What, Them Worry?

As Mad celebrates its 400th issue, its editors wonder how to stay funny in a world gone mad

If it's surprising that Mad is still around, it's only because it was long ago supplanted by the very things it helped create: Without Mad, there would have been no National Lampoon, without which there would have been no Second City, without which there would have been no Saturday Night Live, without which there would have been no David Letterman...and on the list goes, until Mad disappears into a tiny speck in comedy's rearview mirror. For years, it had no competition; it was class clown in a room filled with bores, but now it's one of dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of jokers in the deck. We live in a culture of parody--a culture in which most Americans get their news from David Letterman and The Daily Show, in which new advertisements parody the very product they're pushing, in which The Onion and Modern Humorist offer fake news stories easily mistaken for real. As such, Mad is no longer required reading. The aberration has become the norm; the clown has been co-opted and rendered straight man.

"The culture has become hard to top," Meglin says. "That has become our greatest barrier, the fact we could have never created Monica Lewinsky. How do you top that? Well, you can't. In the past, it was easy, because everything was taken so seriously, and now, less is taken seriously. But Mad doesn't create, and that's wonderful. People believe we have done all these wonderful things through the years, when all we've done is reflect what's going on. John and I like to use the analogy of a funhouse mirror: We just hold up the mirror to the society, the politics, the culture, whatever is happening, and it's a distorted, exaggerated image for humor's sake, but it's really reflecting an image and not creating one."

"We can still do things no one else can because of their medium," Ficarra adds. "In the 400th issue, we have a takeoff of the children's book Goodnight Moon called "Goodnight Room,' and it's a dead-on parody of the book, but it's Bill Clinton getting prepared to leave the Oval Office, and it follows the exact same cadence of the book; it's drawn in the same style, but it recounts his eight years in office. Saturday Night Live is a great show, and Mad TV is a great show, but they can't do that on television. We are still print, and when we do print-to-print satire, we're still very strong. I don't know of anyone else doing it."

Who needs you? Mad does. The magazine's circulation has gone from a high of 2.5 million in the 1970s to 500,000 today.
Who needs you? Mad does. The magazine's circulation has gone from a high of 2.5 million in the 1970s to 500,000 today.
When Harvey Kurtzman began Mad in 1952, it was a comic book. The format changed three years later, when publisher Bill Gaines wanted to keep his editor happy.
When Harvey Kurtzman began Mad in 1952, it was a comic book. The format changed three years later, when publisher Bill Gaines wanted to keep his editor happy.

Harvey Kurtzman started Mad in 1952 "out of desperation," he wrote in his 1991 oversized book From Aargh! to Zapp!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics. During the late 1940s and early '50s, Kurtzman has been editing and writing EC Comics' war books (among them such titles as Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat), but he had grown tired of researching his stories; it took him weeks to write a single story. "I needed a less demanding, more lucrative format," he wrote, "and I found it in satirical humor." Kurtzman had become infatuated with college humor magazines; he became enamored of the "sledge-hammer" style of humor, the irreverence and rage that gave way to a little thoughtfulness beneath the rowdy and silly surface. Artists and writers such as Will Elder, Wally Wood, and Jack Davis came on board and turned out such stories as "Superduperman," "Flesh Garden," "Mickey Rodent," "The Lone Stranger," and "Melvin of the Apes," all of which read like comic-book tales as written by the Marx Brothers.

The story has long been told that when the Senate began cracking down on comics--after psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, in which he suggested that comics promoted violence and sexual deviancy among children--Mad switched to its current magazine format to skirt the limitations of the new, government-approved Comics Code. The Code disallowed violence and sexual content, even when only hinted at; it introduced a new era of Puritanism that nearly killed the industry until the 1960s.

But the truth is, Mad switched to its current format only because Gaines wanted to keep Kurtzman, who wanted to move away from "the crumminess of the traditional comic-book format--the cheap paper, the poor printing, the low price, and all the rest." He wanted to create a grown-up magazine, a "real" magazine, and Gaines agreed to the switch in 1955. It was not enough: Kurtzman ended up leaving Mad in 1956 even after Gaines offered him 50 percent ownership. Kurtzman was too ambitious and too restless to remain with his old friend, and he went on to start up a number of ill-fated humor magazines, among them Trump (funded by Hugh Hefner), Humbug, and Help!, the latter of which employed such young nobodies as Woody Allen and Robert Crumb. Had he remained with Mad, Kurtzman, who died in 1993 at 68, after struggling with liver cancer and Parkinson's disease, would have been a wealthy, famous man. Instead, he's merely a legend.

"The only track Harvey was ever on was upgrade, upgrade, upgrade," says Jaffee, who attended the High School of Music and Art in New York with Kurtzman in the 1940s and worked at Trump and Humbug before rejoining Mad full-time in 1956. "Upgrade means spend more money, and Bill was the bankroll, and Harvey was the genius, and Harvey's genius was in saying, "I want to get Norman Rockwell to do our covers,' and Bill was saying, "No, no, no, let so-and-so do it, he works cheap.' Harvey got tired of doing a comic book when he saw that he could be successful with satire, so Bill had to go along with upgrading the magazine. What he couldn't go along with was upgrading Harvey's share, although he went pretty far. Hefner appealed to Harvey's sensibilities, because Hefner was willing to plow back the profits and build an empire, and Harvey wanted to build an empire of good magazines, and he felt Hefner would go along with that, where Bill would fight him every inch of the way. That's one of the reasons why, no matter what Bill offered Harvey financially, he was still going to go with the dream of Hefner helping him get to Mt. Olympus."

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