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Arts & Entertainment

The (prat)fall of Cracked Magazine-- and the rise of Cracked.com

Cracked: The Funniest Magazine in History. An issue from Sept 1962.
Cracked: The Funniest Magazine in History. An issue from Sept 1962.

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Mention Cracked to anyone over 30... and they think of this.

"In a 2007 article", Cracked.com describes its pre-internet self like this:

"Created as a knock-off of MAD magazine just under 50 years ago, we spent nearly half a decade with a fan base primarily comprised of people who got to the store after MAD sold out. Our latest incarnation of the magazine (a poor man's version of Maxim) only came about once the old Cracked offices were closed by the anthrax attacks of 2001 (the poor man's version of the fall 2001 terrorist attacks)."

...This is not entirely inaccurate.

Jack O'Brien, co-founder and current head editor of Cracked Magazine's web incarnation Cracked.com, and a former production assistant for ABC News, wrote a satirical news version of the show Primetime Live for the company. The segment -- which he now describes as the "worst piece of comedy to ever make it on television" -- was quickly canceled. But, it gave him enough comedic props to be contacted for Cracked Magazine's re-launch in 2005.

"A guy wanted to re-launch Cracked for an older audience," O'Brien explains. "The previous incarnation of the magazine was just cartoonists and people who liked booger jokes. So we were e-mailing people saying 'Hey, come write for us, we have this magazine! And, oh yeah, we also have this website.' But I mean, everybody had a website. No one really cared."

That all changed in 2007 when, after just three issues, the re-launched magazine folded.

Pop culture website Gawker.com at the time declared: "very little remains of the old Cracked, a Mad ripoff that had tread water in various incarnations for almost half a century." Others compared the magazine to modern-era "Men's Interest" magazines like Maxim or FHM.

"There was the idea that you had to put pretty, half-dressed women in the thing to get people to buy the magazine," O'Brien admits. "That was initially something we ran into re-launching the website too, this idea that comedy websites all appeal to this young male demographic and you have to write about sports and boobs and alcohol."

The remaining staff spent a few months circling the drain.

"I think everybody was kind of looking for jobs," says O'Brien. "We were just doing the website for fun."

And that's when things, in his words, "kind of exploded."

Turns out, while (most) guys definitely like boobs and boogers, they also like actual facts, like:

"The 7 Most Unexpectedly Awesome Historical Parties: Entry One -- Victory Day. Moscow's celebration of the surrender of Germany just might be the single largest spur-of-the-moment anything in history. Thousands of people immediately took to the streets to transform one of the largest cities on the planet into a sea of vodka, many of them still in their nightclothes."

Okay, that involves booze, but it also involves history. Cracked's Soren Bowie says he spends anywhere from a day to a week on a column, depending on the research involved. "It makes it more difficult," he says, "But I think that's the bread and butter of Cracked, its what makes Cracked Cracked. It's these really interesting little nuggets of information people should know, but they don't know it for whatever reason. That's what Cracked is. At its heart, it's information."

Oren Katzeff, Cracked.com's general manager and chief marketeer, says, "If I had to describe Cracked, it would be a little bit of Saturday Night Live meets Moneyball. We have a small team; we have a budget that's less than every other player in the space, yet we go out there, we put our players on the field and we beat them."

MAD magazine, amid company-wide cutbacks at past owners Time-Warner, finally landed at six issues per year in 2010. Its website is still in Beta, and mainly serves as a jump-off point to buy print issues.

Compare that to Cracked, Katzeff says. In 2007 they had a couple hundred thousand unique users per month and 3 or 4 million page views. "And we closed February at about 17-million uniques, and 300-million page views."

MAD is probably mad, but Cracked no longer seems so crazy.