’t home. Around the age of 11 or 12, my best friend and I used to sneak-read “Confidential” magazine in the back of a local variety store. A couple of years later, and for quite awhile thereafter, my favorite periodical was the Boston-based counterculture newspaper, “The Real Paper.”

    As for their influence on me–I think they offered glimpses into offbeat, secret, and sometimes forbidden viewpoints and subject matter during the pre-Internet time period. That has got be a positive influence on a writer, right?

  14. I grew up reading Mad Magazine. It was during 3rd grade, I think, that I won a contest for a bicycle safety poster I made. I copied the Don Martin’s cartoon facial style for my characters. Ranger Rick was another I read regularly.

  15. Mad magazine’s sly and irreverent intellect and humor nurtured my childhood suspicions of the absurdity of many social mores and the fallibility of “adulthood”.
    It was genius.

  16. It was MAD for me, too. I only this week realized my affection for Yiddish phrases came from MAD, having grown up in a heavily ethnic Catholic mill town with only a handful of Jewish kids in school. I also remember some of the same satires you cited here.

    I’m sure someone will put out an expensive memorabilia edition with a boatload of highlights, just as certain as I am that I will buy it.

  17. Loved Mad Magazine!!! My brother bought every issue. Like you, all mine were second-hand, but no less fun to read. I also loved Highlights. Are those still around?

    Thanks for the skip down memory lane. Hope you and yours had a nice holiday!

    • I always read Highlights at the doctor’s office. The Timbertoes, and Goofus and Gallant. I was always afraid I’d run into Goofus on the playground and get pounded.

  18. Thank you so much for this tribute! I haven’t thought about MAD Magazine for years and I am sorry to hear it’s folding. Way before I got the satire inside, I lead amazed by the inside back cover that you could fold into perfect thirds to make a whole new illustration. And if I could get hold of my older brother’s
    copy before he did, even better. I loved making perfect folds so there was no trace of what was underneath. RIP, Mad.

  19. Y’all are makin’ me jealous! Mad Mag was banned at our house when I was growing up in the ’60’s. Hyper-vigilant parents, I guess. I was such a parent pleaser that I didn’t even open the ones hiding under my older brother’s bed. I bravely touched one, though, when I was snooping in his room. Now I wish I’d been just a tiny bit reckless. I sure enjoyed your comments, all you rebels from way back then. It made me a bit nostalgic for those good old days when satire didn’t result in lawsuits…

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