Review: Seeing MAD: Essays on Mad Magazine’s Humor and Legacy

Reviewed by Thomas Larson

In 1966, I was a junior at St. Louis’s Kirkwood High. After the teachers let us monkeys out at 2:50, I lazed about, often trekking to a friend’s home to talk antiwar politics or Salinger stories. I was a serious kid, some days lying on one of the twin beds in Ken Klotz’s room (his unlucky brother off in Vietnam) where we were hypnotized by Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and the literary dazzle of “Visions of Johanna”: “The ghost of electricity howls from the bones of her face.” But then some days I needed a break.

I got one hanging out with Clay Benton. Clay, a wunderkind with a reel-to-reel tape machine, recorded parodies of Superman—the Caped Crusader of comic book, radio drama, TV show. His sendup was Space-O-Ace Man, a half-doofus, half-hippie hero who also flew in to fight crime but whose dorky moves ruined everything. After he and I roughed up a script, we’d record a show with daffy voices and sound effects. We mimicked a big-bosomed girl Clay and I salivated over in class, who needed rescuing. We shielded her from Ming the Merciless with our own bodies in response to her cries of Help!

At sixteen, Clay’s skill as a satirist took cues from the stupid humor on television: sitcoms like The Lucy Show and The Red Skelton Show with their antic leads, the incompetent Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, and the dumb-as-a-rock Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies. He also emulated deadpan stylists like Bob and Ray on radio, parodic impersonators like Vaughn Meader on the Ed Sullivan Show, nightclub bunglers like Bob Newhart from our parents’ LPs. (I doubt, at the time, Clay or I heard the racy Redd Foxx or taboo-breaking Lenny Bruce.) 

But the spark to Clay’s zaniness was a comic book character created by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood in 1953, called Superduperman. His wacky escapades had been appearing for years, up to and beyond 1966, when 1.5 million readers, mostly adolescent boys, laughed with and at him in regular installments of Mad Magazine.

Kurtzman found Superman’s premises absurd: a “mild-mannered reporter,” Clark Kent, who requires a cape, tights, and a padded upper body suit to catch criminals who outsmart the dunderheaded police. To strip down to his costume, he uses a phone booth; he deploys X-ray vision but only on bad men (never women!); and when Clark takes off his glasses, his love interest, Lois Lane, a fellow reporter, doesn’t recognize him. She just goes loosey-goosey as he flies her out of danger.

Kurtzman’s alter, Clark Bent, follows the same script, but when he leaps into a phone booth, he scares a woman half to death, and after changing, brushes his teeth and washes his feet. Spying on criminals with his X-ray sight, Clark accidentally looks into a ladies’ bathroom. Ogling half-clothed girls (nothing explicit), his eyeballs explode: “Boing!” Lois Pain, who is portrayed as a vixen in a tight leather skirt and amply revealed cleavage, coldcocks him for peeping. He slumps to the ground, stars circling his head, as she shouts, “You’re still a ‘creep.’” 

MAD began in 1952 as a comic book with Kurtzman as editor and William Gaines as publisher. Kurtzman’s parodies of “serious” comic characters like Superman and Archie became so popular that MAD’s owner, EC Comics, moved to a magazine format just three years after its inception: eight issues a year at twenty-five cents (cheap!) an issue. The celebratory magazine debut featured a new trickster icon, the gap-toothed, Zelig-like mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, and his tag line, “What? Me Worry?”

Critically rejoicing in America’s premier humor magazine is the mighty conquest of Seeing MAD. This festschrift of scholarly paeans to the great rag is edited by Judith Yaross Lee—a professor emeritus who’s written on Garrison Keillor, the humor of The New Yorker, and Mark Twain—and John Bird—also a professor emeritus and Twain scholar and past president of the American Humor Studies Association. Lee and Bird have not skimped: the volume’s 600 pages includes Lee’s capacious introduction and twenty-two illustrated essays.

The book’s range is encyclopedic. Most of the authors are satire scholars from such academic fields as American and Communication Studies, Media Arts, and Humanities; a couple comic creators are included, one a writer from National Lampoon. The essays showcase the magazine’s parodic pulse on American culture, from the 1950s to today: lighthearted mockery of gender and sexual identity; the funny bone of Jewish-Americans; caricatures of contemporary films; and send-ups of our malicious politics from McCarthyism to impeachment. Leveraging levity and absurdity in comic narratives, MAD also primed the pump for underground comix in the 1960s and beyond. The anthology’s end matter bulges with a bibliography, capsule biographies of MAD’s writers and artists, essay contributors, a 1952–2020 timeline, and an index.

It is no exaggeration to say that MAD invented the modern, postwar American takedown. Its target was comic books and advertising, Hollywood tropes and TV dramas, cultural icons and generic idiocies, helping to shape and attack the zeitgeist of each subsequent era. It’s also true that the publication’s lovable offensiveness has shaped the comic thinking of nearly every comedian, radio and television creative team, and gag-and-bit writer around. The list of its “competitors,” then and since, is impressive: Tales from the Crypt, Panic, Cracked, and National Lampoon. But MAD dwarfed its rivals, reaching two million subscriptions in the 1970s.

Countless funny men and women attest to the ease with which MAD warped their sensibilities while growing up: Terry Gilliam and John Cleese of Monty Python; writer-standups Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers; radio humorists Bob and Ray, Allan Sherman, Stan Frieberg; Your Show of Shows’ Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner; daily strip and cartoon creators Walt Kelly (Pogo), Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Charles Schulz (Peanuts); TV mainstays Laugh-In (1968–1973), MADtv (1995–2009), The Simpsons (1989–present), and Saturday Night Live (1975–present); wags and wits Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Judge, Key & Peele, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee; Bill Maher and his bit, “I Don’t Know It for a Fact, I Just Know It’s True”; and R. Crumb, contributor to Zap Comix No. 1 (1968), who said, “MAD was a revelation. Nothing I read anywhere else suggested there was any absurdity in the culture; MAD was like a shock, breaking you out.” 

Our outsized need to make fun of eccentrics on TV and in movies, wastes of space in politics and religion, is proof of MAD’s influence. No greater evidence exists than the fact that the presidential “debates” are never over until they are mocked by the cast of Saturday Night Live!

In its sixty-seven years, MAD has had four editors: Kurtzman, for the first four; Al Feldstein, for the next twenty-eight; and the duo of Nick Meglin and John Ficarra from 1985 to 2004, with Ficarra going solo after that. These editors and a hodgepodge of writers and artists (alas, seldom women or people of color figured) called themselves “The Usual Gang of Idiots.” Here are some of the best-known wisenheimers in the gang.

Al Jaffee, who this year turned 100, having retired from MAD at ninety-nine, created the “fold-in,” a sendup of the nudie-mag’s “fold-out” or centerfold. On the back cover is an illustration, underneath it, a short explanatory paragraph, and at the top, there’s a question. To get the answer, one folds the back page of the issue in vertical thirds so the middle panel disappears and the outer panels come together, revealing the answer. One example shows a nuclear reactor, spewing pollution, with the question, “What big disaster has occurred on this page?” After the fold, we see a citizen resting wearily, his head on a riverbank and weeping under the thought-bubble “Yeech!” The fold reduces the explanatory paragraph to the answer, “No fold-in idea.” The cartoonist did 450 of these pithily subversive drawings, “reveling,” as the comedy historian Kerry Soper writes in his essay on Jaffee, “in scatological references, grotesque imagery, goofy wordplay, and zany sight gags.”

Jaffee epitomized the Jewishness of MAD with its roots in New York City neighborhoods, Borscht Belt schtick, and working-class agitation. He, Kurtzman, and Will Elder, who drew Kurtzman’s comic, “Ganefs” (crooks), for the first issue of the magazine, had all been raised in Yiddish-speaking homes. The magazine’s editors—Jaffee included—loved to highlight Yiddish words without explaining their meaning; the point was to spice dialogue with smart-alecky neologisms that sounded made up but were common in Yiddish lingo: schmuck (fool), putz (genitals), schmaltz (chicken fat, a.k.a. dripping with sentimentality), feh (ugh!), and schnook (fall guy). In MAD’s fractured farces, “Batman and Robin” became “Bat Boy and Rubin,” and G.I. Joe, “G.I. Schmoe.” Interviewed by Arie Kaplan for his 2008 book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, Jaffee said, “Basically, we’re trying to be funny, and a good source of humor is the stupidities in society, and certainly bigotry is one of the biggest stupidities. And Jews have experienced it firsthand and they know how stupid it is, so we go after it.” That Jaffee and the other “complete failures in life” helped bring Jewish drollery to mainstream America is one of its great achievements.

Cuban exile Antonio Prohías drew the popular “Spy vs. Spy” comic, which appeared in every issue from 1961 to 1987, when Prohías retired for health reasons. His strip is Cold-War savvy: two protagonists, a black-clad and a white-clad spy, alternate getting the best of each other with Wile E. Coyote-like stunts that succeed as often as they fail: The white spy is carrying a clock and a bundle. He drops the bundle. The black spy picks it up, shakes it, and believes it’s a bomb, meant for him. Later, the black spy peers through the white spy’s bedroom window where he’s sleeping. The black spy exchanges the bundle for the clock. In the final panel, the clock blows up, obliterating the white spy. Turnabout is fair play.

The strip, writes media historian Michael J. Socolow, points not only to the severe distrustfulness between the Soviet Union and the United States but also to the rise of weaponized technology. Suspicions of the communist other is key: “Radios, televisions, and cameras represented not only espionage tools, but also symbolized the growth of the surveillance state.” Prohías’ portrayal was visual, universal, and existential, reflecting a “general critique of the bureaucratization of life in the modern world.” His narratives often require the reader to stop, reread, and unpack the subtle methods each not-so-secret agent is using to outsmart the other. 

Another enduring and endearing unmissable was Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side of ….” His strip reigned as MAD’s most popular feature from 1961 to 2002. With realistic drawings of middle-class schlubs and consumer dodos, Berg skewered the faddish thoughts and deeds of every era he ridiculed. The lighter side of phones: a shrewish wife needles her scowling husband to get a cordless phone—everyone has one; OK, so he cuts the cord on their landline and gives her the handset. The poke in the gut is less at the couple than what comes between them: the ingratiating demand for new products.

Berg went after it all: language, gizmos, money, the boss, death, and sex. Ann M. Ciasullo’s feminist study of Berg’s strips shows a penchant for “progressive gender and sexual politics,” which taught her the hypocrisies of male and female roles, what we used to term “the battle of the sexes.” MAD’s bread-and-butter was teenage white boys and their dorky humor; unsurprisingly, Berg drew lots of babes in bikinis to satisfy their hormonal urges. But he also ribbed adult pretenses with “equal-opportunity satire.” Ciasullo admires Berg’s special touch in which “women’s words hold as much—and as little—weight as men’s.” Even in slapstick, Berg was “showing us the inevitable changes that were taking place in relation to gender, sex, and power.”

Absolutely no illustrator could squeeze together in one panel a slew of TV or movie cast members (M*A*S*H, Star Trek, The Godfather) with dead-on caricatures like Mort Drucker. The four stars of Bonanza—Adam, Little Joe, Hoss, and Pa, plus one of their horses—are sudsed up in a tub taking a bubble bath, the outhouse right behind them. Hoss, who’s still in his ten-gallon hat and cattleman wear, exclaims, “Dadgum-it, Paw! Don’t you think we’re carrying this togetherness a bit too far?”

Permit me mention one more MAD genius, Don Martin. In hundreds of strips, Martin portrayed a male nitwit with a long lumpish chin, droopy eyes, hinged feet, and the I.Q. of a flagpole. In “One Day in the Garden of Eden,” a three-panel cartoon, a naked Eve is shocked to see Adam, a primordial lamebrain, emerging from behind a fern in his prelapsarian birthday suit. She shouts, “Yecch! You’re disgusting-looking, you know that!?! Why don’t you wear a fig leaf or something?!?” Adam leaves in panel two and returns in panel three wearing the fig leaf on his face. 

Nicolas Labarre’s “Joining the Fray? Mad on Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew” highlights the magazine’s reckonings with political absurdity. From his Checkers speech to his resignation and pardon, Nixon holds the record for most covers in the magazine’s first fifty years. The bloodhoundish Labarre tracks more than two decades of Tricky-Dick caricature. Much as Americans experienced him, Nixon grew in MAD like a horror-film franchise: “a poor schnook,” a “partisan mudslinger,” a “Commie-baiter,” a “character assassin,” and, in 1960, the “born loser,” beaten by JFK’s comb and Apollonian face. Nixon was as pugnacious as he was chameleonic, rarely beloved, regularly belittled. Because of his devious charisma, his mock “sincerest sincerity” had no peer. As if fated, Nixon’s antics and the media’s pursuit of him politicized the magazine, mostly for the better. The editors did, in fact, “join the fray.”

After the “new” Nixon was elected president, he soon proved, in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s phrase, how “completely unprincipled” he was. In MAD’s takedowns, Nixon becomes “desperate,” a “sad, paranoid, and spiteful clown,” in which his pomposities like “let me make this perfectly clear” or “I am not a crook” reveal him as the apotheosis of the scoundrel. He’s depicted in the magazine with increasing vindictiveness, particularly in “The Richard M. Nixon Presidential Primer” by Max Brandel and Larry Siegel. There, contributor Labarre writes, Nixon is shown as “a Nazi, a gangster, a violent cop, a traitor to his faith, the rallying cry for discontents, and, finally, ‘an illness lasting six years.’” 

With the Watergate break-in and the grandly televised Senate hearings, MAD elevated a pathological criminal to a rarefied height: he was too easily parodied and beyond parody. (The lies about the Vietnam War, exposed in the 1971 Pentagon Papers, seemed to be more than even Mad Magazine could handle.) Labarre writes that Nixon’s villainy became a “symptom of broader issues—the conflation of politics and show business or the inherent duplicity of politicians.” He was the epitome of a weasel maliciously adroit at “seducing the public while accomplishing nothing.”

For audiences of adolescents and adults with matching funny bones, MAD exposed how easy it was for politicians, whether a Prince Valiant-like Kennedy or a bomb-promising  extremist like Barry Goldwater, to use media to play us for fools—for our gullibility, for our creepy worship of the famous, for our love of the strong man, for our Pollyanna ideal that voting ensures a better world. Indeed, over time, the magazine has been fleet of foot, these days adapting to the authoritarian era we live in; its satire must keep pace if we’re to survive our moronic nature, although with the climate emergency and shredding of democratic norms, it’s hard to find the lighter side of the end times.

Underlying Labarre’s point is, I think, another message. In MAD’s antic richness, what awaits adolescent readers is not a mature adulthood. Rather, it is the interminable immaturity of the dumbest male adolescents we came of age with. Their loutishness, their fraud and nepotism earn them moneyed positions of influence, power, success, and a weird tolerance from us: As long as we love to hate them, such hatred appeases our feelings of powerlessness to stop them. 

MAD’s unique penchant for a universal yet trendy humor is why it’s remained relevant; today the magazine offers six print/online issues per year, subscription only. Apropos of our time is one among many laughing-to-keep-from-crying anthologies, MAD about Trump: A Brilliant Look at Our Brainless President. The book collects years of strips and one-offs that insult his hair, his obesity, his wife, his diction, and the “contents” of his brain. Turns out he’s not brainless. For the cover of the book, the top half of his head blows off and out pops a spring-loaded Alfred E. Neuman. 

It seems moot to argue whether Nixon or Trump was the stupider, the more corrupt, the more easily punked. But a country whose people increasingly elect idiots (of the cleverly not stupid sort) to government positions is in steep decline. I wonder if MAD’s zaniness, now mixed with apocalyptic attacks of the ruling order, has contributed to the rampant powerlessness many of us feel. Is American humor biting anyone in the ass enough to get a pound of flesh? Trump epitomized colossal stupidity, but his four years in office was just not funny.

In a sense, post-truth and post-Trump, MAD’s cynically absurd reality has replaced our “reality-based” world. Its outsider and jaundiced view of media, institutions, and those who’ve “made it,” has become de rigueur in American culture: today’s tropes like trolls, the woke, the cancelers, the fact-free, the QAnon cohort seem cut from MAD’s pages. The response of the non-nuts majority to the daily drivel is not to parody it but to shake our heads in impotent disgust. MAD’s punishing satire should still try to undermine our dark politics and tribal divides as the siloed bullshit from Facebook to the anti-vaxxers piles thicker and higher than ever. But it also feels like nothing, not even puerile jocularity, can injure, let alone palliate, our civic and cultural madness.

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Journalist, book/music critic, and memoirist Thomas Larson is the author of four books, his latest is Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry (Swallow Press). Larson is a twenty-two-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a seven-year book review editor for River Teeth, and a former music critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican.