What, Them Worry?

As Mad celebrates its 400th issue, its editors wonder how to stay funny in a world gone mad

For years now, Kurtzman's child has felt like a vestige -- an antique always covered in dust, no matter how much Pledge you use. With its black-and-white illustrations and cache of familiar names who've lingered in the magazine since the 1950s and '60s -- among them such icons as Aragones, Jaffee, and Mort Drucker (most identified as the artist responsible for the movie and TV parodies) -- Madlooks, on the surface, little changed since its heyday. Even its parodies of South Park,Tom Green, Britney Spears, and Behind the Musicseem one step behind the times; they look like something lifted from an issue printed in 1972, despite the up-to-the-minute subject matter. Reading Madtoday is little different than watching MTV in black-and-white; it makes today seem a little bit like yesterday. The editors will admit that has certainly led to its decline in readership: Its once-faithful readers have grown up, even if Madcannot and will not.

"We're black-and-white in a color world," Meglin says. "It feels like we're coming from the days of black-and-white television, and on top of that, it's drawn in the narrative format that comic books and comic strips are still part of, so people think it's less adult than text, so they move on before they should. Their sensibility may still very well be wrapped in Mad's material and Mad's approach, but they're at the age where they don't want to appear in a subway car or a bus reading an issue of Mad and not a grown-up magazine, if you will. That has a negative effect on readership."

Madhas struggled to remain relevant in the age of Howard Stern and Eric Cartman; long-gone are the West Side Storyand Ladies' Home Journalparodies, replaced instead by such features as "Monroe," featuring a troublemaking kid, his porn-obsessed dad, and a mother who's always falling out of her teeny bikini. And the magazine has become obsessed with sex and shit jokes; Mad, which once refused to work blue, is working brown. And while Aragones insists he loves the evolution -- "Hey, I laugh at a lot of fart jokes," he says, chuckling -- Meglin has struggled with the inevitable change, which began in April 1997, when Alfred E. Neuman appeared on the cover of the magazine Xeroxing his ass.

Who needs you? Mad does. The magazine's circulation has gone from a high of 2.5 million in the 1970s to 500,000 today.
Who needs you? Mad does. The magazine's circulation has gone from a high of 2.5 million in the 1970s to 500,000 today.
When Harvey Kurtzman began Mad in 1952, it was a comic book. The format changed three years later, when publisher Bill Gaines wanted to keep his editor happy.
When Harvey Kurtzman began Mad in 1952, it was a comic book. The format changed three years later, when publisher Bill Gaines wanted to keep his editor happy.

"This culture has become coarser, because of South Park, which could thrive because of Howard Stern, which could thrive because of something else prior to him that pushed the envelope," Meglin says. "Because we reflect all those changes, Mad has become coarser, so I see an evolution, and this is hard for me to convince people of, but in some cases, I see us doing work that is superior to what we used to do. My frustration comes in that our readership was so much larger then; our exposure was greater then than now. I want to say, "Hey, people, remember us? We're better now. Take a look!' Aside from the coarse things, which I personally don't like, there's always been a place for all these voices. Personally, I am not comfortable with this."

"If Nick did not work here," Ficarra says, "he would not be an audience we're writing for. At all. Although, Nick, one of your favorite features is "Monroe,' which is very funny but one of the edgier things we do. I think everybody has different lines in the sand about what they find objectionable. Someone may find doggy-doo jokes objectionable; someone else may be really put off by death humor. But all of these things are in Mad, and everyone will be turned off by one particular thing, and hopefully, we balance it out so if you don't like one thing, you can turn the page and get something else coming at ya. For every doggy-doo gag, there's a Shakespeare takeoff."

"Yeah," says Meglin, "like Hamlet walking in dog shit."

Ficarra doesn't waste the set-up line. "Feces or not feces," he says, giggling. "That is the question."

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