For post-war baby boomers too old for Walt Disney comics but too young for the anatomy lessons awaiting us in the pages of Playboy, MAD magazine was our interim secular bible.
It wasn’t just a comic book, it was our cultural reference guide. Along with the laughs came the first stirrings of a generational social conscience, a way of looking at the world, of stripping away the bland platitudes and fantasy stories that parents and teachers and TV were handing us every day.
Maybe we weren’t allowed to talk back to the grownups, but MAD offered us a subversive way to poke fun at the nonsense they expected us to swallow.
A tiny example comes to mind from long ago. Millions of us watched “Lassie” every week and marveled at the genius collie’s routine miracles. In MAD’s version of the show, “Lizzie,” young Timmy tells his mother — I’m quoting from pretty clear memory here — “Guess what, Mom? Today Lizzie stopped a school bus from going over a cliff, and saved me from drowning in a well, and cured 32 pigs of trichinosis.”
And Timmy’s mom replies, “Cheer up, Timmy. Lizzie’s had slow days before. She’ll come out of it.”
But now, in mid-chuckle, we learn that MAD will not be coming out of it.
The news broke the other day that the magazine has essentially laughed its last laugh. It will no longer be sold on newsstands, and any future offerings will only feature material from old issues.
Alfred E. Neuman might ask, “What, me worry?” And the answer would be yes. We should worry that today’s kids won’t get their sense of healthy comic anarchy the way 67 years of young readers got it.
Nor will they get implicit lessons in thinking for themselves.
As Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis wrote, 42 years ago in the New York Times, MAD told us “there was something wrong, phony and funny about a world of bomb shelters, brinkmanship and toothpaste smiles. MAD’s consciousness of itself – as trash, as comic book, as enemy of parents and teachers – thrilled kids. In 1955, such consciousness was possibly nowhere else to be found.”
It helped change a generation raised on the pieties of the Eisenhower ‘50s into the social anarchists of the Vietnam-era ‘60s (where one cover reflecting the era had Alfred E. Newman in a hard hat, waving a flag that read, “MAD – Buy It or Leave It.”)
If you were too young for some of MAD’s cultural references, that was OK. The magazine was so cool, it made you want to catch up to the older kids.
Its influence lingers today. MAD was the liberator of a state of mind that helped bring us “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” and The Onion – and, for a brief, hilarious time, National Lampoon.
MAD taught us to take a skeptical look at everything – including itself. Every month, its staff of writers and artists was listed as “the usual gang of idiots.”
Among them were some of the most talented comic writers and artists of their time, including Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Larry Siegel, Frank Jacobs, Arnie Kogen, Dick DeBartolo, Al Jaffee, Al Feldstein, Jack Davis, and Wally Wood.
Most of them happened to be Jewish – which was an implicit triumph not only for Jewish humor, but for minority viewpoints making their breakthrough in the post-war years. It gave white-bread “American” humor a previously un-tasted ethnic slice of wry.
In America’s culture wars, MAD can take a victory lap. The magazine taught us to question authority figures. But who’s left standing as an authority figure in a country where the president talks like a 12-year old?
At its peak, MAD’s circulation topped 2 million. At its demise, it was a fraction of that. But for a long time, wasn’t it a hoot?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).