In the ’50s, Mad was the reading material of choice for semi-nerdy boys, those of us who weren’t cool enough to be cool but at least didn’t walk around with pen-protectors in our shirt pockets. (Some girls may have read it too, I suppose, but they didn’t do it in public. I think they were too busy reading Seventeen).
We thought we read Mad just because it was funny, not necessarily understanding there was more than humor behind those covers with a gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman on them.
As one literary authority noted, “Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything.”
In 2010, the magazine’s longest-running contributor, Al Jaffee, told an interviewer, “[Mad] was designed to corrupt the minds of children. And from what I’m gathering from the minds of people all over, we succeeded.”
For 60 years it has targeted everything worth skewering, including itself. For six decades it has been producing what it proudly calls “eternally juvenile humor.” Its original writers included “the usual gang of idiots.” Asked to cite his magazine’s philosophy, publisher William Gaines replied, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!”
But, for 25¢, Mad may have provided literal inspiration for virtually anyone who ever has written — or tried to write — humor for a living. It might not be a stretch to call it the father of “Saturday Night Live.” The grandfather of “The Simpsons.” The Onion of its time. Jon Stewart in print.
And as someone who has written — or tried to write — humor for a living, I’d have to say Mad definitely was the most influential magazine in my life.
At least until I discovered Playboy.