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The Ascent Of “Mad”: See 60 Years Of Comic Subversion

The original Mad men were a group of subversive cartoonists and writers poking fun at anything that carried the slightest hint of authority. Today’s editorial crop have a much harder job–satirizing folks who have grown up with Mad and are in on the joke. On a tear of shameless shilling for its new 60th anniversary coffee table book, Totally Mad, editor John Ficarra weighs in on how the iconic magazine has kept up with the times.

“Genius is rarely recognized in its lifetime, but fortunately, neither is gross incompetence.”
– Alfred E. Neuman

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Civilization’s septic slide has given Mad Magazine enough inspirational material for 60 years–surprising no one more than its staff. In the corporate mind-set of “If you can’t beat ’em, make money from ’em,” Time Warner Entertainment has opted to chronicle that dubious history with Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity, which will be published on October 30.

“We would have done a 50th anniversary book, but we never figured we’d be around for 50 years,” says Mad ’s longtime editor, John Ficarra. “So when we were around for 60 years…actually, it wasn’t even our idea. Time came to us and asked if we wanted to do it. They were fabulous to work with–they just gave us a chunk of money and said, ‘Produce the book.’ ”


Luckily, expectations were low–after all, this is the crew that once had a monkey paint one of its covers. Semi-legitimized with an introduction by Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report writer Eric Drysdale, the book came together in a whopping three months last spring, with Ficarra, art director Sam Viviano, and book designer Patricia Dwyer helming Mad‘s Usual Gang of Idiots. Together, they culled 26,000 magazine pages into the book’s 256. It includes more than 500 covers, the names of everyone who ever contributed to Mad (mainly so they would buy the book), and essays addressing Mad lore: Who was Bill Gaines? Who is Alfred E. Neuman? What were the Mad editorial trips like? Has Mad ever been sued? What’s Mad been like post-Bill Gaines?

“The editorial mission statement has always been the same: ‘Everyone is lying to you, including magazines. Think for yourself. Question authority,'” says Ficarra. “But it’s gotten harder, as they’ve gotten better at lying and getting in on the joke.”

“The last supper circa 2004” poster from the August 2004 issue. Art by Richard Williams

The Original Kin

Mad–now owned by DC Entertainment and parent company Time Warner–began in 1952, the brainchild of publisher Bill Gaines, an eccentric, imposing figure, whose family owned E.C. Comics, best known for Tales From the Crypt. For its first 23 issues, Mad started as a comic spoofing other comics, before switching to a full-size magazine and expanding its satirical range. By 1974, its circulation peaked at more than 2 million. There have been only four editors–Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Nick Meglin, and Ficarra–who created a breeding ground for such creative talent as writer Frank Jacobs, cartoonist Don Martin, Fold-in creator Al Jaffee, caricaturist Mort Drucker, cartoonist-writer Sergio Aragones, and Spy vs. Spy creator Antonio Prohías. In 1995, Mad licensed its name and bits to the late-night Fox sketch comedy series MADtv.

“People don’t leave Mad,” says Ficarra. “It’s a great place to work, because at the end of the day, it means never having to grow up. It means working with some very smart artists and writers from all over the world. And the people I hire grew up revering these people and now have a chance to actually work with them.”

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For all of its silliness, Mad actually set legal precedent in the intellectual property arena, making song lyrics, for the most part, fair game for satirists. In 1961, music publishers representing songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, and Cole Porter filed a $25 million lawsuit against Mad for copyright infringement after Mad published a collection of parody lyrics to some of their songs. Two years later, the U.S. District Court upheld Mad’s right to print 23 of the 25 song parodies under dispute. “That is the lawsuit that pretty much established the right to parody song lyrics,” says Ficarra.

Left to right: Art Director Sam Viviano, Assistant Art Director Ryan Flanders, Editor John Ficarra, writer-artists Peter Kuper and Sergio Aragones, artists Angelo Torres and Tom Richmond attempting a pose after their San Diego Comic Con panel last summer. Photo by Susan Karlin

Modern Daze

Ficarra–the coeditor (with Meglin) from 1985 to 2004, and sole editor since–has seen the magazine through the publishing industry’s most volatile changes: the digital revolution, shortened attention spans, and competing new media.

“From an editorial point of view, Mad has evolved over the years, because it’s always reflected what’s going on in society,” says Ficarra. While some bits have been impervious to time–the Fold-In, Spy vs. Spy, and Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions–“people were more literate years ago, so we had longer prose pieces. Not so much now. We developed a front-of-the-book section called Fundalini, which are short takes. We call it ‘short attention span theater.’ “

Its coverage also parried changes in other industries. “Years ago, a hit movie would stay in theaters up to a year, which worked with a long lead time,” says Ficarra. “Now, we have to pick movies that, even if they’re not playing in theaters, will have sustaining power in readers’ minds. When you see The Avengers doing a billion dollars’ worth of business, okay, we’re doing a knock-off of that.”

December 2011 cover. Artist: Mark Fredrickson

TV shows now offer more leeway. Breaking Bad enabled the staff to percolate ideas for four seasons before spoofing it, while the show built an audience. The Walking Dead connected directly with the Mad demographic. “This is a show our readership is watching,” says Ficarra. “Plus, it’s got zombies and brains falling out–such rich materials for artists and writers. We had to go after it.”

Politics is the gift that keeps on giving. “We do more political humor, because politics is covered like showbiz,” he adds. “It’s like a horserace–every day who’s up, who’s down. What makes our job harder is that so many politicians have gotten smart enough to be in on the jokes.”

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Take Mad’s 2002 poster, Clone of the Attacks, which spoofed Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones alongside George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice. “We thought it was scathing satire,” says Ficarra. “Then I got a call from the CBS White House correspondent who told me, ‘I bought some copies and gave them to Condoleeza Rice. She loved it! And [then-White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer is walking it into the Oval Office now!’ He thought this would make me happy. I’m dejected. How can this be? I’m trying to piss the guy off!

“Also, life is getting harder to parody,” he adds. “KFC came out with this giant sandwich which was just so unhealthy for you. So we had a photographer photograph what we called the Triple Bypass Sandwich, which had all these things you wouldn’t think of putting on a sandwich. So then a New York deli announces a Triple Bypass Sandwich, and it’s as unhealthy as anything we put on our sandwich, which was supposed to be a spoof. It’s hard to get past that point of departure.”

(L-R): “Clone of the attack” by writers Arie Kaplan and Scott Sonneborn, and artist Scott Bricher; “Crazy Stupid Gov” by artist Richard Williams

Daily Idiocy

One of the things that helped Mad‘s currency was getting a blog–The Idiotical–to facilitate more immediate humor. “We were frustrated when something happened in the news and we couldn’t do it, because we’d be working on an issue coming out in two months, and no one would care about or remember that item by then.”

That leaves the magazine as a repository for longer-lead items, more elaborate art parodies, and print parodies, like newspaper supplement coupons or other magazines.

Interestingly, other satirical outlets–The Onion, National Lampoon, and The Daily Show–are regarded less as competition than as members of an extended family of subversives, fodder for both material (like its Onion takeoff) and talent. Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell writes a column for Mad called Planet Tad that he compiled into a book last spring. “We’re more akin to what The Late Show with David Letterman or The Daily Show do,” says Ficarra. “Sometimes we’ll overlap with the Daily Show. We’ll have similar jokes on our blog, or they’ll have stuff and the next morning, we’ll come in, livid, saying, ‘How did we miss that?'”

Mad mornings begin with an editorial meeting to see what they can get out on the blog quickly–often biting commentary. When the Freeh Report about the Penn State University pedophilia cover-up came out in July, they posted a parody of the poster from the movie Ted–only they called it Ped. Earlier this year, they chronicled the cover-up with a takeoff of The Blind Side, called The Blind Eye.

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“We have to be careful,” says Ficarra. “The last thing we want to do is victim humor, because this is a miserable story. But equally miserable were these guys of power who covered it up for years, to cover their own asses and for the sake of money in that school. I have no compunction about going after them and continuing to go after them.”

(L-R): Artists: Scott Bricher, Mad staff.

Profits without honor

The magazine’s lean and mean business model, early foray into licensing international editions, and familylike office environment established a template that has carried them through publishing fluctuations.

“For years, we were printed in black and white on the cheapest paper possible,” says Ficarra. “The joke around the office was, in the ’90s, we looked like we were printed in Mexico in 1959. We decided at some point to start taking ads to support better paper and color, because it was just the way the world was going. Also, computers were starting to play a big part in how we could present the art and photo manipulations. And the only way to do that was with color on better paper.”

Today, Mad is expanding its brand into more merchandising, an iPad app, compilation books sanitized for younger readers and Walmart, and a top-rated Cartoon Network show to lure the next generation of wise guys.

“The blessing of being part of a very large multinational corporation is that, when things were really bad, we were able to rely on their good graces,” says Ficarra. “Now that things are on an upswing with the app, website, books doing well, and international licensing, this is a very good time for Mad. There’s talk of a Spy vs. Spy movie and cross-promotion with the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.”

(L-R): Artists Al Jaffee and George Woodbridge, publisher Bill Gaines, writer Dick DeBartolo, and cartoonist Don Martin during a 1970 trip to Japan. For Gaines, food was a religion. Photo: Annie Gaines collection.

The Mad Trips

Still, even the current upswing won’t be able to rekindle one of the great elements of Mad lore: the Mad trips. Every year, Gaines took the most productive members on an all-expenses-paid staff-bonding trip to some exotic locale. There were trips to Paris, Kenya, Japan, among others–all with some madcap twist. The last took place in Monte Carlo in 1993, a year after Gaines passed away.

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The first, to Haiti, set the tone. Before they left, Gaines looked at the subscription list and saw the magazine had one subscriber there. When the group arrived, Gaines hired jeeps and drove everyone to the person’s house and rang the doorbell. “The kid opened the door and there was the entire Mad staff on their knees begging him to resubscribe, which he did,” says Ficarra. “A year later, we got a second Mad subscriber there. So Bill always pointed to that as proof that the trip doubled our subscription in Haiti.”

The pinnacle of their misadventures took place on a cruise to Bermuda. “Bill loved the Marx brothers, so we decided to reenact the stateroom scene from [the Marx Brothers’] A Night at the Opera,” says Ficarra. “We told all of the Mad people to line up outside Bill’s stateroom. Every 30 seconds, there’d be another knock on the door, and two more people would come in, and two more, and two more. We also had housekeeping come in, like the movie, and they were vacuuming the whole time. Room service showed with hardboiled eggs, because that’s something Groucho kept asking for.

“The funniest thing was that Bill was in his underwear when we arrived, so he sat in his underwear through the whole thing,” laughs Ficarra. “There had to be 75 people in his state room. It was just one of the truly memorable moments. Bill loved it. That was the highest praise. He was a terrific audience. He had such raucous laughter that you really just wanted to make him laugh.”

Check out the slide show for backstories to some of Mad’s most iconic covers. For more Mad memorabilia, tap Doug Gilford’s Mad Cover Site.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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