Je Suise Mad
Sometimes it seems as if the whole world has gone Mad.
And in some ways it has.
The attack on cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo has caused not only great grief but soul-searching raising the question about what satire is, what it should or shouldn’t do and what role it plays in a society.
The satirists job is to push boundaries, expose our weakness and point out the social fiction we tell ourselves.
Simply put, a satirist is necessary for the health of a society.
A Culture Challenged
If a satirists noble calling is to challenge the culture at large no one did it better than MAD Magazine, especially in its mid-century heyday when it provoked a generation of baby boomers to think critically.
With the same tenacity as the terrier in the Wizard of Oz, those “usual gang of idiots”- the creative group of writers and illustrators who changed the landscape of humor – pulled back the curtain on society revealing it to be less than perfect.
MAD’s presence was prescient.
Post war America was churning out myths as fast as they did Chevrolets, and MAD just as rapidly skewered them.
On the Attack
Not only did the satirical monthly attack the huskerism of Madison Avenue, the chicanery of politicians, the pretensions of those in authority and the duplicity of everyday life, it was a fun-house mirror reflection of what was culturally popular … all in a 48 page, densely illustrated magazine – all for a measly quarter. ( Of course there was a lot of grumbling when those “ganefs” at MAD raised the price from 25 cents -cheap, to 35 cents-highway robbery ).
Because of MAD I would be inoculated with a heavy dose of skepticism offering a lifetime of immunity from accepting institutional hypocrisy and dishonesty.
A MAD Journey
In a mid-century culture of mutually assured consumption and mutually assured destruction, it’s not surprising my own creative journey began with MAD.
Growing up in the atomic age of nuclear families and nuclear jitters, cold warriors and hot wars, mad men and happy housewives, MAD’s cynical eye offered a road map to navigate this rapidly changing world.
Just as a decade later I would wait with anticipation for the next SNL episode to air to see who or what would be lampooned, so I would count the days until the latest issue of MAD appeared to see who would come under their knife.
Candy Store Capers
Every month, a quarter clutched tightly in my hand, I would head down to the neighborhood candy store to buy the latest issue of MAD Magazine.
Dog-eared, older issues of the magazine, hand-me-downs from my brother were treasured, but buying my very own copy felt like a rite of passage.
Our neighborhood candy store Katz’s with its overhead tin sign from Bryer’s ice cream and creaking wooden telephone booths in the back of the store, was the type of establishment once found in every neighborhood in Brooklyn and Queens. A throwback to a previous era it now seemed woefully out-of-place amongst the new developments of split level and ranch homes of my Long Island suburban neighborhood.
All the News Unfit to Print
Walking into the store, I would give a quick glance at the newsstand outside that displayed an assortment of newspapers secured under heavy sash weights. Bold black headlines shrieked with news of Vietnam, Race Riots and Watergate but I preferred my news straight from Alfred E. Neuman.
Once inside, as your eyes adjusted to the dim light, an unforgettable aroma enveloped you- a mixture of candy, cigarettes, cedar wood cigar boxes and their contents, paper goods, and printing ink not yet dry from the daily’s,weeklies and monthlies constantly turning over in the rhythm of business.
Since the mainstay of the candy store was of course candy I would immediately purchase pink Bazooka bubble gum to chew while I perused the merchandise. The tiny wax paper color comics that came with the gum were quickly crumbled into a pocket.
Bazooka Joe and his black eye-patch were no match for what lay ahead.
Comic Book Heaven
Before me would be row after row, rack after spinning rack of brand new comic books a tempting riot of cyan, magenta, yellow and black. It was a universe of vibrating, pulsing dots, speech bubbles and plot-filled panels, a flat world magically come alive thanks to the miracle of four-color separation printing.
As much as I loved Harvey Comics with its official comic book seal of approval and its cast of doe-eyed characters like Little Dot and Little Audrey, I would gleefully bypass Richie Rich and head straight to MAD Magazine.
More than gaudy colors, it was caustic humor that caught my eye.
There nestled slyly next to Betty and Veronica perpetually duking it out for Archie’s affection would be the smirking face of Alfred E. Neuman his “what me worry” countenance beckoning me with his topical satire.
Sure I could laugh at Little Lotta and her insatiable appetite for only 12 cents but a quarter brought chuckles at a chubby Nikita Khrushchev with his equally insatiable appetite for cold war Communist bluster.
A Cast of Cold War Characters
Published during the deep freeze of the cold war, these parodies helped take a bit of the chill out of the air.
MAD did more than mock the adult world.
MAD was also cunningly educational. Lessons learned from my Weekly Reader often eluded me; tutored by the skilled pens of Mort Drucker, Wally Wood and Frank Jacobs, lessons about politics and current events were indelibly etched in my mind.
More importantly MAD taught us to read between the lines.
Seductively displayed next to the comic books were the plethora of oversize mass market magazines, swollen with consumer ads.
These popular publications whose demise was decades away , bulged with glowing color drenched ads, its lavish high gloss pages filled with an idealized mid-century America enjoying their post-war promises of prosperity and the cornucopia of consumer goods that were coursing through the culture.
It was pure catnip to MAD.
Does Mad or… Doesn’t Mad
Because there was no advertising in their magazine MAD could satirize materialistic culture without fear of reprisal.
So with a gleaming Pepsodent smile, MAD Magazine mercilessly skewered the American consumer culture including its cultural heroes the real Mad Men of Madison Avenue who helped define the post war American suburban dream.
Have a Coke and a Smile
Sometimes if I was especially flush with allowance I would sit at the soda fountain at the candy store and have a milkshake or a cherry coke , while I flipped through my newly acquired MAD , unable to wait till I got home to read it cover to fold-out cover.
Sitting at the dark walnut stained wooden counter, spinning on the vinyl stools I would look at my reflection on the sliding glass doors that stood behind it. The closed glass cabinet which held school supplies and stationary was curiously out of reach for the customer, who I am sure would rather steal a racy magazine than a marbled covered notebook.
Fascinated as much by the whirling, vibrating sound of the sea-foam green Hamilton Beach malted machine as the uncontrollable trembling of poor, Parkinson’s afflicted Mr. Katz as he prepared the malted milkshakes, I couldn’t tell who shook more.
Meanwhile I watched as his elderly wife Mrs. Katz with her gnarled arthritic hands struggled to scoop the frozen Bryers strawberry ice cream from the big multi-gallon tub into a small white cardboard container for another customer to bring home as a treat for the kiddies, more accustomed to getting their frozen treats from the Good Humor man.
The candy store with its egg creams, halavah and long salted pretzels was a temporary respite, a world away from the new and improved suburban world in which it resided, more at home in Flatbush than in Franklin Square. The Brooklyn born meshuggeneh’s from MAD would feel right at home.
Armed with my freshly minted MAD in hand I would hurry back home, squinting as my eyes adjusted once again to the garish sunlight of suburbia.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.