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Born under a Mad sign

All I really need to know I learned from Mad magazine.

OK, well, not absolutely "all." (Women, for example, it taught me nothing about. Or how to change a tire.) But it was as essential a text as anything penned by Marshall McLuhan in understanding media and the mediated world, and it was much easier for a 10-year-old to work out.

Plenty of it went right over my head, of course, but that's part of what made it attractive and valuable: Things that go over your head can make you raise your head a little higher.

The magazine instilled in me a habit of mind, a way of thinking about a world rife with false fronts, small print, deceptive ads, booby traps, treacherous language, double standards, half truths, subliminal pitches and product placements; it warned me that I was often merely the target of people who claimed to be my friend.

It prompted me to mistrust authority, to read between the lines, to take nothing at face value, to see patterns in the often shoddy construction of movies and TV shows; and it got me to think critically in a way that few actual humans charged with my care ever bothered to.

Really. Mad was like a disreputable older brother back from college or a baby-sitter who once had worked on Madison Avenue and had a nervous breakdown and couldn't stop talking about her or his old job.

Of course, I also liked the funny pictures. Don Martin. And Antonio Prohia's "Spy vs. Spy." And whatever Mort Drucker, Mad's signature caricature artist, set his talented hand to. The deeper effects were what might be called collateral improvement: Mad damage.

It had been a long time since I had picked up a copy, though in the intervening decades I of course had seen the jug-eared, gap-toothed head of mag mascot Alfred E. Neuman smiling in conspiratorial idiocy from the newsstand racks — not exactly calling to me but letting me know that, even as I went about my supposedly grown-up business, "The Usual Gang of Idiots" (as the staff has been called for a very long time) were continuing their angelic dirty work.

And then one day, I bought a copy of the magazine. And after that, I bought a copy of "Absolutely Mad," a DVD-ROM (updating a long out-of-print CD-ROM) that contains every issue from 1952 through 2005, and went into deep Mad mode.

To roam those more than 600 issues is to take a detailed sociocultural tour of the last half-century in the United States, to remember not only epochal moments but ephemera long gone with the wind. (It is also a chance to get the jokes I didn't get the first time around.) There is little that Mad didn't manage to poke fun at or a hole through in that time, from things of little consequence — macrame, scuba diving, computer dating — to war and the bomb and prejudice and censorship.

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The Mad critique of pure idiocy, to use a favorite Mad word — other favorites are "namely," "potrzebie" and "ecch" — is not always the most trenchant, sophisticated, hip or even accurate. (Like those they satirize, Mad will stretch the truth for effect.) The humor is frequently obvious, but then stating the unstated obvious thing is one of the pillars of Mad humor. (It regards the elephant in the room and says, "Hey! There's an elephant in the room!") As when in an early Mickey Mouse parody, Goofy points out that Donald Duck wears no pants, while Donald himself is made sick by the idea "of a mouse with lipstick and eyelashes and a dress with high-heeled shoes; a mouse ten times bigger than the biggest rat."

It has applied this method to the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, televangelists, and in such faux-elementary-readers as "The Mad Hypocrite Primer," "The Mad Primer of Bigots, Extremists and Other Loose Ends" and a host of other hot-air blowers across the political spectrum. "A Kids' Guide to B.S.ing Through Life the George Bush Way" inverts an earlier look at "How Bad Childhood Habits Can Help in a Congressional Career" (breaking promises, throwing tantrums, ignoring questions). One recent issue featured a pair of immaculately rendered Red State/Blue State Monopoly games, the former offering such Chance cards as "An electric voting machine 'error' results in your election — collect $250,000," the latter including tokens in the shape of a Birkenstock and the head of Michael Moore.

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And the magazine has been relentless on our current state of semi-permanent war. "Little Green Army Men of Today" includes such figures as "Desperate Campus Recruiter," "Friendly Fire Victim," "Poorly Outfitted Weapons and Equipment Scrounger" and a "Geneva-Convention-Scrapping Secretary of Defense." A piece called "War Cliches ... Completing the Sentences" shows Vice President Dick Cheney saying, "September 11th changed everything," and in a thought balloon we read the unspoken follow-up: "Except our plans to invade Iraq, which were laid out long before the first Tower fell."

Mad's main concern, however — at least since it converted from a comic book to "a regular, large-sized adult magazine" in 1955 — has been the media, how it distorts the world and the way it works upon us, both as consumers and citizens. (An imagined lawsuit from a 1976 article, pitting "The Bamboozled Consumers of Televisionland versus the Forked Tongue Advertising Agencies of America," sums it up nicely.) Ad parodies have been a staple of the magazine nearly since the beginning, with special attention paid to cigarettes and alcohol.

Today's Mad carries ads — for video games mostly — which it did not at all in my Mad day; it somewhat dilutes the magazine's moral purity. But for the most part it is not remarkably different from the magazine I used to buy. The logo has been italicized, it's on slick paper and in color, and there are a host of new artists, though I am glad to see Mort Drucker still among them, helping turn "House, M.D." into "Louse, S.O.B." and "Prison Break" into "Prison Fake."

As in the world at large, the sexual references and the gross-out factor have been amplified, and almost as acknowledgment of that, the magazine has spun off a partner publication, Mad for Kids. But that seems to me a missed point — Mad works because it's an adult magazine that kids read. Or to be more specific, it's an adult magazine written in partial acknowledgment that most of its audience is not adult.

Aside from the Onion, which Mad certainly influenced, it might be the only real humor magazine left in the U.S.; certainly it's the only one with a national profile. One might well argue that it's not as necessary as it once was, that its job — preparing young people to deal with the deceptive, self-deceptive adult world — has been taken over by "The Simpsons" and "South Park" and "The Daily Show," whose creators grew up themselves in a world remade by Mad. And the Internet can let you laugh at human folly all the live-long day, and all the night if you let it.

But Mad is a magazine, a thing you can hold in your hands, read under the covers at night or hidden behind your textbooks at school. It is your pal. And even as Mad insults its own readership for buying the magazine in the first place, it implies that to be a Mad reader is to be something apart, unfit for service in the straight world, too weird or lazy or clumsy to run the rat race. It still feels like home to me.

Comic strips from Mad magazine.