American Icons: Mad Magazine

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This is the magazine that made America snarky.

American Icons: Mad Magazine

In 1954, a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency called William Gaines, publisher of the successful EC Comics, to testify. “You think it does the children a lot of good to read these things?” asked the subcommittee’s counsel. “I don’t think it does them a bit of good, sir, but I don’t think it does them a bit of harm, either,” Gaines said.

Before Congress could take action, comics publishers decided to regulate themselves. They adopted the Code of the Comics Association, which sharply limited violence, kissing, and other fun stuff in comics. To get around these strictures, Gaines turned Mad Comics — which parodied other comic books — into Mad Magazine. Harvey Kurtzman, the editor, “starts mining all of American culture,” says Maria Reidelbach, the author of Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Movies, television, books, even Broadway shows that kids probably hadn’t seen, all became fair game to Mad writers.

That juvenile, subversive undercutting of the adult world was tremendously influential for the kids who became the counterculture. In his book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, sociologist Todd Gitlin wrote, “Mad pulled the plug and said, ‘The Lone Ranger, Wonder Bread, and TV commercials — even Marlon Brando — are ridiculous!’”

Yet in mocking so much of the adult world, Mad was also slyly educational. Longtime writer Arnie Kogen says, “I never aimed anything at kids. I just wrote what I thought was funny. If kids got it, they got it. If they didn’t get it, that was their problem.” On one page, Mad would parody TV shows, and would be talking about Soviet politics on the next. In 1963, they ran a parody of West Side Story’s “Jet Song” called “When You’re a Red.”

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

Roger Ebert credited Mad’s movie parodies with teaching him to watch with a critical eye. “Mad’s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin — of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas,” Ebert wrote in his forward to Mad About the Movies.

By this point, several generations of comedy writers have been reared on Mad Magazine, and its influence extends to shows like South Park, The Daily Show, and The Simpsons, which has explicitly paid tribute to Mad. Even Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, has cited Mad as an inspiration. The magazine’s parody of Madison Avenue gave Weiner his first look at a “drunken, callow, glib, self-serving ad man,” as he wrote in the book Inside Mad.

The Mad sensibility shaped today’s culture of clever, snide sarcasm — the ubiquitous style we call snark. Todd Gitlin says, “Mad won. Mad is now the dominant culture. Today, being unserious is the premium posture.” But even a comedy writer (and son of a Mad pioneer) like Jay Kogen sees a downside to Mad’s victory. “It supports the idea that it’s better to be cynical than to really feel something,” Kogen reflects. “I’ve been much more ready to pick something apart and to make fun of it rather than to just enjoy it.”

“I don’t think that until I had a child was I able to appreciate that there is such a thing as innocent joy,” Kogen adds. “There’s something to be said for sincerity.”

Mad continues to skewer pop culture well into the 21th century. Here, Pharrell William’s hit song “Happy” is rewritten as “Appy,” making fun of the modern obsession with apps.

 

The first cover of Mad Magazine. To avoid following the rules of the Code Comics Association, which severely restricted things like violence and kissing, Mad Comics was reborn as Mad Magazine.

 

Artist Norman Mingo's portrait of Alfred E. Neuman, Mad Magazine's unofficial mascot

 

In 1963, Mad parodied the Cold War with the comic East Side Story.

 

Music Playlist

  1. It's a Gas!

    Album: Alfred E. Neuman Vocalizes
    Label: MAD
  2. What, Me Worry?

    Artist: Alfred E. Neuman & The Furshlugginer Five
    Album: Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman Sings What — Me Worry?
    Label: ABC Paramount
  3. When You're a Red

    Artist: George Babiak and Carl Riehl
  4. Colloquy

    Album: Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf
    Label: Drg
  5. A Beautiful Mine

    Artist: Aceyalone & RJD2
    Album: Mad Men (Music From The Television Series)
    Label: Manhattan Records
  6. But Beautiful

    Artist: Chick Corea
    Album: Further Explorations
    Label: Concord Jazz

The first cover of the original Mad Comics, published in August 1952.

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )

To avoid following the rules of the Code Comics Association, which severely restricted things like violence and kissing in comic books, Mad Comics was reborn as Mad Magazine in 1955.

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )

The original portrait of Alfred E. Neuman, Mad’s mascot, painted by Norman Mingo.

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )

Neuman’s face first appeared on the cover of Issue #30 in March 1955. Prior to that issue, he had appeared in the pages of Mad under different names.

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )

In 1963, Mad parodied the Cold War with the comic "East Side Story." (Click here to view larger)

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )

Mad parodied the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with "Who in the Heck is Virginia Woolf?" Film critic Roger Ebert credited Mad movie spoofs like this one for teaching him how to watch movies with a critical eye. (Click here to view larger)

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )

A comic from the August 2014 edition spoofing Russian president Vladmir Putin.

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )

Mad continues to skewer pop culture well into the 21st century. Here, Pharrell William’s hit song “Happy” is rewritten as “Appy,” making fun of the modern obsession with apps. (Click here to view larger)

( Courtesy of <em>Mad Magazine</em> )
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