Mad Magazine Turns 60

Satirical humor has been an important part of American culture dating back to the founding of our country. Almost every generation has contributed to this tradition, whether it was Mark Twain in the 19th Century or Will Rogers during the Depression. Although Baby Boomers might think that Saturday Night Live or George Carlin are among the key linchpins that helped set the pattern for what we now know as modern satire, I feel that for many of us, it all started with “Mad” magazine. Founded 60 years ago last month, “Mad” was the source for poking fun and nearly every aspect of our society, from politics to religion, from television to popular music, from education to advertising. More than that, “Mad” gave a young lad like myself the sensation that by reading it, I was doing something a bit subversive, and would not be meeting the approval of my parents, teachers, little league coach or scoutmaster.

First appearing on newsstands in August of 1952, “Mad” was the brainchild of publisher William Gains and writer Harvey Kurtzman. In its first inception, “Mad” appeared as a comic book, with the two first issues merely spoofing different entertainment genres, without targeting anything specifically. That changed in issue #3, as “Mad” ran with parodies of “Dragnet” and “The Lone Ranger,” and soon found itself a niche, pulling off classic satiric versions of “Howdy Doody,” “Superman,” and “High Noon.” Kurtzman wrote most of the early material himself, while the illustrations were handled by a team comprised of Wally Wood, Will Elder, Jack Davis, and John Severin. After 23 issues, “Mad” converted to a magazine format, but was still completely illustrated, and was one of the few periodicals that was published without any advertising, a policy kept in place from issue #33 (April 1957) until #402 (February 2001). Accepting no ads allowed “Mad” to expand on its range of satirical targets without fear of reprisal.

In 1956, “Mad’s” readers were introduced to Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional freckled- faced, gap-toothed boy who became the magazine’s iconic mascot after gracing the cover of issue #30. Alfred E. Neuman, along with his signature phrase, “What-Me Worry,” came into being after Harvey Kurtzman saw the image on postcard pinned to an office bulletin board. “It was a face that didn’t have a care in the world, except mischief,” recalled Kurtzman. Soon, Alfred E. Neuman would be “Mad’s” most recognizable symbol, appearing on almost every “Mad” cover ever since his debut, often in the guise of whatever might be spoofed in that issue. Neuman has been depicted as Santa Claus, Hitler, Darth Vader, Mr. Spock, George Washington, as well as countless of other figures.

When Harvey Kurtzman left “Mad” in 1956, Al Feldstein took over as editor. It was during Feldstein’s 28 year reign that “Mad” developed its signature style, established its best known regular features, and achieved its peak in terms of circulation and influence. Feldstein is also credited in putting together “Mad’s” most potent staff of writers, a team which included Frank Jacobs, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg and Don Martin. At the time that Feldstein took over the magazine, “Mad’s” monthly circulation stood at about 500,000…by 1974 it had grown to over two million. Most historians cite “Mad” as being among the three top magazine success stories of the 1950’s, joined by TV Guide and Playboy.

For me, the early to mid-1960’s was when “Mad” was at its best. A typical issue would contain a movie or TV show parody, several Don Martin cartoons, Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side of,” along with a dozen irregular reoccurring features. Of course, everyone remembers “Spy vs. Spy,” the wordless Cold War inspired comic which was the work of Antonio Prohias. “Mad’s” version of letters to the editor, where actual letters from readers were treated with absolute disrespect, usually answered by making a pun out of the sender’s name. “Mad,” while accepting no outside advertising, was constantly selling its own merchandise, the most prominent being photos of Alfred E. Neuman. The ad for the Alfred E. Neuman photo was always accompanied with a misleading headline, (Over 20 Million Sold), only to have the copy reveal something much different than what the headline suggested (Yep, over 20 people are sold on the idea that these photos are worthless, which means there are still 180 million people we can still fool). On the magazine’s front cover, the word “Cheap” was printed under the newsstand price. Usually, after a price increase, the wording would be temporarily changed to “Not So Cheap, “Kinda Cheap,”Ouch,” “Relatively Cheap,” and “Outrageous.” In 1964, “Mad” came with its first back cover “Fold-in,” where artist Al Jaffe drew a picture that would fill the entire page, only to have an entirely different image be revealed when the reader would fold the page per the instructions.

Reviewing vintage issues of “Mad” magazine reveals a level of satire that is not quite as radical as I might have remembered. While the underlying commentary may have been biting, it was never too mean-spirited or particularly heavy-handed. The TV parodies often included some of my favorite shows, but “Mad’s” spoofs of “Star Trek, “ “Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” and “Lassie,” never seemed to be attacks on the programs, but more of a case of gentle kidding. Harsher treatment was dished out to elements of bigotry and religious hypocrisy found in our culture. For many years, “Mad” seemed to have the field to itself in terms of humorous social satire found in an illustrated form, even after imitators such as “Cracked” and “Sick” found their way to the newsstands of America. To boys of my age in the mid-1960’s, nothing was more cool than to come across that special kid who had saved several dozens of “Mad” back issues, especially when he would gladly loan them out. (Note to Bud Harrington: I’ll be returning your copies of “Mad” any day now).

Although “Mad” is still publishing, it now only goes to print three times a year, and has lost much of its anti-establishment credibility by allowing itself to be acquired by Time-Warner, and deciding, in 2001, to accept advertising. I’m guessing that after the 1970’s, subsequent younger generations have found new sources of satirical humor, and the magazines current impact pales in comparison to “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” or even cartoons such as “South Park.” But 60 years after its birth, traces of “Mad” can still be detected in “The Simpsons,” “The Onion,” and “Late Night with David Letterman” along with countless other entertainment forms. As early as 1977, The New York Times was attempting to gauge the magazine’s influence at its 25 year mark. “The skeptical generation of kids “Mad” help shape in the 1950’s,” wrote Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis, “were the same generation that, in the 1960’s, opposed a war, and later, helped turn out a president.” In 1994, Brian Siano wrote in The Humanist, “Mad was a revelation: It was the first to tell us that the toys being sold to us were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders are fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites and even our parents were lying to us.”

By helping make its style of humor and satire commonplace among an entire generation, it might be that “Mad” eventually became a victim of its own success, as other sources of humor were allowed to take the sensibility “Mad” helped create to an even higher level. National Lampoon, during the 1970’s did a major piece, which had a central theme that “Mad” had a style of humor that the average reader would eventually outgrow. “Mad” actually had its artistic critics as far back as 1956, with some complaining that the magazine started going downhill when Harvey Kurtzman left. Art director Sam Viviano probably said it best…Mad was at its best, “whenever you first started reading it.” I have not read “Mad” regularly in many years, but I’m grateful for its existence, and it’s nice to know its still there.