The first MAD magazine I ever read flew so far over my 7-year-old head I'm surprised I could hold onto it. The cover, a parody of Time's Person of the Year starring Pac-Man, was an utter mystery; I'd heard of Pac-Man by that point, but hadn't played it. I definitely hadn't read Time.
Confusion only grew as I read, and slowly turned into fascination. Mad was shaped like a magazine but felt like a comic book—and talked about stuff I'd only heard on the news programs adults watched. The first article jabbed at then-president Ronald Reagan and his past as an actor by placing him in classic movies: a "supply-side Robin Hood" stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. "Ron Quixote," tilting at Communist windmills for the benefit of Salvadorean villagers. I could tell it was supposed to be funny, and I could decipher some of the sillier jokes, but the only thing I knew for sure was that I was looking into a world far deeper than Star Wars action figures and Rubik's Cubes.
That September 1982 issue introduced me to the names and sensibility that would shape my humor—at least until puberty and Saturday Night Live. The "usual gang of idiots," as MAD called them, turned out everything from political broadsides to Borscht Belt slapstick. Don Martin's four-panel oddities paired long-chinned doofuses with aggressive onomatopeia. (A character eating soup? SHLURP PLIPPLE SLOTCH SHLOOP.) TV and movie satires that exposed Hollywood as hokum, with jokes that still echo in my brain 35 years later. The wordless doodles by Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee's foldable back cover. It was acerbic. It was absurdist. But most of all, it was a window into the way the world really worked. And now it's gone.
Kind of. After reports last week claimed the 67-year-old humor magazine was shutting down, a different truth emerged. MAD will no longer publish new material, instead packaging bimonthly collections of classic material with all-new covers. Sounds empty, right? Like a zombie with a face-lift, right? Or—and granted, this could be my love for parody film titles like Star Blecch III: The Search for Plot talking—it could help make MAD relevant again.
Despite a good-faith reboot last year, MAD had long ago lost the energy that made it so formative for pre-internet prepubescents. Its circulation dropped throughout the ’80s and ’90s. After original publisher William C. Gaines died, it tried to reinvent itself as a raunchier, edgier incarnation, one better suited to the online era. That didn't work. But for decades, no piece of popular media had better taught kids how to be skeptical. Never cynical—it wasn't humans that MAD loathed, it was hypocrisy. Politicians, brands, and blowhards were the enemies, and few places were so willing to point them out to the younger set.
More surprisingly, MAD opened a portal to the past. Even while publishing monthly, the magazine resold its older content in annual digests and paperbacks, forcing kids to catch references made about the modern adult world and the adult world a decade or more before. As a Reagan baby, I wasn't just reading trickle-down economics jokes, but ABSCAM and Watergate ones as well. Funny thing about topical humor: When it's done right, it ripens into a history lesson.
Meanwhile, for a relic of the '70s and '80s, it managed not to pass its era's shortcomings along to its readers. All the bad stuff was there—gender chauvinism, racial assumptions, anything else that we sound the "Problematic!" horns for now—but it was there coded explicitly as bad stuff, the world as seen by phonies and fogeys and lazy screenwriters. MAD assumed the most of its young readers, and while its jokes could be juvenile, they were never venal.
Young readers grow up, and while they leave MAD behind, they do so having inherited something. The Simpsons, The Onion, The Daily Show, even The Lego Movie all exist in some part because their creators learned from some perfectly idiotic teachers. But what's left for today's kids? Yes, The Lego Movie is self-aware enough to be fun for parents. Yes, Steven Universe and Gravity Falls and Adventure Time encourage imagination and inclusion and other wonderful things that kids should internalize early. To raise free-thinking kids, though, you also need to let them know that it's OK to question how things work. You need to give them things that they read again and again and again, until the dumb puns and televangelist jokes and sarcasm sink deep enough into the brain to carry into teenagerdom and adulthood.
And now you'll be able to again. Like so many other people who count MAD among their earliest, most formative influences, I'm saddened by its passing. But as long as its earlier self can start to breed a new generation of smart-asses with a frame of reference that extends beyond Fortnite and memes with fruit-fly lifespans, then what—me worry?