Mad magazine is still staggering along lo these past 71 years — I started reading it myself in 1971 or 1972, when I was about 10, and moved on a few years later to National Lampoon. Even though my subscription was short-lived, I credit Mad with changing my perspective on the world in a way that a lot of other Mad readers acknowledge too — and it still makes me laugh when I page through the collections I still own. It was best put perhaps by Brian Siano in a 1994 issue of The Humanist:
For the smarter kids of two generations, Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything. An entire generation had William Gaines for a godfather: this same generation later went on to give us the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, the peace movement, greater freedom in artistic expression, and a host of other goodies. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Similar encomiums came from Art Spiegelman (“The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids'”) and R. Crumb (“Artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics”), though Mad publisher William Gaines topped them all when he said, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!”
Though National Lampoon‘s efforts in other media — including films, television, and the stage — were far more successful, it’s possible that the magazine went Hollywood too quickly, leading to it and its form of satire having perished many years ago. Mad tried too: a moderately successful stage show in 1966 (with original music by Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim) and a moderately successful television show beginning in 1995, but a disastrous 1980 Mad film Up the Academy destroyed any ambitions the magazine had of finding its way to success in movie theatres. In 2006 its director, Robert Downey Sr., touchingly observed that it was “one of the worst fucking things in history.”
I myself have written about National Lampoon in the past, and that magazine recently enjoyed the documentary treatment, but it’s been surprising that Mad, which played such a central role in humor and comedy in the post-war era, has remained without similar recognition from documentary filmmakers — until now, that is. Now in post-production, When We Went MAD!, directed by Alan Bernstein, may be the documentary we’ve all been waiting for. Featuring a history of the publication as well as interviews with many of its staff and enthusiasts, the film promises to be to Mad magazine what Ken Burns’s The Civil War was to the Civil War. No release date has been announced, but the trailer for the film is below.