Friday, June 27, 2014

What? The MAD gang worry?

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 1, 1988


On the 13th floor at 485 MADison Ave., the Usual Gang of Idiots is at work preparing the next issue of Mad magazine .
The editors are out to lunch, the art director has his feet up on a drafting table, and the associate editor is shredding unsolicited manuscripts before tossing them unread into the trash can.
William Gaines — the brains behind the Usual Gang of Idiots, as the magazine refers to its artists and writers — can be found sitting buddha-like in a dark room filled with toy zeppelins and Statue of Liberty replicas. His desk clock is attached to sticks of dynamite.
Every window shade in the place opens to reveal a red brick wall.
That's the kind of dumb gag to be expected at Mad. The magazine's formula of puerile puns, juvenile jokes and sophomoric satire has barely changed since Mr. Gaines started the publication 36 years ago. Success has come from its refusal to grow up.
"Mad hates everybody," he says today with typical boyish delight, "regardless of race, creed, or color."
Mad particularly hates advertisers, making it different from all but a handful of magazines. Even though its offices are in the heart of the Madison Avenue advertising district, Mad has never printed an ad.
Mr. Gaines, the 65-year-old publisher, barred them from his pages so that he would not have to alter his magazine to meet an advertiser's demands. His inspiration was the ad-free liberal daily newspaper PM, which was published in New York during the Second World War.
Mad grossed about $9-million (U.S.) last year from a circulation of one million for its U.S. edition, including 75,000 copies sold in Canada. It retails in New York for $1.95, and is published eight times annually.
E. C. Publications Inc. also earns royalties from paperback books and 12 foreign editions for its parent company, Warner Communications Inc., the New York-based entertainment company.
But after so many years of relying solely on subscribers for revenue, the magazine is about to launch a line of Mad merchandise, including a board game, novelties, and a lampoon of the Mickey Mouse watch. It features magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman in a straight jacket, his legs going round to keep time.
Alfred is Mad's most memorable character. His goofy, gap-toothed grin has graced every cover since 1956, and his catchphrase - "What, me worry?" - is often attributed to public officials who blissfully ignore pending catastrophes.
The nudnik with the missing front tooth is based on a popular cartoon figure used in turn-of-the-century ads, including one for a painless dentist.
Mad once faced simultaneous lawsuits over copyright ownership of the face.
"Their names were Stuff and Smeck," Mr. Gaines recalls, "and we didn't tell either one about the other. Instead of fighting us, they showed up in court facing each other. That went to the (U.S.) Supreme Court, which held that neither had properly policed their copyright. We won, and Alfred was given to us."
It was not the first time the publisher found himself before the justices. A songbook called Sing Along with Mad, which had parody lyrics to the tune of 57 popular standards, sparked a suit in the early '60s by the publishers of 12 leading tunesmiths, including Irving Berlin.
The publishers accused Mad of trying to capitalize on the composer's talents, but a federal court of appeals rejected Tin Pan Alley's allegations of damage, a decision the Supreme Court let stand.
The lower court said the parodies would never satisfy demand for the original song. "Quite soundly," said the court, "it is not suggested that 'Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady' might be an acceptable substitute for a potential patron of 'A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.' " Today, Mr. Gaines is a soft-spoken giant, the crew cut of his earlier days replaced by shoulder-length grey hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. He is a millionaire who dresses like a pauper, indulging only his hobby of collecting zeppelins and statues of Lady Liberty.
He is not beyond self-parody either, as the current issue features a fake ad on the back cover for an exercise device called the Bulgin' Belly Burner from Cockamamie Products of Gullibility, Texas. The fleshy Mr. Gaines is shown stripped to socks and shorts, as are flabby friends Lyle Stuart, a book publisher, and Al Goldstein, publisher of the adult tabloid Screw.
Mr. Gaines relishes his brassy, upstart image, but his first brawl with authorities was almost his company's undoing.
The son of the founder of the modern comic book, Mr. Gaines was training to be a high school chemistry teacher when his father was killed in an accident. He took over fledgling Educational Comics, which was producing historical, scientific, and Biblical books. Mr. Gaines had little interest in publishing such brainy material, instead turning his attentions to comics that mirrored the steamy pulps he had enjoyed as a child.
His comic-book stable included titles such as Tales From the Crypt, a horror comic that featured severed limbs and other gruesome illustrations. He specialized in gory science fiction, crime, suspense, and war titles, eventually starting a comic to parody other comics titled Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad.
Unfortunately for Mr. Gaines, his introduction to the comic book industry came just as church, civic, and parent-teacher groups were leading a crusade against unwholesome comics, claiming they were responsible for juvenile delinquency. A comics code authority was created to vet what the censors considered unsavory content.
"I dropped all my horror, science fiction and crime titles," Mr. Gaines recalls. "It almost put me out of business. I had nothing left but Mad.
"I tried putting out a whole new line of comics which would go through the code: Impact, Aces High, MD, Psychoanalysis, Valor, Piracy. We had some far-out stuff. They were a failure."
When his distributor went bankrupt, Mr. Gaines' mother had to lend the magazine almost $150,000 to keep Mad afloat. Mad, a magazine-sized black- and-white book, sold for 25 cents, while most color comic books cost only a dime. A tawdry come-on - "Cheap!" - was placed after the price to lure the extra coins from a child's pocket, a practice that continues to this day.
In fact, a reader who returns to the magazine today will find Mad little changed. The white spy and black spy do battle in the Joke and Dagger Department's Spy vs. Spy, cartoonist Dave Berg is still looking at The Lighter Side, the back cover continues to feature a Mad Fold-In, and popular movies and television shows are lampooned as they have always been.
"It hasn't changed very much," Mr. Gaines admits. "It's gotten sexually more permissive in the script, but not in the art. My theory is that if a kid is old enough to understand the banter, he's old enough that it won't hurt him. If he doesn't understand it, it'll go over his head and he won't even know it's there."
As editors Nick Meglin and John Ficarra repeatedly tell visitors: "There's no nudity in the magazine, only in the office."
Because it carries no advertising, Mad has never done a demographic survey. Its readers are presumed to be 11-to 16-year-old boys. The writers and artists, though, are middle-aged men peddling the same jokes they have been doing for more than three decades.
Mad prefers pricking the balloon of Establishment pomposity to adopting a political line. The magazine has long campaigned against cigaret smoking, deceptive packaging, and drug and alcohol abuse. The publisher calls his staff gentle muckrakers.
One of Mad's early attempts to profit from its reputation ended in embarrassment. Warner Brothers, the movie-making arm of Mad's parent company, convinced the magazine to lend its name to a movie for teen-agers designed to cash in on the astonishing commercial success of National Lampoon's Animal House.
Mr. Gaines strongly objected to a script he found offensive, but the movie, titled Mad Magazine's Up the Academy, went into production with few changes. It was booed at its Toronto debut, and was soon removed from circulation.
"If it was anybody other than Warner," Mr. Gaines says, "I would have sued the hell out of them."
Still, merchandising has proved to be profitable in the past. Parker Brothers, a division of Kenner Parker Toys Inc. of Beverly, Mass., has reacquired rights to the Mad Magazine Game, which was first released in 1979. It earned Mad $2.25-million in royalties before succumbing to the video game craze.
No matter how much can be made in spinoffs, however, Mr. Gaines pledges that the screwball magazine will continue to subtly subvert future generations.
"We want kids to read us secretly, under the covers, with a flashlight, but they don't do that anymore," Mr. Gaines sighs.
"The worst thing we have to deal with now is acceptance by parents and teachers. It's the kiss of death."