An Appreciation of MAD and Its Usual(ly Jewish) Gang of Idiots

By Albert Stern / BJV Editor

As a consumer of creative work, my tastes run decidedly toward the “trying to figure it all out” parts of a creator’s output than the “telling it like it is, man” parts of their oeuvre. The figuring-things-out works are often raw products of youthful exuberance. As artists mature, too many can’t resist the urge to foist the very important truths they’ve come to understand upon their audiences. Though I understand that impulse, I much prefer (for example) listening to the figuring-it-all-out Beatles tunes like “I Should Have Known Better” to the telling-it-like-it-is-man Beatles anthems like “All You Need is Love.” As I approach my golden years, I will take lightness, yearning, and cheek over weighty messages eight days a week.

So maybe this is the right time in my life for The Norman Rockwell Museum’s summer blockbuster, “What, Me Worry? The Art and Humor of MAD Magazine” – and perhaps it will be in yours, as well. Starting in the mid-1950s, MAD, as a book jacket blurb put it, delivered more than “60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity, and Stupidity” to a young audience in their prime figuring-it-all-out years. For a lot of us as children and pre-teens, MAD was the next step up the ladder of subversive humor and visual complexity that we first connected with in the early-reader picture books of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak – for me, only Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” strips were more cherished and reread than my collection of MADs. You stopped reading MAD when your tastes changed along with other things, usually around the time of your bar mitzvah, and jokes that were once so hilarious stopped seeming so. But MAD never stopped being funny – it was just funny for someone else.

MAD’s Jewishness was particularly pronounced from the magazine’s inception through the era I was a devotee, the late 1960s and early 1970s. The mostly Jewish “Usual Gang of Idiots” contributing to each issue at the time were producing material for Baby Boomers, but were themselves members of my parents’ generation, born in the 1920s and 1930s. They experienced the Great Depression and WWII, as well as urban Jewish life in New York City and the Catskills resorts. As essayist Norman Abrams writes in “A Secular Talmud: The Jewish Sensibility of MAD Magazine,” MAD’s comedy was “grounded in Yiddishisms, sarcasm, and self-mockery, all defining features of Jewish humor.”

My study of MAD was nothing if not Talmudic. MAD was how Borscht Belt humor was infused into the Jewish sensibility of my generation – it transmitted the canonical jokes, the shtick of the Catskill tummlers, and the inbred underdog/outsider Jewish comic persona. After mainlining on MAD as a child, one forever retained the ability to discern the particular redolence of Jewish humor wherever it appeared, from Mel Brooks to Franz Kafka. What’s more, the research I did to understand the jokes that went over my head further broadened my informal education – I remember that my desire to sing along to a MAD song parody set to the tune of “You’re the Top” impelled me to dig through my parents’ record collection and listen, for the first time (and with a delight that has never ebbed), to the songs of Cole Porter.

But MAD contributors being of my parents’ generation had an additional effect. Everything about America culture was changing rapidly in the 1960s and early 1970s – fashion, music, movies, media, architecture, décor, and social mores – and usually in one direction, toward the more extreme, outlandish, and “new and improved.” Like our parents, the MAD contributors were not among the youthful cohort who embraced and drove the changes, but rather part of a generation reacting to the upheaval with bewilderment and skepticism. Another generation reacting to the sweeping transformations with a similar sense of helplessness was my own. Through MAD, we got a glimpse into how our parents were processing the cultural sea change, even as we were trying to figure it all out for our juvenile selves.

My MAD golden age also transpired at a time when there were fewer media options and Americans’ cultural frame of reference was more uniform. Unpestered by internets and iPhones, we had more time to reread and unravel the riot of jokes crammed into the pages of the magazine. What I particularly loved about MAD is that it went after both schlock and great art with the same irreverence. For example, MAD’s parody of The Godfather – “The Odd Father,” with Mort Drucker’s hilarious caricatures (on glorious display at the NRM in a room dedicated to the master's work) – skewered the movie and showed how even a cinematic masterpiece could also be infinitely mockable. MAD honed your ability to recognize the artifice and manipulation that underpins, well, everything – whether you’re being entertained or being sold something or being governed by politicians or simply engaging with your fellow human beings. As the magazine’s founder and longtime publisher William Gaines put it, “MAD’s philosophy is: We must never stop reminding the reader of how little value they get for their money.” Maybe that was self-deprecation about the magazine, maybe it was a metaphor about life in general – either way, caveat emptor.

Moreover, MAD was a textbook if you wanted to be creative or funny yourself. Check out the Wikipedia entry about MAD for the testimonials from the comedians, cartoonists, filmmakers, et al., of every stripe who acknowledge MAD’s indelible influence on their work. Many crossed boundaries of subject matter and good taste the magazine never would, but the transgressive spirit underpinning their work was, at its core, MAD Magazine.

When I’ve told people that I’m writing about this exhibit, their eyes light up as they share their stories of how much MAD meant to them at a time in their lives when they were trying to figure it all out. MAD fanatics – we are not alone. So, let me tell you like it is, man – this summer, the jolliest place in the Berkshires is going to be “What, Me Worry?” at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Editor's Note: Check out my Chronogram story about the exhibit here.

Image Credit:Norman Mingo (1896-1980)
What, Me Worry: Another Spring Issue, 1957
Cover illustration for MAD #33, (EC, 1957)
Acrylic on board
James Halperin Collection, Courtesy of Heritage Auctions,
MAD and all related elements ™ & © E.C. Publications. Courtesy of DC. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.