"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 22 August 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

What ... Me Funny?


[Alfre E. Newman a la Terry Colon. Pure genius.]

From Batman to basketball,

American pop culture has

discovered that the path of

least consumer-resistance is to

go "darker" and "edgier."

Although we haven't seen a

darker, edgier Archie yet, we're

that much closer now, as the

owners of Mad magazine,

TimeWarner, have announced the

Relaunch. Call it Extreme Mad;

they want to give Alfred E.

Neuman some balls. For years,

we've come to accept Mad as

purely juvenile, obvious, and

stagnant satire, whose most

daring satirical statement of

late is that Schwarzenegger's

movies are, well,

"Yeecccchhhh!!!" Mad, so safe

and bland you could read it

right in front of Mom. But it

wasn't always this bad.


When Mad first hit American

newsstands in 1952, its

creative engine was cartooning

genius Harvey Kurtzman, who

created a wild, irreverent,

kinetic style of satire that

American comics had never seen

before. The innocuousness of the

vehicle - come on, a comic book?

- allowed Kurtzman to nail

everyone from Joe McCarthy and

Walt Disney to fellow comics

companies, as well as the new

medium of television. It was one

of the first satirical voices

readily available to kids, and

it routinely ridiculed the

entire culture their post-War

consumerist parents were working

their butts off to support.


Liquor ads depicting a drunken

Sunday afternoon lawn party with

picnickers passed out on the

croquet field proclaimed, "In this

friendly, freedom-loving land of

ours - beer belongs ... enjoy

it!" "What's My Shine?"

presented the McCarthy hearings

as a pathetic, pandering,

TV-panel quiz show, and in

"Newspapers," Kurtzman parodied

what the average adult was

reading in our newspapers:

Scandal headlines, weight-control

ads, mash-faced boxing

photos, and one tiny news item,

squished into the space above a

furniture ad, on a brewing Asian

war that one expert predicts "is

definitely the beginning of the

end of civilization." But that

story gets cut short for a

nose-drip ad. MAD's impact

sent Robert Crumb,

the Zucker Bros., Art

Spiegelman, Terry Gilliam, and

the original National Lampoon and

SNL crews on their career paths,

though it might have also

prepped them for some of their



When parent groups came after

comics in the mid-'50s, Mad's

irreverent success also became

its biggest problem. The Comics

Code Authority had DC, Disney,

and Dell banning together, as it

were, and Mad publisher William

Gaines found his line of humor

and gruesome horror comics

strangled by industry-imposed

censorship. In order to save his

publishing cash cow, Gaines

turned Mad into a

black-and-white magazine, and a

much safer one. Then Kurtzman

left, weakening Mad

immeasurably, and after a few

years, Mad became the dull,

uninspired staple of American

adolescence that we know today.

Looking at its recent past, one

wonders why they never gave in

and sold ads, its toothlessness

a withering indictment of



[Cartoon, by Terry Colon, of an evil child playing with a horse-broomstick-thing. What do you call those? I grew up overseas and am missing key elements of English vocabulary.]

Now, 43 years later, Mad is back,

with a promise to grow up, or at

least get with it - more "wack"

than "whoopie cushion." Perhaps

you didn't notice it, but then

you probably haven't read Mad since

Dynamite stopped publishing. One

suspects that DC Comics, which

now oversees Mad for

Time Warner, wanted some bite

added to attract a teen

audience, in much the same way

they've been making their

superheroes "darker" over the

years. For most magazines such a

change means wholesale firings

and golden parachutes. Not at

Mad, however, and that's the

genius of their reformatting,

which has created one of the

most inept humor publications

since, well, the old Mad.


Yes, the Relaunch has the same

staff - or as its masthead

proclaims monthly, "the usual

gang of idiots" - that brought

you such Swiftian satire as

"2001: A Space Idiocy." They've

now been charged with aiming

that sharp-as-a-hammer

playground wit at serious

satirical targets like Louis

Farrakhan, abortion, the

Christian Coalition's Ralph

Reed, pedophilia, and police



It's not that these aren't worthy

targets; Harvey Kurtzman's Mad

would have loved them. The

problem with handling such

topics in the current Mad

fashion is that's it's so blunt

and uninspired that it backfires

in the least humorous ways. The

new Mad feels like you're

watching Gallagher work a "Dice"

Clay monologue 'cuz he thinks the

kids will dig it. A fine example

from a recent issue is "Kids

Classic Stories as Told by

Famous People." A tried-and-true

Mad parody premise, it now

features Louis Farrakhan, who

reads "Goldilocks and the Three

Bears," saying: "Goldilocks -

her real name was Goldberg - was

a forest merchant who preyed on

the less fortunate with typical

Jewish cunning and greed."

Obviously Mad's heart is in the

right place (we guess), but it's

so heavy handed it just comes

off flat, leaving the reader

with a weird, queasy feeling -

like watching a friend tell a

racist joke at a party. An

unfunny one, at that.


[Alfred E. Newman has just had a bomb go off in his face. Comical, maybe, but unnecessarily violent.]

To their credit, Mad has hired

some talented younger

cartoonists - Peter Kuper, Bill

Wray, and Drew Friedman, for

example. Some of their bits

work, like Friedman's parody of

magazines like Rolling Stone and

Vanity Fair that feature nude

celebrities on their covers.

Friedman's style of celebrity

parody is a throwback to Mad's

great days. Instead of Mad's

usual street-fair caricaturist

style that simply exaggerates a

funny nose or buck teeth,

Friedman adorns his nude

Charlton Heston on Guns 'n'

Ammo with grotesque liver spots

and wrinkles. His Al Sharpton,

as Ebony's in-the-buff cover

boy, has huge rolls of fat, too

much Jeri Curl, and a perversely

coy look in his eye. The effect

isn't just putting a

recognizable person in a silly

situation, but that of making

celebrity itself seem a

grotesque and pathetic

situation. In the end, it's a

much uglier deflation.


But that's a rarity in the new

Mad, which has become something

of a grotesque, pathetic parody

of celebrity on its own. The

editorial situation is such that

you have brilliant work like

Friedman's next to Mad's

traditionally lethargic, even

geriatric, humor - like the

perennially unfunny Dave Berg

and his "Lighter Side" strip.


[Al E. Newman holding a toy machine gun.]

The mix at Mad may not be funny,

but the editorial possibilities before

somebody really does get fired

are pretty tantalizing, at least in

the realm of classically bad comedy.

"A Mad Look at Kiddie Porn,"

perhaps, or Dave Berg's "The

Lighter Side of Bosnia" could

certainly be entertaining.

Perhaps they could take a page

from all the revamped men's

mags, and Al Jaffee could whip

up one of his "Snappy Answers"

bits, like "Snappy Answers to

Stupid Feminists." How about

"Affirmative Action Programs

We'd Like To See?" The list is

endless, as are the silences

between laughs.


Ironically, in its 45th year, Mad

has finally entered its "awkward

years," a feeling with which

many of its teen readers can no

doubt empathize. As its editors

try to navigate a new adolescent

world they haven't even thought

about in years, let's hope they

do find a truly edgier, more

challenging style of humor,

rather than assuming shock

equals funny. With gangsta rap,

Sega, skateboards, tattoos, TV,

movies, sex, and heroin all

competing for the attention of

teen America, the new Mad has

its work cut out for it.

courtesy of Furious George

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