One of America’s most enduring satire magazines celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year. Mad magazine—famous for its gap-toothed cartoon boy mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, who is commonly featured in perilous situations, grinning and asking, “What, me worry?”—has ruthlessly lampooned everything from politics to celebrities to movies and much, much more.
Founded by eccentric publisher William “Bill” Gaines and editor Harvey Kurtzman in 1952, Mad set out to be a mock comic book before finally becoming a humor magazine four years later under the guidance of its second editor, Al Feldstein. With Feldstein, the magazine would go on to shape American satire and culture for years, and reached its circulation peak of more than two million in 1974. During that time, Mad experienced a topsy-turvy ownership ride, going from Kinney Parking Company to DC Comics, which was then acquired by Warner Bros., which then became—after Gaines’ death—part of Time Warner, where it remains to this day.
After Feldstein left the magazine in 1984, Nick Meglin and John Ficarra replaced him as co-editors until Meglin’s retirement in 2004. In February 2012, NYRM sat down with Ficarra, who is still editor, to talk about Mad’s history, the constantly changing magazine industry, comedy and why, after so many years, no one at Mad is worried. Here’s a transcript, condensed and edited for clarity.
NEW YORK REVIEW OF MAGAZINES: So what is Mad magazine?
JOHN FICARRA: In its purest form, Mad is a visually driven magazine of humor and satire. It is also a magazine that is not afraid to be very smart and, on the very next page, extraordinarily stupid. It is a magazine that is not afraid of bad taste, if it makes a point—and sometimes even if it doesn’t make a point but makes you laugh. Mad’s been around a long time: sixty years. It started out as a comic book, spoofing other comic books, then it became a full-sized magazine and over the years certainly has changed.
NYRM: How do you see the role of Mad in the comedy world? It certainly seems to have a place, right?
JF: For a long time, Mad’s place was—we were the first voice that kids saw that said, “Hey, you know what? The world ain’t a perfect place.” Just because somebody’s in authority doesn’t mean they’re right. Just because you read something in the newspaper, doesn’t make it true. Just because a politician says something, it may not be true; in fact, chances are it’s a blatant lie. And I think for a lot of kids, Mad popped that cherry.
NYRM: How has technology changed Mad over the years?
For a long time, we were a black-and-white magazine that was printed on really cheap paper. I mean, we used to say Mad looked like it was printed in Mexico in 1959. Computers have given us a chance now to do Photoshopping; we’re on better paper, we’ve gone to color and we’re not doing cut-up and paste-up with mechanicals and rubber cement like Mad was when I started. We can make changes virtually right up until the day we go to press. So that allows the magazine to be a little more timely. Now, we’re only a bimonthly, so even toward the end of our newsstand cycle, the material is sometimes getting old. And besides that, with the Internet, you know, they talk about 24/7 news cycles—well, there’s 24/7 comedy cycles as well.
NYRM: How has that changed things? You now have this constant production cycle where you have to always create, but you still have the bimonthly magazine. It’s almost like, “Hey, here’s two months of ridiculous things in review.”
JF: It’s killing us. (Laughs.) It puts a lot of strain on us creatively and on our resources. At times it’s frustrating because if I had a staff that was just doing the blog, we could blow it off the roof. It’d be great. But I don’t. We didn’t increase staff. We don’t even have a budget for the blog. It’s all done within house. We write it in-house and my art department—led by Sam Viviano—creates it in-house and we put it up. We haven’t figured out a business model yet where we can hire ten people. I don’t know if anybody’s figured that business model yet for the Internet. (Laughs.) Very few anyway.
NYRM: In March, you re-launched Mad’s website and in April, you introduced the Mad app. Anything else you’re specifically planning for these platforms in the months ahead?
We’re really starting to burst out, and the app looks great. I was just in a meeting where I saw the first pass of it, and the company that we’ve hired seems to really get it. This is the initial pass; we’re going to start screwing around with it here, typical Mad stuff. You know, Mad likes to reward people who pay attention, so if you go into the legalese you may find jokes. If you poke around in the app, you’ll find the little Easter eggs that we’ve left you.
NYRM: Are there other ways you guys are modernizing the content?
JF: Certainly. Mad articles have changed over the years in that we do a lot of what we call “big impact pieces,” which are full pages and get to a point very quickly. You’ll see a lot less dense reads. We’ll give you one or two articles in the magazine, whereas years ago, in the Sixties, there were maybe four dense read pieces. So we’ve cut down on it in that way. And certainly, with the technology, more photos. All of Mad used to be illustrated, or ninety-nine percent of it, anyway. It gives us a chance to really screw around with images that people know and expect us to screw around with.
NYRM: The target audience of Mad seems to usually be young people. Is that still true? And what are the circulation numbers now?
JF: The average age of a Mad reader is twenty-four. The median age is nineteen. What we found is we sort of have—for lack of a better term—a camel readership. So we get young kids, almost always very bright kids. Twelve years old, they start reading it. They’ll read it until they’re sixteen or so. Now girls come into the picture—sex, sports, cars—and we lose them. Then, either in college or right after they get out of college, they’ll pick it up because they haven’t read it in a while. Maybe they’re on a trip, first business trip, they’re in an airport, their plane just got delayed for six hours. What are you gonna do? You’re gonna go to the newsstand; you’re looking around for something to read, you go, “Oh, Mad? What the hell?” They pick it up and then we get them back. We don’t write for any particular audience. We write for ourselves, which has always been the case with Mad.
NYRM: How has the market changed since 1952?
JF: From a business point of view, the newsstand business is much, much different. In 1952 and most of the Sixties and Seventies, you still had the mom-and-pop candy stores, which was where you could find Mad. These days it’s getting increasingly hard to find magazines. And when you do find a store that has magazines . . . if you have a hotrod magazine, okay, the clerk puts you in the hotrod magazine section, and there’s six or eight titles there. If you have a girl’s magazine—like Mademoiselle, Cosmo, whatever it is—put it in that section. You get Mad, where does it go? There’s no way for us to communicate to every person who’s stocking a rack that this should go with Entertainment Weekly, or in a pop-culture section. Some people look at it and say, “Oh, this is a kids magazine”—even though it isn’t—and they put it in with the kids magazines. Sometimes I’ll go and find it in the puzzle section! So from a distribution standpoint, it’s a nightmare. (Laughs.) It’s a nightmare! And the whole distribution system is very, very challenged these days, as I said. All magazines and newspapers are challenged. And that’s why you see us going into things like the app. But from a business sense, Mad was ahead of its time.
NYRM: What’s made Mad endure for sixty years?
JF: What’s that old line—“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people”? (Laughs.) I think it’s a real testament to the artists and writers who make up this magazine. They found a different voice; they found a different way of presenting the material and they were terrific. Just terrific. The competitors were always just trying to follow our breadcrumbs, chase our draft. By default, their product was inferior, because anybody who was really good would be working for Mad. So if you’re working for somebody else, chances are you were rejected by Mad.
NYRM: What constitutes top talent? How do you pick your people?
JF: We have turned down scripts from Hollywood six-figure writers and bought stuff from twenty-year-old kids who are still in college. It’s all about what’s on the page. We’re comedy whores. We have to fill this magazine every other month with what’s good, what’s making us laugh. In some ways, it’s very difficult to write for Mad, but if your mind is that way, it’s not that difficult on some levels. But “top talent” is if you make us laugh. At the end of the day, that’s really it. People will say, “Well, I can send you some of my clips.” I don’t want to see your clips. I don’t want to see a very funny fifteen-hundred-word article you wrote for Esquire, because I can’t do anything with a very funny fifteen-hundred-word article you wrote for Esquire, and I’m too busy to read it. Send me something you thought of for Mad.
NYRM: And what do you think it is about Mad? Like you said, on one page there’s something very smart, and then on the next page, there’s something just really dumb.
JF: Yeah, cheap fart gag. Absolutely.
NYRM: So what is it about comedy that makes it work like that? Where you can make a political point on one page and then . . . ?
JF: Well, part of it is the unexpected. I mean, comedy works best when people don’t see it coming. The other thing is, I think I have a reasonably broad sense of humor, but there are certain types of humor that I don’t go for. I’m not a big fan of knock-knock jokes, but if somebody sent in a page of knock-knock jokes and I go, “Ugh,” but three of my staff members say, “Oh, these are good,” then I’m not gonna kill it. I’m going to respect their opinions enough to say, “You know what? Three people whose opinions I respect think this is funny, well, then it is funny.” And that’s the thing about Mad; if you don’t like what’s on this page, if you don’t like political humor, go to the next page, there’s something else. There’s sports humor. Go to the next page, there’s something about Kim Kardashian.
NYRM: Do you have a couple of favorite gags from the last sixty years?
JF: We’re doing a book now with Time Life on the sixtieth anniversary, a coffee-table book. It’s like 256 pages. The problem is, it’s only 256 pages. And I just went through sixty years’ worth of Mads, picking out what should go in this book. At six decades, it basically allows you forty pages per decade and that’s hundreds of pages of material that I have to pick forty from. We could easily put out a second volume of this book and see no slippage in quality.
NYRM: Is there something that you loved when you were a college kid sending in submissions? Something you loved then that you still remember? Something that is quintessential Mad?
JF: I don’t know. A lot of the stuff I sent in and even a lot of the stuff I sold to Mad—now when I look back on it, the magazine has changed so much, we wouldn’t buy it today. The magazine has evolved. It was a more gentle humor. It was more folksy, whimsical at times, where we’ve sort of downplayed that and gone more for the jugular. I mean, Mad’s original slogan was “Humor in a Jugular Vein,” and we’ve tried to ramp that up. We had to. We’re swimming in the same waters as Howard Stern and The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live and David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists. So we really had to ramp it up, otherwise we’re just going to become irrelevant.
NYRM: Where do you see it going? What’s the future of Mad? Sixty more years?
JF: God, I hope so. And then some. Certainly the landscape is changing. That’s why I’m very happy we’re doing this app. I’m very happy we’re relaunching the website, I’m very happy we have a daily blog. I think if anybody tells you where it’s going, they don’t know what they’re talking about, because nobody knows. Nobody knows! I heard something this morning that just blew me away: They said that Apple is now valued at more than Amazon, Coca-Cola and IBM together. And who’d have seen that? Who’d have seen that, you know? So it’s really changing in a very fast way. The best we can do is try to keep up with it and keep making fun of it.
NYRM: So you’re not worried?
JF: What, me worry?
(Laughs.) Good ending!