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What, Them Worry? 

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

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
Let's get this out of the way right now, because so many of you will find this hard to believe: Yes, Mad magazine still exists. It is still being published 48 years after it was created by Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines, neither of whom lived long enough to see their child reach its 400th issue, which will arrive on November 14. And it looks very much like the Mad you (or your father, or your grandfather) read forever ago: It still contains its movie parodies, its advertisement send-ups, its familiar features (say, "The Lighter Side of...," the "Mad Fold-In," and "Spy vs. Spy"), its black-and-white pages and slightly off-color jokes. In fact, if you didn't know better, you might swear a new issue of Mad was filled with nothing but reprints from old issues. If you read it in 1959 or 1963 or 1978 or 1982, you know what you will find inside its pages. Reading it today is like walking through a museum, its exhibits encased in amber.

Mad also still employs old men who worked there in the 1950s and '60s; the so-called Usual Gang of Idiots has changed little in decades and does so really only when one of the idiots drops dead. Oh, there are the occasional new guys or the random appearances by well-known hipsters (among them Drew Friedman and Peter Kuper, the latter of whom now draws and writes "Spy vs. Spy"), and the magazine's internship program infuses a little new blood into the aging body. But most of the children draw and write like the parents who came before them. The world outside changes -- Frank Sinatra jokes have given way to Backstreet Boys parodies, Lolita has been kicked out by Harry Potter, and Batman rides shotgun with Pikachu -- but the pages inside have not. Nor has the cover: Each issue still features a grinning, gap-toothed man-child on its cover.

Yes, Mad is very much alive, kept going in the year 2000 by so many of the very men who were around when Alfred E. Neuman was still in diapers.

Al Jaffee, the creator and keeper of the fold-in 37 years after its inception, recalls when Time referred to Mad as a fad that would soon enough disappear. "Well, we're still around," Jaffee says, without mentioning that Time Warner, Time's parent company, owns Mad. At this very moment, he is finishing the fold-in for the 402nd issue; someone forgot to tell Jaffee, who began working in the comic-book industry in early 1940s, that he could have retired long ago. Sergio Aragones, who has drawn the tiny wordless cartoons that appear in the margins, the so-called "Drawn-Out Dramas," since coming to the United States from Mexico in 1962, is not surprised Mad is still around, only that he continues to work for it, contributing more than he did in the 1970s. "I am surprised only that so many of us are still around," he says, his English still drenched in his native accent.

One of the two men charged with running Mad, coeditor Nick Meglin, has been a Madman almost since its inception, joining the staff shortly after it transformed from comic book to magazine with the July 1955 issue. Hardly a week goes by that someone tells him they can't believe he's still plugging away at it, overseeing parodies of Dawson's Creek and Pokémon and the WB Network. At times, he too finds it unfathomable, if only because he joined the staff thinking it would be a short-term gig, a way of killing time till his career illustrating magazines and writing children's books took off after he got out of the Army. That was more than 40 years ago, when Bill Gaines still ran the magazine like daddy and dictator, taking his staff on annual overseas trips but only if they made quota, meaning they turned in a certain amount of pages a year. Alfred E. Neuman might have been the magazine's public face, but Gaines -- a corpulent, hirsute, rumpled man whose body gave out in June 1992, when he was 70 -- was its private inspiration.

"Mad went through its greatest growth during the 1950s and '60s, and Bill Gaines created such an atmosphere of fun working for him that I never stopped to think I could be making more elsewhere," Meglin says, sharing a conference call with the his much younger counterpart John Ficarra, who considers himself "second-generation Mad." The two have been coeditors since 1985, when longtime editor Al Feldstein retired to the wide open space of Wyoming and, later, Montana. "Bill was taking us on trips all around the world, going to great restaurants, having fun with the freelancers who all became my friends, and I don't know of anyone who had a better time. And the attraction has not changed. To this day, when Al Jaffee brings in a fold-in, you go, "Holy Christ, how did he do that?'"

Like most things once written off as a fad, Mad has thrived long enough to survive the lean years: Meglin and Ficarra say that circulation hovers around 500,000 copies each month, which is way off from its heyday of the 1970s, when it sold an average of 1.8 to 2.5 million copies every month. (The best-selling issue was September 1973, which featured a Poseidon Adventure spoof. The cover, featuring a sinking luxury liner and the floating red high tops of Alfred Neuman, was reprised in 1998 for a Titanic parody. Mad never ripped off anyone so much as itself.) For a while, Mad was the second-best-selling magazine on newsstands, topped only by TV Guide, but newsstands have gone the way of the Edsel and Eisenhower. Meglin insists that subscriptions have increased in recent years only because it has become harder and harder to find Mad on the magazine racks. "It's frustrating knowing the work is good and fewer people are reading it," Meglin says.

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.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky


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