There is very little that remains from my youth, least of all my youth. I still have the vinyl records that I purchased until succumbing to the folly of cassette tapes more suited to my transient lifestyle. (Cassettes are gonna make a comeback, I tell ya!) Then there are my university English Lit books, because you never know when you’re going to want to curl up with a good Medieval drama.
But buried in a drawer are possessions I’ve had probably longer than anything else: my Mad magazines.
There are only a handful left. I used to have years’ worth, but somewhere along the way the bulk succumbed to the ravages of time and spring cleaning.
The ones that remain are frayed and torn, mostly without their covers. The oldest is from 1975 and features a spoof of That’s Entertainment called “What’s Entertainment?” complete with song parodies by Frank Jacobs and uncanny celebrity likenesses by Mort Drucker. There are also regular features by Don Martin, Dave Berg, Sergio Aragones and “the usual gang of idiots.”
This issue probably belonged to an older brother, but later I had my own subscription. That kept going until about 1982 when I moved on to a cooler, more mature subscription to Rolling Stone.
I don’t have any of my old Rolling Stones.
I’m also not a rock writer. Nor am I particularly cool or mature. Instead, I’m a grown adult man who last week wrote a joke built around the word “beaver.” And not for the first time.
So we now know who to blame for this.
It’s true that Mad had a big influence on me. I grew up in a small town with one cinema and two TV channels – at least in our house. Cable was the stuff that dreams were made on. We didn’t have Saturday morning cartoons. Instead, we had Saturday evenings and “The Bugs Bunny Show,” with its madcap anvils and gravity-defying mayhem, an influence in its on right.
But Mad offered a glimpse at the culture that was happening outside my sheltered, small-town world. Not just a glimpse but a funhouse mirror view – distorted, strange yet recognizable.
I’ve never seen Dog Day Afternoon but I know it through “Dum Dum Afternoon.” I’ve never seen A Star is Born, but I can tell you what happens from “A Star’s a Bomb.” Long before I saw Apocalypse Now, I knew what to expect from “A Crock o’ [BLIP!] Now.”
Mad exposed to me to shallow disco culture, shoddy products, corrupt politicians, The Lighter Side of Grooming. I learned what “planned obsolescence” meant. My brother and I discovered to our endless amusement that when a boob pops out of a bra, it goes “POIT!” (God bless you, Don Martin.)
And weirdly, for a 10- to 15-year-old, I learned the names of the writers and artists. Al Jaffee was a genius. Jack Davis was the bridge between the cartoonishness of Don Martin and the realism of George Woodbridge. To be honest, I paid less attention to the writers, but the writing itself I could count on to skewer everything in its path. And that’s what I took away from Mad magazine – nothing was sacred.
As much as I liked Mad in the 70s, what I truly loved were the special issues, the ones with the reprints of original EC comics from the 50s – “Superduperman,” “Starchie,” “Melvin of the Apes.” These had nothing to do with my current culture. Instead, I was enthralled by the lunatic artwork by the likes of Wally Wood and Bill Elder, with tossed-off gags crammed in every pane. There was no bit of insanity that couldn’t be made more insane, like the ever-changing emblem on Superduperman’s chest (“Good Housekeeping,” “100% Wool,” “For Rent”).
I thought, “I can do this!” And that’s why I decided to become… a cartoonist. But then I discovered I was untalented. (I still have my old cartoon journals too.) Words, however, I could manage, and words could be as flexible as images. Plus there was never a need to draw eyeballs.
Of course, not everyone who grew up reading Mad became a humorist, and no doubt there are many influences that led me to where I find myself – having written a weekly humour column in The Sherbrooke Record for 14 straight years and other places for most of my adult life.
These days we live in Kibitz Nation, where everything’s a joke and comedians come (as Mad magazine described itself) “cheap.” By comparison, the humour of those old Mads is positively quaint. So why do I keep them around?
Maybe it’s to remind myself why I do this, that, like Mad magazine, I still might help someone see the world differently, thanks to humour in a jugular vein.