The first magazine to which I subscribed was neither Boys’ Life nor Sports Illustrated; it was Mad, whose longtime editor (1956-85) Albert Feldstein died last month at the age of 88. I was gratified to see that his death, at any rate, was duly noted with lavish tributes and extended obituaries. He surely deserved them: Mad, in my estimation, has never quite gotten the credit it deserved as a molder (twister?) of baby boom minds and precursor to such satirical institutions as the Onion, Saturday Night Live, or National Lampoon.
Yet the nature of its satire—indeed, Al Feldstein’s contribution—has been misunderstood as well. The descriptions of Mad in the press—“blithe mockery, disengaged disdain and nose-thumbing scorn of pop culture” (Washington Post)—seem to me to have missed the point. Indeed, you would think that, prior to Mad, American humor was politely respectful of our national culture, or that the sacred cows of American life—church, state, business, motherhood, armed forces—remained sacred until some time in the Eisenhower administration.
That would surprise readers of, say, the New Yorker during Harold Ross’s tenure as editor (1925-51), or admirers of W. C. Fields or Robert Benchley, or their grandparents, who read Ambrose Bierce and attended the lectures of Artemus Ward or Petroleum V. Nasby. In fact, American humor has always been mocking and disdainful: Cartoons of Abraham Lincoln were no less cruel than depictions of Ronald Reagan, and there is no contemporary fiction more subversive of American piety than Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson or the Sut Lovingood stories of George Washington Harris.
What distinguished Mad was not its place in the great tradition but its mastery of parody, and for that Al Feldstein deserves full credit. Prior to Feldstein, Mad was a slightly out-of-the-ordinary comic book of its era, very redolent of its pulp origins in Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science. His contribution—self-evident in retrospect, but not so obvious at the time—was to marry the graphic format with the observational/political humor of comedians of the era, such as Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, and Stan Freberg. Mad, in that sense, was an illustrated version of a Freberg routine: Lawrence Welk’s band floating out to sea on a cloud of bubbles.
At any rate, at age 10, that’s what appealed to me—and for the next few years, until the Mad formula began to pall. The features that obituary-writers have tended to celebrate—Don Martin’s grotesque drawings, Dave Berg’s “Lighter Side of . . .” series—seemed at the time to be the least satisfactory things about Mad, gentle musings on everyday life with about as much bite as an Art Buchwald column. Even the “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon, with its supposed Cold War theme, left me cold. By contrast, the first Mad article I remember—a Madison Avenue approach to marketing the 1960 presidential candidates—contained the hallmarks of comic inventiveness: It was novel, counterintuitive, sardonic, and, of course, prescient. I can still see Lyndon Johnson depicted as a pack of cigarettes—“Have a real candidate. Have a Johnson”—which, a half-century later, is strikingly close to reality.
The irony is that the blandly liberal politics of Mad—poking fun at bourgeois conventions, lampooning sanctimony, giggling at generals and Big Business and network television—have been inverted in the fullness of time. One example will suffice: “Protest Letters” depicts a ventriloquist and his dummy exchanging painfully anodyne jokes on television—“This report card is a disgrace, Marmaduke! I don’t think you’re trying very hard at school.” “But I am, Mr. Murphy! My teacher says I’m her most trying pupil!”—whereupon the network is deluged with angry letters from Shocked Parent, Indignant Teacher, a man named Marmaduke, and a range of trade associations and protective societies. When the same routine is repeated, the network plays it safe the second time with pictures, but no sound.
Ultimately, Mad found its voice in its parodies of movies and television, drawn by Mort Drucker and Wallace Wood, among others, and written by any number of “the usual gang of idiots” who graced its masthead. In “East Side Story,” the Cold War is depicted as a gang rumble in the U.N. neighborhood between West and East (When you’re a Red, you’re a Red all the way / From your first Party purge to your last power play). And in “My Fair Ad-Man,” the Pygmalion story is transferred to a Manhattan advertising agency where one partner (Cary Grant) persuades a skeptical officemate (Charles Laughton) that he can transform a beatnik (Frank Sinatra, complete with goatee and beret) into an account executive—a precursor, as it were, of Mad Men.
The genius of successful parody is the marriage of fiction and truth, a keen eye to see the subject in caricature and a sharp ear to reproduce the music slightly off-key. In its heyday, Mad had it; and thanks to Al Feldstein, it still makes me laugh.
Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.