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Opinion | The World According to Mad Magazine

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There’s a photo, taken in 1936, of Al Jaffee and Wolf Eisenberg, a.k.a. Will Elder, goofing around in the cafeteria of the High School of Music and Art in New York, where they were students.

They’re mugging for the camera, their faces pulled into the kinds of caricatures they would later draw — Jaffee grimacing with his eyes squinched up and nose twisted to one side while shoving a whole sandwich in his mouth, Elder making a cross-eyed Quasimodo face and tipping a milk bottle toward his protruding lips and tongue, their hands clawed and gesticulating — basically acting like wiseass teenagers of any era. But these boys grew up to become two of “the usual gang of idiots” — the stable of artists for Mad magazine, who turned teenage wiseassery into an art form and an institution, and eventually turned all America into one big high school cafeteria.

The announcement last week that Mad would cease monthly publication of new material made me sad in the far-off way you feel when you hear that a celebrity you didn’t know was still alive has died. I was a regular reader of Mad in the 1970s, when the magazine was at the height of its popularity and influence. I learned many things from Mad: who Spiro Agnew was, the plots of R-rated movies like “Coma” and show tunes like “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,’” which the writers of Mad evidently assumed would be familiar enough to 10-year-olds of the ’70s to parody — “I Got Plenty of Muslims,” sung by a black militant. I also learned about black militants.

I also learned from Mad that politicians were corrupt and deceitful, that Hollywood and Madison Avenue pushed insulting junk, that religion was more invested in respectability than compassion, that school was mostly about teaching you to obey arbitrary rules and submit to dingbats and martinets — that it was, in short, all BS. Grown-ups who worried that Mad was a subversive influence, undermining the youth of America’s respect for their elders and faith in our hallowed institutions, were 100 percent correct.

I never wrote or drew for Mad (though I have several friends who did) but my own cartooning was deeply influenced by its artists, from Mort Drucker’s obsessive perfectionism for the most inconspicuous detail to Don Martin’s wild, spontaneous precision. I learned from Mad that a line could be funny: not just a face but the cock of an eyebrow, the sploosh of a bowl of soup. Certain expressions drawn by Harry North, Esq. — a vacationing veteran’s hollow-eyed paranoia at the lying smiles of the Japanese all around him, a guy realizing what he should’ve said to the jerk who cut him off in traffic earlier that day — have become engraved as the dictionary illustrations in my brain for “xenophobia” and “l’esprit d’escalier.”

Even Dave Berg, ostensibly the squarest of Mad’s artists, is a kind of elbow-patched George Grosz in retrospect. “Berg’s characters grin with sickening expressions,” Austin English wrote in The Comics Journal, and “appear constipated and on the verge of tears even when at rest.” Mad’s roster of talent was too idiosyncratic to have a house style, but it was all loud: kinetic, expressive, a brand of caricature that’s out of fashion these days, when an amateurish D.I.Y. aesthetic or dreary minimalism is de rigueur.

But Mad’s influence went deeper than aesthetics; it had a comedic sensibility, a view of the world as a hilarious cavalcade of hypocrisy and folly — an attitude embodied by the insolent simpleton’s grin of Alfred E. Neuman, a figure whose origins are untraceable, that seems to have arisen from the collective moronic American unconscious.

By the time most of us hit adolescence and learn that the world is unfair, exploitative and brutal, and that most people in it live in shocking poverty and squalor, and that we’re all somehow implicated in this even though it wasn’t our idea, plus there’s no God and we’re all going to die and the grown-ups have been secretly having sex the whole time, you feel ripped off. You feel lied to.

So you turn to art that rips the facades off everything, exposing adults and their institutions as swinish and rotten. Humor is adolescents’ reflexive defense against all the unpleasantness they’re confronting for the first time. It’s a distinctively adolescent form of humor we now call “snark”irony, sarcasm, satire and parody — whose agenda is to mock and tear down and caper gleefully upon the grave of everything sacred and respectable.

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It’s no coincidence that Mad reached its highest circulation in the era of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the “credibility gap” — the collapse of public faith in the integrity and honesty of our government. It was a healthy antidote to earlier generations’ automatic deference to an authority that too seldom deserved it.

It’s hard to believe now that there was really a time when people trusted their elected officials to act in the best interest of the country or had reverence for the presidency: They seem, to us, like a race of credulous children. But the ’60s and ’70s were America’s adolescence. I still have a Mad article by Larry Siegel called “Those Wonderful ’70s!” that serves as a bracing antidote to any Gen Y or Z illusions that it was a simpler time — it’s an extended piece of mock-nostalgic reminiscence, from the future year 2000, about political scandals, nuclear accidents, gas lines, hijackings, death cults and really bad TV.

“How we laughed and sang and danced,” he wrote, “as we wiped up the ground with each other and blew up our cities and destroyed our land and wildlife and polluted our air and ruined our water and did a thousand other loony things.”

Adolescents are also scarily passionate absolutists, and there is, behind all parody and satire, a moral agenda; people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert aren’t America haters but closet patriots and true believers. Mad’s ethos was essentially conservative: its all-fronts, iconoclastic assault on bigotry and hypocrisy was a tacit appeal to good old-fashioned decency and integrity. Mad made good enemies: The Ku Klux Klan once demanded an apology and threatened to sue over what it considered a libel against its organization.

Even in 2018, Mad hadn’t lost its edge: A parody of Edward Gorey’s droll “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” called “The Ghastlygun Tinies,” showed wan tots alternately practicing the cello or cowering under their desks, accompanied by rhymes like: “Q is for Quinn, whose life had just begun/R is for Reid, valued less than a gun.”

But this Swiftian bitterness was mostly disguised with huge dollops of the stupidest, most puerile humor imaginable. I once misguidedly tried to console a friend after a breakup by showing her an enormous treasury of Don Martin cartoons — this was well into adulthood — and ended up laughing so uncontrollably that she eventually excused herself and went home. By contrast, New Yorker cartoons are humor for grown-ups, for people who have forgotten how actual out-loud, can’t-breathe, 10-year-olds-on-a-sleepover laughter felt, the same way “Fifty Shades of Grey” is erotica for people who don’t remember orgasms.

In a way, the eulogies for Mad are coming late. The magazine was dead to me the day it started accepting advertisements — real ads, as opposed to the countless fake ones it had always run to parody the stratagems of advertising. Even though I was no longer a reader by then, it felt like a betrayal. That magazine had been an agenda-free zone, one place where grown-ups who hadn’t quite gone over to the other side would tell you the truth.

Mad’s influence is ubiquitous now. The glut of satire and subversive comedy we all now consume daily is created by kids who grew up on Mad or on humor inspired by it: “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and The Onion are all in one way or another the spawn of Mad. But in the end, the magazine largely obviated itself as a cultural force by conquering it, becoming the dominant mode of humor in America. The language of advertising, P.R. and even politics have all appropriated the snark and irony of Mad. Even The Man wants to be a wiseass now.

Tim Kreider is the author of two collections of essays, “We Learn Nothing” and “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.”

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