During my junior year in high school, my friends and I needed to complete a project for our French class. We could do anything we wanted. Prepare a meal. Paint a picture. Write a report on the Eiffel Tower. Now that I think of it, interviewing my grandmother, who came to the United States from Canada as a child, would have been a great idea. All my classmates and I knew was that our project had to have something to do with French culture.
My friends and I made a movie. We wrote a script that parodied “Three Men and a Baby,” a popular comedy from earlier that year, and filmed it over a few days and a few long nights in the fall of 1988. You might be scratching your head, wondering how “Three Men and a Baby” had anything to do with the French, but I assure you we knew what we were doing. You see, that movie, starring Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg and, yes, a baby, was based on a French comedy called “Three Men and a Cradle.” So you see that we had all we needed to justify making a movie. In fact, later in the semester, we would need to complete the latter half of the project and dub the entire 35-minute film en francais.
We shot the film on a video camera. In the opening shot, I am seeing reading a Mad magazine. On the cover, the viewer can see cartoon versions of Selleck, Danson, and Guttenberg. Selleck is holding a baby upside-down by one of its legs. The baby is, of course, Alfred E. Neuman, the red-headed, gap-toothed mascot of the magazine.
Back then, I thought that was pretty clever of my friends and me, to open our own satire of “Three Men and a Baby” that way. All these years later, I still do.
That’s just one memory I have of Mad magazine, a publication that figured prominently into my childhood. I bought and read every issue from 1980 through 1988, from when I was eight to when I was 16. Formative years, those. For better or for worse, the magazine had a significant impact on the development of my sense of humor. Its lasting influence on me is evident even to this day. I am admittedly prone to laugh at certain things, such as unfortunate but completely natural bodily noises, that probably should have gotten their last chuckle out of me in junior high. So too am I likely to push back against arrogance or skewer conventions I find ridiculous.
My heart sank when I heard the news last week that “the usual gang of idiots” will cease selling Mad magazines on newsstands once its final issue comes out next month. According to Time magazine, Mad will still be found in comic shops and will still be available through mail subscriptions, but on the whole will stop publishing new material — save for special editions at the end of the year. Apparently, from here, Mad will pretty much only reprint previously published material.
Basically, 67 years of lunacy is coming to an end.
I loved everything about Mad magazine when I was a kid. The parodies of movies, songs and TV shows. The artwork of Al Jafee and Mort Drucker. Spy Vs. Spy. The little drawings scribbled in the margins. The back covers that folded in three to make a hilarious or, sure, gross picture. Even the front covers were funny, with Neuman’s goofy grin, references to that “usual gang of idiots,” and the exclamation that the magazine’s price was “cheap!”
My father read Mad magazine when he was a kid. I think he got a kick out of it when I started reading it too. I know I felt a certain pride when my daughter, Maddie, began reading some of the Mad-related books and started watching a Mad TV show for kids. That’s three generations of Sullivans right there.
My sense of humor developed and took on more sophisticated shades as I got older, thank you very much. But I will always credit Mad for the broadness of my sense of humor. It’s well and good to laugh and smile at humor that is subtle, precise, multi-layered, and intelligent. It’s better to be able to laugh at that material and at the stuff on the opposite end of the spectrum — the base, subversive and juvenile territory that Mad mined so expertly. Quite simply, it means you laugh more than others.
But that sells Mad a little short. You don’t stay on the stands for nearly seven decades unless you are, in fact, smart and resourceful and able to adapt to the times — or at least know how to make fun of them.
Like I said, I stopped reading Mad when I was a teenager. Did I outgrow it? Did I find its escalating price no longer cheap? Did I feel like it was losing its edge? The answers are likely no, no, and no. I had just become a teenager, concerned with other things. I have no idea what happened to the stacks of the magazine I kept stashed in my bedroom closet. No matter. By then, Alfred E. Neuman had made his mark with me. In some ways, he’d always be with me.
Case in point. A few years ago — maybe in my late 30's or early 40's — I passed the magazine rack at Walmart. I spotted Mad on the bottom shelf. Curious, I picked it up and started leafing through the issue. I noted that the pages were fully colored and a bit glossier and filled with ads. I also noticed that the magazine was still hilarious. At one point, as I read one of the parodies, I began to laugh so hard that I had to turn inward, away from the view of fellow shoppers. It was bad enough they would see a grown man quaking with suppressed laughter. They didn’t need to see my red face and the tears in my eyes too.
Eventually, I put the magazine back on the shelf. I felt like a million bucks. Nothing beats laughter. The folks at Mad managed to create lots of it for generations of people over a period of close to 70 years. That’s no small feat.
But then, when you consider basic human folly and the ongoing state of affairs in our country and in our world over the decades, Alfred E. Neuman and his usual gang of idiots never had to scrounge for material.
Shawn P. Sullivan is an award-winning columnist and the author of “Islands in the Chaotic Ocean of Life,” a memoir that is available online at Amazon.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.