'What, Me Worry?' Celebrating 70 Years of Mad Magazine

By: Dave Roos  | 
Weird Al Yankovic, Mad
Singer-songwriter Weird Al Yankovic signs copies of a Mad magazine with his likeness on the cover at Barnes & Noble Union Square in New York City, April 20, 2015. Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

For seven decades, Mad magazine has gleefully warped generations of adolescent minds with a simple message (according to former Mad editor John Ficarra): "Everyone is lying to you, including magazines. Think for yourself."

Mad magazine didn't invent parody, satire, irony and "snark," but Mad's subversive comic sensibility set the tone for everything funny that came after it, from "Saturday Night Live" to "The Simpsons" to "South Park" to "The Daily Show."


At its peak in the mid-1970s, Mad boasted a circulation of more than 2 million, at least half of them stashed under the mattresses of 11-year-old boys and passed around at recess hidden inside geometry textbooks.

But by 2017, its circulation was just 170,000, causing the magazine to effectively shut down in 2019 and stop producing original material. But the Mad brand lives on with new releases of "best of" compilations like "MAD Mocks Music," a special 70th anniversary issue at Barnes & Noble and, more importantly, through its indelible influence on American comedy.


If You Can't Beat 'Em, Make Fun of 'Em

Mad was the brainchild of William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman at EC Comics, a low-brow publishing house that specialized in gory horror titles that drove parents nuts in the 1950s, like "Tales from the Crypt."

Kurtzman, a World War II vet, mostly wrote and drew military comics for EC, but he had an itch to do something different — to poke fun at the ridiculous cliches of comic book heroes and even EC's own horror mags. Gaines, who was EC's publisher, loved the idea.


"Mad began as a comic book parodying other comic books," explains Judith Yaross Lee, a scholar of American humor and professor emerita at Ohio University.

Mad's original title was "Tales That Will Drive You Mad." One of the earliest issues in 1953 featured a brilliant parody called "Superduperman!" starring a "creepy" Clark Bent (the pathetic "assistant to the copy boy") who transforms into the vapid Superduperman. Our "hero" is introduced in the first panel triumphantly punching an octogenarian on crutches in the gut.

1950s' readers loved Mad's spot-on spoofs, including a twisted parody of the clean-cut kids of Riverdale called "Starchie." Circulation soared to 750,000.


With Comics Under Fire, Mad is Reborn as a Magazine

Publisher William Gaines, Mad Magazine
Publisher William Gaines reads a copy of his Mad magazine in 1989. Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman grins down from behind him.
Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1954, lawmakers convened the "Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency," which accused comic books of poisoning the minds of America's youth. Gaines, the publisher of EC Comics, testified and defended his horror titles. "This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?" asked a senator. "Yes, sir, I do," replied Gaines, "for the cover of a horror comic."

The lawmakers disagreed, and forced the comics industry to create the Comics Code Authority, which automatically banned any comic book with "horror," "terror," "crime" or "weird" in its title. To survive the purge and sidestep the censors, Gaines and Kurtzman performed a savvy switcheroo and transformed Mad from a 10-cent comic book into a glossy magazine.


"For the past two years now, MAD has been dulling the senses of the country's youth," wrote Kurtzman in his introduction to the first issue of Mad, the magazine. "Now we get to work on the adults."

Yaross Lee, the humor historian, co-edited a scholarly volume (with John Bird) called "Seeing MAD: Essays on MAD Magazine's Humor and Legacy." In it, she explains that the expansion into a magazine format not only freed Mad's writers from censorship, but also expanded their satirical targets to include parodies of movies, TV shows and popular music.

"Mad's M.O. was simple in both formats," Yaross Lee writes, "take a comic conceit and push it over the top."


Mad's Jewish Roots Shaped Its Comic Sensibility

Parody, says Yaross Lee, is "imitation with a difference." For Mad's writers and cartoonists, almost all of whom were Jewish guys from New York City, that "difference" came from their lived experience as outsiders.

In the 1930s and 1940s, art schools imposed quotas on how many Jewish students could be accepted in each class. Barred from the "legitimate" art world, many of these frustrated Jewish artists became cartoonists. And in the process, they and other Jews of their generation developed "a comic response to discrimination and oppression," says Yaross Lee.


Mad readers from Iowa may not have understood the random Yiddish words sprinkled into parodies — like furshlugginer ("beat up or junky") and ganef ("thief or rascal") — but they responded to Mad's distinctly Jewish comic sensibility; the outsider relentlessly mocking the mainstream.

'Peak' Mad: Politics and Counterculture

interior of Mad Magazine
The typical interior of Mad magazine was written comic-book style.
Anna Gawlik/Getty Images

That subversive sensibility propelled Mad to new heights of popularity and influence in the 1960s and 1970s, when the writers trained their satirical sites on political targets from both the right and the left: Kennedy, Nixon, the Beat poets, McCarthyism, hippies and war hawks.

"All art is political," says Yaross Lee, "and Mad was counter cultural in its DNA."


Mad's peak circulation was in the 1970s and its unspoken message of questioning authority and skewering mainstream culture really resonated with that generation of readers.

"One of the things that is fascinating about Mad is the degree to which Mad affected the culture, and didn't just mirror the culture, for a long time," wrote Paul Levitz, former president of DC Comics, for an essay included in "Seeing MAD." "I really believe that Mad is one of the things that made the '60s possible, and even made the Watergate-era cynicism possible in many ways."

One of Mad's most controversial covers hit the shelves in April 1974 and summed up the decade perfectly. In place of mascot Alfred E. Neuman's dopey grin was simply a raised middle finger. Newman's catchphrase was "What, me worry?" The cartoon boy's face had appeared in ads as far back as the 1890s, but he was named Alfred E. Neuman by Mad editor Al Feldstein in 1956.

Another long-running gag was "Spy vs. Spy" which featured two identical characters, one dressed in white and the other in black, who were always trying to booby-trap each other. The strip was a parody of the Cold War.


The Legacy of 'The Usual Gang of Idiots'

One of the reasons for Mad's incredible longevity and consistency was a stable of writers and cartoonists that joined Mad in the 1950s and 1960s and never left.

Credited in typical Mad self-loathing as "the Usual Gang of Idiots," the list of long-running Mad contributors included the late Mort Drucker, an ingenious caricaturist who drew just about every movie and TV parody from 1959 to 2008. Al Jaffee, who retired from Mad at 99 years old, created the magazine's trademark last-page "Fold In" in 1964 and drew it for every single issue.


Interestingly, Kurtzman left Mad all the way back in 1956 to start another humor magazine called Trump, published by Hugh Heffner of Playboy fame. But the writer Adam Gopnik noted that Kurtzman left his mark on Mad and on generations of American comedians and writers.

"Like Lenny Bruce, whom he influenced, Kurtzman saw that the conventions of pop culture ran so deep in the imagination of his audience and stood at so great a remove from real experience that one could create a new kind of satire simply by inventorying them," wrote Gopnik. "To say that this became an influential manner in American comedy is an understatement. Almost all American satire today follows a formula discovered by Harvey Kurtzman."

Or as Yaross Lee puts it, "The Mad sensibility is everywhere."