Tariq Ziad Khan reflects on Mad magazine’s legacy.
On July 3, 2019, the announcement was made that Mad magazine, one of the US’s most iconic publications (and perhaps the most popular satirical magazine in the world) would close newsstand distribution around the world, ending a 67-year production run. Compounding the bad news was the fact that the magazine would cease to publish new content (except for an annual end of year issue) and would only republish older content in limited print runs sold exclusively at comic book stores.
For fans, it was a body blow. In fact, more than three generations have grown up on Mad’s signature satire, enjoying the magazine’s influential but irreverent take on all aspects of pop culture and modern life. From politics, social issues, consumerism, film and television, religion and life in general, nothing was off-limits. The magazine would lampoon anyone worthy of making news and no one was safe.
Actor Jonathan Frakes (William T. Riker in Star Trek: the Next Generation) once said that he was only sure of the success of the series once Mad saw fit to publish a satirical piece about it. Launched in 1952 by publishers Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines, Mad had a production run of over 550 regular issues plus hundreds of special one-offs, paperbacks and other companion special edition editions.
The magazine reached an all-time circulation high of over 2.1 million issues sold in 1974 and over the various highs and lows of its publication history, averaged about 800,000 copies sold (the numbers towards the end were much lower). Nevertheless, for a magazine that for the greater part of its life was sustained only through newsstand sales and subscriptions, it was a huge achievement and placed Mad in the circulation volume sales category of other iconic publications such as TV Guide and Playboy.
Many readers in the US have pointed to the impact of the magazine in shaping their worldview while growing up. From the creators of Saturday Night Live (SNL), The Tonight Show and The Simpsons, tributes came in lauding the type of humour Mad personified. And let’s not forget President Trump, who in a verbal spar with Democratic candidate Pete Buttegieg called him Alfred E. Newman, a jibe the younger Buttegieg was said not to have understood until he Googled Mad’s iconic publisher with his signature motto “What, me worry?”
It was testament to the quality of Mad’s content and the depth of its creative geniuses (known as ‘The Usual Gang of Idiots’) that kept the magazine’s circulation levels high enough to sustain an ad-free model. When the magazine launched, it was agreed that anyone and everything would be up for satire and no money would be accepted by any company to satirise another one (there was a rumoured offer from a cola company to do just that).
During the early years, Mad experimented with different types of advertising revenue models. There was a phase during the magazine’s early years when ads were accepted based on the caveat that the advertisers would still be open to satire. These ads were tagged as ‘Real Ads’ in order to differentiate them from the spoof ads Mad regularly published. Next, the publishers tried an ad model whereby products were included in regular features with their brands visible such as Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side of or Mort Drucker’s columns lampooning hit TV shows and movies. Later, Gaines suggested a model that would be solely dependent on subscription rates and newsstand sales in order to avoid advertiser backlash. Furthermore, unlike other magazines, Mad promised subscribers it would never sell their data to any third party. The ad-free model lasted from 1958 to 2001 when Mad was bought by Warner Media and later by AT&T.
As the sun sets on Mad’s history of unrestrained satirical lampooning and social commentary, fans can look back at a proud publication history through some very poignant moments.
At the height of the McCarthy era, the magazine argued against political witch hunts; during the Cold War it took a strong stance (in the face of considerable backlash) against nuclear arming and later it crusaded again over-consumption, long before it became fashionable to do so. It made fun of the left and the right, the liberal, the conservative, the worldly and the divine. If it mattered to the public, it was worthy of being ripped apart. The underlying theme behind the satire and the irreverence was: “Think for yourself, because everything is dependent on your perspective.” It is perhaps for this independence of thought that Mad will long be remembered and missed at the same time.
Tariq Ziad Khan is a US-based marketer and a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.