The un-funny decline of MAD Magazine

 

If you’re over 25 and male you probably remember MAD Magazine.

MAD was a cultural icon for over six decades. It was a relentless boundary pusher; a trendsetter in comedy the effects of which can still be seen in today’s pop culture. In its ‘hey day’ it was controversial and stirred much needed debate; its artwork was often genius and its writing was razor sharp.

MAD’s toothless mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, was synonymous with the brand and iconic in his own right. The obnoxious looking adolescent has featured on almost every MAD magazine cover since 1955, representing the mischief maker in all of us and striking a chord with readers far and wide.

Once called the TIME magazine of comedy, it was said that if you make the cover of MAD, you have officially ‘made it’.

But what happened to MAD Magazine?

The magazine, confiscated in classrooms across the planet and laid alongside Playboy magazines under the beds of generations of boys has lost its place among the kind of pop culture humorists that it helped to create.

The original core group of artists and writers, guys like Dave Berg from The Lighter Side of, Al Jaffee from Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions and the Fold ins, Mort Drucker’s excellent movie parodies, Sergio Aragones from A Mad Look at and the funny little border pictures, have all moved on or sadly, passed away.

Their loss is something that the magazine has never recovered from, and led to MAD Magazine rehashing itself with quarterly  Classic issues. The MAD repackaged Classics  appeal neither to new readers who don’t ‘get’ the references nor older readers, who are disenfranchised due to years of uninspired mediocrity from the publication.

And then there is the somewhat misguided change in target demographic.

In 2013, MAD magazine released a frankly woeful cartoon series for Cartoon Network simply named MAD. The series was basically like any Adult Swim cartoon series but for kids. The cartoon sorely lacks the balls and edginess that the magazine was known for.

MAD Magazine, foolishly, decided to follow the direction of their cartoon namesake, rendering what was once an intelligent magazine that seamlessly mixed high and low-brow humor, social commentary, and political satire, into a haven for tame roastings of Justin Beiber – roastings that are so polite and gutless that even Justin couldn’t be offended.

The goal of MAD Magazine was never to safely nestle itself within the comfy confines of the politically correct, nor should it ever be. MAD has always had an internal compass for what was right and wrong to poke fun at, but MAD would have tore someone of Bieber’s low moral standing apart up until only recently.

MAD today just isn’t the same magazine that dropped this (below) as a cover in 1974 and upset cultural sensitivities at a time that society was almost puritan in comparison to today.

Middle

This cover caused outrage. There were public debates whether the magazine should be age restricted or even taken off the shelves. This is the MAD Magazine that used to break down social barriers – the MAD Magazine I remember best.

MAD Magazine’s influence on the comedy world with its irreverent, smart-aleck humour has come back to haunt them over the past two decades, causing the publication to fall into obscurity.

Much like the Simpsons, which MAD helped inspire, gave way to Family Guy and South Park, so too has MAD been overtaken by literally every comedian and series writer who read the magazine.

This, in turn, has caused Mad to search for a newer, younger audience. But by doing so, it defaces all it once stood for.

For instance, there are now ads in Mad Magazine. If you are willing to part with three thousand Australian dollars you can place your ad in the magazine.

In their first 44 years they never had a single ad. It was against their ethos, and many of their pieces were about finding – and making fun of – the blatant lying that happens in advertisement.

But of course something has to pay for their new, shiny, colored pages.

And if you are counting those, you will find that they have almost halved. An average regular issue Mad Magazine of the 1990’s used to have 70+ pages of new material. Mad Magazines today average around 48, most of which is rehashed, and some of those pages are filled with ads and self promotion.

At $7.00AU a pop, it is hard for MAD to even use “Cheap” as a joking description.

Struggling sales have caused the magazine to trim back their releases from monthly to bi-monthly in the USA and Australia, evidence that its popularity is receding.

The slow death of print media cannot be blamed for this, either. MAD Magazine has an app on Ipad where you can download the magazines, and the move to quarterly release suggests that the app hasn’t been a raging success.

MAD Magazine used to inform, amuse, and point a big, snotty middle finger up at the establishment and corporations. Today it sells products for the same corporations.

With its Cartoon Network kid’s shows and its Ipad apps, MAD Magazine may go on to eek out an existence for the foreseeable future, but it will struggle to regain the respect of its long-time fan base. One can only hope the magazine rediscovers itself as an anti-establishment, counter-cultural voice of social commentary for disenfranchised, warped minds.

But I won’t be holding my breath…

Here is what an ad used to look like in a Mad Magazine circa 1975:

OLD

 

 

 

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40 comments

  1. Gee I been reading Mad since it came out – first issue – everything changes, man, change brings beauty…sure the mag is different, good for them! Change is inevitible, growth is optional…I just renewed my subscription again for the umpteeth eleventh time…I’ll say it again, change is inevitible, growth is optional, if you don’t like it, start you own! oh, by the way, you left out the best artist of them all, Don Martin…his stuff is timeless.

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  2. *Sergio Aragones and Al Jaffee continue to appear in every issue of MAD, as of the February 2016 issue which has just gone on sale. Just as they have for 50+ years. Their wives will be very sad to learn that they’ve passed away.

    *MAD began rehashing itself with issues of repackaged material in 1958, with “More Trash from MAD #1.”

    *The “MAD-TV” cartoon show was wholly independent of the magazine, Neither had any effect on the other’s quality or lack thereof.

    *MAD, now a tame haven for roasting nobodies like Justin Bieber, used to be a controversial, razor sharp forum for roasting historic legends like Tiny Tim.

    *Since taking ads (yes, “something has to pay for their new, shiny, coloured pages”), MAD has continued to satirize the style and deceptiveness of advertising. In the past, two of the people who unsuccessfully lobbied MAD to start taking ads were Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman.

    *An average regular issue of MAD in the 1990s contained exactly 48 pages, just as it had for decades. The newest issue of MAD contains 56 pages, 7 of which are ads or self promotion.

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    • * how much of sergio and Al’s content is new these days?
      * Yes, I am aware that there have always been Super Specials. However they now constitute a bigger portion of their releases.
      * MAD cartoon show might have been independent, but I cannot be told that the quality is not reflected in the standard of their releases today.
      * MAD has always had a light hearted joke. The fact of the matter is they tend to be a lot softer now. I was just using the example that came to mind.
      * Is that not hypocritical?
      * I know Mad Magazine in Australia was averaging near 70 pages during the 1990s.

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      • *100% with the occasional exception if one of their pieces is also part of “The MAD Vault”, the ONLY reprint part of any issue (usually 2-4 pages), unless you include the two page “Best of the Idiodical” with their web-first content, but that is its first run in print.
        * MAD now does “Bookazines” as opposed to Super Specials, but it’s arguably the same number of reprint pages per year, or possibly less, than back in the day. That said, please explain how any amount of reprinted material published in extraneous publications, books, or “bookazines” has anything to do with the content of the actual magazine?
        * Yes, you can, You just were. The Cartoon Network did their thing, MAD did theirs.
        * Fair enough. YOU don’t think MAD is hard hitting anymore. I guess you don’t read the political articles, and skip right to the Bieber stuff. Politically MAD has been harder hitting in the last decade than at many times during it’s “Golden Age”, but that’s just what I think, I suppose.
        * Hypocritical how? Is Saturday Night Live hypocritical when they lampoon major corporations and run TV ad after TV ad, and always have? Are stand up comics less funny when they belittle consumerism while their audience is being sold Budwieser? The “MAD has sold out” argument would only hold water if MAD stopped the ridicule of advertising and the companies behind them, and it has not. Modern day examples of the ad parody you posted here abound.
        * Didn’t the Australian version of MAD usually contain a good amount of reprinted US edition material? How much of that was part of the 70 pages? And can you explain how that has anything to do with the content of the original, US publication?

        Hey, if you don’t think MAD is funny anymore, fair enough. You know what they say… “opinions are like assholes… everybody has one”. Your post reads like you began it with that opinion, and then started looking for things to support your claims, most of which are either misleading or completely incorrect.

        (Full disclosure- I am an artist for the U.S. MAD, but I’m also a fan for the last 40 years.)

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      • It is an opinion piece, yes. It is an opinion that I have held for some time now after being an avid fan for going on twenty years. I am reporting the things as I have seen them, and as I notice them. The whole point of this article was to share a commonly held opinion and cause debate. It has certainly done that much.

        I would be interested in seeing your work in MAD Magazine, btw. I am open to having my opinion changed. You raised a lot of good points which I will definitely think over and consider. I might even write an amended article later on. Cheers.

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      • If you are not familiar with Tom’s work, (II would be interested in seeing your work…) then you clearly haven’t kept up with MAD magazine.

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  3. *Sergio Aragones (78 years old) and Al Jaffee (94) continue to appear in every issue of MAD, as of the February 2016 issue which has just gone on sale. Just as they have for 50+ years. Their wives will be very sad to learn that they’ve passed away.

    *MAD began rehashing itself with issues of repackaged material in 1958, with “More Trash from MAD #1.”

    *The “MAD-TV” cartoon show was wholly independent of the magazine, Neither had any effect on the other’s quality or lack thereof.

    *MAD, now a tame haven for roasting nobodies like Justin Bieber, used to be a controversial, razor sharp forum for roasting historic legends like Tiny Tim.

    *Since taking ads (yes, “something has to pay for their new, shiny, coloured pages”), MAD has continued to satirize the style and deceptiveness of advertising. In the past, two of the people who unsuccessfully lobbied MAD to start taking ads were Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman.

    *An average regular issue of MAD in the 1990s contained exactly 48 pages, just as it had for decades. The newest issue of MAD contains 56 pages, 7 of which are ads or self promotion.

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  4. Great posting! I’ve been a fan for over 40 years now, have every physical issue from 1-400, books on Kurtzman, Elder and a ton of anthologies and paperbacks. But I really couldn’t be bothered to pick up an issue today, unless the cover was extra funny or relevant to me; I haven’t for years now.

    Really, you said it all. Sad.

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  5. I can tell you why Mad sucks since 1985. Two words: John Ficarra. Al Feldstein retired in 1984 and Ficarra and Nick Meglin took over as editors. Things were fine for a few years, but then Meglin retired and I feel Ficarra is solely responsible for running Mad into the ground.

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  6. * how much of sergio and Al’s content is new these days?

    All of it is. Have you read what you breezily denigrate? Sergio Aragones’ “A Mad Look at…” and “MAD Marginals” features appear in every issue, as does Al Jaffee’s Fold-In. Combined, Aragones and Jaffee have missed about 3 issues in fifty years. Both of them also deliver other articles occasionally, and produce work outside of MAD. Jaffee’s most recent new Snappy Answers piece appeared this year.

    Here are links to the full lists of their MAD Magazine work. Unfortunately, the lists aren’t perfect. They don’t indicate the year when Sergio’s and Al’s work stopped being seamlessly intelligent satire and made the permanent switch to uninspired mediocrity:
    http://madcoversite.com/ugoi-sergio_aragones.html
    http://madcoversite.com/ugoi-al_jaffee.html

    * Yes, I am aware that there have always been Super Specials. However they now constitute a bigger portion of their releases.

    Your gut feeling has led you astray. What you say is incorrect. Here are links to MAD’s non-stop flurry of reprint issues over the years, as well as to the extensive line of paperback collections that debuted in 1954, when MAD was all of two years old:
    http://www.madcoversite.com/allthumbs2.html
    http://www.madcoversite.com/pbthumbs.html

    * MAD cartoon show might have been independent, but I cannot be told that the quality is not reflected in the standard of their releases today.

    Well, that’s fine logic. Let’s blame later MAD Magazine for Adam Sandler’s films, too. Just like the MAD cartoon show, they were produced by totally separate people. But because they appeared concurrently, I cannot be told that the films’ quality isn’t reflected in important ways by the magazine. Also, Twitter. Twitter is MAD’s fault, too.

    * MAD has always had a light hearted joke. The fact of the matter is they tend to be a lot softer now. I was just using the example that came to mind.
    * Is that not hypocritical?

    Even if your “MAD’s gotten softer” premise were true, it wouldn’t be hypocritical. Was it “hypocritical” of MAD to surround the middle finger cover of #166 that impresses you so much with a Don Martin gag cartoon of Alfred E. Neuman speeding down a road on a driving arcade game (the cover of #165) and an image of Neuman’s face inside a fire alarm that says, “In case of worry break open this issue” (#167)? What happened? Did MAD take one groundbreaking, politically incorrect step but then retreat? Or was MAD always very much a mixed bag of styles, subject matter and levels of sharpness, just as it is today? (Any grandiose argument about what MAD “is” or “used to be” always founders on the details of the actual content.)

    Speaking of softness, one middle finger and Justin Bieber is a pretty soft argument to encapsulate sixty years of issues.

    * I know Mad Magazine in Australia was averaging near 70 pages during the 1990s.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m basing this guess on other international editions. Those Australian issues very likely contained a combination of some homegrown Aussie material, some then-current articles from the American edition, and some older articles from the large MAD archive that all licensees were permitted to reprint. If I’m correct, it’s those older articles than enabled the Australian edition to bulk up its page count. The kind of thing that’s a lame, repackaged rehash when done today, but was a bonanza of bonus value when (I’m also guessing) you first encountered MAD.

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    • I am happy that my article has received such passionate and enlightened debate. I am willing to concede a lot of those points that you make, and some of it come down to opinion. This is, after all, an opinion piece. An opinion held by a lot of people. Keep the conversation going on this page. Make your own rebuttle article if you like. I think this is all healthy and the conversation is a great thing.

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  7. I’ve been reading Mad for 50 years. I still have a subscription. Obviously artists change in a half century as does the society being parodied. Mad is still what it was. I don’t expect to convince anyone but I firmly believe that my view is correct.

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  8. This is, after all, an opinion piece. An opinion held by a lot of people.

    But it’s a vapid opinion. It’s unsupported by real examples. And it doesn’t even appear to be familiar with the current magazine whose continued existence offends you. Above in these comments, you say that you’d be interested in taking a look at some of Tom Richmond’s work in MAD, to see whether it might change your opinion. That’s great. But Richmond has been a regular MAD artist for 15 years, with more than 125 articles. I didn’t know that off the top of my head, but I looked the facts up online in two quick Google clicks… something you might have done while writing your opinion piece.

    Besides that, your opinion is one that has been expressed repeatedly and identically over sixty years. MAD died when it changed formats, MAD died when Harvey Kurtzman left, MAD died when it became widely popular, MAD died when it used recurring features or formulas, MAD died when it had to answer to its corporate structure, MAD died the day that Bill Gaines did, MAD died when it started running ads, etc. The point is, MAD’s creative heyday definitely died sometime in the last sixty years. We’ll fill in the reason later.

    MAD was once accused of having become bland and passé because it used an unchanging “closed shop” of regular contributors… but then it became lame a second time, when the same tired regulars died off or retired. Q.E.D.

    At least you’ve added a new wrinkle to the standard complaint list by claiming that a sign of MAD’s pathetic decline is the way it reprints past material. Meaning that its creative heyday of editorial purity lasted all of 26 months, from late summer 1952 to the autumn of 1954. It’s not just you making declarations, though. One of the above commenters says confidently that MAD was ruined entirely by a single editor– you know, just because it just was.

    At least we’ve got the exact date of MAD’s downfall narrowed down to 1954, or 2004.

    Or is it? The National Lampoon did a notable parody of MAD, savaging the magazine for having become unfunny and afraid to tackle provocative subjects. That parody was in 1971.

    But hey, let’s be cool baby, it’s just opinions. Held by a lot of people, too. However, opinions about the 10 or 15 different pivotal moments in time that supposedly triggered MAD’s “jumping the shark” can’t ALL be valid. If any one of them is crucially correct, the others aren’t. In fact, the sheer variety of opinions — all of which begin by assuming the identical conclusion — is a reason why an opinion had better back itself up with something more substantial than C-minus internet invective about polite, gutless, receding quality by sellouts defacing an ethos. You could apply the same nebulous language to 500 other things, and have yourself 501 opinions. All of which you’d be “entitled to,” and so what?

    You seem pleased that perky assertions like “Today it sells products for the same corporations, and is little more than mindless dribble to amuse the prepubescent minds coming into the MTV age” have sparked a rewarding “conversation.” But that’s the easy part. The harder challenge is explaining what relevance “the MTV age” has to today’s prepubescents (or even 1999’s prepubescents). Snark for snark’s sake is fun to write, but MTV? In 2015? Who’s further behind the cutting edge there, you or the mindless dribblers at MAD?

    I don’t object to your opinion that MAD no longer holds your interest as it once did in the 1990s, nor a claim that MAD may have gone aesthetically sour. Your feeling is your feeling, and that’s the end of that. But it’s no better than saying you don’t like a particular kind of food– inarguably true for you, and otherwise meaningless. What I object to is yet another generic, attention-seeking opinion that doesn’t show a lot of seriousness or originality or meat on its bones. There’s a reason why the internet doesn’t pay people: it’s all outbursts about how bad everything sucks, plus cat videos.

    Perhaps there is a decent case to be made for MAD’s creative decline. Perhaps you’ll make it sometime.

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  9. Sad. It will surprise no one that I was an avid reader of MAD. A publication that taught me that commentey, opinion, and humor knows no boundaries. While MAD may be an echo of itself, it produced a generation who get through life without ever taking it too seriously. What, me worry?

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  10. i remember how my friends in the 50’s and 60’s had to hide their copies of Mad from their parents just to avoid that tired old lecture about values. But my Dad was the exception. He came up to
    my room to see if I had the latest edition. He loved it. We were a Mad family, no doubt!

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  11. I grew up on MAD, late 70’s to early 80’s (born ’71) and this article, which a friend posted on FB reminded me of all the joy and humor (and the occasional T&A cartoons!) the magazine brought me as a child. While I never thought about it, it definitely had a HUGE influence on me. Regardless of the author’s strong opinions, the article reminded me of a lot of joy this magazine brought to a somewhat dark and depressed childhood.
    Thanks for reminding me. Keep on polarizing by speaking your mind unabashed, I’d say you are following the MAD model.

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    • Cheers. I certainly loved it growing up, too. I still read the old issues from time to time. Actually, I did pick up a couple of new ones last week. They weren’t quite as good as the older ones (in my opinion) but I did actually manage a laugh or two, and did find that some of the art was intriguing. Thanks for your comment. Feel free to subscribe to my Blog and I might be doing another MAD piece in the future.

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  12. MAD peaked in 1973 (highest selling issue was #161 at 2.5 million copies). It was at its very best during the late ’60s and early ’70s. By early 1976 it was evident that things had gone stale. Issue #185 (1976) featured Norman Mingo’s last cover (for a while) and the once-wild Don Martin had fallen into a very bland cartooning style and humor. Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side of…” was also becoming quite stale. Part of the problem: times had changed—the hippie era protests against the Viet Nam war were over, Nixon had been impeached, and—the biggest reason of all for MAD’ s decline—THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY HAD BEEN DROPPED IN FAVOR OF IRRELEVANT GAGS. MAD once had searing, controversial back covers (photographed by Irving Schild, or illustrated by any number of artists). Relevance had been put aside, and the lame Disco Era covers by Jack Rickard only signaled further decline. I owned every issue from 1968-1981 (#222), but sold off issues 186-222 because they STANK. Sure, there were a few good bits by Jack Davis, a few good fold-ins by Al Jaffee, and Sergio Aragones was always terrific, but it wasn’t enough. The awful Duck Edwing cartoons came in, and other new artists simply did not inspire. The circulation numbers dropped and dropped and dropped. I’m told that actual sales per issue right now are about three thousand…that’s it. R.I.P. MAD. Your time has come and gone.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Chris. I grew up reading MAD in the 1990s and loved everything I found at the time. I used to make a special effort to get the oldest issues possible, as well as the monthly releases. I am a fan of Duck Edwing, personally. And I have a lot of time for everything MAD did until the year 2000 or so. Is your three thousand sales amount for the USA? IF so, that is abysmal, even in these times where print copy is dying. It is a sad, sad death for MAD magazine. I flick through the new copies and I fail to be intrigued or entertained. It has lost something relevance, and it is not as hard or as abrasive as it used to be.

      Feel free to share the article with your friends. Cheers. Jarrad.

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  13. MAD was clever and could be intelligent. I loved the hidden gags in back ground of the movie satires. It is no where close to what it once was. Sad but true. A few of the covers are as Iconic-Americana as anything in the Hi-brow world. The color and the ads where not needed; it just needed to stay cutting edge, to hell with PC, and let Alfred keep surprising us.

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