Culture force? Consider 'Mad' and its influence on our world

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The single greatest influence on the development of American culture in the second half of the 20th century was Mad magazine.

Hey, that's the kind of pronouncement you're allowed to make when you're a columnist. In this case, I also happen to believe it's true. All the other undeniably powerful forces--TV, Vietnam, The Pill, Watergate, Dr. Spock--had massive, overarching impact, impossible to characterize in any coherent way that is not at the same time ludicrously simplistic. But Mad? Mad made us ironic. And nothing, these past several decades, has been bigger than irony.

Politics is reduced to a set of Letterman and Leno jokes? Mad got there first. World's obsessed with celebrities? Mad was sending that up in the '60s. Your kids won't take you seriously, and even your neighbor's two-year-old is telling wisecracks? Blame Mad: It was questioning authority before most people realized there was an authority to question. (I've even heard it posited, I cannot remember by whom, that the youth protests that ultimately helped end the Vietnam War were inspired by the steady diet of disrespect Mad fed its young readers. After "Spy vs. Spy," how could anyone take the Cold War seriously?)

I am celebrating Mad because it is publishing its 400th issue, and learning that fact has generated in me cascades of laughter. I first thought about the interstitial plant named Arthur (chuckle). I recalled the old origami version of the magazine's famous zeppelin, which hung from my bedroom ceiling (hoot). I remembered cartoonist Don Martin's onomatopoeic rendition of a meal-- "glikle," "blort," "farp," etc. (snort). I recollected the moment when I realized "Nightline's" Ted Koppel was the spitting image of Alfred E. Neuman (guffaw).

That Mad doesn't exist merely as a memory to the likes of me but as a monument to the continuing silliness of society is remarkable--not merely because it's survived (something Life and Look couldn't do) but because much of the rest of the media business has put stakes on its turf. Time today highlights Joel Stein, the spiritual progeny of Mad's "usual gang of idiots." Comedy Central's Jon Stewart essentially does Mad on videotape. Howard Stern--most drive-time radio jocks, for that matter--are aural versions of Mad.

But Mad's influence extends beyond obvious appropriations and homages. Here is a partial list of other things that would not be possible had Mad not existed: Maureen Dowd. Forbidden Broadway. The Onion. Tony Hendra. Late night TV. Brett Easton Ellis. New York City. Richard Branson. Maxim. Postmodernism. Jeff Koons. Lounge music. Silicon Alley. The Presidency of the United States. And advertising.

Yes, advertising. Long before "media studies" existed as a college discipline--years before even Ralph Nader was warning us away from commercialism--Mad was casting a hilariously jaundiced eye on the products of Madison Avenue. Paging through Maria Reidelbach's marvelous pictorial history of the magazine, "Completely Mad," I was reminded that many of my earliest images of advertising were shaped by its satirical takes. Like the "Crust Toothpaste" ad featuring a triumphant Melvin Furd exclaiming, "Look Mom, no more cavities!"--because his teeth had been knocked out in a gang war. Or the photo of the angry fellow in the chef's hat, his smock riddled in red as he hammers vegetables into a tin container. "I'm the guy who puts the eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can," he says in disgust.

It wasn't just the wares of Mad Ave, but its environment that Mad took on. I will never forget "The Mad Madison Avenue Primer," which appeared at some point in the 1960s. Lesson 1: "See the man. He does advertising work. He is an `ad man.' Hear his funny stomach churn. The ad man has a funny ulcer." The thing was, as drawn by Wally Wood, Mad's ad man, with big black glasses, tight suit, briefcase and strained appearance, looked exactly like my Dad's friends at Young & Rubicam. Thanks to Mad, I could never go into advertising. Instead, I am relegated to writing about it. What, me worry?

Fortunately for all of us, others were drawn to the profession by the sense of silliness purveyed by Mad: When I asked many of the young creatives at Wieden & Kennedy what had drawn them to advertising, close to half answered, "Mad magazine."

So here's to Mad, in whose honor I'd like to raise a toast and say:


Copyright November 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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