Sunday, July 07, 2019
MAD, We Hardly Knew Ye…
MAD magazine has announced that it’s fading away, retreating to reissues of old material. I have to admit, that news hit me hard.
I grew up on the MAD of the 1970’s and early 1980’s (which already included generous recycling of material from the 1960’s). That was pretty much its peak, in terms of readership and cultural weight, and it made sense that it was. As I like to tell my long-suffering kids, it was a different time in ways that are hard to reconstruct now.
At a really basic level, it was much more of a monoculture. We had three commercial tv networks and one public one. Daily newspapers were still important, but they had already started consolidating by then; Rochester in the 70’s had two daily newspapers, but they were both Gannett, and they combined on the weekends. A hit television show in the late 70’s might be watched by half of the television sets in the country, and all at the same time; this was before VCR’s, let alone DVR’s, on-demand, or streaming. Back then, if you missed a tv show at the moment it showed, you missed it. At best, you might catch the rerun a few months later. “Appointment viewing” was a thing.
I remember clearly going to elementary school on Wednesdays and needing to have an opinion on the episode of Happy Days from the night before. Everybody in school watched it. With painfully few media outlets, each one carried weight. As hard as it is to imagine now, people actually cared who anchored the CBS or NBC evening news. (The movie/play “Network” comes off as a period piece now.) It was the early 80’s before Rochester finally got a fifth tv channel; it mostly played old movies and Gilligan’s Island.
When you only had three or four channels to pick from, the reigning programming philosophy was “don’t offend anyone.” That led to a certain vapidity exemplified by the variety show. (To get a sense of just how awful they were, just type “Donny and Marie” into YouTube. You’re welcome.) In that context, there was plenty of pent-up demand for a magazine that would tell kids that yes, much of what they’re seeing is stupid. And there were enough common cultural referents that plenty of people would get the jokes.
In publishing, MAD was it. (“Cracked” always came off as the lower-achieving cousin of MAD.) In music, the old Dr. Demento show provided a weekly reality check. It’s remembered now, if at all, as the launchpad for Weird Al Yankovic, but it was far more than that. In trading cards, “Wacky Packages” captured the spirit of the age. The first few years of “Saturday Night Live” came off as much more threatening than they seem in retrospect because nearly everything else was so resolutely safe.
The preceding paragraph tells you everything you need to know about my dating life in high school.
It’s possible to reread old issues now, but the context has changed. The country is much more racially diverse than it was, with people outside the old monopoly rightly claiming space. The media landscape has changed beyond recognition; at this point, I literally can’t name any of the anchors of the three legacy network evening news shows. The monoculture has fragmented. That’s a blessing in many, many ways, but it makes it harder for a satirical magazine to assume a common target. And the internet hath wrought a grand flourishing of snark. In the 70’s, if a president mentioned Revolutionary War soldiers taking airports, Johnny Carson would have been pretty much the only one on the scene to crack jokes about it. Now, with Twitter, memes fly fast and free. (My favorite put the ship from the “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting in front of a luggage carousel, with the caption “The Battle of Baggage Claim.”) The kids who used to wait for a monthly blast of sanity from “the usual gang of idiots” can get snark mainlined, in real time, for free. And each can customize their timeline to the jokes that they’ll actually understand.
Still, MAD wasn’t beloved just for its snark. People who didn’t read it much missed this part, but it was, for lack of a better word, humane. It punched up, not down. It respected its readers -- mostly adolescent boys -- enough to trust that they could understand jokes about genre. Its stable of writers during its glory days -- the aforementioned usual gang of idiots -- had clear patterns of what they would attack, and how. Although it was sometimes crude, it was never cruel. It had its blind spots, obviously, but it was always anti-bigotry, pro-the little guy, and in favor of basic fairness. (Dave Berg’s drawings of women could be gratuitously sexualized, but they tended to be the exception.) Its moral compass was better than it got credit for. For a magazine aimed at adolescent boys in the 70’s, that’s something. Its last big hit, “The Ghastlygun Tinies,” was in that same spirit, siding with helpless victims against a culture gone, well, mad. It was very much in the MAD tradition.
My mom recognized early on that if she wanted to encourage me to read, she needed to get me stuff that I liked reading. I devoured issues of MAD. She kept ‘em coming. When he was about eleven, I got my son a subscription for a while; he laughed himself breathless at a parody of Justin Bieber. I smiled the same way that Mom used to.
Farewell, MAD. You were a lifeline of sanity in a difficult time. May the spirit of humane snark as truth-telling continue to thrive.