Mad (stylized as MAD) is an American humor magazine founded in 1952 by editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines, launched as a comic book before it became a magazine. It was widely imitated and influential, affecting satirical media, as well as the cultural landscape of the 20th century, with editor Al Feldstein increasing readership to more than two million during its 1974 circulation peak.
|Editor||Harvey Kurtzman (1952–56)|
Al Feldstein (1956–84)
Nick Meglin (1984–2004)
John Ficarra (1984–2017)
Bill Morrison (2018–19)
|Circulation||140,000 (as of 2017)|
|First issue||October/November, 1952 (original magazine)|
June 2018 (reboot)
|Final issue||February 2018 (original magazine)|
December 2019 (reboot, original material no longer available)
The magazine, which is the last surviving title from the EC Comics line, publishes satire on all aspects of life and popular culture, politics, entertainment, and public figures. Its format is divided into a number of recurring segments such as TV and movie parodies, as well as freeform articles. Mad's mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, is typically the focal point of the magazine's cover, with his face often replacing that of a celebrity or character who is lampooned within the issue.
From 1952 until 2018, Mad published 550 regular issues, as well as hundreds of reprint "Specials", original-material paperbacks, reprint compilation books and other print projects. The magazine's numbering reverted to 1 with its June 2018 issue, coinciding with the magazine's headquarters move to the West Coast. In July 2019, it was widely reported that Mad would end its newsstand distribution after 67 years and be available only through the direct market and subscriptions. Future issues will primarily consist of reprinted material from the magazine's archive.
Mad began as a comic book published by EC, debuting in August 1952 (cover date October–November). The Mad office was initially located in lower Manhattan at 225 Lafayette Street, while in the early 1960s it moved to 485 Madison Avenue, the location listed in the magazine as "485 MADison Avenue".
The first issue was written almost entirely by Harvey Kurtzman, and featured illustrations by him, Wally Wood, Will Elder, Jack Davis, and John Severin. Wood, Elder, and Davis were to be the three main illustrators throughout the 23-issue run of the comic book.
To retain Kurtzman as its editor, the comic book converted to magazine format as of issue #24, in 1955. The switchover induced Kurtzman to remain for one more year, but the move had removed Mad from the strictures of the Comics Code Authority. William Gaines related in 1992 that Mad "was not changed [into a magazine] to avoid the Code" but "as a result of this [change of format] it did avoid the Code." Gaines claimed that Kurtzman had at the time received "a very lucrative offer from...Pageant magazine," and seeing as he, Kurtzman, "had, prior to that time, evinced an interest in changing Mad into a magazine," Gaines, "not know[ing] anything about publishing magazines," countered that offer by allowing Kurtzman to make the change. Gaines further stated that "if Harvey [Kurtzman] had not gotten that offer from Pageant, Mad probably would not have changed format."
After Kurtzman's departure in 1956, new editor Al Feldstein swiftly brought aboard contributors such as Don Martin, Frank Jacobs, and Mort Drucker, and later Antonio Prohías, Dave Berg, and Sergio Aragonés. The magazine's circulation more than quadrupled during Feldstein's tenure, peaking at 2,132,655 in 1974; it later declined to a third of this figure by the end of his time as editor.
In its earliest incarnation, new issues of the magazine appeared erratically, between four and seven times a year. By the end of 1958, Mad had settled on an unusual eight-times-a-year schedule, which lasted almost four decades. Issues would go on sale 7 to 9 weeks before the start of the month listed on the cover. Gaines felt the atypical timing was necessary to maintain the magazine's level of quality. Beginning in 1994, Mad then began incrementally producing additional issues per year, until it reached a traditional monthly schedule with the January 1997 issue. With its 500th issue (June 2009), amid company-wide cutbacks at Time Warner, the magazine temporarily regressed to a quarterly publication before settling to six issues per year in 2010.
Gaines sold his company in the early 1960s to the Kinney Parking Company, which also acquired National Periodicals (a.k.a. DC Comics) and Warner Bros. by the end of that decade. Gaines was named a Kinney board member, and was largely permitted to run Mad as he saw fit without corporate interference.
Feldstein retired in 1984, and was replaced by the senior team of Nick Meglin and John Ficarra, who co-edited Mad for the next two decades. Long-time production artist Lenny "The Beard" Brenner was promoted to art director and Joe Raiola and Charlie Kadau joined the staff as junior editors. Following Gaines's death in 1992, Mad became more ingrained within the Time Warner (now WarnerMedia) corporate structure. Eventually, the magazine was obliged to abandon its long-time home at 485 Madison Avenue and in the mid-1990s it moved into DC Comics' offices at the same time that DC relocated to 1700 Broadway. In issue #403 of March 2001, the magazine broke its long-standing taboo and began running paid advertising. The outside revenue allowed the introduction of color printing and improved paper stock. After Meglin retired in 2004, the team of Ficarra (as executive editor) Raiola and Kadau (now senior editors), and Sam Viviano, who had taken over as art director in 1999, would helm Mad for the next 13 years.
Throughout the years, Mad remained a unique mix of adolescent silliness and political humor. In November 2017, Rolling Stone wrote that "operating under the cover of barf jokes, Mad has become America’s best political satire magazine." Nevertheless, Mad ended its 550-issue, 65-year run in Manhattan at the end of 2017, when its offices relocated to DC Entertainment headquarters in Burbank, California. None of Mad's veteran New York staff made the move, resulting in a change in editorial leadership, tone and art direction. More than a hundred new names made their Mad debuts, while fewer than ten of Mad's recurring artists and writers remained regular contributors. The first California issue of Mad was renumbered as "#1." Bill Morrison succeeded Ficarra in January 2018. However, Morrison's tenure was the shortest of any top editor in Mad's history, as he was abruptly laid off in February 2019. Much of the editorial and art staff were laid off a few months later.
In June 2018, AT&T completed its acquisition of WarnerMedia. In July 2019, it was announced that beginning with issue #11 of the Mad revival, subsequent issues would consist primarily of reprinted content from its previous 67 years of publication. Mad will no longer be sold on newsstands, but will remain in comic book shops.
Though there are antecedents to Mad's style of humor in print, radio and film, Mad became a pioneering example of it. Throughout the 1950s, Mad featured groundbreaking parodies combining a sentimental fondness for the familiar staples of American culture—such as Archie and Superman—with a keen joy in exposing the fakery behind the image. Its approach was described by Dave Kehr in The New York Times: "Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding on the radio, Ernie Kovacs on television, Stan Freberg on records, Harvey Kurtzman in the early issues of Mad: all of those pioneering humorists and many others realized that the real world mattered less to people than the sea of sounds and images that the ever more powerful mass media were pumping into American lives." Bob and Ray, Kovacs and Freberg all became contributors to Mad.
In 1977, Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis wrote in The New York Times about the then-25-year-old publication's initial effect:
The skeptical generation of kids it shaped in the 1950s is the same generation that, in the 1960s, opposed a war and didn't feel bad when the United States lost for the first time and in the 1970s helped turn out an Administration and didn't feel bad about that either ... It was magical, objective proof to kids that they weren't alone, that in New York City on Lafayette Street, if nowhere else, there were people who knew that there was something wrong, phony and funny about a world of bomb shelters, brinkmanship and toothpaste smiles. Mad's consciousness of itself, as trash, as comic book, as enemy of parents and teachers, even as money-making enterprise, thrilled kids. In 1955, such consciousness was possibly nowhere else to be found. In a Mad parody, comic-strip characters knew they were stuck in a strip. "Darnold Duck," for example, begins wondering why he has only three fingers and has to wear white gloves all the time. He ends up wanting to murder every other Disney character. G.I. Schmoe tries to win the sexy Asiatic Red Army broad by telling her, "O.K., baby! You're all mine! I gave you a chance to hit me witta gun butt ... But naturally, you have immediately fallen in love with me, since I am a big hero of this story."
Mad is often credited with filling a vital gap in political satire from the 1950s to 1970s, when Cold War paranoia and a general culture of censorship prevailed in the United States, especially in literature for teens. Activist Tom Hayden said, "My own radical journey began with Mad Magazine." The rise of such factors as cable television and the Internet has diminished the influence and impact of Mad, although it remains a widely distributed magazine. In a way, Mad's power has been undone by its own success: what was subversive in the 1950s and 1960s is now commonplace. However, its impact on three generations of humorists is incalculable, as can be seen in the frequent references to Mad on the animated series The Simpsons. The Simpsons producer Bill Oakley said, "The Simpsons has transplanted Mad magazine. Basically everyone who was young between 1955 and 1975 read Mad, and that's where your sense of humor came from. And we knew all these people, you know, Dave Berg and Don Martin—all heroes, and unfortunately, now all dead. And I think The Simpsons has taken that spot in America's heart." In 2009, The New York Times wrote, "Mad once defined American satire; now it heckles from the margins as all of culture competes for trickster status." Longtime contributor Al Jaffee described the dilemma to an interviewer in 2010: "When Mad first came out, in 1952, it was the only game in town. Now, you've got graduates from Mad who are doing The Today Show or Stephen Colbert or Saturday Night Live. All of these people grew up on Mad. Now Mad has to top them. So Mad is almost in a competition with itself."
Mad's satiric net was cast wide. The magazine often featured parodies of ongoing American culture, including advertising campaigns, the nuclear family, the media, big business, education and publishing. In the 1960s and beyond, it satirized such burgeoning topics as the sexual revolution, hippies, the generation gap, psychoanalysis, gun politics, pollution, the Vietnam War and recreational drug use. The magazine took a generally negative tone towards counterculture drugs such as cannabis and LSD, but it also savaged mainstream drugs such as tobacco and alcohol. Mad always satirized Democrats as mercilessly as it did Republicans. In 2007, Al Feldstein recalled, "We even used to rake the hippies over the coals. They were protesting the Vietnam War, but we took aspects of their culture and had fun with it. Mad was wide open. Bill loved it, and he was a capitalist Republican. I loved it, and I was a liberal Democrat. That went for the writers, too; they all had their own political leanings, and everybody had a voice. But the voices were mostly critical. It was social commentary, after all." Mad also ran a good deal of less topical or contentious material on such varied subjects as fairy tales, nursery rhymes, greeting cards, sports, small talk, poetry, marriage, comic strips, awards shows, cars and many other areas of general interest.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Times' Robert Boyd wrote, "All I really need to know I learned from Mad magazine", going on to assert:
Plenty of it went right over my head, of course, but that's part of what made it attractive and valuable. Things that go over your head can make you raise your head a little higher.
The magazine instilled in me a habit of mind, a way of thinking about a world rife with false fronts, small print, deceptive ads, booby traps, treacherous language, double standards, half truths, subliminal pitches and product placements; it warned me that I was often merely the target of people who claimed to be my friend; it prompted me to mistrust authority, to read between the lines, to take nothing at face value, to see patterns in the often shoddy construction of movies and TV shows; and it got me to think critically in a way that few actual humans charged with my care ever bothered to.
In 1988, Geoffrey O'Brien wrote about the impact Mad had upon the younger generation of the 1950s:
By now they knew the [nuclear survival] pamphlets lied ... Rod Serling knew a lot more than President Eisenhower. There were even jokes about the atom bomb in Mad, a gallows humor commenting on its own ghastliness: "The last example of this nauseating, busted-crutch type humor is to show an atom-bomb explosion! However, this routine, we feel, is giving way to the even more hilarious picture of the hydrogen bomb!" The jittery aftertaste of that joke clarified. It was a splinter driven through the carefully measured prose on the back of some Mentor book about Man and His Destiny ... By not fitting in, a joke momentarily interrupted the world. But after the joke you recognized it was a joke and went back to the integral world that the joke broke. But what if it never came back again, and the little gap stayed there and became everything?
In 1994, Brian Siano in The Humanist discussed the effect of Mad on that segment of people already disaffected from society:
For the smarter kids of two generations, Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything. An entire generation had William Gaines for a godfather: this same generation later went on to give us the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, the peace movement, greater freedom in artistic expression, and a host of other goodies. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Pulitzer Prize-winning art comics maven Art Spiegelman said, "The message Mad had in general is, 'The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.' It was basically ... 'Think for yourselves, kids.'" William Gaines offered his own view: when asked to cite Mad's philosophy, his boisterous answer was, "We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!"
Comics historian Tom Spurgeon picked Mad as the medium's top series of all time, writing, "At the height of its influence, Mad was The Simpsons, The Daily Show and The Onion combined." Graydon Carter chose it as the sixth-best magazine of any sort ever, describing Mad's mission as being "ever ready to pounce on the illogical, hypocritical, self-serious and ludicrous" before concluding, "Nowadays, it's part of the oxygen we breathe." Joyce Carol Oates called it "wonderfully inventive, irresistibly irreverent and intermittently ingenious."
Artist Dave Gibbons said, "When you think of the people who grew up in the '50s and '60s, the letters M-A-D were probably as influential as L-S-D, in that it kind of expanded people's consciousness and showed them an alternative view of society and consumer culture — mocked it, satirized it." Gibbons also noted that Mad was an overt influence on Watchmen, the acclaimed 12-issue comic book series created by writer Alan Moore and himself:
When it comes to the kind of storytelling we did in Watchmen, we used many of the tricks Harvey Kurtzman perfected in Mad. The thing for instance where you have a background that remains constant, and have characters walk around in front of it. Or the inverse of that, where you have characters in the same place and move the background around. We quite mercilessly stole the wonderful techniques Harvey Kurtzman had invented in Mad.
In a 1985 Tonight Show appearance, when Johnny Carson asked Michael J. Fox, "When did you really know you'd made it in show business?", Fox replied, "When Mort Drucker drew my head." In 2019, Terence Winter, writer and producer of The Sopranos, told Variety "When we got into Mad Magazine, that was the highlight for me. That said everything."
Monty Python's Terry Gilliam wrote, "Mad became the Bible for me and my whole generation." Underground cartoonist Bill Griffith said of his youth, "Mad was a life raft in a place like Levittown, where all around you were the things that Mad was skewering and making fun of." In 1977, Robert Crumb said, "Artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics."
When Weird Al Yankovic was asked whether Mad had had any influence in putting him on a road to a career in parody, the musician replied, "[It was] more like going off a cliff." Comedian Jerry Seinfeld talked about the magazine's impact on him, saying, "You start reading it, and you're going, 'These people don't respect anything.' And that just exploded my head. It was like, you don't have to buy it. You can say 'This is stupid. This is stupid.'"
Critic Roger Ebert wrote:
I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine ... Mad's parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin—of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine.
Rock singer Patti Smith said more succinctly, "After Mad, drugs were nothing."
Mad is known for many regular and semi-regular recurring features in its pages, including "Spy vs. Spy", the "Mad Fold-in", "The Lighter Side of ..." and its television and movie parodies. The magazine has also included recurring gags and references, both visual (e.g. the Mad Zeppelin, or Arthur the potted plant) and linguistic (unusual words such as axolotl, furshlugginer, potrzebie and veeblefetzer).
Alfred E. Neuman
The image most closely associated with the magazine is that of Alfred E. Neuman, the boy with misaligned eyes, a gap-toothed smile, and the perennial motto "What, me worry?" The original image was a popular humorous graphic for many decades before Mad adopted it, but the face is now primarily associated with Mad.
Mad initially used the boy's face in November 1954. His first iconic full-cover appearance was as a write-in candidate for President on issue #30 (December 1956), in which he was identified by name and sported his "What, me worry?" motto. He has since appeared in a slew of guises and comic situations. According to Mad writer Frank Jacobs, a letter was once successfully delivered to the magazine through the U.S. mail bearing only Neuman's face, without any address or other identifying information.
The magazine has been involved in various legal actions over the decades, some of which have reached the United States Supreme Court. The most far-reaching was Irving Berlin et al. v. E.C. Publications, Inc. In 1961, a group of music publishers representing songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter filed a $25 million lawsuit against Mad for copyright infringement following "Sing Along With Mad", a collection of parody lyrics which the magazine said could be "sung to the tune of" many popular songs. The publishing group hoped to establish a legal precedent that only a song's composers retained the right to parody that song. Judge Charles Metzner of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled largely in favor of Mad in 1963, affirming its right to print 23 of the 25 song parodies under dispute. However, in the case of two parodies, "Always" (sung to the tune of "Always") and "There's No Business Like No Business" (sung to the tune of "There's No Business Like Show Business"), Judge Metzner decided that the issue of copyright infringement was closer, requiring a trial because in each case the parodies relied on the same verbal hooks ("always" and "business") as the originals. The music publishers appealed the ruling, but the U.S. Court of Appeals not only upheld the pro-Mad decision in regard to the 23 songs, it adopted an approach that was broad enough to strip the publishers of their limited victory regarding the remaining two songs. Writing a unanimous opinion for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Circuit Judge Irving Kaufman observed, "We doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter." The publishers again appealed, but the Supreme Court refused to hear it, thus allowing the decision to stand.
This precedent-setting 1964 ruling established the rights of parodists and satirists to mimic the meter of popular songs. However, the "Sing Along With Mad" songbook was not the magazine's first venture into musical parody. In 1960, Mad had published "My Fair Ad-Man", a full advertising-based spoof of the hit Broadway musical My Fair Lady. In 1959, "If Gilbert & Sullivan wrote Dick Tracy" was one of the speculative pairings in "If Famous Authors Wrote the Comics".
In 1966, a series of copyright infringement lawsuits against the magazine regarding ownership of the Alfred E. Neuman image eventually reached the appellate level. Although Harry Stuff had copyrighted the image in 1914, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that, by allowing many copies of the image to circulate without any copyright notice, the owner of the copyright had allowed the image to pass into the public domain, thus establishing the right of Mad—or anyone else for that matter—to use the image. In addition, Mad established that Stuff was not himself the creator of the image by producing numerous other examples dating back to the late 19th century. This decision was also allowed to stand.
Other legal disputes were settled more easily. Following the magazine's parody of the film The Empire Strikes Back, a letter from George Lucas's lawyers arrived in Mad's offices demanding that the issue be recalled for infringement on copyrighted figures. The letter further demanded that the printing plates be destroyed, and that Lucasfilm must receive all revenue from the issue plus additional punitive damages. Unbeknownst to Lucas' lawyers, Mad had received a letter days earlier from Lucas himself, expressing delight over the parody and calling artist Mort Drucker and writer Dick DeBartolo "the Leonardo da Vinci and George Bernard Shaw of comic satire." Publisher Bill Gaines made a copy of Lucas' letter, added the handwritten notation "Gee, your boss George liked it!" across the top, and mailed it to the lawyers. Said DeBartolo, "We never heard from them again."
Mad was long noted for its absence of advertising, enabling it to satirize materialist culture without fear of reprisal. For decades, it was the most successful American magazine to publish ad-free, beginning with issue #33 (April 1957) and continuing through issue #402 (February 2001).
As a comic book, Mad had run the same advertisements as the rest of EC's line. The magazine later made a deal with Moxie soda that involved inserting the Moxie logo into various articles. Mad ran a limited number of ads in its first two years as a magazine, helpfully labeled "real advertisement" to differentiate the real from the parodies. The last authentic ad published under the original Mad regime was for Famous Artists School; two issues later, the inside front cover of issue #34 had a parody of the same ad. After this transitional period, the only promotions to appear in Mad for decades were house ads for Mad's own books and specials, subscriptions, and promotional items such as ceramic busts, T-shirts, or a line of Mad jewelry. This rule was bent only a few times to promote outside products directly related to the magazine, such as Parker Brothers Mad Board Game, the video game based on Spy vs. Spy, and the notorious Up the Academy movie (which the magazine later disowned). Mad explicitly promised that it would never make its mailing list available.
Both Kurtzman and Feldstein wanted the magazine to solicit advertising, feeling this could be accomplished without compromising Mad's content or editorial independence. Kurtzman remembered Ballyhoo, a boisterous 1930s humor publication that made an editorial point of mocking its own sponsors. Feldstein went so far as to propose an in-house Mad ad agency, and produced a "dummy" copy of what an issue with ads could look like. But Bill Gaines was intractable, telling the television news magazine 60 Minutes, "We long ago decided we couldn't take money from Pepsi-Cola and make fun of Coca-Cola." Gaines' motivation in eschewing ad dollars was less philosophical than practical:
We'd have to improve our package. Most advertisers want to appear in a magazine that's loaded with color and has super-slick paper. So you find yourself being pushed into producing a more expensive package. You get bigger and fancier and attract more advertisers. Then you find you're losing some of your advertisers. Your readers still expect the fancy package, so you keep putting it out, but now you don't have your advertising income, which is why you got fancier in the first place—and now you're sunk.
Contributors and criticism
Mad has provided an ongoing showcase for many long-running satirical writers and artists and has fostered an unusual group loyalty. Although several of the contributors earn far more than their Mad pay in fields such as television and advertising, they have steadily continued to provide material for the publication. Among the notable artists were the aforementioned Davis, Elder and Wood, as well as Sergio Aragonés, Mort Drucker, George Woodbridge, Harry North and Paul Coker. Writers such as Dick DeBartolo, Stan Hart, Frank Jacobs, Tom Koch, and Arnie Kogen appeared regularly in the magazine's pages. In several cases, only infirmity or death has ended a contributor's run at Mad.
Within the industry, Mad was known for the uncommonly prompt manner in which its contributors were paid. Publisher Gaines would typically write a personal check and give it to the artist upon receipt of the finished product. Wally Wood said, "I got spoiled ... Other publishers don't do that. I started to get upset if I had to wait a whole week for my check." Another lure for contributors was the annual "Mad Trip", an all-expenses-paid tradition that began in 1960. The editorial staff was automatically invited, along with freelancers who had qualified for an invitation by selling a set number of articles or pages during the previous year. Gaines was strict about enforcing this quota, and one year, longtime writer and frequent traveller Arnie Kogen was bumped off the list. Later that year, Gaines' mother died, and Kogen was asked if he would be attending the funeral. "I can't," said Kogen, "I don't have enough pages." Over the years, the Mad crew traveled to such locales as France, Kenya, Russia, Hong Kong, England, Amsterdam, Tahiti, Morocco, Italy, Greece, and Germany. The tradition ended with Gaines' death, and a 1993 trip to Monte Carlo.
Although Mad was an exclusively freelance publication, it achieved a remarkable stability, with numerous contributors remaining prominent for decades. Critics of the magazine felt that this lack of turnover eventually led to a formulaic sameness, although there is little agreement on when the magazine peaked or plunged.
Proclaiming the precise moment that purportedly triggered the magazine's irreversible decline is a common pastime. Among the most frequently cited "downward turning points" are: creator-editor Harvey Kurtzman's departure in 1957; the magazine's mainstream success; adoption of recurring features starting in the early 1960s; the magazine's absorption into a more corporate structure in 1968 (or later, the mid-1990s); founder Gaines' death in 1992; the magazine's publicized "edgy revamp" in 1997; the arrival of paid advertising in 2001; or the magazine's 2018 move to California. Mad has been criticized for its over-reliance on a core group of aging regulars throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and then criticized again for an alleged downturn as those same creators began to leave, die, retire, or contribute less frequently.
It has been proposed that Mad is more susceptible to this criticism than many media because a sizable percentage of its readership turns over regularly as it ages, as Mad focuses greatly on current events and a changing popular culture. In 2010, Sergio Aragones said, "Mad is written by people who never thought 'Okay, I'm going to write for kids,' or 'I'm going to write for adults.' ... And many people say 'I used to read Mad, but Mad has changed a lot.' Excuse me— you grew up! You have new interests. ... The change doesn't come from the magazine, it comes from the people who grow or don't grow." Mad poked fun at the tendency of readers to accuse the magazine of declining in quality at various points in its history in its "Untold History of Mad Magazine", a self-referential faux history in the 400th issue which joked: "The second issue of Mad goes on sale on December 9, 1952. On December 11, the first-ever letter complaining that Mad 'just isn't as funny and original like it used to be' arrives." The magazine's then art director, Sam Viviano, suggested in 2002 that historically, Mad was at its best "whenever you first started reading it." According to former Mad Senior Editor Joe Raiola, "Mad is the only place in America where if you mature, you get fired."
Among the loudest of those who insist the magazine is no longer funny are supporters of Harvey Kurtzman, who had the good critical fortune to leave Mad after just 28 issues, before his own formulaic tendencies might have become obtrusive. This also meant Kurtzman suffered the bad creative and financial timing of departing before the magazine became a runaway success.
However, just how much of that success was due to the original Kurtzman template that he left for his successor, and how much should be credited to the Al Feldstein system and the depth of the post-Kurtzman talent pool, can be argued without resolution. In 2009, an interviewer proposed to Al Jaffee, "There's a group of Mad aficionados who feel that if Harvey Kurtzman had stayed at Mad, the magazine would not only have been different, but better." Jaffee, a Kurtzman enthusiast, replied, "And then there's a large group who feel that if Harvey had stayed with Mad, he would have upgraded it to the point that only fifteen people would buy it." During Kurtzman's final two-plus years at EC, Mad appeared erratically (ten issues appeared in 1954, followed by eight issues in 1955 and four issues in 1956). Feldstein was less well regarded creatively, but kept the magazine on a regular schedule, leading to decades of success. (Kurtzman and Will Elder returned to Mad for a short time in the mid-1980s as an illustrating team.)
The magazine's sales peak came with issue #161 (September 1973), which sold 2.4 million copies in 1973. That period coincided with several other magazines' sales peaks, including TV Guide and Playboy. Mad's circulation dropped below one million for the first time in 1983.
Many of the magazine's mainstays began retiring or dying by the 1980s. Newer contributors who appeared in the years that followed include Joe Raiola, Charlie Kadau, Tony Barbieri, Scott Bricher, Tom Bunk, John Caldwell, Desmond Devlin, Drew Friedman, Barry Liebmann, Kevin Pope, Scott Maiko, Hermann Mejia, Tom Richmond, Andrew J. Schwartzberg, Mike Snider, Greg Theakston, Nadina Simon, Rick Tulka, and Bill Wray.
On April 1, 1997, the magazine publicized an alleged "revamp", ostensibly designed to reach an older, more sophisticated readership. However, Salon's David Futrelle opined that such content was very much a part of Mad's past:
The October 1971 issue, for example, with its war crimes fold-in and back cover "mini-poster" of "The Four Horsemen of the Metropolis" (Drugs, Graft, Pollution and Slums). With its Mad Pollution Primer. With its "Reality Street" TV satire, taking a poke at the idealized images of interracial harmony on Sesame Street. ("It's a street of depression,/ Corruption, oppression!/ It's a sadist's dream come true!/ And masochists, too!") With its "This is America" photo feature, contrasting images of heroic astronauts with graphic photos of dead soldiers and junkies shooting up. I remember this issue pretty well; it was one of the ones I picked up at a garage sale and read to death. I seem to remember asking my parents what "graft" was. One of the joys of Mad for me at the time was that it was always slightly over my head. From "Mad's Up-Dated Modern Day Mother Goose" I learned about Andy Warhol, Spiro Agnew and Timothy Leary ("Wee Timmy Leary/ Soars through the sky/ Upward and Upward/ Till he's, oh, so, high/ Since this rhyme's for kiddies/ How do we explain/ That Wee Timmy Leary/ Isn't in a plane?"). From "Greeting Cards for the Sexual Revolution" I learned about "Gay Liberationists" and leather-clad "Sex Fetishists." I read the Mad versions of a whole host of films I never in a million years would have been allowed to see: Easy Rider ("Sleazy Riders"), Midnight Cowboy ("Midnight Wowboy"), Five Easy Pieces ("Five Easy Pages [and two hard ones].") I learned about the John Birch Society and Madison Avenue.
Mad editor John Ficarra acknowledged that changes in culture made the task of creating fresh satire more difficult, telling an interviewer, "The editorial mission statement has always been the same: 'Everyone is lying to you, including magazines. Think for yourself. Question authority.' But it's gotten harder, as they've gotten better at lying and getting in on the joke."
Mad contributor Tom Richmond has responded to critics who say the magazine's decision to accept advertising would make late publisher William Gaines "turn over in his grave", pointing out this is impossible because Gaines was cremated.
Mad is known for the stability and longevity of its talent roster, billed as "The Usual Gang of Idiots", with several creators enjoying 30-, 40- and even 50-year careers in the magazine's pages.
According to the "Mad Magazine Contributor Appearances" website, more than 960 contributors have received bylines in at least one issue of Mad, but only 41 of those have contributed to 100 issues or more. Writer-artist Al Jaffee has appeared in the most issues; #550 (April 2018) was the 500th issue with new work by Jaffee. The other three contributors to have appeared in more than 400 issues of Mad are Sergio Aragonés, Dick DeBartolo, and Mort Drucker; Dave Berg, Paul Coker, and Frank Jacobs have each topped the 300 mark.
Jaffee, Aragonés, Berg, Don Edwing and Don Martin are the five writer-artists to have appeared in the largest total of issues; DeBartolo, Jacobs, Desmond Devlin, Stan Hart, and Tom Koch are the five most frequent writers, and Drucker, Coker, Bob Clarke, Angelo Torres and George Woodbridge are the five top illustrators on the list. (The list calculates appearances by issue only, not by individual articles or overall page count; e.g. although Jacobs wrote three separate articles that appeared in issue #172, his total is reckoned to have increased by one.)
Each of the following contributors has created over 100 articles for the magazine:
Over the years, the editorial staff, most notably Al Feldstein, Nick Meglin, John Ficarra, Joe Raiola, and Charlie Kadau have had creative input on countless articles and shaped Mad's distinctive satiric voice.
Other notable contributors
Among the irregular contributors with just a single Mad byline to their credit are Charles M. Schulz, Chevy Chase, Andy Griffith, Will Eisner, Kevin Smith, J. Fred Muggs, Boris Vallejo, Sir John Tenniel, Jean Shepherd, Winona Ryder, Jimmy Kimmel, Jason Alexander, Walt Kelly, Rep. Barney Frank, Tom Wolfe, Steve Allen, Jim Lee, Jules Feiffer, Donald Knuth, and Richard Nixon, who remains the only President credited with "writing" a Mad article. (The entire text was taken from Nixon's speeches.)
Those who have contributed twice apiece include Tom Lehrer, Wally Cox, Gustave Doré, Danny Kaye, Stan Freberg, Mort Walker, and Leonardo da Vinci. (Leonardo's check is still waiting in the Mad offices for him to pick it up.) Appearing slightly more frequently were Frank Frazetta (3 bylines), Ernie Kovacs (11), Bob and Ray (12), Henry Morgan (3), and Sid Caesar (4). In its earliest years, before amassing its own staff of regulars, the magazine frequently used outside "name" talent. Often, Mad would simply illustrate the celebrities' preexisting material while promoting their names on the cover. The Bob and Ray association was particularly fruitful. When the magazine learned that Tom Koch was the writer behind the Bob and Ray radio sketches adapted by Mad, Koch was sought out by the editors and ultimately wrote more than 300 Mad articles over the next 37 years.
The magazine has occasionally run guest articles in which notables from show business or comic books have participated. In 1964, an article called "Comic Strips They'd Really Like To Do" featured one-shot proposals by cartoonists including Mell Lazarus and Charles M. Schulz. More than once, the magazine has enlisted popular comic book artists such as Frank Miller or Jim Lee to design and illustrate a series of "Rejected Superheroes." In 2008, the magazine got national coverage for its article "Why George W. Bush is in Favor of Global Warming". Each of the piece's 10 punchlines was illustrated by a different Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. In 2015, "Weird Al" Yankovic served as the magazine's first and only guest editor, writing some material and guiding the content in issue #533, while upping his own career Mad byline total from two to five.
In 1955, Gaines began presenting reprints of material for Mad in black-and-white paperbacks, the first being The Mad Reader. Many of these featured new covers by Mad cover artist Norman Mingo. This practice continued into the 2000s, with more than 100 Mad paperbacks published. Gaines made a special effort to keep the entire line of paperbacks in print at all times, and the books were frequently reprinted in new editions with different covers. There were also dozens of Mad paperbacks featuring entirely new material by the magazine's contributors.
Mad also frequently repackaged its material in a long series of "Super Special" format magazines, beginning in 1958 with two concurrent annual series entitled The Worst from Mad and More Trash from Mad. Various other titles have been used through the years. These reprint issues were sometimes augmented by exclusive features such as posters, stickers and, on a few occasions, recordings on flexi-disc, or comic book-formatted inserts reprinting material from the 1952–55 era.
Between 2005 and February 17, 2009, the magazine published 14 issues of Mad Kids, a spinoff publication aimed at a younger demographic. Reminiscent of Nickelodeon's newsstand titles, it emphasized current kids' entertainment (i.e. Yu-Gi-Oh!, Naruto, High School Musical), albeit with an impudent voice. Much of the content of Mad Kids had originally appeared in the parent publication; reprinted material was chosen and edited to reflect grade schoolers' interests. But the quarterly magazine also included newly commissioned articles and cartoons, as well as puzzles, bonus inserts, a calendar, and the other activity-related content that is common to kids' magazines.
Mad has been published in local versions in many countries, beginning with the United Kingdom in 1959, and Sweden in 1960. Each new market receives access to the publication's back catalog of articles and is also encouraged to produce its own localized material in the Mad vein. However, the sensibility of the American Mad has not always translated to other cultures, and many of the foreign editions have had short lives or interrupted publications. The Swedish, Danish, Italian and Mexican Mads were each published on three separate occasions; Norway has had four runs canceled. Brazil also had four runs, but without significant interruptions, spanning five decades. Australia (35 years and counting), United Kingdom (35 years), and Sweden (34 years) have produced the longest uninterrupted Mad variants.
Foreign editions as of 2019
- Australia, 1980–present;
- Poland, 2015–present;
Defunct foreign editions
- United Kingdom, 1959–1994; (still use the US version today)
- Sweden, 1960–1993, 1997–2002;
- Denmark, 1962–1971, 1979–1997, 1998–2002;
- Netherlands, 1964–1996; 2011–2012;
- France, 1965, 1982;
- Germany, 1967–95, 1998–2018;
- Finland, 1970–1972, 1982–2005;
- Italy, 1971–1974, 1984, 1992–1993;
- Norway, 1971–1972, 1981–1996, 2001 (one-offs 2002–2003);
- Brazil, 1974–1983, 1984–2000, 2000–2006; 2008–2017;
- Spain, 1974, 1975 (as Locuras), 2006–2016;
- Argentina, 1977–1982;
- Mexico, 1977–1983, 1984–1986, 1993–1998; 2004–2010
- Caribbean, 1977–1983;
- Greece, 1978–1985, 1995–1999;
- Japan, 1979–1980; (two oversized anthologies were released)
- Iceland, 1985; 1987–1988;
- South Africa, 1985–2009;
- Taiwan, 1990;
- Canada (Quebec), 1991–1992 (Past material in a "collection album" with Croc, another Quebec humor magazine);
- Hungary, 1994–2009;
- Israel, 1994–1995;
- Turkey, 2000–2001;
Conflicts over content have occasionally arisen between the parent magazine and its international franchisees. When a comic strip satirizing England's royal family was reprinted in a Mad paperback, it was deemed necessary to rip out the page from 25,000 copies by hand before the book could be distributed in Great Britain. But Mad was also protective of its own editorial standards. Bill Gaines sent "one of his typically dreadful, blistering letters" to his Dutch editors after they published a bawdy gag about a men's room urinal. Mad has since relaxed its requirements, and while the U.S. version still eschews overt profanity, the magazine generally poses no objections to more provocative content.
Other satiric-comics magazines
Following the success of Mad, other black-and-white magazines of topical, satiric comics began to be published. Most were short-lived. The three longest-lasting were Cracked, Sick, and Crazy Magazine. These three and many others featured a cover mascot along the lines of Alfred E. Neuman.
Color comic-book competitors, primarily in the mid-to-late 1950s, were Nuts!, Get Lost, Whack, Riot, Flip, Eh!, From Here to Insanity, and Madhouse; only the last of these lasted as many as eight issues, and some were canceled after an issue or two. Later color satiric comic books included Wild, Blast, Parody, Grin and Gag!. EC Comics itself offered the color comic Panic, produced by future Mad editor Al Feldstein. Two years after EC's Panic had ceased publication in 1956, the title was used by another publisher for a similar comic.
In 1967, Marvel Comics produced the first of 13 issues of the comic book Not Brand Echh, which parodied the company's own superhero titles as well as other publishers. From 1973 to 1976, DC Comics published the comic Plop!, which featured Mad stalwart Sergio Aragonés and frequent cover art by Basil Wolverton. Another publisher's comic was Trash (1978) featured a blurb on the debut cover reading, "We mess with Mad (p. 21)" and depicted Alfred E. Neuman with a stubbly beard; the fourth and last issue showed two bodybuilders holding up copies of Mud and Crocked with the frowning faces of Neuman and Cracked cover mascot Sylvester P. Smythe.
Virginia Commonwealth University's Cabell Library has an extensive collection of Mad along with other comic books and graphic novels.
In other media
Over the years, Mad has branched out from print into other media. During the Gaines years, the publisher had an aversion to exploiting his fan base and expressed the fear that substandard Mad products would offend them. He was known to personally issue refunds to anyone who wrote to the magazine with a complaint. Among the few outside Mad items available in its first 40 years were cufflinks, a T-shirt designed like a straitjacket (complete with lock), and a small ceramic Alfred E. Neuman bust. For decades, the letters page advertised an inexpensive portrait of Neuman ("suitable for framing or for wrapping fish") with misleading slogans such as "Only 1 Left!" (The joke being that the picture was so undesirable that only one had left their office since the last ad.) After Gaines' death came an overt absorption into the Time-Warner publishing umbrella, with the result that Mad merchandise began to appear more frequently. Items were displayed in the Warner Bros. Studio Stores, and in 1994 The Mad Style Guide was created for licensing use.
Mad has sponsored or inspired a number of recordings. In 1959, Bernie Green "with the Stereo Mad-Men" recorded the album Musically Mad for RCA Victor, featuring music inspired by Mad and an image of Alfred E. Neuman on the cover; it has been reissued on CD. That same year, The Worst from Mad #2 included an original recording, "Meet the staff of Mad", on a cardboard 33 rpm record, while a single credited to Alfred E. Neuman & The Furshlugginger Five: "What – Me Worry?" (b/w "Potrzebie"), was issued in late 1959 on the ABC Paramount label.
Two additional albums of novelty songs, written by Norman Blagman and Sam Bobrick and performed by The Dellwoods, were released by Bigtop Records in 1962–63: "Mad 'Twists' Rock 'N' Roll" and "Fink Along with Mad". The latter album featured a song titled "It's a Gas", which punctuated an instrumental track with belches (along with a saxophone break by an uncredited King Curtis). Dr. Demento featured this gaseous performance on his radio show in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Mad included some of these tracks as plastic-laminated cardboard inserts and (later) flexi discs with their reprinted "Mad Specials".
A number of original recordings also were released in this way in the 1970s and early 1980s, such as Gall in the Family Fare (a radio play adaptation of their previously illustrated All in the Family parody), a single entitled "Makin' Out", the octuple-grooved track "It's a Super Spectacular Day", which had eight possible endings, the spoken word Meet the staff insert, and a six-track, 30-minute Mad Disco EP (from the 1980 special of the same title) that included a disco version of "It's a Gas". The last turntable-playable recording Mad packaged with its magazines was "A Mad Look at Graduation", in a 1982 special. A CD-ROM containing several audio tracks was included with issue #350 (October 1996). Rhino Records compiled a number of Mad-recorded tracks as Mad Grooves (1996).
An Off-Broadway production, The Mad Show, was first staged in 1966. The show, which lasted for 871 performances during its initial run, featured sketches written by Mad regulars Stan Hart and Larry Siegel interspersed with comedic songs (one of which was written by an uncredited Stephen Sondheim). The cast album is available on CD. In September 2017, the show will return with new writers and actors.
In 1979, Mad released a board game. The Mad Magazine Game was an absurdist version of Monopoly in which the first player to lose all his money and go bankrupt was the winner. Profusely illustrated with artwork by the magazine's contributors, the game included a $1,329,063 bill that could not be won unless one's name was "Alfred E. Neuman". It also featured a deck of cards (called "Card cards") with bizarre instructions, such as "If you can jump up and stay airborne for 37 seconds, you can lose $5,000. If not, jump up and lose $500." In 1980 a second game was released: The Mad Magazine Card Game by Parker Brothers. In it, the player who first loses all their cards is declared the winner. The game is fairly similar to Uno by Mattel. Questions based on the magazine also appeared in the 1999 Trivial Pursuit: Warner Bros. Edition (which featured questions based around Time-Warner properties, including WB films and TV shows, the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons (and follow-up projects from Warner Bros. Animation)), as well as DC Comics, Hanna-Barbera, Cartoon Network and assorted MGM properties owned by Turner Entertainment Co. that WB had come into possession of following the 1996 Turner/Time-Warner merger.
Film and television
Following the success of the National Lampoon-backed Animal House, Mad lent its name in 1980 to a similarly risque comedy film, Up the Academy. It was such a commercial debacle and critical failure that Mad successfully arranged for all references to the magazine (including a cameo by Alfred E. Neuman) to be removed from future TV and video releases of the film, although those references were eventually restored on the DVD version, which was titled Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy. Mad also devoted two pages of its magazine to an attack on the movie, titled Throw Up the Academy. The spoof's ending collapsed into a series of interoffice memos between the writer, artist, editor and publisher, all bewailing the fact that they had been forced to satirize such a terrible film. On March 2, 2018, Mad announced via their Twitter page that a sequel to the original film will be written by an A-list film writer.
A 1974 Mad animated television pilot using selected material from the magazine was commissioned by ABC but the network decided to not broadcast it. Dick DeBartolo noted, "Nobody wanted to sponsor a show that made fun of products that were advertised on TV, like car manufacturers." The program was instead created into a TV special, and is available for online viewing.
In the mid-1980s, Hanna-Barbera developed another potential Mad animated television series that was never broadcast.
In 1995, Fox Broadcasting Company's Mad TV licensed the use of the magazine's logo and characters. However, aside from short bumpers which animated existing Spy vs. Spy (1994–1998) and Don Martin (1995–2000) cartoons during the show's first three seasons, there was no editorial or stylistic connection between the TV show and the magazine. Produced by Quincy Jones, the sketch comedy series was in the vein of NBC's Saturday Night Live and Global/CBC's SCTV, and ran for 14 seasons and 321 episodes. On January 12, 2016, The CW aired an hour-long special celebrating the series' 20th anniversary. A large portion of the original cast returned. An eight-episode revival featuring a brand new cast premiered on July 26, 2016.
Animated Spy vs. Spy sequences were also seen in TV ads for Mountain Dew soda in 2004.
In September 2010, Cartoon Network began airing the animated series Mad, from Warner Bros. Animation and executive producer Sam Register (Teen Titans, Ben 10, Batman: The Brave and the Bold). The series aired short animated vignettes about current television shows, films, games and other aspects of popular culture. Much like Mad TV's, this series also features appearances by Spy vs. Spy and Don Martin cartoons. Produced by Kevin Shinick (Robot Chicken) and Mark Marek (KaBlam!, The Andy Milonakis Show), the series ran from September 6, 2010, to December 2, 2013, lasting for four seasons and 103 episodes.
In 1984, the Spy vs. Spy characters were given their own computer game series, in which players could set traps for each other. The games were made for various computer systems such as the Atari 800, Apple II, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum. Whereas the original game took place in a nondescript building, the sequels transposed the action to a desert island for Spy vs. Spy: The Island Caper and a polar setting for Spy vs. Spy: Arctic Antics.
Not to be confused with the later television show, Mad TV is a television station management simulation computer game produced in 1991 by Rainbow Arts for the Mad franchise. It was released on the PC and the Amiga. It is faithful to the magazine's general style of cartoon humor but does not include any of the original characters except for a brief closeup of Alfred E. Neuman's eyes during the opening screens.
In 1996, Mad #350 included a CD-ROM featuring Mad-related software as well as three audio files. In 1999, Broderbund/The Learning Company released Totally Mad, a Microsoft Windows 95/98-compatible CD-ROM set collecting the magazine's content from #1 through #376 (December 1998), plus over 100 Mad Specials including most of the recorded audio inserts. Despite the title, it omitted a handful of articles due to problems clearing the rights on some book excerpts and text taken from recordings, such as Andy Griffith's "What It Was, Was Football". In 2006, Graphic Imaging Technology's DVD-ROM Absolutely Mad updated the original Totally Mad content through 2005. A single seven-gigabyte disc, it is missing the same deleted material from the 1999 collection. It differs from the earlier release in that it is Macintosh compatible.
Another Spy vs. Spy video game was made in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Microsoft Windows. A Mad app was released for iPad on April 1, 2012. It displays the contents of each new issue beginning with Mad #507, as well as video clips from Cartoon Network's Mad, and material from the magazine's website, The Idiotical.
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