Impresario of Irreverence

June 12, 1992

Baby Boomers who reached adolescence during the late 1950s and early '60s have lost one of their most influential early mentors with the passing of William M. Gaines, the founder and publisher of Mad magazine who died last week at age 70. Mad's iconoclastic humor, raucous parodies and goofy mascot -- who doesn't recall the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman and his signature "What -- me worry?" -- tutored an entire generation in the uses of irreverence.

At a time when "family values" were de rigueur, when adult control of teen-agers was the rule, Mad was the wormhole through which all manner of subversive ideas first insinuated themselves into impressionable adolescent minds.

The magazine under Mr. Gaines was genuinely funny -- taking into account, of course, the fact that its adolescent humor sometimes requires extreme tolerance. But it also spoke to young people about serious issues in ways that parents and other grown-ups often either could not or would not.

Mad's artists and writers gleefully took on such "forbidden" topics as divorce, alcoholism, the advertising industry's not-so-subtle prevarications and the commercialization of popular culture with a sophistication many young readers would not encounter again until college, if then. This was the generation, remember, that grew up learning to crouch under desks at school in case of H-bomb attack. A certain wacky humor and appreciation of the bizarre were probably necessary items in any kid's mental survival kit.

Mr. Gaines presided over the bedlam on Mad's pages with a buoyancy that challenged and inspired his staff, influenced a generation of humorists and comedy writers and delighted adolescents of all ages. Most of all, he had fun doing it. That joy continues to shine through in the magazine still devoted to what Mr. Gaines once slyly described as "humor in a jugular vein."

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