300 issues -- and nary a worry

December 28, 1990|By Steven Stark

IT BEGAN 38 years ago as a comic book. It sits on newsstands today from Boston to Berlin, brandishing its distinctive take on what is, after all, a milestone in the publishing world.

Thus, for its 300th issue this month, MAD magazine gives us yet again the visage of perhaps the world's most notorious cover boy, Alfred E. Neuman, once described as everything parents fear their children might become.

So it goes with a humor magazine that perhaps has changed America more over the last four decades than any other periodical. With all due respect to the New Yorkers and Newsweeks of the world, no other magazine can claim to have shaped a generation or crafted a pervasive attitude as effectively as MAD has.

Without MAD, it is fair to say that there might be no Homer Simpson, no "Saturday Night Live" and no David Letterman, who bears a striking resemblance, in both style and looks, to Alfred E. Neuman.

Without MAD, even the '60s might have been different, at least as we know that decade as an era of dissent.

Changing a culture is a tall order for any magazine, particularly an eclectic one which depends almost solely on newsstand sales, has never run any advertising in its pages, runs mostly black-and-white cartoons rather than stories, and has had only one to two million readers throughout its history -- many of them teen-agers. In 1957, Time described the new magazine as a "short-lived satirical pulp."

But MAD has changed the culture by fashioning a sensibility that has taken root. Label it ironic, skeptical, satirical, irreverent or anti-establishment. Call MAD the first magazine that lampooned the common denominator of American culture -- television. Describe it, as editor John Ficarra does, as "the magazine that first tells teen-agers that the world is lying to you."

Or, maybe, it's all bound up in MAD's immortal word, "Ecch!"

Because its format has changed so little over almost four decades, the 300th MAD issue is a bit of an anachronism, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever read the magazine. There is the old comic strip, "Spy vs. Spy." There are the usual satires of well-known TV shows or movies such as "Casabonkers" and "Groan with the Wind." And there is more sophisticated humor, such as this attempt to update Shakespeare by putting "Richard III" to rap:

A horse! A horse! I need . . . one . . . bad!

And I know it's too late to place . . . an . . . ad;

A horse! A horse! That's all . . . I . . . need;

I'd swap . . . my . . . throne for a slightly used . . . steed.

And so on.

If there has been a major change at MAD over the years, it is the growing number of foreign editions in such places as Malaysia, Brazil and Germany, where MAD is the biggest-selling humor magazine. If nothing else, these expansions show that our greatest nationalexport continues to be our popular culture.

With the Iron Curtain crumbling, MAD is now negotiating to start editions in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Three editions of the magazine in France, however, failed. "What do you expect from a country who thinks the funniest man in the world is Jerry Lewis?" says Ficarra.

In the end, what MAD has communicated to the masses is the idea that in a visual culture -- often manipulated by advertisers for their own gain -- reality is never what it seems. As the MAD generation has aged and had children of its own, "Never trust anyone over 30" has become "Never trust anyone." And, as that attitude has become institutionalized, it has had enormous consequences, displayed in everything from protests over the Vietnam War -- and the potential Iraqi one -- to falling voter participation rates, to the ironic cynicism that characterizes so much of television and thus baby-boom humor.

And, what of the charge that MAD has helped inspire the country to become so skeptical it no longer believes in much of anything? Alfred E. Neuman would have the perfect retort.

What, me worry?

That, too, is now part of the culture. Ask Ronald Reagan, who took the slogan to heart while assembling deficits others would have to confront. Or George Bush, whose unofficial campaign song in 1988 was Neumanesque enough to carry the candidate to the White House. "Don't worry," went the lyrics. "Be happy."

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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