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Monday, September 9, 2013

What, me worry? The legacy of MAD magazine



by Jamie Lutton
A book fell into my hands a few days ago, which reminded me of   my gloriously wasted pre-teen years.

It was a MAD Magazine Bathroom Companion, a fat collection of classic MAD Magazine parodies, cartoons, which often comprised of over the top social commentary aimed at pre-teens.

MAD is often overlooked when writing about 20th century  writing for  pre-teens. It is not taken seriously; stuff written for at kids rarely is.  But this magazine, which self-identified itself cheerfully as pure trash and aimed at corrupting young minds, did more than any other magazine to undermine American adult's blind faith and unquestioning support  for the way things are. 

The generation that rose up and said "hell no" to Nixon and the Vietnam war, and cheerfuly chased Nixon out of the White House, was created by 7 to 14 year olds of both sexes buying, trading, hoarding and re-reading tattered copies of MAD magazine.
For fans of newspaper political cartoonists   you can see a parallel existence here, political cartoon and social satire aimed at children and young teens.  But the humor was not always 'easy', often making the young audience work a bit to follow the wit, the way it takes an adult a minute to get a good New Yorker cartoon.  
At its height, in the early '70s it had a circulation of over 2 million. Each issue of MAD had several different artists with wildly different styles attacking some American sacred cow, or current hit movie or TV series, or political figures. Some artists use no words at all, conveying the stories (often published in the margins of the magazine, like doodles) though funny images alone. It was always packed with social commentary framed so a bright 8 year old could follow the story; aimed at undermining all authority everywhere. 

We would not have had Saturday Night Live, or John Stewart, etc., without MAD.

The cover almost always has Alfred E. Newman on it, a cartoon of the same very  ugly red-headed freckled boy, often in the place of some poltical figure like the president, or a celebrity, lampooning them.

Nothing was sacred in the 1960's MAD -- not the pious  hippies, or strident revolutionaries nor their uptight whiskey drinking parents and teachers in suburbia.  Every issue attached some  American Sacred Cow. MAD also attacked LSD use and pot, as well as pill popping, whiskey and cigarettes. It had a curiously puritan edge. MAD's artists also were  clearly taking themselves seriously, maintaining excellent standards for the cartoons and humorous content,  while loudly in every issue calling itself 'junk'. 

This striving for quality has MAD at times  verging on genius, on art and true literature. As an adult, looking at the material, I can tell the cartoonists and editor slaved at making each story hilarious and biting.

For many many years, after it was properly launched, MAD would accept no advertising. The last few issues it would parody the ads it did have, so cleverly that the ads had to be labeled 'REAL ADS".   This was so they did not have to self-censor, to avoid offending advertisers. This allowed to attack nearly everyone and everything.

For many years MAD made money on circulation alone; an amazing feat.

If the magazine had any fault in it's golden years, was that it had only male writers, so the chance to skewer  the male point of view of the world was missed.  Also, the parody humor using gay stereotypes is jarringly out of date.  But old MAD magazines  rarely feel   overly crude.

And MAD won an important free speech case. In 1961, the publishers of Irving Berlin and other important composers sued MAD for $25 million for an issue titled Sing along with Mad that had wild parodies of famous songs. MAD won, paving the way for all the parodists that followed. 

One justice remarked ""We doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter."(Wikipedia).
Musicians like Weird Al Yankovic and others  were freed to parody modern  songs, musicals etc. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Cartoonists and playwrights don't have to self-censor so much, because MAD magazine's lawyers did the hard work for them, defending free speech for satire. 

I do know a case here in the Seattle theater scene where 20 years ago,  a marvelous parody-musical of first generation Star Trek. Called Star Drek, it was a clever parody of an old Star Trek episode, with a singing Spock being transformed into a woman. 

Leonard Nemoy came to the opening night, remarked that this show had a lot of original ideas; "Gene Roddenbury had never thought to put Spock in a dress," he said. I attended one night and had a wonderful time.

But my understanding is that Paramount threatened to sue this tiny production because of alleged copyright infringement, so this excellent musical survived only a few weeks.
The protection of free speech in parody is an important one. Sometimes even with this landmark decision,  productions can shut down when they get 'too close' to what they parody. 
I recommend then picking up a MAD collection from the 40 years ago or so, and give it a try.   
 Reading one page of an old MAD magazine is like eating one potato chip, savory but impossible to stop.
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