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In this installment of the Dandy Fun House, we’re going to melt down the history of MAD Magazine! How it all started, the back stories of some of their most iconic contributors, battles with J Edgar Hoover, corporate takeovers and how a lawsuit against MAD Magazine filed by Irving Berlin set in place the legal protections for parody and satire that we take for granted today! Some of what we’re going to talk about might make you crazy. Some of will probably make you MAD! So without further adieu, let’s step into the Fun House!
Back in the 1950’s there was a comic book company called EC Comics run by a man named William Gaines. His publications were best known for horror and slasher comics like Tales From The Crypt. William had a young, hungry artist / writer named Harvey Kurtzman who was fresh out of the military and mainly wrote and illustrated stories related to war. But he also had a funny bone and desperately wanted an opportunity to express his more humorous side AND get paid for it!
His big idea was to start a comic book that essentially made fun of the other comic books of the day. He presented this idea to his boss William Gaines who gave it the green light. Except it wasn’t called MAD. At least not yet.
It’s first publishing happened in 1952 and was packaged as sort of a takeoff from their Tales From The Crypt series and was entitled Tales Calculated To Drive You MAD. Unfortunately their first 3 editions were met by the comic-reading public with a resounding yawn and they sold terribly. But things turned around quickly in issue #4 after refocusing their sites on a more SUPER target…
Issue #4 unveiled a new character called SUPERDUPERMAN lambasting rival publisher Nation Comics’ biggest character, Superman. Word about the satire spread faster than a speeding bullet gaining them newfound notoriety along with a flurry of cease-and-desist letters which EC Comics ignored entirely while proceeding full-speed-ahead raking most every aspect of popular culture over the coals!
They shortened their name to just “MAD Comics” shortly thereafter and circulation quickly grew to over 3 quarters of a million copies!
Let’s talk about ALFRED.
I bet you’re wondering about MAD’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman right about now. How and when he appeared on the scene, and what his origins are. And THAT’S an interesting story all in itself!
Harvey Kurtzman lifted the name Alfred Neuman from an old radio show and had been using it in EC Comics various publications as just sort of a fill-in name for random minor characters.
One day while visiting the offices of a fellow publisher, Harvey saw a poster with a gap-toothed, moronic character that had been floating around for about 50 years or so in various print-ads and political campaigns. This poster had a caption that said “Me Worry?” on it.
Harvey fell in love with it and MAD Comics began using this character but hadn’t applied a name to him. It was instead the FANS of MAD that started applying the moniker of Alfred E. Neuman to the character and the editors followed their lead. The character of Alfred was polished and perfected by MAD Magazine artist, Norman Mingo and has been the face of MAD ever since.
Now if I were to pick a MAD feature that’s almost as synonymous with the publication as Alfred E. Neuman, there is no doubt that I would have to put Spy vs. Spy at the top of that list.
Spy vs. Spy was created by Antonio Prohias, a Cuban refugee who came to America in 1960 with dreams of being a cartoonist. He visited MAD headquarters with his spy drawings tucked under one arm and not knowing a word of English, had his daughter Marta act as his translator. The editors went MAD over his work and not only was he hired on the spot, he became a mainstay at MAD for decades to come.
Al Jaffee created the MAD Fold-In and started producing them around 1963 and continued doing so for 56 years! He was inspired by pinup fold-outs of the time that some publications included in the center-fold. He decided to do the opposite and create fold-ins instead which basically required the reader to damage the magazine in order to see a hidden picture and message. Jaffee was also known for contributing such recurring themes as Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions amongst other satires until the year 2020 when he retired at 99 years old !
TROUBLE IN PARODY-ISE!
MAD got in lots of trouble over the years too. Printing a middle finger on the cover, encouraging readers to apply for draft-dodging cards during war time and send extortion letters to the FBI drawing the ire of one J. Edgar Hoover. They even created a $3 bill with Alfred E. Neuman’s face which actually worked in some of the more basic change machines of the time and got them a nice visit from the Treasury Department.
But the biggest trouble they ever brewed took them all the way to the Supreme Court and ended up paving the way for parody and satire to lampoon popular culture and especially music without fear of reprisal.
In 1961 Irving Berlin et al (that means “and other interested parties”) filed suit against EC Publications after MAD had published a series of parody lyrics to popular songs of the time and the rights holders to those songs took exception claiming that they and only they held the right to parody their own songs. The Supreme Court disagreed, precedent was set and Weird Al Yankovic became cleared for take-off! (a couple of decades later obviously).
The popularity of MAD also proved to be essential in saving EC Comics most likely from bankruptcy after a Congressional board established a government oversight agency called the Comics Code Authority which legally compelled comic publishers to adhere to a strict code of conduct related to good taste and avoidance of controversial topics. This heavily impacted EC Comics’ horror and slasher publications like Tales From the Crypt and left MAD Comics as their main money-maker. With concerns persisting about the Comics Code Authority, MAD was changed from a comic to a magazine which put them beyond the Authority’s reach. And thus MAD “MAGAZINE” was born thanks to Orwellian government overreach!
They continued as an unstoppable force releasing records, magazines, posters, hats, coffee cups and most everything else you might think of. I own an album from the 50’s that was handed down to me when I was a kid called MAD Twists Rock N’ Roll. I seriously played this thing to death and it largely inspired me onto the path I walk to this day.
Founder William Gaines sold EC Comics to the Kinney Parking Company in the early 1960’s. The Kinney Parking Company also acquired DC Comics and Warner Brothers. Gaines became a board member of Kinney Parking and was allowed to continue running MAD as he saw fit. And he did.
Popularity continued to grow throughout the 1960’s and by the mid-70’s, MAD’s circulation grew to a staggering 2 million copies!
In 1980, MAD tried their hand at making a movie called Up The Academy which bombed so terribly that MAD scrubbed all references to itself from subsequent television and video releases.
After William Gaines death in 1992, MAD Magazine was folded-in to Time Warner who in the mid 1990’s relocated MAD’s operations to the DC Comics offices at DC Entertainment.
In 1995 Fox Broadcasting Company licensed MAD’s logo and characters for a skit comedy show produced by Quincy Jones called MADtv. Much in the vein of Saturday Night Live but probably closer to In Living Colour. The skits didn’t really relate to the world of MAD Magazine very much but there were animated features between the skits of such MAD mainstays as Spy Vs. Spy and some Don Martin cartoons which made the show almost worth watching. MADtv proved to be a somewhat moderate success and lasted 14 seasons.
By the end of the century however, satire and parody became more and more commonplace in popular culture and circulation dwindled down to about 200,000 (about 10 percent of MAD’s peak) forcing MAD to start accepting advertising which it had never done before and licensing out Alfred E. Neuman for product campaigns. This did help keep the publication afloat for a while longer until AT&T acquired Time Warner in June of 2018 and discontinued newsstand distribution in 2019 (thanks Ma Bell!) but continued distributing to comic book stores and also via direct subscriptions which continue to this day.
But new issues are almost entirely reruns of past features with just a small amount of new material. So for all practical purposes, MAD Magazine although it’s still “sort of alive” to this day, pretty much had an incredible run of 67 years from 1952 to 2018 with 550 regular issues along with dozens and dozens of special edition publications.
Now there’s a whole lot more to the story of MAD than what I’ve been able to present here. The list of stories, albums, television productions, iconic writers and artists goes on almost as far as the eye can see. Don Martin, Frank Jacobs, Mort Drucker, Dave Berg and Sergio Aragonés just to name a few of the iconic contributors I didn’t have time to get into here. So with all that said and much more for you to go forth and explore about the amazing history of this cornerstone of American satire, this has been the Dandy Fun House condensed history of MAD Magazine. If you would like to delve deeper, just go shopping for some Alfred E. Neuman hats and subscribe to new editions of old stuff from MAD over at MadMagazine.com .
And I would be remiss if I didn’t give special acknowledgement to other resources from which we harvested information contained in this episode:
and as usual… wikipedia
Thanks for joining our meltdown into MADness. Hope you’re not too MAD to come back soon to the Dandy Fun House where everything is always… FUN AND DANDY! Ta Ta for now!
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