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Mad Magazine celebrates 60th anniversary by continuing to question authority

by Mike Roe | Off-Ramp®

Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman shows off the debut cover of the publication's new look at a New York news conference Tuesday, April 1, 1997. Richard Drew/AP

Before there were comedy websites and the latest funny Twitter account, there was Mad Magazine. It made a name for itself by playing class clown, taking shots at popular culture every month. It's still kicking, celebrating its 60th year this year, and editor-in-chief John Ficarra is at the helm.

"It's created some things that just generation after generation of people know. Things like 'Spy vs. Spy,' 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,' Alfred E. Neuman — the face that is our Playboy rabbit. He's the symbol of Mad. We used the phrase 'cultural touchstone,'"' and I think, for so many generations, it is," Ficarra said.

Still, after 60 years, how do you stay relevant? "Certainly the tone has changed over the years, because we always reflect what's going on in society. As society's gotten coarser, Mad has gotten coarser, no question about it," Ficarra said.

But there's a message beneath the madness.

"I think there's an underlying message in Mad of don't believe everything you hear. Don't necessarily trust — question authority," Ficarra said. "Everybody has an agenda, whether it be a politician, a magazine, a teacher, your parents — your parents don't even know everything. And I think that rebellious streak has always spoken to Mad's readers."

They're also trying to reach out to audiences online, with an iPad app and daily blog posts that let them take shots at the news of the day without waiting for a publishing schedule.

"Until we had the blog, we were always very frustrated, because we're working on an issue that's coming out in two months. So, George Bush chokes on a pretzel, we can't do anything with that, whereas Letterman could do the top 10 reasons why he's choking that night. We can't do it. We're coming out in two months — people aren't going to care about it. The best we can do is, when we're doing an article about George Bush, and he's a schmuck, maybe one panel references the pretzel," Ficarra said.

Sometimes, though, they have targets that they think are worth doing a full published story on — even if it takes a while. When "The Avengers" came out, the next issue of the magazine was going to press that week, so they wouldn't be able to write and draw a parody until the next issue.

"So we said, all right, what can we do? We can take the extra time and write a really good spoof of it; extend it — let's make it seven pages instead of its typical five; let's get Tom Richman to draw it and add in a lot of background gags; and yeah, it's going to come out in August, but you know what? People still remember it, and it'll be your wonderful visual feast, and hopefully a funny feast for the Mad reader," Ficarra said.

Mad made its name with distinctive art from some of the legends of cartooning. "They have such unique styles that you can just see even just one panel and say, 'Oh, I know who that is.' Whether it be Don Martin, Antonio Prohías in 'Spy Vs. Spy,' Sergio [Aragones], Mort Drucker and his caricatures, Jack Davis and his caricatures. ... I feel so privileged to work with them."

Ficarra takes Mad's legacy seriously. "I grew up reading Mad, and now I'm at the helm of it, so I feel I have sort of an obligation to these people to carry on the great tradition that they started."

Mad has a new book out this fall, "Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity," looking at the magazine's history and most memorable artwork, and they also have a show on Cartoon Network. They've gone from monthly to bimonthly in print, but they've still got a fighting spirit and share a belief in the product they're putting out.

"I think people who have been away from Mad and pick up an issue now are going to be surprised by it. It's in full color, the tone in the magazine has been revved up, it's punchier than it had been in a while — it's more getting back to Mad in its original 'humor in a jugular vein.'"

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