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Method In Madness

Mad magazine returns with a sassier, meaner, naughtier look

Method In Madness

MAD, the magazine that became an institution by mocking society's institutions, is gearing for a "Mad revival". Born 45 years ago as a rebuke to the repressions of McCarthyism, after its initial Madness, it failed to keep up with the times and gradually lost its edge.

The new Mad is still written by "the usual gang of idiots"—its contributing artists and writers. It continues to parody icons of popular culture—from cinema, TVand advertising. And it still has the barbed social  commentary it helped to pioneer. The reincarnated Mad will also remain true to its original spirit which surfaced when Alfred E. Neuman first showed his gap-toothed face in the '50s. But don't expect braces across Neuman's grin or detente in the world of Spy vs Spy. Mad is sassier and naughtier—and not just on a moronic level.

"There's been a coarsening in American life, and this reflects that," says John Ficarra, one of Mad's two editors. Adds Nick Meglin, co-editor: "Hopefully, this will translate into more sales and more people continuing to have their minds warped by us. We had the feeling people were saying 'Oh, Mad, they are still in print?' It's time to let them know yes, we're still in business." This is not your Dad's Mad Magazine, headed by the late William Gaines. That magazine, despised by parents but adored by kids, had a 2.4 million circulation during its 1966-75 heydays. Reading Mad beneath the covers had become a rite of passage for an entire generation.

Those days are over. Circulation is at a 500,000 low. "People grew up and had kids, they remembered Mad fondly, and allowed their kids to read it," Ficarra says. "And one of the kisses of death is parental approval." Mad, it seemed, was too tame and too mainstream. And so it needed reform.

The new Mad came out, appropriately, on April 1. It had a hilarious and raunchy collection of classic kids' stories retold by President Clinton, Louis Farrakhan and Howard Stern. There was also one perfect sacred cow: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, where Mad exposes the mistreatment of a whale, star of Free Willy: "Had no trailer...never received script approval...was not invited to view the rushes." The front cover features Alfred E. Neuman trying to photocopy his butt. Instead, the machine keeps spilling out pictures of his face.

New features include the first scheduled African-American characters, Melvin and Jenkins, the ongoing story of a good vs a bad twin. Despite the end of the Cold War, Mad also props up an old standby, Spy vs Spy, by turning it over to a young cartoonist, Peter Kuper. Favourite targets include corporate behemoths like Microsoft.

And what of the bright yellow border with tiny line drawings on the July cover? "We were hoping  readers would mistake us for the National Geographic," says Meglin with a laugh. The editors agree Mad's new tone was done with Gaines in mind. "He wouldn't have liked some of the stuff we're doing now," Ficarra says. "He was a 70-year-old man." Irreverence, undoubtedly, is the staple at Mad.

But its basics endure. Mad still doesn't accept ads and savages advertisers. It's still black and white, though that's a nod to finance as well as style. "The current cover price of '$2.50 Cheap!' would have skyrocketed to $6 if Mad went glossy," says Meglin. There was also talk of jettisoning the What Me Worry? mascot. "We talked about it for about two seconds," Ficarra says. Neuman survived the cut. 

After Gaines died in '92, Time Warner replaced him with Jenette Kahn, who, as head of DC Comics, had helped kill Superman and bring him back in a garish silver costume. She told Ficarra and Meg-lin that the magazine needed to be edgier. "It was not a question of recapturing our audience," Meglin says. "It's them rediscovering us. We haven't gone anywhere. We've always taken on advertising and politics and trends and foibles. We may not have been doing it with the coarseness of Stern, but we've always been there."

 "There are still many lines we shouldn't cross," says Ficarra. "We never do victim humour. You won't see AIDS jokes, and we still won't use four-letter words. I think people who grew up with Howard Stern and Seinfeld will find nothing shocking."

 But at least one notable voice indicates otherwise. Jack Davis, an artist who contributed to the old Mad for all its 45 years, says he wants no part of the born again Mad. "It got a little ugly," he told The Washington Post. But then Mad always existed as a melange of the subversive and silly. It still exists to tweak the nose of the establishment and to give adolescents and adults alike a goofy, thought-provoking view of the world. And, it's still small enough to be hidden inside a junior high school text book.

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