To say the least, MAD was an irreverent publication.
I recently read an enlightening article by Jim Sullivan. Its title and theme are “Everything I Learned about Jewish Humor I Learned from MAD magazine.”
Sullivan grew up in Maine as a “Catholic kid from a white-bread town.” In short, an area that had little racial or religious diversity. He only recalled one student, his dentist and the local sporting goods store owner as members of the local Jewish community.
So how did Sullivan learn about Jewish humor? Sullivan extolls the education he received from that fount of satirical nonsense, MAD magazine. Written and illustrated by its self-stated “usual gang of idiots,” most of its contributors were Jewish.
To say the least, MAD was an irreverent publication. As much as MAD made fun of current movies, politicians and modern life, the “usual gang of idiots” also made fun of themselves in every issue. Along with everyone and everything they panned every month, they, too, could be bumbling “shnooks.”
MAD’s origins were decidedly Jewish. It was created and first edited by Harvey Kurtzman in 1952; William Gaines was the publisher. Longtime editor Al Feldstein took the reins in 1956, two years after the debut of MAD’s iconic mascot, Alfred E. Neuman.
Sullivan’s article inspired me to check the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. Was the JN mad enough to write about MAD? It was. MAD is mentioned on 29 pages.
I divined one essential truth from the stories in the JN — I am not the only one around here who read MAD magazine! In this respect, JN Associate Editor David Sachs admitted that as a young lad more than 60 years ago, he had to hide his copies of the innocuous humor magazine from his father, who mistook it for something subversive. In separate JN profiles, two local Jewish personalities, Bill Carroll and Larry Lawson, fessed up to reading MAD. What courage! (June 17, 1988, Sept. 22, 1989 JN).
On occasion, MAD came to town. MAD writer Ari Kaplan was a featured speaker for Young Adults at Temple Israel (Oct. 19, 2006) and longtime MAD contributor Dave Berg spoke at Temple Beth El (Dec. 31, 1971).
MAD was also a topic for serious discussion (if such a thing can be said about MAD). Mary-Lou Weisman discussed her work, Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, at the JCC Book Fair (Oct. 20, 2011). MAD readers know that Jaffee always had the last page in an issue of MAD that one had to fold in order to see the hidden message. At a Seminar for Adult Jewish Enrichment, Rabbi Aaron Bergman gave a lecture on “Jews and Popular Culture: Art, Music and Comic Books” from “Batman and Superman to MAD Magazine” (Jan. 2, 2004).
All of the reports above, however, pale in comparison to the 2009 story of the local king of MAD: Allen Warner. The Oct. 22 issue of the JN featured an article: “Mad about MAD.” To that date, Warner had collected every issue of MAD, over 500 of them. A great hobby, no doubt. MAD readers can only image what the “usual gang of idiots” would have to say about Warner’s particular passion!
I, for one, was sad to see this icon of American and Jewish humor close its doors as a monthly magazine in 2018, although there have been occasional special publications.
To honor MAD, I’ll end with the immortal wisdom of Alfred E. Neuman that has served me so well:
“What, me worry?”
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.