As has been widely reported, MAD Magazine will soon disappear from newsstands. This raises the question of how long it will be before newsstands disappear, but that is a topic for another day. As an editor and contributor to MAD, the world’s best-selling magazine with that title, for 34 years starting in 1984, the news (GAK!) hardly came as a surprise to me.
That MAD survived and remained relevant for as long as it did is a testament to the oddball editorial team that was rooted in the Bill Gaines era. Against overwhelming odds, unfavorable market forces, and an exceptionally poor snack selection from our vending machine, we somehow managed to keep MAD going through the end of 2017, when Rolling Stone called it “America’s best political satire magazine.”
For 65 years, starting in 1952 when Gaines and Harvey Kurztman created MAD, it had a remarkable continuity of talent, including editors, writers and artists. But that came to a furshlugginer halt when DC Comics, which took over MAD after Gaines died in 1992, relocated the magazine from New York to Burbank in January 2018.
With the exception of a newly hired Production Artist, Bern Mendoza, no one from our team was willing to relocate. DC had first tried to bring MAD west in 2014, when the entire company packed up and left. However, when every member of the staff, except for Production Artist Doug Thomson, declined the invitation, MAD was given an unexpected reprieve in New York.
In June 2017, a new editorial group, led by Bill Morrison, best known for his work with Bongo Comics (which he co-founded with Matt Groening and others) and as Art Director for Futurama, started to take shape. With such impressive credentials, Bill was widely regarded as an excellent choice to lead MAD.
But from the perspective of those of us on the old MAD staff, bringing in anyone from the outside was a bad move. The distinctive MAD voice, the voice that makes MAD MAD, is not something that can be assigned. It is a voice that can only be passed down from one generation to the next in the ridiculous comedy trenches of MAD itself. I knew the MAD voice very well when I started out as an editor in 1985 with my writing partner, Charlie Kadau. But I still had a lot to learn.
Over the years, I received a kind of “MAD transmission” from John Ficarra, who received his “MAD transmission” from Nick Meglin and Al Feldstein. Feldstein, who was at the helm of MAD for 28 years and whose roots go back to the legendary EC Comics days, took over in 1956 when Harvey Kurztman departed. Sam Vivano, who became Art Director in 1999, had already been a MAD illustrator for nearly 20 years and had learned from previous Art Director, Lenny “The Beard” Brenner. We were all nourished, in unlikely and outrageous fashion, by Gaines. The younger members of the MAD staff, who never met Gaines, knew him through us. They heard Gaines stories; they understood his twisted MAD sensibilities.
Bill Morrison and his team would not have the benefit of that essential experience. As talented as the team was, not a single member had ever written ever written for MAD. (That included the aforementioned Doug Thomson, who had left MAD a few years earlier and joined the new team as Design Director.) In sharp contrast, our team had five seasoned MAD writers, all of whom had contrbuted to MAD before becoming editors. To make the new team’s task even more difficult, members of the old team were prohibited by corporate rules from contributing material to the new MAD for a full year.
The fact is that there was a veteran junior team in place -- Dave Croatto, Ryan Flanders, Jake Lambert and Patty Dwyer – that had learned from us and was ready to take on the daunting challenge of keeping MAD alive. But DC never offered anyone from the junior team editorial control. Instead, the junior team, along with Charlie and myself (not John Ficarra or Sam Viviano), were asked to move to California, this time to report to a new editor, who at the time of the invitation was unknown. But knowing the identity of the new editor being hired from the outside wouldn’t have mattered.
The only conceivable way that any of us would have perhaps considered moving to Burbank was if a member of our team was given the opportunity to succeed John Ficarra. MAD was familial and that is a core element of what made it unique and beloved. Only we knew how the MAD sauce was made and the only way anyone could learn the recipe was to work with us for a while.
During my last few months as Senior Editor, I met with Bill Morrison several times, doing my best to help him prepare to take hold of MAD’s editorial reins. I knew the odds were stacked against the new team, even more than they were against us, but I wanted it to succeed. I did not want the magazine that I loved as a kid, and spent nearly my entire professional career working at, to bite the dust. .
In fairness to the new MAD team, it inherited our core business problem of declining readership, one that we were never able to solve, as much as it did our creative legacy. While dealing with the inevitable corporate pressure, the new team did its best to address the former while honoring the latter, and that is all that we reasonably could have asked of it.
To its credit, in its first year the new MAD team had a high-profile success with a parody of ”The Gashlycrumb Tinies” by Edward Corey called “The Ghastlygun Tinies.” Written by Matt Cohen, who was an intern for our team many moons ago, the piece commenting on gun violence was an instant MAD classic.
At the risk of blowing my own horn, I will mention that MAD was commenting on the proliferation of guns as far back as 1992, when Charlie Kadau and I co-wrote a parody of a popular NRA campaign that featured a striking photo of an armed deer by Irving Schild. (“I’m the NRA -- “Nature’s Revenge Association.”) The NRA promptly threatened to boycott MAD’s advertisers, which at the time were none. We loved it when stuff like that happened.
With the publication of “The Ghastlygun Tinies,” The New York Times proclaimed that MAD suddenly had “a boost of relevancy,” which was proof positive that The Times wasn’t paying much attention to MAD in recent years. However, just like the new team, we had to continually deal with the endless comments about the loss of readership and how we weren’t as funny as the version of MAD that came before us.
It would be pure hubris and bluster for me to maintain that MAD would now be thriving had the comedy lineage not been broken by corporate forces beyond our control. The reality is that the MAD I loved and worked on for so many years may have collapsed even had the old team been retained. As I frequently said in the office, “we’re running out of numbers,” by which I meant sales.
And so, I feel badly for the new MAD editorial team, which had to take over MAD on the fly without the necessary experience. And I feel even worse for the old MAD editorial team, my colleagues and friends who were not given the opportunity they richly deserved to run MAD themselves.
The bottom line is that everyone involved did their best to keep MAD going and the news that it will soon vanish from newsstands is especially tough for any member of the MAD staff, old or new, to take.
I am reminded of an exchange I had with Bill Gaines in the last interview he ever gave not long before he died, which was with me and remains unpublished:
Me: Do you care what happens to the magazine after you retire or die?
Gaines: Of course, I care. MAD is one of my children. You think I wouldn’t care about one of my children?
Joe: What would you like to happen to MAD?
Gaines: I would like it to continue to be successful and go on forever.
Joe: Is that what you’d like for yourself, “to continue to be successful and go on forever”?
Gaines: Sure, but it won’t happen. In fact, it’s totally shocking that I’ve lived as long as I have.
Yes, it was shocking that Gaines lived as long as he did and perhaps even more shocking that MAD lived as long as it did. It was a marvelous 67-year run of subversive silliness.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not add: “What, me worry?”