The Case for Mad

Mention of the magazine MAD in the public prints is rare. College students follow it closely, but one meets few older people who ever heard of it, while the newspapers and magazines in general ignore MAD resolutely. Having read MAD for a good many years, and with a sense of being rewarded by every issue, I venture to argue that MAD is the funniest magazine we have, that its targets well deserve the mauling it gives them, and that many nonreaders would be benefited from a two-dollar subscription to this nonesuch.

MAD carries no advertising and keeps its circulation figures to itself. Its success in a recent court case involving copyright was reported in Variety, with an estimate that “tens of thousands” of the issue complained of had been circulated, but I incline to hundreds of thousands and possibly then some as a likelier figure. (To ask MAD for such information would be simply to invite a sardonic response, one feels certain.) The magazine is hard to find on any but the most comprehensive newsstands, and its somewhat irregular schedule of nine issues a year (the September MAD came out in late June) makes it easy for the nonsubscriber to miss an issue or two, especially in early summer and fall. I must admit, further, that MAD takes a bit of living with for the new reader, so that an initial approach by subscription is to be preferred.

Burlesques are MAD’s principal stock in trade, and these are usually drawings in a remarkably lifelike imitation of the old rotogravure sections in the Sunday papers. There is no mistaking the identity of the person lampooned in a MAD picture, nor is the point of the burlesque in the least unclear: MAD’s comedy is sledgehammer stuff; to misunderstand it would be like failing to grasp the intent of the man swinging the iron ball in a wrecking job. The captions and brief texts not only fit the pictorial schemes, but they have the same smashing effect on the reader.

Its professionalism is perhaps the other quality that sets MAD apart from other ventures into strong-arm comedy. To be irreverent for the right reasons calls for discernment as well as nerve, and MAD’s irreverence is invariably well informed. The cocksureness of the magazine’s assault lies in the genuine validity of its material. One is reminded of the old Middle Western adage, “If you’re gonna teach a dog, you gotta know more than the dog.” MAD’s artists and writers seem to know many more things about their victims than the latter have even suspected about themselves.

The symbol or “image” of MAD, visually, is a character of its own invention, Alfred E. Neuman, a grinning, gap-toothed teen-ager who usually appears on its covers in one fantastic role or another. Readers are invited to buy a china bust of Alfred E. Neuman, who is more a mental defective than a lunatic, or a color portrait of him (twenty-five cents), and his face is as familiar to school and college students, it seems likely, as that of any living person. But while the seasoned reader of MAD has come to understand Alfred E. Neuman, and indeed to esteem him, the Neuman covers cause the newsdealer to put MAD among the comic books, with a consequent loss of more adult attention from the public.

All in all, Alfred E. Neuman had probably better stay where he is, on the cover in plain view. There is a durability in his deficiencies that is bound to make a larger place for him and the magazine as the months go by. Sooner or later MAD will be displayed among its less flamboyant contemporaries. If incongruity results, perhaps they will invent some Alfred E. Neumans of their own.