Longtime fan Nik Dirga pays tribute to the magazine that weaponised satire before the internet.
Last week, news broke that Mad magazine – warping young minds ever since 1952 – would stop publishing original content. It will reportedly switch to just reprint material later this year, and then likely end regular publication entirely soon after that.
There have been lots of keyboard wits astounded that Mad was still being published, but you can probably still find a copy at your local post shop. While Mad has been past its peak for a while now, it’s still the grinning goofball that spawned most of what we see around us today in pop culture. The memes, snark and hot takes of the internet today all have Mad imprinted deep in their DNA. Every time you share that GIF of an old sitcom star giving a side-eye, you’re pulling a Mad-lib. Without Mad, there’d be no Bart Simpson, no Saturday Night Live, no Onion.
With his leering, holy fool grin, Alfred E. Neuman – Mad’s famous mascot – could well be the living embodiment of the phrase ‘taking the piss’. A lot of Kiwi humour is Mad snark with a healthy dose of deadpan wit. Fred Dagg? There’s a name right out of a Mad parody. Flight of the Conchords singing about robots and David Bowie? Check out Mad’s singalong ‘White House Follies’. Taika Waititi? Some of his best work channels the anything-goes spirit of Mad.
At its peak, Mad offered a valuable peek at American culture for New Zealanders who’d read the parodies of the movies months or even years before they’d see them for themselves. Mad Australia, distributed here, was one of the last survivors of what was once a whole constellation of Mad foreign editions (Mad Hungary, anyone?).
Heck, even the Spinoff has got some Mad in its innards. A healthy curiosity and a sharp wit that always looks askew at conventional wisdom? Sounds Mad to me! Just as a random example, the piece ‘Everybody stop being so mean to ANZ immediately’ is very Mad in its mockery. Not that Mad wrote a lot about the Kiwi banking industry, but you get the idea.
Pre-meme culture, pre-internet snark, hell, even pre-Seinfeld age of irony, Mad cracked the 1950s wide open and in some ways, the world never looked back. It was the voice of the wiseacre kid at the back of the class interrupting the teacher. Between it and the Goon Show from the other side of the pond, the path of comedy’s evolution for the next 50 years was set.
It’s not like satire didn’t exist before Mad, but it was Mad that weaponised it.
Mad began as a humour comic book in 1952 published by EC Comics under legendary cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzman used an all-star cast of great artists to slash and burn all targets. This wasn’t gentle satire: the Mad version of Superman, ‘Superduperman’, was an impotent sniffling loser who only found masculine satisfaction in his spandex suit, while Mickey Mouse was a sneering rat who hated children.
Perhaps the most lacerating of early Mad parodies was ‘Starchie’, which reimagined wholesome Archie Andrews as a switchblade-carrying, liquor-swigging juvenile delinquent. In Eisenhower’s America, this was potent stuff. Mad was an instant hit, inspiring dozens of copycats.
Later, Mad mutated into more of a proper magazine, mixing comics and cartoons to become a pop culture juggernaut. Alfred E. Neuman came along and Mad soared to nearly 3 million circulation by 1973.
I’m not saying Mad was exactly highbrow intellectual: ‘Star Blecch’ for ‘Star Trek’ doesn’t aim high. But it was aimed at an audience of surly teenagers, and it taught them the valuable lesson of mockery.
You picked it up for the classic Mort Drucker-drawn movie parodies of stuff like ‘Rocky III’ and stayed for the crazed cartooning and wit: Sergio Aragones’ teeny-tiny toons, Dave Berger’s exploration of the creepy suburban underbelly in ‘The Lighter Side Of…’, and the kinetic pantomime of ‘Spy Vs. Spy’.
Mad was egalitarian in its offence – one page would mock hippie protesters, while another would feature a barbed spread on how ‘You Never Can Win With A Bigot!’
One of the great joys of parenthood for me was when my teenage son discovered a huge stack of old vintage Mad magazines at our bach and became addicted to them. There’s nothing like seeing the next generation discover the pleasures of crazed cartoonist Don Martin’s bizarre FLAPPPS and THWITZZIPPTS, or the mysterious intricate pleasures of Al Jaffee’s fold-ins.
I’d pick up the occasional new Mad for the boy, too, and while I personally never found them quite as fresh or funny, I also knew that, creaking into middle age, I wasn’t quite its audience anymore. Unfortunately, people like me no longer buying Mad and younger folks not even knowing about it probably spelled its end a while ago. A year ago, Mad ended its 550-issue run and relaunched again with a new number one issue. The writing was on the wall.
But to be honest, in the age of Trump, isn’t everything feeling a little satirical? When everything instantly feels like a parody and hot takes are launched every second, a humble little old dead-tree magazine making fun of that movie you saw two months ago suddenly doesn’t seem quite that hip.
When Trump himself made fun of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by saying he “looked like Alfred E. Neuman”, nobody under 40 really seemed to get the joke, including Buttigieg himself.
Mad was a reminder of a time when mockery was broader in its tastes. These days, most people fall into their own narrow silos of content, and a joke can either get you a laugh or end your career. Mad was an equal-opportunity offender, something that maybe is more important for society than we realise.
I’m sad about its imminent end, but I also know the spirit of mockery – all good and bad things about it – is still alive and scattered all over the internet.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.