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Born under a Mad sign

The humor mag has led generations to think for themselves and scorn idiots. What, we worry?

March 18, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

ALL I really need to know I learned from Mad magazine.

OK, well, not absolutely "all." (Women, for example, it taught me nothing about. Or how to change a tire.) But it was as essential a text as anything penned by Marshall McLuhan in understanding media and the mediated world, and a lot easier for a 10-year-old to work out. A lot of it went right over my head, of course, but that's part of what made it attractive and valuable: Things that go over your head can make you raise your head a little higher.

The magazine instilled in me a habit of mind, a way of thinking about a world rife with false fronts, small print, deceptive ads, booby traps, treacherous language, double standards, half truths, subliminal pitches and product placements; it warned me that I was often merely the target of people who claimed to be my friend; it prompted me to mistrust authority, to read between the lines, to take nothing at face value, to see patterns in the often shoddy construction of movies and TV shows; and it got me to think critically in a way that few actual humans charged with my care ever bothered to.

Really. Mad was like a disreputable older brother back from college, or a baby-sitter who'd once worked on Madison Avenue and had a nervous breakdown and couldn't stop talking about his old job.

Of course, I also liked the funny pictures. Don Martin. And Antonio Prohia's "Spy vs. Spy." And whatever Mort Drucker, Mad's signature caricature artist, set his talented hand to. The deeper effects were what might be called collateral improvement: Mad damage.

It had been a long time since I'd picked up a copy, though in the intervening decades I had of course seen the jug-eared, gap-toothed head of mag mascot Alfred E. Neuman smiling in conspiratorial idiocy from the newsstand racks -- not exactly calling to me, but letting me know that, even as I went about my supposedly grown-up business, "The Usual Gang of Idiots" (as the staff has been called for a very long time) were continuing their angelic dirty work. (Along the way the magazine lent its name and aesthetic to a television show, "MADtv," that I have never bothered to watch.)

And then one day, I bought a copy of the magazine. And after that, I bought a copy of "Absolutely Mad," a new DVD-ROM (updating a long out-of-print CD-ROM) that contains every issue from 1952 through 2005, and went into deep Mad mode.

To roam those more than 600 issues is to take a detailed sociocultural tour of the last American half-century, to remember not only epochal moments but ephemera long gone with the wind. (It is also a chance to get the jokes I didn't get the first time around.) There is little that Mad didn't manage to poke fun at or a hole through in that time, from things of little consequence -- macrame, scuba diving, computer dating -- to war and the bomb and prejudice and censorship.

The Mad critique of pure idiocy, to use a favorite Mad word -- other favorites are "namely," "potrzebie" and "ecch" -- is not always the most trenchant, sophisticated, hip or even accurate. (Like those they satirize, Mad will stretch the truth for effect.) The humor is frequently obvious, but then stating the unstated obvious thing is one of the pillars of Mad humor. (It regards the elephant in the room and says, "Hey! There's an elephant in the room!") As when in an early Mickey Mouse parody, Goofy points out that Donald Duck wears no pants, while Donald himself is made sick by the idea "of a mouse with lipstick and eyelashes and a dress with high-heeled shoes; a mouse ten times bigger than the biggest rat."

It has applied this method to the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, televangelists, and in such faux-elementary-readers as "The Mad Hypocrite Primer," "The Mad Primer of Bigots, Extremists and Other Loose Ends" and a host of other hot-air blowers across the political spectrum. "A Kids' Guide to Through Life the George Bush Way" inverts an earlier look at "How Bad Childhood Habits Can Help in a Congressional Career" (breaking promises, throwing tantrums, ignoring questions). One recent issue featured a pair of immaculately rendered Red State/Blue State Monopoly games, the former offering such Chance cards as "An electric voting machine 'error' results in your election -- collect $250,000," the latter including tokens in the shape of a Birkenstock and the head of Michael Moore.

Basically, the same old Mad

AND the magazine has been relentless on our current state of semi-permanent war. "Little Green Army Men of Today" includes such figures as "Desperate Campus Recruiter," "Friendly Fire Victim," "Poorly Outfitted Weapons and Equipment Scrounger" and a "Geneva-Convention-Scrapping Secretary of Defense." A piece called "War Cliches ... Completing the Sentences" shows Vice President Dick Cheney saying, "September 11th changed everything," and in a thought balloon we read the unspoken follow-up: "Except our plans to invade Iraq, which were laid out long before the first Tower fell."

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