The news that Mad Magazine would be shutting down permanently — an announcement that came, perhaps fittingly, on the 4th of July — filled me with sadness. It’s many years since I was a regular reader of the magazine, but it was a milestone in my life: my first real taste of satire, of comedy that skirted the edge of bad taste (and sometimes crossed over it), and of the realization that no one in public life was — or should be — beyond being held to account by having their follies and foibles mercilessly skewered.
I first came across Mad around 1972, when I was nine years old, and for the next few years would snatch up each issue as soon as it hit the newsstand. My favourite features were the spot-on send-ups of movies and TV shows of the day, with their clever plays on the titles, their beautifully detailed illustrations, and their take-no-prisoners approach to skewering pomposity and preposterousness.
I have in front of me issue No. 178 from October 1975, with the tagline “In this issue we wreck Godfather II & Orient Express”. I was by that time a huge Agatha Christie fan, and relished Mad’s version of the movie based on one of her most famous books, which writer Lou Silverstone rechristened (fittingly, given the convoluted plot) Muddle on the Orient Express.
Re-reading it today, the parody is as fresh and funny as it was more than 40 years ago. “Ahh, my friend, I know what you are thinking,” eccentric — and long-winded — detective Hercules Pirouette says to a companion after a dead body has been discovered. “You are thinking: how lucky you are that I happen to be a passenger on your train!” “Actually, I was thinking: Why couldn’t Sherlock Holmes have been a passenger instead?” the man replies. When he examines the dead man’s train compartment, with its plethora of incriminating pieces of evidence, Pirouette mutters “Clues … clues … there are so many clues, I may save some for my next case!” (It’s a testament to the influence Mad had on me that to this day, I use the “So many clues” line when presented with a multitude of items that need to be dealt with.)
Why did I say that it was perhaps fitting that the announcement of Mad’s end came on the 4th of July? Because although it looked like a comic book, Mad held an unflinching mirror up to the sacred cows of American politics. No one was safe, from the president on down, and Mad’s writers and artists — the self-styled “usual gang of idiots” — didn’t hesitate to point out idiocy, recklessness, pomposity, stupidity, and cupidity wherever they saw it (and they saw it a lot). Some of it undoubtedly sailed over my head — in the early 1970s I wasn’t particularly au fait with the American political scene — but I had learned enough to recognize clever, pointed, and intelligent satire when I saw it.
This reminds me of another reason I loved Mad: its refusal to dumb things down and hold readers’ hands. All involved assumed that readers would be smart enough to keep up; hence a feature, in that October 1975 issue, called “Zappers That History Forgot”, in which famous figures from history say a line for which they’re famous and then get taken down by an observer.
“We shall fight them in the fields; we shall fight them in the cities; we shall fight them in the villages!” says Winston Churchill in one of the entries, to which an aide replies “I say! Have you ever thought of fighting them in GERMANY?!?” None of the figures were identified; readers were expected to know who they were. If you didn’t? Here was a great chance to learn.
Mad took on everyone and everything, pointing out the absurdity of everyday life in a way that was fresh, accessible, funny, and shrewd. The most recent issue I have — from August 2012 — shows that the magazine was as irreverent and funny as always, carrying on its commitment to “warts and all” coverage of popular culture, politics, social trends, and more. It’s a shame that the magazine is folding when, more than ever, that voice is needed. What, me worry? I’ll try not to.