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Still crazy after all these years: Goodbye, Mad magazine!

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on July 19, 2019 Published on July 19, 2019

Farewell to all that madness: A typical Mad cover from 1974   -  ISTOCK.COM

A tribute to the magazine that taught us that nothing was sacred

My Rapunzel died young. The fairy tale about the beautiful girl locked up in a tower was never the same once Mad magazines came into my life. You remember the children’s story, of course? A wicked witch keeps the princess trapped in a high tower. Her suitor is not the kind who gives up, and neither is she going to let go of her true love. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” he says from the ground below, and she unfurls her tresses down a small window. The lover climbs up, clutching her hair.

Nice, right?

Except that the Mad version is a bit different. The prince, on a steed, asks Rapunzel to let down her hair. Long tresses come cascading down the window. The prince hoists himself up, gliding up with the help of the lustrous hair. The last frame of the cartoon is a bit of a surprise. Turns out the thick ringlets are Rapunzel’s underarm growth.

Rapunzel, the magical fairy tale, was never the same again.

But Mad did that to us. It took away our fairy tales, our films, our music, our heroes and heroines — and turned them all into hilarious caricatures. The magazine taught us — its die-hard readers — that nothing was sacred. It prodded us to think, to question and to laugh — at everybody from the Pope to the president. And, of course, at the Grimm brothers, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins — anything that had a whiff of innocence about it.

So, it was with some regret I read last week that the magazine was bidding its last farewell. After a dream run of 67 years — well, it was a bit of a limpy gait towards the end — the magazine, founded by Americans Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines, announced it would not publish fresh material — barring new cover art — from its October issue.

Mad would have made suitable fun of the cliché, but all good things do come to an end. Truth be told, the magazine and I had actually parted ways years ago; somehow the British editions that were readily available in the ’90s were not half as funny as the American issues we read back in the ’70s. Or perhaps I didn’t laugh as much.

But back in those days, we wholly approved of Mad. It carried a movie spoof — the one on The Godfather was called ‘The Odd Father’ and had the tagline ‘The family that preys together slays together’. Two of my friends who love their Mad almost as much as they adore Satyajit Ray were particular happy to find a reference to the director’s films in a spoof of American Graffiti (called ‘American Confetti’). WA WA WA/ROCK ROCK ROCK/OH BABY/YEAH/ROCK, a car radio booms. “That was Crudd and the Doo-Doos with the theme song from the Apu Trilogy,” says the DJ.

There was Don Martin, who drew faces with exaggerated noses and chins, and killed fairy tales. Dave Berg’s comic strip featuring his alter-ego, a bespectacled man called Roger Kaputnik, looked at The Lighter Side of Everything — from marriages and surveillance to hippies and television — and drove home the point that life was the same everywhere. Antonio Prohias’s Spy vs Spy, many of us thought, was a satirical take on the Cold War.

My particular favourite was Sergio Aragones — whose little drawings (which were awfully sexist, I now realise) dotted the margins of the pages. I recall his sketch of an astronaut walking up towards his space shuttle. And then he baulks, for a black cat has just crossed his path.

We learnt how to shoot back snappy answers to stupid questions — a popular column by Al Jaffee (“Football practice?” a woman asks a helmeted jock. “No, my ballet class, we are doing Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Clumsy Clods this year,” he replies).

I remember how chuffed we were at a college festival when my friend and I were caking and kohling her younger sister for an Odissi dance performance. The sister was in her full costume, hair done up, flowers in her bun and artificial jewellery in place when a medical college student — now a well-known psychiatrist — asked us if she was going for the dance contest. No, she is getting ready for the quiz, one of us replied, while the other two laughed. The medico didn’t; he went on to study psychiatry and continues to brood over human nature.

I went through some recent issues and found that the magazine, despite its plummeting circulation (down to 140,000 in 2017 from 2 million in its heyday), still pokes fun at the world at large. One cover has the American President standing with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who hold plum posts in Donald Trump’s administration. Take your kids to work every day, the cover says.

Some believe the magazine lost its place when it started taking ads, almost two decades ago. Others point out that the magazine was anyway locked in a time warp — a fact that became clear when Trump recently referred to South Bend mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg as Alfred E Neuman, the magazine’s gap-toothed, snub-nosed mascot. Buttigieg didn’t know what Trump was talking about. He later said, “I had to Google it.”

Buttigieg doesn’t know what he missed out on. And Mad doesn’t know what it’s going to miss. It would have had a field day with the mayor’s name.

Published on July 19, 2019
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