A World Without Mad

MAD Magazine 1974

MAD Magazine’s sensibility shaped our current culture of cynicism, credited with spawning today’s “Snark Generation.” This April 1974 issue of MAD was the most controversial cover. Many newsstands and candy stores refused to sell it

What Me Worry?

I am MAD.

After 67 years MAD Magazine will cease publishing this fall. It will no longer be found on newsstands but sold via subscription. There will be no new material, just “best of content” and end of year specials. It’s all but dead for most of us, certainly not the vital life force it once was. Though technically on life support, it feels more like hospice, just biding its time for its eventual demise.

In a world gone mad, we need MAD Magazine more than ever.

In these times more perhaps than ever we need satire.

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.

The satirist’s 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

Mad Magazine Aprl 1971

Mad Magazine April 1971 William M Gaines publisher, Al Feldstein editor, contributing artists and writers The Usual Gang of Idiots

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.

Including me.

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

mad Magazine covers

MAD’s satiric net was cast wide parodying the ongoing American culture. By the late 1960s it satirized sexual revolution, hippies, the generation gap, and Vietnam. Portraits of Alfred E. Neuman were painted by Norman Mingo, Frank Kelly Freas and Richard Williams

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

Mad Magazine Nuclear Bomb Ad Men article

Published during the deep freeze of the cold war, these parodies helped take a bit of the chill out of the air.  Vintage illustration MAD Magazine

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

Mad Magazine and Bazooka Bubble Gum

Mad Follies 1963 with content from 1957-1963

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

Mad Magazine 1970s illustrations Nixon as Washington Vietnam soldier

Mad’s back covers didn’t take a back seat to the front ones. (L) The back cover of the Watergate era April 1974 Mad features President Richard Nixon as George Washington professing not to have told a lie: “I cannot tell a lie. I didn’t do it.” (R) A powerfully different view of returning soldiers from Vietnam

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

collage of vintage Comic Books

In the early 1950’s comic books were thought to corrupt children, so a Comics Book Code was put into place to save American kids from a life of juvenile delinquency. To get around the code of comics with its wholesome dictates, Mad Comics created by Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein simply converted to a magazine format to escape the censors knife.

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.

collage Mad Magazine Buy it or Leave It Archie Comc Book Cover

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

Mad Magazine story illustration JFK cold war White House Summit

Mad was like a course on international politics. Where else would an 8-year-old easily learn and recite the names of world leader like Castro, Nasser, Mao, Tito and Khrushchev. In “Mad Visits A White House Summit”published In June of 1963 at the height of the cold war, Mad wondered what would happen if they held a summit meeting of world leader at the White House., thinking a more congenial setting like the president’s home might offer a better solution to world peace.

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.

Consuming Passions

Mass Market Magazines Covers 1950s 1960s

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

collage-Mad Magazine Miss Clairol Satire and Vintage Miss Clairol ad

One of the classic spoofs by Mad mocking Shirley Polykoffs suggestive Clairol catch phrase of the 1950’s and early 60’s “Does She or Doesn’t She?” (L) The addition of a boy into this well-known series made the suggestive caption more clear especially as the boy appeared older in each ad, until it was finally refused by Life Magazine. Natural Mad’s (R) parody of the Clairol ad asked “Does she or doesn’t she …ever go out with fellows her own age?” calling for a “Miss Clairol Date Ager Kit” for the boy.

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

Mad Magazine Worst From Mad Cover

The 12th Annual Edition of The Worst From Mad “A collection of humor satire and garbage from past issues 1966, 1967 and 1969

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.

 

Mad Magazine Suburban Primer

The Mad Suburban Primer

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, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

16 comments

  1. Thanks, Sally. I’m 65 years old, so my attitudes were shaped by MAD Magazine as well. MAD served a countercultural purpose when Americans naively believed the messages of mass media, but now that everyone is thoroughly cynical, perhaps the counterculture should be advancing a more idealistic world view… just a thought.

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    • That’s an interesting thought indeed. It’s difficult to explain to those who are younger how truly vital and unique MAD was when there were few other outlets that exposed hypocrisy in the way they did.

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  2. Oddly, it was just as subversive against the conservatism of Western Nebreaska small town values, too, and I lived for the monthly arrival of MAD in the mailbox! Whren new book compoilations came out, they became Nr. 1 on my birthday wish list. Amazingly – I suppose they never read MAD – they always complied. During my MAD reading years, I had everything they published in magazine or vbook form.

    Though I haven’t seen or read a MAD in years, it remains a fond part of my childhood memories, and I feel bad that Alfred E. Neuman has become, as Pete Buttigieg put it, “generational”. His irreverance, highly-tuned hypocracy sensor, and just plain fun take on life is just what we need today.

    p.s. I didn’t realize girls were reading MAD, too! I always thought of it as a guy thing at a time “dudes” and “chicks” werer thought to be separate species in terms of what they liked, did, or coiuld be.

    Also, there was a MAD wannabe magazine that wasn’t ever as incisive or well done as MAD called, I believe, CRACKED. I got through part of one copy before I tossed it. Worst of all, it was a blatant copy of the MAD format!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny that most people think of MAD as being read primarily by boys. Growing up I didn’t know too many girls who actually read it, though many women now admit to having read it. Suffice to say I still have much of my old collection and in rereading it I am struck at how absolutely brilliant it was. I got Cracked a few times and it was not really funny, not even worthy of being a poor mans MAD.

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      • I don’t know of any girls reading it, but it miught be interesting to survey them now that they are in their 70s.

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      • It is interesting to find that out. As I mentioned I never knew any girls growing up who read MAD> Now suddenly women are quite nostalgic about it. Were they closeted readers?

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      • Must have been. You know how misogynistic the times were, and how cultural definitions of “boy traits” and “girl traits” might have made girls think they’d be marked somehow if they read a “boys” magazine.

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    • Ditto for a Boomer growing up in Central Missouri.

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  3. Spy vs. Spy was the print complement to my favorite Cold War TV entertainment: Boris & Natasha, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Secret Agent, The Prisoner, Get Smart. My all-time favorite MAD memory: “East Side Story.”

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  4. I’m a GenXer on the young end, having been born in 1975. MAD magazine was common in my childhood.

    I didn’t think too much about it. But I occasionally read it when I came across a copy. I think a friend of mine had them.

    Until I was an adult, I didn’t realize that it originated in my parents’ generation. It simply one of those cultural artifacts that formed the background to my childhood.

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    • By the time you started to look at it things like Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon filled the place that MAD once dominated. It had lost its edge

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      • Maybe so. Even if MAD had lost its edge, I’m not sure that Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon ever were on the same level of quality. MAD, even now, pushes satire to a greater extent than almost any of its competitors on the market. The only other one that has been its equal is The Onion, which did manage to transition from a printed publication to online format while apparently maintaining profitability.

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  5. Chris Chilson

    Unfortunately, subscriptions plummeted, dropping from over 2 million in the 70’s to less than 140,000 by 2017. Perhaps today’s times rendered it moot?

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  6. As a kid in the 1970s Mad magazine was my source for what was going on in politics, cinema, music, etc.

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