I don’t mean angry or insane. I mean that Mad magazine shaped who I am, and I wouldn’t be half the schmuck I am without it. I was a kid before there was the Mad Kids spinoff magazine, but Mad Kids missed the point anyway. What made Mad one of the greatest of all American cultural institutions was its role in making adults. It taught young readers to question authority and to look at life from a slightly skewed angle. It broadened their cultural horizons; there are still countless old movies I haven’t seen but am familiar with through their Mad parodies, albeit under titles such as A Crockwork Lemon, Guess Who’s Throwing Up Dinner? or The Ecchorcist. And, rather than talking down to them, it expected kids to keep up as it spoke to them in its own secret comedic language (which turned out to be Yiddish, more or less).
If not for Mad, you wouldn’t be reading these words, or any other on this site. It’s the reason that I wrote articles and drew cartoons for the satirical campus rag when I was in university, and that I’ve contributed to humour publications since then, both online and in print. And I think I can speak for most other Cracked contributors when I say that it’s an unrealized lifelong dream to write for Mad.
For all that, though, I haven’t actually picked up an issue in years. And neither, it turns out, have many other people. With the magazine and newspaper industry already on life support, the economic downturn has kicked the plug out of its wall socket. Mad isn’t dead — yet — but, with its reduction from a monthly magazine to a quarterly one and the cancellation of its ancillary publications, the prognosis is looking negative.
For another magazine, it would be a mercy killing. National Lampoon, for example, is already little more than a shambling corpse. Its only remarkable parody in the last few years has been its own transformation into a grotesque burlesque of the publication it once was. It exists in name only; in fact, its main source of income is licensing its brand to awful direct-to-DVD comedies such as Pledge This!, starring a disastrously Photoshopped Paris Hilton — someone the old Lampoon would have stomped with a savage satirical boot, not stamped with its imprimatur — as well as turning its website into a web portal devoid of original content and recycling its own old content in quickie cash-in compilations.
With that last one, they maximize profit by not actually seeking permission from, paying, or even informing the authors who hold the copyright to that material, by the way, which I learned when one of my old pieces, which had previously appeared on the website, showed up in a book compilation called Not Fit for Print. (Oddly, most of the compilation was padded out with the editor’s own drivel. If it was intended to consist of material that had never before seen print, I suppose this makes sense. Anything written by past luminaries such as P.J. O’Rourke, Michael O’Donaghue, or John Hughes was so guaranteed to be of high quality that it was probably taken out of its envelope and fed straight into a printing press, without a red pen so much as going near it. So, there probably wasn’t any backlog of that, but — surprise, surprise — there was an entire file cabinet full of previously-deemed-unprintable material by the guy who used to fetch sandwiches for the boss.)
Not only did they not bother to send me a copy, but I had to actually buy one from Amazon to see it for myself. I fired the Lampoon a message reminding them of my mailing address, just in case they didn’t know where to send a cheque, but never heard anything back. Eventually, I talked to a literary agent I know, who assured me I indeed had a good case, but then that very same day, the news broke that the National Lampoon‘s CEO and several other executives had been indicted for stock fraud and the company’s stock had fallen so low that it was in danger of being delisted.
So, the National Lampoon is getting what it deserves. I won’t count the brand itself out, but I’ll settle for the current regime going to a white-collar prison. But by all accounts, Mad is still doing good work. Sure, there have been changes in the last few years — the magazine finally caved in to economic necessity and started running ads, for example — but I hear the content is still worthwhile. But scaling back to quarterly publication hurts, because it’s going to make doing topical humour difficult, if not impossible.
What, me worry? A little. If National Lampoon and Cracked have proven anything, it’s that a brand name is tough to kill. But to survive and be worthy of that name, Mad is going to have to execute a curious role reversal: Mad is going to have to copy Cracked. The latter’s relaunch as a print publication flopped, but the magazine had a few strokes against it — a dormant period, a format change, an anthrax scare. But on the web, it’s not only survived, but thrived. The content may seem calculatedly formulaic, but it’s that way because it works.
Mad will have to channel its more topical material into web publishing. It’s hard to compete with the seemingly infinite streams of free humour entertainment available on the web, which is why Mad‘s in trouble in the first place, but even in this arena, there are obvious winners, such as Cracked and The Onion. I have confidence in the Usual Gang of Idiots and their ability to compete.
Meanwhile, the magazine will have to concentrate on giving readers content of a kind they can’t get on the web. I’ve long said that if I became editor of Playboy, the first thing I’d do is get rid of the naked chicks. The magazine can’t compete with the infinite supply of free hardcore pornography on the web, so why try? Go highbrow, leverage its rich journalistic and literary heritage, and be a publication for sophisticated men in line with Hugh Hefner’s original vision. People really do read Playboy for the articles (or used to), so give them more articles and work to erase the stigma of the magazine as one you’re embarrassed to be seen buying and give it the image of one you leave laying around to impress people. (In effect, I’d turn it into Esquire.)
What can Mad do to make its magazine content a premium product worth paying for? That’s a tougher one, but it probably starts with the illustrations. This is a publication that’s had artists such as Wally Wood, Will Elder, Mort Drucker, and Jack Davis working for it, not to mention legends working in a cartoonier style, such as Don Martin and Sergio Aragones. You can’t tell me there’s not a product there worth paying for.
And, for my part, I should be paying for it, by either picking up a copy on the newsstand or ponying up the few lousy bucks for a subscription. (For American subscribers, six issues currently run $14.99 CHEAP.) It’d be worth having around to flip through it while on the can, but it’s even more worth it to me to tithe a few bucks just to ensure that the magazine sticks around to warp more young brains.
Mad made me who I am today, but if it disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t be just mad — I’d be downright ticked off. And I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone. It’s had a transformative effect on minds as brilliant and diverse as Patti Smith’s and Roger Ebert’s, but it’s Monty Python legend Terry Gilliam who put it best when he cited Mad as the Bible of his generation. And while you may have to retranslate the Bible once in a while, you just don’t let it go out of print.
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