Media Circus: Son of Mad

The new, raunchy Mad magazine is going after an older, more sophisticated audience. But will it be able to recapture some of the sarcastic bite that energized it in its prime?

Published April 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

mad magazine is growing up. Last week -- on April Fool's Day, natch -- Mad announced that it was launching a "new, unimproved" version of itself, designed to appeal to an older audience, as well as to its natural constituency of 12-year-old boys. "We had the feeling for a while that people were saying, 'Oh, Mad -- they're still in print?'" Mad co-editor Nick Meglin told the Associated Press. "It's time to let them know that yes, we are still in business. And yes, we're edgier and riskier than ever."

So far the reviews have been mostly positive. An AP feature lauded the new material as "hilarious and a bit raunchy." "This is not your father's Mad magazine," the writer concluded. Washington Post writer Peter Carlson was even more effusive. The "reinvented, retooled, relaunched Mad," he wrote in a lengthy feature, is "far raunchier and more outrageous than the old one ... This new Mad is nastier. It is dirtier. It is riskier. It's way out there, poised on some kind of psychic edge -- or maybe it has already tumbled over ... [It's] definitely edgier. And a lot more vulgar. And maybe funnier, too, if you like edgy, vulgar humor ... let's face it: This is not your father's Mad magazine."

Well, I don't know what to say to that -- my father didn't read Mad. But, some 20 years ago, heading into the sturm und drang of adolescence in the mid-1970s, I did. I wasn't just a reader -- I was a fanatic. I picked up the magazine at drugstores and garage sales, and read my quickly-tattered copies until they fell apart, and then read the pieces. Finally my parents tossed them all out, fearing that my young mind was becoming permanently warped from too much exposure to Don Martin and Dave Berg.

So the news of Mad's makeover makes me a little sad. Oh, I'm not opposed to an "edgier" Mad -- what little I've seen of the magazine in recent years suggests that the magazine had indeed lost a good deal of its edge. I'm just a little distressed to hear a Mad editor describe his magazine with such a crass marketing buzzword.

In fact, the whole campaign to repackage the magazine seems an insult to the Mad I remember. This was never a magazine designed solely for teenage boys. Sure, it had plenty of cheap laughs and dumb gags. But at its best, it was much more than a repository of adolescent humor.

The New Mad, whose debut April issue is now on the newsstands, makes reference to such "adult" topics as tampons, unwanted pregnancy, child molestation and proctologists with enormous fingers. It attacks Louis Farrakhan, Mark Fuhrman, Jack Kevorkian and (for those with slightly longer memories) Joey Buttafuoco. It contains pictures of nude celebrities -- among them frightening caricatures of the bloated, corpulent carcasses of David Crosby and Al Sharpton -- and a cover shot of Alfred E. Neuman's butt. It contains a handy guide to police brutality ("For an interesting twist on the classic 'beating a perpetrator with a nightstick' technique, try using the butt of your gun").

Writer Anthony Barbieri, one of the Mad newcomers, sees this sort of material as precisely the sort of "over the top" edginess the new magazine intends to sell. The "bad cop" manual, he told the Post, was "pretty funny but it was pretty intense -- hitting the guy with your gun butt and cracking his skull. That was definitely taking a chance."

I can't help wondering: Has Barbieri ever seen a copy of Mad circa, say, 1971? The October 1971 issue, for example, with its war crimes fold-in and back cover "mini-poster" of "The Four Horsemen of the Metropolis" (Drugs, Graft, Pollution and Slums). With its Mad Pollution Primer. With its "Reality Street" TV satire, taking a poke at the idealized images of interracial harmony on Sesame Street. ("It's a street of depression,/Corruption, oppression!/It's a sadist's dream come true!/And masochists, too!") With its "This is America" photo feature, contrasting images of heroic astronauts with graphic photos of dead soldiers and junkies shooting up. I remember this issue pretty well; it was one of the ones I picked up at a garage sale and read to death. I seem to remember asking my parents what "graft" was.

One of the joys of Mad for me at the time was that it was always slightly over my head. From "Mad's Up-Dated Modern Day Mother Goose" I learned about Andy Warhol, Spiro Agnew and Timothy Leary ("Wee Timmy Leary/Soars through the sky/Upward and Upward/Till he's, oh, so, high/Since this rhyme's for kiddies/How do we explain/That Wee Timmy Leary/Isn't in a plane?"). From "Greeting Cards for the Sexual Revolution" I learned about "Gay Liberationists" and leather-clad "Sex Fetishists." I read the Mad versions of a whole host of films I never in a million years would have been allowed to see: "Easy Rider" ("Sleazy Riders"), "Midnight Cowboy" ("Midnight Wowboy"), "Five Easy Pieces" ("Five Easy Pages.") I learned about the John Birch Society and Madison Avenue.

I know I missed many of the references, and that I tended to ignore the material that seemed too gloomy. Looking over the old issues today, I find I remember the lighter stuff much better than the "adult" material dealing with death and war and hate: In the October '71 issue, I remember the "Mad look at Amusement Parks" as if the drawings were etched upon my brain, but the "This is America" feature draws a blank.

Even in the early '70s, at the height of its influence, however, Mad was a little past its prime. It no longer helped to lead the cultural revolutions of the time, as it had in the late '50s and early '60s. It merely reacted to them, from the point of view of a slightly older, slightly befuddled, not-altogether-hip observer, watching the world going crazy outside the windows of his suburban home.

Actually, I'm glad Mad wasn't any hipper than it was. It was a more valuable cultural guide than any on-the-edge underground paper because it took itself (and the world) so much less seriously. No, that's not quite right: Mad took everything seriously; it simply refused to be solemn. It taught me, and probably quite a few of the 2.5 million readers it had at its peak in the early '70s, to look critically on advertising campaigns and political rhetoric alike, to see through both conservative bluster and liberal cant. Without Mad, "The Simpsons" would be impossible; without Mad, there would be no Beavis and Butt-Head.

Chapter Nine in Mad's Pollution Primer put it well:

See the funky little magazine.
It is a brave and fearless publication.
To this funky little magazine, nothing is sacred.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
It will take on Madison Avenue.
It will take on Hollywood.
It will take on Big Business, and Congress, and the Pentagon.
It will take on the problem of pollution.
And zap those who are responsible.
Speaking of pollution, you are now holding 48 pages
Of the worst kind imaginable
Right in your hot little hands:
Mind pollution!

Sure, Mad was at times over-earnest. At times, it wasn't even close to funny. But it was mind pollution of the best sort -- satire with a conscience. The New Mad may approach the Old Mad in the level of its crudity, and that, I think, is a step in the right direction. But it seems to be missing the Old Mad's heart. The magazine needs to think less about appealing to this or that demographic. What it needs to do is what it used to do so well: to lash out at cant and hypocrisy and all forms of marketing, including its own.

And, my God, let go of Dave Berg. He wasn't funny in 1973; he's not funny now. Give him his pension and send him home.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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