Totally MAD CDs live up to their title

September 13, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

When CD-ROMs first appeared, their publishers promised to bring the world's great reference works and collections to the masses on shiny compact discs. And so they have.

The great encyclopedias are available on CD. So is the entire Oxford English Dictionary. National Geographic has tucked 109 years' worth of its magazine into an elegant CD box set. But for all the 12-year-olds out there who never quite grew up (and we all know who we are), "Totally MAD" may be the greatest CD collection of them all.

That's right, the Usual Gang of Idiots -- the editors and writers who made Alfred E. Neuman one of the most recognized faces in the world, who added "potrzebie," "axolotl," "veeblefetzer" and "What, Me Worry?" to the American lexicon, who rotted the minds of two generations of adolescents -- have digitized all 564 issues of MAD Magazine from 1952 through 1998 and packaged them on seven (count 'em) compact discs, with a souvenir roll of MAD toilet paper thrown in for good measure.

"You mean somebody would actually pay for this?" my wife asked.

Well, some people get MAD and some don't. If you're one of the millions who enjoyed the magazine's sophomoric humor, satire, parody and general celebration of the absurd, "Totally MAD" is well worth the price. Well, $69.95 is a bit steep -- maybe even outrageous -- for a collection of junk that no responsible adult ever wanted you to read.

But MAD's current co-editor, John Ficarra, defends it this way: "No other MAD product in our nearly 50-year history more clearly illustrates just how much of our lives we have utterly wasted."

And that's the beauty of MAD -- it never takes anything seriously, including itself. Where else can you get a laugh just by reading the fine print on the software box? Since I have to tell you this stuff anyhow, I'll give you the system requirements verbatim:

"To run this program properly, you should have a computer. (Our technical research shows that a working one is preferred). Your computer should also have one of those little slide-out 'snack trays.' Take the snack out and put in one of the small round CD-ROM things that are in the package."

If that's not enough to go on, you'll also need Windows 95/98 or NT 4.0 ("Windows with curtains and blinds are optional") and a Pentium machine running at 90 MHz or higher ("Any slower and you'll be dead by the time you get to reading issue #245"). You'll also need a mouse "or an IBM compatible chipmunk."

Once you actually get around to opening the box and installing the software, you'll find yourself in MAD's control center, tastefully known as the "Trash Heap." There's a lot of junk lying around here, and if you click on the objects in front of you, some of them will actually do something useful, such as showing you the magazine.

You can browse the covers and click to bring up any issue, which appears in another screen known as the "Veeblefetzer" (if you don't know what a Veeblefetzer is, look it up in the index). You can navigate page-by-page, zoom in or zoom out -- which is important for seeing the little gags in the margins -- and print any area of the screen or copy it to the Windows clipboard to use in a photo editing program.

The high-resolution scans produce beautiful screen displays and printed images, although you'll find yourself doing a lot of scrolling and panning. This isn't MAD's fault. The problem is that magazines (and printed pages in general) are vertically oriented while computer screens are horizontal. Undoubtedly, this is part of a great conspiracy, but I'll save that for another column.

In addition to the magazine itself, you'll find animated cartoons, audio recordings, videos and interviews with the Usual Gang of Idiots. If you enjoyed the magazine's "fold-ins" (pictures that display hidden images when you fold them over on themselves), you don't have to print them -- you can do it right on screen. It's not as much fun, but it saves trees.

The best feature of "Totally MAD" is the "Search-O-Meter," which lets you find articles by subject, author or keyword. That makes it easy to find all the magazine's famous "Spy vs. Spy" panels, "Scenes We'd Like to See," or my favorite, Don Martin's hilariously gruesome cartoons. The index is complete, intuitive and a snap to use -- serious reference works could take a lesson from this one.

But who's serious? This is MAD Magazine, the tasteless, juvenile stuff you (mostly) outgrew by the time you were a teen-ager. And that's what makes it so delightful. Browsing through back issues is a trip in a time machine through the last half of the 20th century -- a glimpse at the world of entertainment, politics, advertising and popular culture through a looking glass warped by a bunch of kids who never grew up.

So, you wanna throw out 70 bucks on this useless box of junk? You do? Well, your English teacher was was right -- your mind did rot after all. Enjoy it.

For information about "Totally MAD," contact Broderbund Software, which is now a division of Mindscape, which is now a division of the The Learning Company, which now apparently owns most of the software publishers that Microsoft hasn't already snapped up. This is all very confusing, but if you surf to www.learningco.com and look hard enough, you can find out the stuff I've already told you and even order online. If you're a big spender, risk a few dimes on a phone call to 617-761-3000. But don't tell 'em I sent you.

Pub Date: 09/13/99

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