The Genius of Mad Magazine
Most people have never read a copy of Mad magazine. Its 2017 circulation was only 140,000. At its peak in 1973 it sold 2.4 million copies.
It was recently announced that Mad will no longer publish original content. So what?
Here are just a few reasons Mad will be missed as the influential force it served on our cultural landscape:
- By not accepting advertising for so many years, Mad was able to successfully take on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., suburbia, race relations, gender, and just about every hot button, taboo issue with impunity. No one and no institution was safe from the writers at Mad for fear of an advertiser pulling their business.
- Mad was never mean spirited or toxic in how it made fun of anything. It was true satire, honest, insightful, sublime, and often over the top to make a point. It was the opposite of today’s vitriolic and personal-attack media environment. There was an innocence that presented an often iron fist in a funny and satirical velvet glove.
- Mad magazine was an equal-opportunity offender. It was truly balanced in who and what it made fun of. No brand was safe. No industry was immune, from automotive to television, to alcohol. Nothing and no one was off-limits. Democrats and Republicans alike were made fun of. Mad brought people together to see who was next. It had a quality of uniting its readers and allowed us to see other points of view, because we could see the irony or hypocrisy of our own dogma on display.
And finally, there was Mad’s iconic mascot, Alfred E. Neuman. He first appeared on issue #21 in 1954 and was featured on almost all of Mad’s 550 regular issues since. Alfred’s known for his saying “What Me Worry?” For me, this phrase embodies lightness and a naive Forrest Gump-like quality that allowed almost every cover of Mad to speak a truth that wouldn’t have been possible with anything less than this carefree character who had no ego or reputation to worry about.
Mad magazine holds a special place in my heart and psyche, as it surely influenced my desire to work on Madison Ave and to look for the motivation and underlying truth of the institutions surrounding my childhood. Mad helped me learn, navigate, and understand things in a way that little else could for a kid trying to figure out what the world meant.
Over time, Mad sold out to Time Warner. It began accepting advertising, became cruder, less funny, and less satirical. To me it lost its soul. And now it is gone.
But for many people, mostly young adults of a certain era, Mad was a guide through adolescence, a medium to navigate what the world meant, and to find the truth, meaning, and humor in things that are missing from so much of what we are swimming in today.
There may be some hope that one day Mad magazine may be resurrected. We’ve seen Jeff Bezos buy the Washington Post, Lauren Powell Jobs acquire The Atlantic, and Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff recently acquire Time magazine.
But for now I’m going to remember the era of this cultural phenomenon called Mad magazine and say, “what me worry?