Stop the madness? Not yet

Satire: They're still laughing at Mad magazine, but their targets have changed with the times.

February 09, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

They were quite the unusual group, that usual gang of idiots. Darn funny, too.

You could count on seeing just about every one of them in every issue of Mad magazine. There was Mort Drucker, whose movie parodies often proved more entertaining than the movies they parodied. There was Sergio Aragones, whose characters inhabited literally every corner of the magazine. There was Dave Berg, who specialized in finding humor in the mundane.

There was also Antonio Prohias, whose "Spy vs. Spy" distilled the Cold War down to a match of wits between two witless secret agents. And, perhaps most memorably, there was Don Martin, "Mad's maddest artist," whose flap-jawed, hinge-footed heroes inhabited a world where sneakers went "SHPLORT!" and frogs-turned-princes still had 2-foot-long tongues.

Such was the world of Mad through the late 1950s and '60s, the golden age of America's favorite mass-market humor magazine. It was an age when the Mad's writers and artists of became heroes, where who was writing and drawing for the magazine was just as important as the work itself.

The recent death of Martin, who succumbed to cancer Jan. 6 at age 68, serves as a reminder that the world Mad so perfectly parodied is long gone, and the Mad franchise has been handed over to a new generation of satirists.

"There aren't too many of us left from the original group," says Berg, whose feature, "The Lighter Side of ..." still runs in Mad eight times a year. "The gang is breaking up. The people at Mad now, they call me Uncle Dave."

Other long-termers still contributing to the magazine include Al Jaffe, who does the inside-back-cover fold-ins; Drucker, whose movie caricatures (see this month's Mad take on the film "Double Jeopardy," aptly titled "Double Jerkery") have lost none of their zing; and Aragones, whose frantic drawings still pop up throughout the magazine.

But William M. Gaines, the magazine's original publisher and guru, died in 1992. Al Feldstein, editor throughout much of the 1960s, is long retired and living on a ranch in the West. Cuban expatriate Prohias died in February 1998; his "Spy vs. Spy" has been picked up by a host of artists, most recently Peter Kuper.

Questioning authority

The changes at Mad extend beyond new faces. The magazine of today is far different from the gleefully anarchic bad boy that taught a generation it was OK to skewer sacred cows.

"The magazine has gone beyond that," says Annie Gaines, 49, Mad's managing editor and Bill Gaines' widow. "The times were so different in those days. When Mad started, there was still an innocence, you still did not question authority. Mad taught people to question authority, and to look at life in a different way. Now everybody lives that way. ...

"I think we made everybody wise to the world," she adds. "I really think Mad had a lot to do with teaching people that."

Today's Mad is far more topical than its predecessor, spends far more time lampooning current events. Its humor has moved from timeless to timely.

"The kinds of articles I used to do, they're not doing them so much anymore," says Jaffe, 78. "The things I used to do were more general: Mad crime stoppers, planned obsolescence in manufactured products -- the kinds of things that kids and families would be dealing with on a daily basis. I think nowadays, the magazine, it's more edgy, dealing with modern music, sexual attitudes, things like that."

John Ficarra, 45, editor of Mad since 1985, agrees this is not the magazine of three decades ago.

"Mad has always been a reflection of society, so as society has changed, Mad reflects that in those pages. Society has sped up, and there's been a coarsening, a willingness to talk about things one never would have talked about before. ...

"It's much harder to write for the magazine," he continues. "It's much more difficult for us to stay ahead of the curve. We could not have created scenarios that really have occurred in the Oval Office."

That sense -- where truth is more outrageous than satire -- has been building for about 20 years now, Ficarra says. "We first started noticing that around the time of Gary Hart, who swore he wasn't fooling around, then had his photograph taken with a bimbo on his knee on a boat named Monkey Business. I mean, we couldn't have made that up."

Don Martin-izing

Ah, but the things the usual gang of idiots did cook up.

And no one was a better cook than Don Martin, whose knock- kneed, wide-eyed, long-faced flights of imagination became a signature piece for the magazine. Gap-toothed wonder Alfred E. Newman may have adorned every cover (his original renderer, artist Norman Mingo, died in 1980), but it was Don Martin's impossibly loose-limbed cast of characters and outrageous sound effects that kids would be snickering about the day the magazine came out.

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