Clarence Page: Alas, poor Mad magazine, pulled under by its own humor wave


Clarence Page - Chicago Tribune



What? Mad magazine will disappear from newsstands after August? Well, as Dorothy Parker is said to have said after hearing of President Calvin Coolidge’s death, “How can they tell?”

After 67 years of publishing elegantly illustrated goofiness, Mad’s “Usual Gang of Idiots” is calling it quits — although not quite totally.

DC Entertainment, the division of Warner Bros. that publishes the magazine, says Mad will still be available in comic shops and through mail to subscribers. But after its fall issue in August, it will just reprint golden oldies from its 550 previously published issues, DC says, with some new material to be in special editions at the end of the year.

That’s sad, Mad. I was shocked to hear that the masters of satire who influenced and inspired generations of now-famous writers and comedians, are all but going out of business.

I’m hardly alone in my disappointment. “I can’t begin to describe the impact it had on me as a young kid,” tweeted “Weird Al” Yankovic, the satirical lyricist and Mad’s first guest editor in 2015. “It’s pretty much the reason I turned out weird… #ThanksMAD.”

Musician and actor Stevie Van Zandt tweeted fond memories of his appearing as part of “The Sopranos” cast on a Mad cover. “Making the cover of Rolling Stone was nice,” he wrote, “but I didn’t feel meaningful until I made the cover of Mad Magazine!’”

I heard similar sentiments from late Chicago film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert after their first Mad appearance. I felt the same about being depicted in Mad back in the 1990s as part of “The McLaughlin Group” — arguing, of course. They didn’t mention my name but the illustration helped me to score cool points with my son and his fifth grade pals at the time. Priceless.

But, even as a Mad fan since age 11, I had to admit to being a small part of their big problem. I haven’t bought a copy since early 2009. That issue’s cover depicted a harried President Barack Obama on his first day in the Oval Office, so overwhelmed by ringing telephones and mounting crises that he started smoking again.

I have not been alone, it turns out, in paying lip service to the glory days of Mad without bothering to buy any new ones. The magazine’s glory days peaked at more than 2 million in the early 1970s, then slipped and slid to its presently meager 140,000.

What went wrong? It’s not as if our current media age, enlivened by our former-reality-TV-star president, doesn’t provide ample material for satire, sarcasm and ridicule. This, after all, is the first president to inspire two half-hour sitcoms, so far: Comedy Central’s live-action “The President Show” and Showtime’s animated “Our Cartoon President.”

Most obviously, Mad failed to keep up with the rapidly accelerating and expanding comedy universe that it helped to initiate and inspire. The vast proliferation of topical humor that has resulted across various media has turned Mad into a tortoise among jackrabbits.

After all, why wait a month for the next issue of Mad when the next “Saturday Night Live,” late-night comedy show or your Twitter feed offers sidesplitting on-point punchlines — once you scroll through a lot of rubbish — from a universe of idiots in real time?

I was jerked alert to how much things had changed when President Donald Trump dismissed the entry of South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg into the Democratic presidential race by calling him “Alfred E. Neuman.” To which 37-year-old Buttigieg responded by asking, who is Alfred E. Neuman?

“I’ll be honest,” he told reporters. “I had to Google that. I guess it’s just a generational thing.”

Ouch, I thought. There goes the baby boomer vote.

But the lovable gang of idiots at Mad responded appropriately with the tweet, “Who’s Pete Buttigieg? Must be a generational thing.”

That’s the sort of lovable irreverence that impressed me as a fifth grader at my neighborhood drugstore, perusing the black-and-white pages of this odd comic book. It pushed important new waves of irreverence and reality in our politics and media fantasies, until it was taken under by its own wave.

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Clarence Page

Chicago Tribune

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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